Talking about Talking (Part II)


It’s our job

Teaching students to deliberate about issues that are in dispute is a professional responsibility for all secondary social studies teachers and all for all elementary school teachers in New York. This is not only a moral and patriotic imperative; it is explicitly stated educational policy.

New York State Social Studies Standards are divided into five strands. Standards 1 through 4 deal with the History of the United States & New York, World History, Geography, and Economics. Standard Five is called Civics, Citizenship and Government. An important link between our deliberative political nature and the New York State Social Studies Standards is found in Standard Five and particularly in a section known as “Key Idea 4” of Standard Five.

Table 1 is a modification of information tabulated by the New York State Department of Education (NYSED). Many of these indicators are touched on in Grade 12 Participation in Government classes, though there is no standardized assessment in Participation in Government as is found in Global History and United States History & Government. Current State exams tend to measure recall of subject matter and specific reasoning and interpreting skills. Tolerance, civic mindedness and informed participation in reasoned discourse, however, are not so conveniently measured. Nonetheless, when one studies these indicators, one notes a strong implication that schools should be using deliberation to teach tolerance and collaboration and that “participation” is demonstrated by proposing, negotiating, compromising, and defining. Indeed, students should be practicing these skills in order to “develop and refine participatory skills.

Table 1: New York State Indicators of Civic Engagement

Key Idea 4: The study of civics and citizenship requires the ability to probe ideas and assumptions, ask and answer analytical questions, take a skeptical attitude toward questionable arguments, evaluate evidence, formulate rational conclusions, and develop and refine participatory skills
• show a willingness to consider other points of view before drawing conclusions or making judgments

• participate in activities that focus on a classroom, school, or community issue or problem

• suggest alternative solutions or courses of action to hypothetical or historic problems

• evaluate the consequences for each alternative solution or course of action

• prioritize the solutions based on established criteria

• propose an action plan to address the issue of how to solve the problem
• respect the rights of others in discussions and classroom debates regardless of whether or not one agrees with their viewpoint

• explain the role that civility plays in promoting effective citizenship in preserving democracy

• participate in negotiation and compromise to resolve classroom, school, and community disagreements and problems
• participate as informed citizens in the political justice system and processes of the United States, including voting

• evaluate, take, and defend positions on what the fundamental values and principles of American political life are and their importance to the maintenance of constitutional democracy (Adapted from The National Standards for Civics and Government, 1994)

• take, defend, and evaluate positions about attitudes that facilitate thoughtful and effective participation in public affairs

• consider the need to respect the rights of others, to respect others’ points of view (Adapted from The National Standards for Civics and Government, 1996)

• participate in school/classroom/ community activities that focus on an issue or problem

• prepare a plan of action that defines an issue or problem, suggests alternative solutions or courses of action, evaluates the consequences for each alternative solution or course of action, prioritizes the solutions based on established criteria, and proposes an action plan to address the issue or to resolve the problem

• explain how democratic principles have been used in resolving an issue or problem


The recently adopted New York State Social Studies Framework doubles down on these underlying Standards. Among the six Social Studies Practices included therein is “Civic Participation.” Indicators for this practice include persuading, debating, negotiating and compromising in the resolution of conflicts and differences.

Common Core ELA Standards further demonstrate the professional responsibility of all teachers to prepare students for deliberation with their fellow citizens. While this is a K-12 obligation, commencement standards make clear that we want to graduate students who are able to

Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.

and to

Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible…

All of these imperatives are premised on the presumption that, through deliberation, it is possible to find consensus, to discover some previously unthought-of understanding or some higher value that transcends the positions that seemingly divide us. Obviously it would be easier to achieve these educational aims, to be successful at one’s job, if one shared this presumption. Consider it a self-evident truth.

Educators should acknowledge that characteristics of civic engagement, including the ability and willingness to deliberate about issues that are in dispute, are unequally distributed among students and that they are influenced by extracurricular factors such as race, sex, and parental attentiveness to civic issues.  The fact that some students are less informed, tolerant or comfortable with conflict over important public questions does not absolve us of our responsibility to help them meet learning standards. Besides, democracy is better served when these inequalities are ameliorated and public schools are well suited to address them.

More on that last bit in Part III.


Talking about Talking (Part I)

Aristotle deliberating on the nature of humans and other animals

Aristotle deliberating on the nature of humans and other animals

It’s Our Nature

Many New York State School districts hold one of their professional development days on Election Day and the confluence of this year’s Superintendents’ Conference Day, Election Day and Thanksgiving has made for an extended period of talking about talking. The school district in which I work elected to use an Edcamp-style conference. The Edcamp format allows for any participants to propose workshops or roundtable discussions on the spot. Topics often emerge organically, spontaneously and democratically. It’s a great way to discuss specific challenges, to share ideas about what seems to work and to find out what’s on people’s minds.

The election was on a lot of people’s minds. Several of the workshops I attended were made up of high school humanities teachers who admitted that they were sometimes afraid to introduce or entertain extended discussion of the Trump and Clinton campaigns or of some of the underlying issues that animated those campaigns. In some cases it was because students were ill-informed. In some cases students were reportedly incapable of rational discussion or of respecting their classmate’s opinions.

That night, as it became increasingly clear that Donald Trump would win the presidency, I kept an eye on Twitter and texted with friends and colleagues. Most of the people with whom I kept in touch were astonished. The next day and in the days that followed many of my educator friends were angry. A few colleagues and mentors appeared traumatized, inconsolable and, though normally civil and professional, were dropping F-bombs on social media as they tried to get past their incredulity. Others seemed to be in mourning or were exploring ways to fight for the causes they believed were under threat.

Meanwhile, we all had to head into Thanksgiving knowing that we would be breaking bread with loved ones who voted differently than us and with whom we sometimes had passionate disagreements. On the most American of holiday’s many of us abided by house rules against talking about the election.

It is a little unnatural to avoid political discourse among family members. I tend to agree with Aristotle that we are by nature political animals and that our ability and responsibility to deliberate are tied to our unique powers of speech.

“Nature” says Aristotle, “… makes nothing in vain and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech.” Speech “…is intended to set forth the expedient and the inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. …and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.” (Aristotle, 1908, pp. 28-29)

The Thanksgiving holiday is over now. We are back at work. And, as educators, talking with students about controversial issues is a part of our job that we must ernestly shoulder. Moreover, we might consider the possibility that the outcome of the recent election was in part due to our failure, as a polity, to speak civilly about the issues that seem to divide us.

More on this soon…


Aristotle (1908). Politics, Book I. (Benjamin Jowett, Trans.) Oxford: Clarendon Press

Politics and Pedagogy in Captain Fantastic

“Emile: or, On Education” 

Ben and Leslie Cash, intent on living free from the corruptions of capitalism and the neoliberal world order, chose to rear and school their six children in the remote wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. “Our children shall become philosopher kings,” Leslie wrote her mother, not long before committing suicide. This reference to Plato’s Republic highlights an essential question raised by director Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic: How should we educate our children if we wish to create the best civil society?

Philosopher kings are not democrats and, while Ben expresses the possibility that any of his children may rationally persuade the group to a particular course of action, the Cash family is a patriarchy. Ben is a brilliant survivalist who is extremely well educated by traditional standards. In raising his children to live closely with nature and in defiance of society outside the woods, Ben is demanding and intolerant of sloth or sloppy thinking. Calisthenics, Pilates and weapons training accompany rigorous academic instruction which includes medical science, history and critical analysis of assigned literature. There is also a fair amount of indoctrination in counterculture philosophy and anti-Christian sentiment which, ironically, sometimes brings to mind similarities between hippy and Christian homeschoolers.

One is also reminded of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile. Ben, like Rousseau, sees human society as corrupt and corrupting. Both see nature and human nature as essentially good. “God makes all things good;” writes Rousseau, “man meddles with them and they become evil.”  Thus, that type of education which is closest to nature is best for human development.

Emile was taught to be practical, self-sufficient and resourceful. He was isolated from society and for a time allowed only one book: an expurgated copy of Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s shipwrecked sailor, alone on an island and forced to fend for himself is, in Rousseau’s view, an excellent role model for Emile.

Ben and Rousseau believe we should not be overprotective of our children and that a certain amount of risk and hard truth is necessary in order to prepare them for adulthood. Ben takes his children, even the smallest, on treacherous rock climbing expeditions. “There’s no cavalry. No one will come and magically save you in the end,” he tells his thirteen year old son who has injured his hand and appears unable to grab a hold and pull himself to safety. One cannot learn courage without some element of danger. “The delights of liberty will make up for many bruises,” writes Rousseau.

There are notable differences between the Cash children’s education and that presented in Emile. Whereas Emile is long kept from reading much apart from Robinson Crusoe, the Cash children devour assigned books and are required to report and expound on them. They are familiar with many of the classics as well as the typical fare assigned in public school English and social studies classes. Many true teachers will be excited seeing one of Ben’s daughters describe Nabokov’s Lolita as “interesting” and Ben responding that “interesting is a non-word,” insisting that she provide deeper analysis.

Ben and Rousseau have created pedagogies for preserving pupils’ natural born freedom and goodness, but of what use are they to civil society? Captain Fantastic reintroduces us to the dilemma presented in Emile:  It is near impossible to be true to ourselves and our natural independence while also being dutiful citizens, subjects or social beings. A child reared in the style of the Cash children or Emile is bound to experience frustration when introduced to the world outside the wilderness.

When the Cash children, traveling to their mother’s funeral, meet their suburban cousins they encounter a world with alien norms and assumptions. Those children, tied to their smartphones and computer games, have little understanding of history, literature or the Constitution. They have no idea from whence their food really comes. They have been protected from physical danger and are not given straight answers about death, sex or mental illness. No one challenges their assumptions. They are pampered and unwise and yet, they are perhaps better prepared to contentedly thrive in the American culture in which they were raised. Rather than feel pity for their numb-skull cousins, several of the Cash children resent how maladapted they themselves are for civilization.

“I don’t know anything,” Ben’s oldest son complains to his father upon fumbling though his first crush on a girl from outside the woods. He’s wrong, of course. He can climb mountains, defend himself and set broken bones.  He can explain differences between the political philosophies of Mao and Trotsky. He has looked into the living eyes of the deer he will kill to feed his family and eaten its heart as a sign of respect for the animal that lost its life to sustain his own. He is physically, intellectually and spiritually superior. As evidence that civilization might have some use for his understandings, he has been accepted to every Ivy League university. He knows much more than his suburban cousins who are unable to explain much of anything.

Rousseau recognized the divided souls dwelling in modern individuals. Anxiety and alienation may well grow more acute as one becomes conscious of the incompatibility of civil society and one’s own natural inclinations. In the end it is not clear whether the Cash children will, like Plato’s philosopher kings and modern technocrats, conclude that ordinary folk are not really capable of making decisions for the community and lose faith in democratic society. Or, possessed of the qualities of self-reliance, rational thinking and gratitude; add their virtues to the sum of democratic virtues. Emile, a great book and Captain Fantastic, a very good movie, contain apparent contradictions and paradoxes which remind us that teaching for citizenship, for critical thinking, and for career readiness are not so easily reconciled.

  • Rousseau quotes are from Emile, translated by Barbara Foxely. It can be accessed as a Project Gutenberg EBook at

Humanities, in the name of Democracy

In 1967, in its first season, the Star Trek television series included an episode titled “Space Seed.” This was the famous episode starring Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh. The role would later be reprieved in the second Star Trek movie. Khan, a product of selective breeding, was a “superman” dictator of the late twentieth century who had spent more than 200 years in cryogenic deep-freeze until revived in the twenty third century. One may recall that Khan took over the Enterprise and tried to take over the galaxy until Kirk and his crew stopped him. Then, using his prerogative as Captain, Kirk mercifully drops all charges and offer’s Khan and his followers the opportunity to colonize a nasty but livable planet. There is the following exchange at the hearing:

Kirk: Mr. Spock, our heading takes us near the Ceti Alpha star system.
Spock: Quite correct, Captain. Planet number five there is habitable, although a bit savage, somewhat inhospitable.
Kirk: No more than Australia’s Botany Bay colony was at the beginning. Those men went on to tame a continent, Mr. Khan. Can you tame a world?
Khan: Have you ever read Milton, Captain?
Kirk: Yes. I understand…

Later, Lt. Commander Scott (Scotty) says: It’s a shame for a good Scotsman to admit it, but I’m not up on Milton.

Kirk replies: The statement Lucifer made when he fell into the pit. “It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.”

Perhaps Paradise Lost was required reading at Star Fleet Academy.  Either way, the creators of Star Trek in the 1960s assumed that leaders of the later twentieth century might allude to a great literary work of the seventeenth century to leaders of the twenty-third century and everyone would get the point. Indeed, at one moment in the episode Khan says to Kirk “you have made technological advances, but how little man himself has changed.”

Humanities, including history, languages, fine art and great literature, proceeds from the idea that human nature does not really change  much and that many of the great questions about how to live and die are as important to people from one century as from the next. Literature contains many examples of people who deny this only to create or become monsters. Think Frankenstein. Think of the brutal O’Brien in 1984 telling Winston that “men are infinitely malleable.” History provides its own monstrous examples.

An education system intended to serve democratic ideals and to prepare its children for citizenship needs policies that explicitly serve those ends rather than policies that serve their enemy; be it named scientific management, technocracy, or utilitarianism. A culture that retains a sacred place for the humanities has a layer of protection against those who will always be trying to sell some of us a better life in exchange for their technocratic management.

The struggle between the democratic and the technocratic mindsets is an important part of twentieth century education history.  In Experience and Nature (1929) John Dewey stated that “…the literature, poetry, ceremony, amusement and recreation which obtain in a community…do more than all else to determine the current direction of ideas and endeavors in the community. They supply the meanings in terms of which life is judged, esteemed and criticized.”

In Democracy and Education (1916) Dewey explained that true community cannot exist without common values, knowledge and language. Merely having a common purpose is not enough. “The parts of a machine,” he tells us, “work with a maximum of cooperativeness for a common result, but they do not form a community.” Dewey warned against social relations that exist merely on “the machine-like plane” in which individuals use their technical skills and their command of technical systems to wield power over others.

In Education at the Crossroads (1943) Jacques Maritain warned, “How could the common man be capable of judging about the good of the people if he felt able to pass judgment only in the field of his own specialized vocational competence? Political activity and political judgment would become the exclusive job of specialized experts in the matter – a kind of state technocracy which does not open particularly felicitous perspectives either for the good of the people or for liberty.”

Dewey the Pragmatist and Maritain the Scholastic disagreed on so much that we might forget they agreed that democratic America presented humanity with hope at a perilous time and that culture and the humanities gave our life meaning and protected us from becoming servants of a soulless machine whose power over the world was growing. They wrote during the first half of the last century when the struggle between democracy and technocracy was being fought in the open, most notably in the war against fascism but also in arguments over social policies including eugenics.

People who advocate education policies that militate against our democratic ideals are again being taken seriously and the nobler end of education in America, fostering the moral and intellectual qualities needed for citizenship, is being subverted. Some criticisms of public education are not aimed at improving education for citizenship, or for giving students access to the great conversation which is the humanities. Rather they serve to weaken the premises upon which American public education was created. To those who see the humanities as an essential component of civic education the danger is not that technocrats are offering a different approach to achieving the chief ends of public education. Rather, it is that they will convince enough people that those very ends are either unimportant or unachievable.

At the moment, no individual has greater influence over education in America than Bill Gates. Gates is a self-professed technocrat who expresses skepticism that democratic government is up to the task of solving the world’s problems. Last year for example, in an interview with FT he spoke of the challenges in his war on disease. Speaking of elected legislators Gates said, “The closer you get to it and see how the sausage is made, the more you go, oh my God! These guys don’t even actually know the budget. It makes you think: can complex, technocratically deep things – like running a healthcare system properly … can that get done?” He continued, saying “The idea that all these people are going to vote and have an opinion about subjects that are increasingly complex – where what seems, you might think … the easy answer [is] not the real answer. It’s a very interesting problem. Do democracies faced with these current problems do these things well?”

In the same interview Gates explained his decision to focus his philanthropic efforts on fighting disease more so than underwriting the arts. Gates channels utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer and equates spending money on expanding an art museum to actually blinding people whose eyes might have been cured with that money. This binary reasoning is unnecessarily dismissive of the cultural arts and to the idea that all people’s individual and collective lives can be enriched by them. The plug for Singer is disturbing and should be taken seriously.

Peter Thiel, in his speeches and writings, offers a critique of both k-12 and higher education that deserves serious attention. But rather than proposing reforms that redirect these institutions toward engaging all students with great questions and the humanistic enterprise, he seems to favor abandoning them.  His frustration is understandable and one hopes that political correctness and other forces that drive real inquiry and deliberation from our education system will not win the day. Thiel’s solution is exemplified by the Knewton adaptive learning technology, in the promotion of which he has partnered with Pearson and others who seek to profit from this technology.  Their approach is one of automated education in the form of online courses and algorithms that would exquisitely individualize education. Through his Fellowships program, Thiel has promoted eventual escape from institutionalized learning altogether, paying students to drop out of college in order to develop their ideas for start-up businesses; at least the most promising students, meaning those most likely to be successful entrepreneurs. Technocracy is generally accompanied by meritocracy.

Five years ago on the Cato Unbound website, Thiel posted an essay detailing his version of libertarianism plainly stating that he no longer saw freedom and democracy as compatible. “In our time,” he wrote, “the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms — from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’” Reminiscent of a 1930’s technocrat Thiel wrote “… we are in a deadly race between politics and technology… Unlike the world of politics, in the world of technology the choices of individuals may still be paramount. The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.”

The technocrats are declaring themselves openly and they are plainly calling the question: Why teach for democracy if democracy doesn’t work? Why provide ordinary people with a humanities-rich education when it has no immediate value in the marketplace? Whether or not these moneyed supermen have an inordinate sway on our educational politics may be of less concern than the way so many educators and policy makers have uncritically embraced their success, their businessman’s way of thinking, their techy mindset and their wonky personas as heroic attributes or as models for learning.

The chief end of education in America is to impart to students the knowledge and intellectual skill needed to meet their civic responsibilities. These include a willingness to communicate with fellow citizens and elected officials about political and social issues that are in dispute. They also include the ability to think critically about political life, social issues, and all technologies and media. Students who feel that citizens can influence political outcomes are more likely to believe that it is worthwhile to participate in the political and civic activities from which Peter Thiel wants them to escape. Students who read and discuss the political and moral experiences recorded in our great literature deepen their understanding that we all confront complex moral questions and that it is possible to find dignity and hope in unpleasant or unfair situations. They also sharpen their capacity to reason.

We need a curriculum that fortifies our students’ faith in the ability of ordinary people to understand the world and its challenges. Our public education system ought not to be made to further track students into vocational “pathways” for those more or less suited for the humanities or for high or low level technical careers. All students need a curriculum rich in substance and literature that explores the human condition and that promotes a sense of our common humanity.

Curriculum leaders and teachers should not remove book-length fiction and other great literature from their students’ course of study in the name of increasing success on new standardized tests.  Moreover, discouraging students from bringing their own life experiences and their knowledge of other texts into their analysis of assigned reading is in effect telling students not to have conversations with the dead and thus, not to develop a fuller sense of the humanity they share with those who came before them. Taking “close reading” too far privileges the technical at the expense of the human.

Professional development that trains teachers to use new technologies without helping them teach students to use these technologies carefully and critically serves the technocratic machine. This is especially true of so-called “free” technologies whose business models are built on the extraction of personal information and on corralling us all into their “suites.”

Educational policy makers who propose that knowledge of coding should be accepted as a substitute for knowledge of a foreign language are either ignorant of the difference between these two forms of knowledge or contemptuous of the benefit, imparted by even a rudimentary study of another language, of having insight into the lives and cultures of other people . In the same way Gates spoke of spending money on curing diseases instead of spending money on culture, they speak of learning a specific technical skill instead of learning languages.  Legislators in at least four states have introduced bills to allow such a substitution. Their vision is narrow and instrumentalist but what’s worse is that an increasing number of educators, enamored of technology as an end in itself have come to share it.

We must build students’ confidence that nature has hard-wired them with the capacity for reason, and that they can use this reason to choose among the recommendations of society’s bickering experts.  Whatever happens at the State policy level, local leaders should require book-length literature at all grade levels, create schedules that make possible seminar discussions about seminal texts for all adolescents, and empower all students to ask questions about the origin and the purposes of the technologies we put into their hands. We should avoid using the language of business and commerce when discussing subjects that are not commercial and repeatedly expose students to values other than those of commerce, utility and careerism. In order to maintain a coherent liberal arts curriculum, rich in humanities, schools should limit elective opportunities.

As educated educators we must have confidence in our own reason and the courage to trust our hunches and our muses. If it feels like a bunch of billionaires are trying to take over the education establishment in order to increase their own wealth and power it just might be true. If you are clever enough, take their money and use their stuff but, for the love of humanity, don’t trust these men. Like-minded people have gained power before with monstrous results.

Walt Whitman’s Terms

Walt Whitman High School is set in a woodsy South Huntington neighborhood, about one mile from Whitman’s birthplace. I still have a copy of Leaves of Grass that I neglected to return to the Whitman library before I graduated in 1980. I’m not proud of my theft but I treasure the book. None of my teachers assigned any of it but I spent a lot of time picking through it on my own in a “study hall” during the spring of my senior year. I’ve dipped into it often in subsequent years. It’s musty, falling apart and held together with packing tape, but it still boots up every time I open it. The book, not just the content of the book, but the book, serves as a mystic connection among different stages of my life, my professional choices, people who have mentored or inspired me – and Walt.


The poem to which I have most returned is “By Blue Ontario’s Shore.” It’s a nostalgic poem for a nation that had lost it’s muse.  Whitman revised it after the Civil War and speaks of the need for poets and teachers to seek and study the essential stuff and source material of America in order to find the inspiration needed to heal and serve her.  It contains a tough challenge which intimidated me as a young social studies teacher:

Are you he who would assume a place to teach or be a poet here in
the States?
The place is august, the terms obdurate.
Who would assume to teach here may well prepare himself body and mind,
He may well survey, ponder, arm, fortify, harden, make lithe himself,
He shall surely be question’d beforehand by me with many and stern
Who are you indeed who would talk or sing to America?

Who was I indeed! My first social studies department was packed with bright and seasoned New York City teachers. They argued a lot in delicious debates that had been going on since the nineteen-sixties. Probably longer. My first chairman (they used that term then) was a veteran of the Great Depression and of horrific amphibious landings in the South Pacific. He was a graduate of Columbia University and the author of an Economics textbook. He knew stuff; seemingly everything. The above Whitman passage would, years later, be quoted in his eulogy. When they hired me I was twenty-three and, like many new teachers, figuring it out as I went along. Surely, Whitman demanded more than I had in me at the time:

Have you studied out the land, its idioms and men?
Have you learn’d the physiology, phrenology, politics, geography,
pride, freedom, friendship of the land? its substratums and objects?
Have you consider’d the organic compact of the first day of the
first year of Independence, sign’d by the Commissioners, ratified
by the States, and read by Washington at the head of the army?
Have you possess’d yourself of the Federal Constitution?
Do you see who have left all feudal processes and poems behind them,
and assumed the poems and processes of Democracy?

Though I had degrees in History and Politics it would take years of teaching, of working with more experienced colleagues, of graduate school and of just living an adult life before I could claim to understand the ongoing conversations about how we should rule ourselves or about what held America together. It would be years before I developed real skill in bringing teenagers into those conversations. Though I was not aware of it at first,  Whitman also offered sensible advice for those on the path to becoming good teachers:

Are you faithful to things? do you teach what the land and sea, the
bodies of men, womanhood, amativeness, heroic angers, teach?
Have you sped through fleeting customs, popularities?
Can you hold your hand against all seductions, follies, whirls,
fierce contentions? are you very strong? are you really of the
whole People?
Are you not of some coterie? some school or mere religion?

The past thirty years have presented many educational customs and whirls as well as imposing and fierce contentions, and coteries that seem to demand one’s “buy in.” Most of these are well-intended, based on at least partial truths and are even useful. Some demand scrutiny and wariness. I’m fortunate to have come of age at a time and in places that reinforced what I see as two essential objectives for young teachers:

  1. Know well your students and the content of the subjects you teach and
  2. Take a skeptical (not cynical!) stance against ideologies, schools-of-thought, technologies and pedagogies.

I read the slim volumes sent to me from the ASCD bookstore.  I have a shelf of books about multiple intelligences, teaching with tablets, nurturing “grit,” and teaching 21st century skills. Some of these books definitly help me operationalize the current regulations and “standards” that frame my professional responsibilities. I can’t think of any that would be worth stealing, let alone keeping for thirty-five years.

Most of our educational traditions have something to offer, even if they include extremes against which we must be on guard.  The latest batch of enthusiasms can all be placed within the context of an old conversation about what and how to teach. Though we need not reject them out of hand, we must at least question the thinking of our current gurus and of the most influential among those who would presume to shape the way we teach here in the States. Indeed, it is our duty to ask how well they advance  the chief end of education – at least public education –  which is to prepare our youth to take on the responsibilities of citizenship. Everything else is secondary.







Bill Gates and the Global History Regents Exam (Part 1)

That the August 2014 Global History & Geography Regents exam included an item extolling Bill Gates’ contributions in the “war” on disease and poverty is not, in itself, evidence of a plutocratic conspiracy. Nonetheless, it does make one wonder about the mindset of those who created the assessment.  It also highlights problems with the current design of the New York State Regents exams in social studies.

Let’s look at the question in question. It includes a four paragraph passage in a text-box:

…Millions of children in developing nations die from diseases like pneumonia, measles and diarrhea that claim twice as many lives annually as AIDS. Vaccines prevent these basic illnesses. Bill Gates pledges billions of dollars to vaccinate the world’s children. Problem solved. But it’s not that easy.

Money alone won’t rid dirty water of parasites that can blind and cripple. It won’t fix bad roads that keep people from getting care. It won’t end the political corruption and violent unrest that erase health advances. It won’t stop a population explosion that contributes to poor health. It can’t even prevent a rat from gnawing through the power cord of a refrigerator used to store vaccines in a remote West African clinic.

In late 1998, Gates donated $100 million to create a program dedicated to getting new and underused vaccines to children in the poorest countries. A year later he gave a stunning $750 million to launch a new superstructure for improving childhood vaccinations, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) – a coalition of international public health agencies, philanthropies, therapists and the pharmaceutical industry….

Gates knows vaccines can’t do it all, not when a regional hospital in Nigeria draws its water from an open pit in the ground. Or where a 6-year-old Ivory Coast boy with a leg twisted by polio faces a life of begging because his mother couldn’t afford a trip to a clinic for vaccines. Or where a broken board on a bridge can halt the shipment of medicine for days….

Source: Tom Paulson, “Bill Gates’ war on disease, poverty is an uphill battle,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 21, 2001

The passage is one of ten documents included in the Document-Based Question (DBQ) on the exam. As such, it is intended to be used among other documents in writing an essay about how global issues (including disease) affect children and how individuals, groups and governments have attempted to address those issues.

The passage includes several features of Gate’s approach to world health:

  • That pharmaceutical solutions such as vaccinations are essential for improving health in the developing world
  • That the developing world is overpopulated
  • That a western-led coalition of private philanthropies, the pharmaceutical industry and government agencies should fashion the way health care is administered in the developing world

The inclusion on a State test of a passage praising one of the most wealthy and powerful men in history, who is doing more than anyone alive to shape the unfolding changes in the American educational order, including widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), need not be a problem. Indeed, the CCSS, the 2014 New York State Social Studies Framework and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards all make it clear that students need to be closely and critically reading such non-fiction texts, framing questions about those texts, comparing them with other texts and accessing prior knowledge to see how the content of those texts helps illustrate enduring themes. But it is a problem that the Regents exams still don’t include essay questions that ask students to demonstrate these skills.

The Constructed-Response portion of the DBQ asks two low-level reading questions to which most students can easily find the answer:

5a. According to Tom Paulson, what is one situation that makes it difficult to reduce childhood diseases in developing nations?


5b. According to Tom Paulson, what is one way money donated by Bill Gates has been used to reduce childhood diseases in developing nations?

Thus, the Constructed-Response portion of the test, intended to set students up for a more complex writing task, does not guide students toward any consideration of how bias, context or audience might shape the point of view expressed in the passage or how one perspective on Bill Gates’ approach to global health care might be compared with other perspectives. Moreover the overall essay question, for which the instant passage might provide supporting details, does not ask students to evaluate the document at all. Rather, students are asked to use information in at least five of the ten documents in order to “discuss how governments, groups, and/or individuals have attempted to reduce the effects of two global issues on children.” For the purposes of the task, the information in the Bill Gates passage can merely be taken at face value. A man as influential and important as Gates ought to be subject to a little more scrutiny.

The ironic flaw in the question lies in its failure to ask students to demonstrate those analytic skills delineated in the CCSS to which Gates lent his incredible wealth and political support. One educational effect of this is to teach students to uncritically accept that Bill Gates understands what needs to be done to help save children in the developing world. Another effect is to hinder the efforts of educators working to promote the instructional shifts demanded by the latest national and state standards in social studies among other subjects.


More on transcending differences

By the time Mortimer Adler put together the Paideia group in the early 1980s, Jacques Maritain and John Dewey were long dead. But their philosophical connections to the counter-intuitive alliance of Adler and Theodore Sizer make it worth taking a moment to think about things they held in common. In spite of their profound differences and the fact that they sometimes wrote in direct opposition to each other, Maritain and Dewey took a similar critical stance against what they saw as shortcomings in American education in their time and against those who argued that the primary purpose of schooling should be the  conveyance of marketable skills.

The way Dewey saw it,  education to meet the supposed needs of business leaders would be explicitly vocational, inevitably tracked and antithetical to the advancement of democracy. As he famously wrote in Democracy and Education, “Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education” (Dewey, 101).

To Dewey, education had  a normative function which was to promote a sense of identification with the community. More than mere majority rule, democracy  was cooperative living built on shared and communally-developed values. Dewey invokes Aristotle ( of all people) whom he says,

was right when he said that “any occupation or art or study deserves to be called mechanical if it renders the body or soul or intellect of free persons unfit for the exercise and practice of excellence.” The force of the statement is almost infinitely increased when we hold…that all persons, instead of a comparatively few, are free. For when the mass of men and all women were regarded as unfree by the very nature of their bodies and minds, there was neither intellectual confusion nor moral hypocrisy in giving them only the training which fitted them for mechanical skill, irrespective of its ulterior effect upon their capacity to share in a worthy life. He was … right also when he went on to say that “all mercenary employments as well as those which degrade the condition of the body are mechanical, since they deprive the intellect of leisure and dignity,”—permanently right, that is, if gainful pursuits as matter of fact deprive the intellect of the conditions of its exercise and so of its dignity (Dewey, 299).

In other words,  education for work, as opposed to education for citizenship, is an affront to human dignity, while education for associated living is the birthright of all members of the community. As democracy was the new ideal, the same intellectual development once considered the dominion of elites was now the right of all.

Jacques Maritain was also opposed to schooling for mere employment and said that the purpose of education is wisdom. Indeed, to subject even college students to specialized training is an assault to their human dignity:

In a social order fitted to the common dignity of man, college education should be given to all, so as to complete the preparation of youth before he enters the state of manhood. To introduce specialization in this sphere is to do violence to the world of youth. As a matter of fact, a young man will choose his specialty for himself and progress all the more rapidly and perfectly in vocational, scientific or technical training in proportion as his education has been liberal and universal. Youth has a right to education in the liberal arts, in order to be prepared for human work and human leisure. But such education is killed by premature specialization. (Maritain, 64)

Thus, Maritain and Dewey both argued that education should be aimed at forming whole persons capable of participating as members of democratic society and that all persons are due the opportunity to develop to their full intellectual capacity. These aims need not preclude  preparation for work but they precede it in importance.

Of course I’m glossing over a whole bunch of important differences in the ways Dewey and Maritain understood truth, morality, tradition and transcendence. It’s no small thing, for example, that Dewey’s normative values were socially constructed while Maritain’s were based on natural law.

Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that  “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” In her book on the drafting of the UDHR, Mary Anne Glendon tells of how after World War II despite  many disagreements about rights and values among the disparate cultures and ideologies represented by the leaders of  war-weary nations, a way was found to agree on that particular verbiage.  Glendon quotes Maritain who said,

“Yes, we agree about rights but on condition no one asks us why. “The only feasible goal for the UN he maintained, was to achieve agreement “not on the basis of speculative ideas…but upon the affirmation of a single body of beliefs for guidance in action.” (Glendon pgs. 77-78)

Maritain’s characterization of how drafters of the UDHR got over abstract philosophical differences in order to achieve a purposeful and actionable standard of  conduct offers some insight on the relationship between Mortimer Adler and Theodore Sizer. Both Sizer and Adler were appalled by the expansiveness of the curriculum in most American schools, by what they perceived as an abundance of vocational education, by the degree to which students were tracked into more and less intellectually focused courses, and by a general lack of intellectual rigor.

Adler, who was more from Maritain’s tradition and Sizer, who was more from Dewey’s both favored a radically paired-down curriculum, emphasizing depth of understanding over breadth of knowledge. They advocated high quality liberal (non-vocational) education for all. In most cases, students were to be evaluated authentically through performances and presentations that demonstrated proficiency with key understandings and skills. Didactic instruction would be relegated to a relatively small proportion of teaching time so as to make time for individual and small group coaching and Socratic questioning – often in formal seminar discussions of important texts. Acknowledging that this kind of learning would not work for students taking many electives and sitting in rows through seven, eight or nine large forty-minute classes; or for teachers with 125 or more students, they proposed that instructional time be dramatically restructured and that teacher assignments  be limited to no more than eighty students. Secondary teachers would be expected to shed some of their identity as specialists and learn to think of themselves as generalists and even as counselors.

It was a remarkable consensus between educators from different intellectual traditions who agreed upon a response to the problems in American education being identified in popular works at that time including Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise,  Powell, Farrar and Cohen’s Shopping Mall High School and E.D. Hirsch Jr’s Cultural Literacy for Freedom. Despite all the well-publicized disagreements among reformers of that time, there was a consensus that, whether from ability group tracking imposed by school officials or from student choice among an endless number of options, American schools had become an unfocused mess and that American democracy was suffering from too few schools with a common core curriculum…

Works Cited

Dewey, J. (1922). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Glendon, M A. (2001). A world made new: Eleanor Roosevelt and the universal declaration of human rights. New York: Random House.

Maritain, J. (1943). Education at the crossroads. Yale University Press.


Common ground among diverse thinkers

In the 1990s I taught social studies at a Long Island high school whose faculty had voted to join Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools (CES).  Through that association I became more deeply familiar with the work of Mortimer Adler and the Paideia group. Sizer had been a member of Adler’s group in the 1980s and now Adler was working with the CES. Both Sizer and Adler subscribed to a “less is more” approach to education, both, as I recall, were opposed to ability-group tracking of students, both believed that an important part of a rich education would have to include lengthy discussions of important texts in Socratic seminars. At the time it did not occur to me that Sizer, a committed disciple of John Dewey; and Adler, a neo-Thomist, must have had some profoundly different ideas about truth, human nature, and intellect. As a practical matter, it did not seem to make a difference.

Schooling in America occurs against a backdrop of theoretical debates about the ends and means of education, the impact of which, with respect to what really happens in classrooms, is usually indirect. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing and sometimes even holding contradictory notions about pedagogy. For much of my career, John Dewey and followers including Jean Piaget and Howard Gardner were  frequently cited theorists among those who fancied themselves “reformers.” Nonetheless, while Dewey’s Pragmatism and the various forms of “constructivism” have dominated academic writing and discussion about education, I have also been attracted to another set of educators who, at heart, are quite opposed to Pragmatist principles and sometimes, but not always, to the pedagogy of Dewey’s disciples.

In addition to Adler, for example, I’ve been influenced by the early twentieth century writings of Jacques Maritain and even Allan Bloom. I take E.D. Hirsh seriously and back in the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s I found his empirical research more persuasive than say, Gardner’s. While I’m convinced that students must discover knowledge through their own agency and that teachers must create circumstances wherein students can achieve their own insights, I wince a little when friends say students must “make meaning” for themselves. I make it a point to say that students discern meaning or grow closer to the truth, and I avoid relativistic expressions. Some things are more worth knowing than others and truth can’t always be a matter of perspective. Mortimer Adler believed this. Nonetheless, Adler dedicated his 1982 Paideia Proposal to John Dewey.

As a teacher and as a school administrator my workaday world has not much challenged me to untangle any inconsistencies among these thinkers. But as I follow and participate in the discussion of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), questions about how we learn, about the ends of education and about the implications of fundamental principles have got me thinking about some of the (apparent) contradictions in my own thinking. I’ve also been wondering how influential educational leaders of opposing philosophies have come to be supporters of the CCSS. Indeed, Common Core opponents also include some strange bedfellows. The impact that the CCSS initiative is having on teaching and the management of schools makes it one the most significant educational initiatives in American history. The connection between educational philosophy and the actual conditions in which we teach and learn may be growing more important.

I’ve been among those who have been cautiously supportive of the CCSS while opposing the baggage that comes with it. Smarter people than me have already written of the problems that accompany the new testing regime, value-added evaluation of teachers, the corrupt connections between moneyed elites and decision makers in State and Federal governments. Some of those people have come to believe that it is impossible to separate the CCSS from the baggage.

Reflecting on a few areas of consensus among those educators who shaped my thinking in the early part of my career, I’m reminded of the famous line from Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” In spite of some profound differences, Dewey, Sizer, Adler and even Maritain were all democrats and republicans. Their epistemologies and their pedagogies did not always agree, but they all believed that an end of education was protecting democracy and human rights; rights grounded in the inherent dignity of every individual. In the next few posts, I hope to take a closer look at the philosophical ties that bind some of these educators of old, and then to look at what the CCSS say and what those with the power to implement them are doing with respect to those common principles.


Taking my first step into blogging, I’m reminded of Bilbo’s cautionary observation to Frodo that, “It’s a dangerous business … going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Going public with our thoughts can take us to places from whence it’s hard to return. Nonetheless, the impulse to think out loud is always with me. Twitter was an attempt to mercifully channel that impulse away from ruminative emails, which even friends might eventually see as unwelcome spam. But tweets are so short, tempting one to write sardonic haiku rather than rich thoughtful compositions. I’d like to try being more thoughtful and positive.

There’s a debate over whether blogging is publishing. I tend to think that it is, but traditional publishing creates pressure to be so careful, precise and sure of oneself that it’s easy to give up before getting to the point of submitting one’s work for others to judge for print-worthiness. Blogging, like the short-lived electronic devices on which we now write, is more provisional. Bloggers can acknowledge a certain built-in obsolescence in what they write because they intend to rethink it all as they go along. What we digitally publish is certainly permanent, allowing yet unborn enemies to throw our easily discoverable words back at us in the future, but it seems to be understood that one can be a little spontaneous in this platform. Within that spontaneity, adventure and danger lie in wait.

I suppose this is the point at which I should make the familiar statement that the thoughts expressed here will be my own and not those of my employer, my family or any other acquaintances. I value my reputation and I am not without professional ambitions. I have no aim to embarrass myself or my valued colleagues; or to contradict the official positions of the organization that pays me, and with which I am proudly associated. Still, I expect to change my mind on occasion, especially if someone actually reads this blog and offers thought-provoking comments on what I write. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.” But I would not want my inconsistency to reflect poorly on my associates.

Among the reasons I’ll be writing in the coming days will be to unpack some of the apparent inconsistencies in my thoughts on education in New York and in America. Another will be to step up and try to live that which we are expecting of our students and of our colleagues in the classroom. If teachers are being evaluated in part on their ability to leverage technology in the service of teaching “21st century skills,” I should deepen my own understanding of what that can look like. If, according to the Common Core ELA Standards, our students must learn to “use technology, including the internet, to produce, publish and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback including new arguments or information,” then I ought to challenge myself to learn how to do the same.