Monthly Archives: March 2014

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.