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.

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