Tag Archives: school reform

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.