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The Question of Standards


by Maxine Greene - 1989

Taking plurality, multiplicity, and community into account in establishing standards

My concern has to do with persons in their plurality and with the multiple modes of intelligence, the various ways of knowing we are being helped today to understand. My concern is as well with the numbers of newcomers to our culture now entering our public schools, and with the diverse life stories against which the meanings of “mainstream” literacy are being grasped in these times. Of course we must take seriously the matter of standards; but I believe, as we define them, that plurality and multiplicity have to be taken into account. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz is only one of the scholars to point to the difficulty of identifying a unitary orientation for culture at a moment when “agreement on the foundations of scholarly authority . . . has disappeared,” which leads him to emphasize the ‘radical variousness of the way we think now.“1 He finds it not only implausible, but even “a bit worrisome” to seek out some general notion of “the best that is being thought and said” and working it into curriculum. He speaks of the incommensurable visions marking our culture and the need to create conditions under which interplay can occur. Richard Rorty, the philosopher, takes a very similar viewpoint when he also talks of incommensurability and the absence of a framework or foundation. He proposes an “edifying philosophy” aimed. at keeping “the conversation going” rather than finding objective truth.2


I cannot but ponder the question of standards, then, in relation to the hope of interplay, conversation, and the possibility of a learning community. The challenge, as I see it, is to devise the kinds of pedagogies that might provoke young people to develop a sense of oughtness, to think (if things were otherwise) about the kinds of human beings they would like to be. Like Hannah Arendt, I believe that this mode of thinking is likely to occur only when the young feel themselves in the presence of others before whom they want to appear in their distinctiveness, speaking and acting in the best way they know. Arendt wrote that “for excellence, by definition, the presence of others is always required.“3 It is an excellence expressed through the action and speech that can bring diverse people together. Such action and speech can also constitute something in common, so long as each one’s perspective is acknowledged and all are granted an equality of regard.


In addition to finding out how to create such spaces of appearance in schools, I should like to discover how to nurture what Thomas Green calls the “conscience of craft ,” which we can see “whenever the expert or the novice in any craft adopts the standards of that craft as his or her own.“4 Clearly, without some sort of community or tradition of craftspeople, there would be no identifiable craft. The crucial point is that, for standards to be significant in individual lives, people do indeed have to adopt them, to choose them, to decide to live and work with what they take them to mean. They have to perceive themselves as participants or would-be participants in a community identified by what have been called “acceptable criteria”5 or by distinguishable norms. It may be a community of potters in the Southwest, or horse trainers (like the author of Adam’s Task6), or historians, or ballet dancers, even as it might be (and ought to be) a community of aware citizens. What seems fundamental is the recognition that the standards governing it have been defined and continue to be defined out of the particular experiences of those who affirm their membership.


There are analogues to be found in the domains of ethics and the arts. Ethical action cannot be thought of as a behavior in accord with externally prescribed rules. Action involves taking initiatives; it is a mode of intentional conduct, moving toward a future and carried on with a sense of responsibility and agency. The rules, the principles that govern choice, may be conceived to be, as John Dewey put it, ways of “directing attention” to the particularities of a moral situation, and to the ways in which it resembles or differs from other situations demanding choice.7


We might think of the Reverend Martin Luther King taking on the leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott because he realized someone had to do so. He was not following an extrinsic or prescribed standard. Looking through, as it were, certain principles having to do with fairness and mutuality that informed his relationships with those around, he took note of violations of human dignity that made a demand on him. Responding, he created a value or a matrix of values by which he chose (and, in time, moved others to choose) to live. We might recall the inhabitants of the town of Le Chambon in occupied France during World War II, those citizens who sheltered Jews while neighboring towns collaborated with the Nazis. They received the gift of a vigorous pastor’s self and then went on their own ways, living lives “of moral high adventure on their own.“8 And why? Because it was their “hobby,” one woman said. Because they chose themselves as people who were stubborn, who cared, who were committed to sheltering Jews.


Although they may not be taking equivalent risks, people in this city are choosing themselves as committed in kindred ways: those who create decent shelters for the homeless and share some of their lives with them; others who ride the vans at night with sandwiches for (and talk with) people in the stations and on the streets; still others who weave networks of concern for victims of AIDS. We are seeing groups of people collaborating with each other and, through their collaboration, bringing values into existence. They are like the sanitary squads in Albert Camus’s The Plague: “These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that, now that plague was among us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it.“9 To do whatever could be done was to act in accord with what they, in their distinctiveness and their interplay, decided should be done in that situation at that time.


The realms of the arts, of course, evoke images of intense distinctiveness and personal expression; but here too we find analogues for the ways in which people choose to adopt the standards governing a particular community as their own. Many of us have seen films of Leonard Bernstein, for example, giving master classes in Tanglewood. We have been able to watch young people strive to internalize the principles or standards represented by Bernstein and work in accord with what they signified. From another vantage point, we have recently read about Edward Villella, the dancer, working against the obstacles of paternal dissatisfaction, bodily injury, and George Balanchine’s unfriendliness to become a member of the Balanchine ballet community—to govern his life by the norms that defined it.10 It required choosing, commitment, yes, and collaboration, not simply accommodation to standards fixed in advance. We can read about the poet Elizabeth Bishop articulating (yes, and choosing) the standards that governed her writing process in correspondence with other poets and writers, members of her community.11 It may not be too much to say that something of the same thing happens in reading and writing workshops now appearing at Teachers College and in many schools, as it may happen when persons work to develop an informed awareness of the languages of the various arts and what is required of listeners and beholders if they choose to bring works of art to life.


My point, then, is that persons are more likely to be norm-governed, to choose or to adopt standards, if they see themselves as members of a community marked by certain commitments and always in the process of renewing itself. We are hearing continually these days about the strengths of small, self-determining schools, often within single buildings. Not only is the petrifying influence of bureaucratic management reduced; mass production presumably gives way to diversity, to innovativeness, even to what has been called “reflective practice.” Donald Schon, writing on what he calls “reflection-in-action,” recognizes the need for teacher experiments and challenges to existing knowledge structures. He knows there will be conflicts and dilemmas, of the kind ordinarily suppressed in familiar organizational learning systems. He writes that institutions congenial to reflective practice “would require a learning system within which individuals could surface conflicts and dilemmas and subject them to productive public inquiry, a learning system conducive to the continual criticism and restructuring of organizational principles and values.“12 He, too, appears to have in mind the kind of learning community where norms and standards are continually being named and renamed, where it is possible to create situations and atmospheres in which conversation and an interplay of divergent views can occur.


When it comes to standards, attention must be focused on the norms that govern life in the spaces of appearance where such dialogues take place. They include, of course, regard for difference and the integrity of the other, fairness, consideration, and respect for the freedom to say and the freedom to choose. As I view the kinds of learning communities I want to see nurtured, I hope also for the deliberate creation of the kinds of sustaining situations that empower different individuals to engage with the obstacles in their way (as Edward Villella has done, Tillie Olsen, Maya Angelou, and so many others) until they expand the spaces in which they can reach beyond themselves and choose.


My interest is not so much in measurable achievement in such communities. It is far more in the “qualities of mind” Richard S. Peters calls “human excellences”: the development of capacities like critical thought, autonomy of choice, creativity, integrity, persistence, strength of will.13 Such capacities can be expressed in a variety of ways in accord with what David Perkins calls “the mind’s best work.” It is not accidental that Perkins utters cautionary words against people confining themselves to following “the rules of the paradigm.” He writes, for instance, that a “sense of the discipline” can involve “the kind of self-discipline that has a vision of the needs of the field and holds the self to the standard of meeting those needs.“14 There must be openings, it seems to me, if people are to develop visions in this fashion and hold themselves to standards. There must be opportunities for “not knowing,” as Eleanor Duckworth describes it, the posing of unexpected questions, the making of connections in experience, “the having of wonderful ideas.“15 I do not believe this is as likely to happen under the awning of officially defined national standards as it is in situation-specific moments among persons identifying themselves as members of a learning community.


Like Lee Shulman, I believe that standards must be raised, but that orthodoxies must be avoided, certainly where teachers’ knowing and teaching are concerned. ‘We must achieve standards,” Shulman writes, “without standardization.“16 What he means, I am convinced, has to do with the kinds of standards defined on the basis of a view of teaching stressing comprehension and reasoning, transformation and reflection, and therefore never captured in a kitbag of rules or a technology. The teachers he describes are persons struggling to understand what their pupils understand, even as they reflect on their own learning and what they are coming to understand. He, too, is touching on qualities of mind and communication; he cannot but see, as he does so, the multiplicity of human excellences that must be tapped if teachers are to choose themselves in accord with the highest standards of their craft.


The argument, the dialogue about national standards, like the dialogue about cultural literacy, seems to me to be one about the very substance of our culture and what we conceive to be modernity. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, former president of the Modern Language Association (MLA), has written: “When the necessity or desirability of consensus, norms, and standards is involved, such views alert one to the inevitability and value, including communal value, of difference, variety, and innovation.” Like Geertz and so many others, she does not have a fear of relativism “in the sense of a conception of the world as continuously changing, irreducibly various, and multiply configurable.” Relativism recognizes, she says, that “ ‘the way’ will be perceived and pursued differently by each to whom it is pointed out.“17 She affirms contingency, as Martha Nussbaum does in The Fragility of Goodness,18 and flexibility and responsiveness. It is with regard for contingency—yes, and for multiplicity and plurality—that I would argue for the kinds of standards that make possible an ongoing civil conversation, a dialogue that reconciles differences and that leads, with occasions open always for renewal, to the constitution of a common world.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 1, 1989, p. 9-14
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 409, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 8:35:02 AM

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