Wanted: New Teacher Bearing New Curriculum
by Thomas J. Cottle - December 08, 2008
In many schools, parents spend much of May and June working hard to make certain their children are enrolled in classes with the “right” teachers, the “best” teachers for the coming year. Often they are operating on word of mouth and a teacher’s reputation. But they may also have heard about test scores and college acceptance rates of the students of certain teachers. Clearly, they dread the idea of their child in a class with a teacher who will waste a year of their child’s life. And they know that once in that class, the child is stuck.
It has suddenly struck some people what, precisely, the eight years of the Bush administration feels like. Dangerous, misguided, arrogant, some have called it, not to mention fitfully interminable. But precisely because the endpoint draws near, one is struck with recollections of having a year in school with a teacher that clearly would never conclude.
In many schools, parents spend much of May and June working hard to make certain their children are enrolled in classes with the right teachers, the best teachers for the coming year. Often they are operating on word of mouth and a teachers reputation. But they may also have heard about test scores and college acceptance rates of the students of certain teachers. Clearly, they dread the idea of their child in a class with a teacher who will waste a year of their childs life. And they know that once in that class, the child is stuck.
Thus it feels to some that many Americans have been stuck in a class, for eight years no less, that discouraged them, disheartened and depleted them, and, who knows, may even have frightened them. And, despite a lengthy primary season, the thought that a new teacher bringing, hopefully, a new curriculum may is now on the horizon is uplifting.
Many, of course, foresaw this curriculum, and even worse, the dangerous period into which we were heading. One such observer, scholar Stanley Hoffman, who describes himself as French but a citizen of Harvard, had, more than five years ago, written an article in The Boston Globe warning against the invasion of Iraq. Since then, he has constantly urged withdrawal. Unlike members of the present administration, he views international relations in a gorgeously nuanced fashion, under girded with deep knowledge, while lamenting that universal ethical principles seem not to define foreign policy and negotiations. Significantly, he teaches that Americans must not view all the citizens of the world as being alike and motivated by the same issues and ideals.
But now, in his own words, Professor Hoffman is profoundly discouraged, not unlike the parent living through an endless year with a teacher who will fail to educate or enlighten their child, much less evoke a feeling or sentiment that might advance the development of the childs mind or character. It is here that Hoffman proffers the remarkable notion that citizens of the world, irrespective of their culture or ideological position, look to their leaders to be great teachers. Imagine, states people as pedagogs! Hoffmans great teacher was his countryman DeGaulle, who not only enlightened the citizenry, but in addition made them feel that they were intelligent, and that they understood. If it is not about education, if it is not about leaders teaching citizens about ideologies, societies, comparative cultures, political structures, and economic strategies, Hoffman said in an interview published in Harvard Magazine, then it is all electoral tricks, or canned speeches [and there will] be nothing but contempt and distrust of the people in power (Lambert, 2007).
I trivialize a significant distinction in pedagogic theory when distinguishing theoretical knowledge from practical knowledge. Almost everyday the good teacher is faced with having to make this distinction for students and rationalizing why both are essential not merely for getting good grades but for becoming the sort of good citizen that political scientists Martha Nussbaum and Amy Gutmann have described. Gutmanns (1999) notion that students must learn how to lead their lives according to their best lights, and then recognize the moral imperative to help others lead their lives according to their own best lights, rests in part on these two forms of knowledge. So too, does Nussbaums (1997) assertion that educated people are able to develop what she calls narrative imaginations, imaginations able to reread the past and construct promising futures.
But the unpuzzled child, as the educator John Passmore (1980) wrote, appears not to understand much of this (pp. 209-211). Even worse, as Lawrence Schultz (2008) writes in a brilliant doctoral dissertation devoted to the teachings of Passmore,
the unpuzzled child will grow into a person who may, in a sense, never actually leave his world to experience the real one. He or she may know little of narrative imaginations, nor distinctions between theoretical and practical knowledge. The unpuzzled child may never develop a true moral sense. He may never comprehend the richness of humanity and the empathy needed to appreciate it. (p. 59)
And one thing more from Schultz: An unpuzzled child is so much clay, an object for those who presume to mold him (p. 126).
The educational process, John Dewey wrote, is one of continual reorganizing, reconstructing, transforming (Dewey, 1916/2005, page 59). To which Schultz (2008) adds, the reconstruction continues until it is in harmony with the life affirmation of an implicitly scientific and democratic predisposition (p. 80). Important to remember here, if Hoffmans counsel is correct, is that the kindergarten teacher and president share an obligation to live by these propositions. Nothing kills a classroom, or a country, more than the dogmatic resistance of any act that seeks to reorganize, reconstruct, or transform. Well, thats not entirely true. Classrooms, like countries, are weakened by authority figures engendering fear.
A final word. In the aforementioned interview, Hoffman observed that when Harvard exploded in anti-war activity in the late 1960s, What mattered was that one listened to what the students had to say, because students were what the University was about (Lambert, 2007). Need any of us be reminded that what America is about is discovered by listening to what the people have to say. But the people have to learn as well, from their leaders. The literature of education makes it plain: teachers and students learn from one another. The interests of the citizenry, even the very youngest among us, ought to at least contribute to the content of the curriculum. But in the end, the great teacher not only makes the year, he or she preserves a genuine democracy.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.
Gutmann, A. (1999). Democratic education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
Lambert, C.A. (2007). Le professeur. Harvard Magazine, 109(6).
Nussbaum, M. (1997). Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
Passmore, J. (1980). The philosophy of teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
Schultz, L.R. (2008). Applicability of the philosophy of John Passmore in modern educational policy and practice. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Boston University, School of Education.