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Out of Our Minds: Turning the Tide of Anti-Intellectualism in American Schools

reviewed by Dara Soljaga & Kari Pawl - July 25, 2017

coverTitle: Out of Our Minds: Turning the Tide of Anti-Intellectualism in American Schools
Author(s): Craig B. Howley, Aimee Howley, & Edwina Pendarvis
Publisher: Prufrock Press, Austin
ISBN: 1618216007, Pages: 336, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Out of Our Minds: Turning the Tide of Anti-Intellectualism in American Schools, Second Edition by C. B. Howley, A. Howely, and E. Pendarvis provides a compelling commentary on thought and action that should be required reading for policymakers, educators and stakeholders considering (or reconsidering) the purpose of education. The text achieves its purported purpose of situating gifted and talented education within our schools by thoughtfully proffering intellectual purpose, meaning making, and critique as essentials for all learners. In this reworked edition over two decades later, the authors confront political overtures and consumerist conformity with challenges to preserve a common inheritance, to honor the notion of living well, and to commend inquiry, resourcefulness, and independence. Howley, Howley, and Pendarvis assert, “Perhaps the schools dare not change the social order. We dare intellect to try” (p. ix). The text presents nine well-researched chapters that define, examine, and engage intellectualism in American schools.

In Chapter One, Howley, et al. establish parameters for the frequently conflated notions of intellect and intelligence, while further exploring intellectualism in respect to instrumentalism, sentimentalism and neoliberalism. They argue that all minds are capable of an intellectual turn, “entailing respect for the interests of intellect: contemplation, understanding, meaning, interpretation, inquiry and critique;” and the accumulation of “artifacts of intellect, especially as embodied in meaningful written expression” (p. 9). The authors outline the practical and theoretical implications of anti-intellectualism in schools, while providing thoughtfulness as both an antidote and crux of intellectual education. Chapter Two examines the impact of anti-intellectualism on schooling, including the concern of narrow practicality as  “(a) ontological limits—a concern about the basis of narrow practicality; (b) sorting students for probable futures; (c) abridging curriculum; and (d) leading to indoctrination” (p. 27). More specifically, the authors argue that knowledge should transcend time and that evaluating knowledge based on immediate needs produces detrimental limitations. Furthermore, educators must recognize the political trends and professional preferences that play a significant role in the abridgement of curriculum. The authors maintain that schools should advocate for developing teachers’ and students’ intellectual curiosity, otherwise students are not afforded opportunities to make sense of their circumstances in the present and future. Additionally, the educational system must abandon the idea of designing curriculum to prepare students for the predicted skills needed to be successful in life and in the workplace; rather it should embrace a broader view of practicality as a foundation for schooling that engages the intellect.

In Chapter Three, anti-intellectual school culture is proposed as a process that occurs through teacher socialization, including “the number and complexity of [teacher] responsibilities, the overselling of commercially produced curriculum materials, and the narrow construction of accountability testing” (p. 50). The authors provide a disheartening account of the current state of teaching in American schools, examining the conditions that groom teachers to serve as “automatons” and the characteristics that establish schools as factories. They argue that the role of the teacher should be to embrace intellectual engagement and encourage the practice of independent and collaborative inquiry. The chapter concludes with a compelling discussion about the controversial literature surrounding the characteristics of teachers that influence their decisions to seek or evade intellectual inquiries. In Chapter Four, the role of families and credentialism is presented, framed “within the widespread cultural mandate in the U.S. for consumption (of products, educational degrees, status markers and so on)” (p. 69). The authors engage in a constructive discussion of three theories of instrumental schooling, concluding that in this age of consumerism “We are now, in short, born to hold jobs and to shop” (p. 72). Families in these anti-intellectual schools are positioned as customers or commodities, not the nurturing caregivers of children. An intriguing argument against the privatization of schooling is also developed through the application of free market principles and brand loyalty, or in the case of the Ohio charter school network, brand suspicion, which aptly illustrates that the commodification of education truly is anti-democratic, along with being anti-intellectual. Hopefulness abounds though, in the proposal of living of the good life as an essential goal of education.

Chapter Five details the historical roots establishing universities as institutions of higher learning, as well as the contemporary shift to universities serving as significantly large businesses. The general triumvirate mission of teaching, research and service embodied by most universities begins to assume a decidedly anti-intellectual bent in this era. Howley, et al. explain “When knowledge is atomized as information with a particular temporary utility and commercial value, its role in cultivating intellect (as defined in this book, at any rate) becomes suspect” (pp. 115-6). In exploring the phenomenon of university rankings and in tempering aspirations, the authors consider placements and “mismatches” as related to gifted and talented students. The chapter concludes with caution toward the foreboding free market principles currently infiltrating the anti-intellectual university.  

Chapter Six, the Advocacy of “acceleration” or grade skipping and advanced courses, is highlighted in this portion. Talented students, the authors assert, are often subject to the “bait and switch” of factory models of schooling for gifted education—they’re identified through standardized assessment (typically IQ tests); graced with part-time, pull-out enrichment; and then hampered by various varieties of displacement. Howley, et al. detail, “(1) the displacement of effort by entitlement, (2) the displacement of content by process, and (3) displacement of thought by feeling” (p. 135). These theories of displacement might discount the existence of successful, or rather intellectual, programs which have presumably attended to effort, content, and thought. Also, the debasing of giftedness as an unearned privilege of class in this chapter contradicts the legitimacy of past and present identified talented children from less privileged classes. The authors’ impassioned plea for faster progress through curriculum from pragmatic and theoretical stances may seem a paltry offer, ignoring the potential social stigmas of acceleration and the subtlety of programs already grounded in academic rigor.

Chapter Seven, Addressing the common good, ethical reasoning and social justice, the authors detail the historical woes of free market principles stifling genuine efforts toward equity, as perpetuated by the schools. Howley, et al. contend that “thinking produces concern for social justice, and so a schooling that cultivated thinking well would be one that necessarily took the enlargement of social justice—and even, perhaps, equality and solidarity—seriously” (p. 173). The fundamental American inequities of social class and cultural location are identified as threats to intellect, systematizing marginalization via the schools. The chapter concludes with a call to question and consider what is good and just, and ultimately to build a new social order.

In Chapter Eight, Following a harsh three-pronged critique of learning standards, Howley, et al. offer “important issues of life (the practicalities of work and craft, relationships, family, community, and the concepts and realities of economics, politics, aesthetics, and ethics)” (p. 201) as origins of content and real world antecedents for an intellectual education. The authors present four sources that together capture the essence of life “(1) low culture, (2) high culture, (3) intimate culture and (4) the public realm” (p. 212) and together these are proposed as venues for engaging thoughtfulness, meaningfulness and intellectualism.

In Chapter Nine, Despite the authors’ disclaimer, the imagined seven-point plan for decent schooling of the intellect seems either naïvely utopian or radically revolutionary. While certainly honoring creativity, curiosity and contemplating practicality, Howley, et al. propose a scheme that includes noble yet logistically unrealistic notions, such as equitable school finance, small elementary schools and the retirement of high schools and private universities. It seems that in the authors’ desire to abolish factory schooling, that most contemporary notions of school were razed with the factory. The chapter concludes with a more realistic plan for continued acceleration of gifted students, now termed rapid school learners.

In sum, Out of Our Minds is a worthy text scrutinizing intellectualism in America from the mainstream to the margin, and from the school to the home. Though Howley, et al.’s initial cries for work on the margins may have had the unintended consequence of delegating the mainstream to a seemingly unworthy role, or of depicting it as a categorically hostile environment regarding intellectual endeavors, the text’s concluding chapters provide a more universal balm. Perhaps the only consideration absent from the authors’ argument toward cultivating a more fertile environment for intellectualism in schools may be a comparative analysis (beyond the mention of the German apprenticeship model) of nations squarely “in their minds,” such as Finland. Overall, the authors’ call to honor “Love, beauty, truth, curiosity, care and attention, passion, compassion and imagination…” as “surely essential, even intellectual, features of ‘the good life’” (p. 95) may help eventually turn the tide in American schools.  


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 25, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22101, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 10:59:02 AM

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About the Author
  • Dara Soljaga
    Concordia University Chicago
    E-mail Author
    DARA SOLIJAGA, Ph.D., is a professor of curriculum, language and literacy at Concordia University Chicago. She serves as the chair of the department of literacy and early childhood education, as well as, serving as the executive and founding director of the university’s Center for Literacy. Dr. Soljaga envisioned the Center to serve as a hub for innovative, engaging and asset-based literacy experiences that support ongoing individual and collective growth. She is currently engaged in long-term research projects examining instructional coaching and in of multiliteracies-based teaching, learning and assessment. Dr. Soljaga earned her Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.
  • Kari Pawl
    Concordia University Chicago
    E-mail Author
    KARI PAWL, Ph.D., is an associate professor of curriculum, language and literacy at Concordia University Chicago. She serves as the Director of Elementary and Early Childhood programs at the Center for Literacy on campus and is passionately committed to supporting literacy instruction for all learners. She lends her wealth of knowledge and experience working as a classroom teacher and literacy specialist in the public school system for several decades to her work with teachers and students. Her research interests lie in literacy curriculum construction, reading assessment, and differentiated instruction. Dr. Pawl earned her Ed.D. from Loyola University Chicago.
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