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The strength of your convictions

Posted By: Ross Mitchell on June 12, 2002
Let me begin by warning readers that I am both sympathetic and hostile to the sentiments expressed. As such, I hope that my criticisms will not be taken personally, particularly since I make direct references to a "you" with whom I am not acquainted.

I think that too many academics believe that people are really interested in examining their convictions. To explore the social and philosophical foundations of education, whether it be a family, community, or school education project, means to subject yourself to criticism. Especially in an endeavor so heavily laden with moral implications, if not certitudes, it would be easy to turn a challenging task into an impossible request.

Why should I or anyone else feel inclined to open up my self to criticism? I suspect that this question, a fundamentally emotional concern tied to one's sense of ontological security, is a major contributor to modest engagement with a foundations course. Exposing biases, prejudices, predispositions, etc. is a risky affair. Feeling secure in a public discussion of deeply held, and often unexamined, beliefs about learning, teaching, behavior, performance, instruction, curriculum, organization, etc. is problematic. Activating engagement with foundational questions should not be easy.

The case of the teaching of evolution in the schools is a case in point. Some people cannot entertain the idea of evolution as anything other than blasphemy. Energy is invested in creating a science that buttresses creation as the right way to understand the diversity of life on this planet. These advocates are not suspending judgment and seriously entertaining alternative propositions. Herein lies a basic challenge to the kind of study or reflection that is typically the aim of a foundations course.

To add insult to injury on this score, the foundations course is not the only demand on the student's life. Other courses, family, friends, work, life maintenance, etc. are also activities that require time and attention. I suggest that serious consideration be given to just how much can be reasonably expected. Is there enough leisure to reflect as deeply as you would like students to do?

Is there reason for students to believe that understanding the foundations of education is liberating rather than alienating? One of the great problems with liberating and reflective curricula is the absence of training in enactment. Many people go into teaching because they have some vision of enactment, whether it be narrowly focused to their area of specialization or widely viewed as the development of the whole person, and they seek to empower themselves to be effective.

It is reasonable to demand reflection without providing the basis for enactment? And I do not mean that someone else in the department will take care of that, because you cannnot count on them to do so without explicit agreements and careful articulation. You risk leaving people alienated by their insights into the contradictions and oppressions of educational practice if they have no hope of enacting liberation and providing coherence. I would not be surprised if the best response to this risk is to simply take that which buttresses initial predispositions and take satisfaction in having an historical precedent for action.

In sum, I strongly suggest that your concerns depend on your students having LEISURE, SECURITY, and MISSION. These are the stuff of the elite. Teaching cannot draw all of its candidates from the elite. As such, the program into which candidates for teaching enter must explicitly endeavor to provide leisure, security, and mission so that they may enjoy the fruits of the elite experience and education you wish them to have. Otherwise, I suspect that you will have to accomplish your goals through the force of personality (charisma), which is a heavy burden for teachers to bear and the cause of burnout among many practitioners.
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 The Primacy Paradox by Jeff McCullers on April 26, 2002
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