Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning

reviewed by Neal Wrightson - 2004

coverTitle: Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning
Author(s): Martin Bickman
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807743534, Pages: 165, Year: 2003
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Teaching is art, but education is politics. In Minding American Education, Martin Bickman reconsiders and attempts to reconcile the conflict created by these two aspects of schooling. He has chosen a path that has been somewhat neglected of late, taking a wider and deeper look at the landscape of American educational thought over nearly two centuries. Along the way, he illuminates the paths taken by those who have maintained that education has a vital role to play in the revitalization of democracy as a central purpose of our culture and that it is for something more than vocational training, as it now seems to be perceived.

It is widely accepted that education in the

United States is in a crisis, but there are fervent and wildly divergent opinions as to the nature of this crisis, as well as to the nature of its resolution. Bickman suggests the crisis is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of learning, so that “getting the right answer is more important than learning anything.” He has written a unique, compelling, and erudite history of the evolution of an American philosophy of education, and proposes a refreshing course of action for the crisis as he sees it. His approach is directed towards the integration of thought and action (experience as the source and measure of knowledge) and the primacy of the relationship between teacher and student. Drawing on a wide range of past and current philosophers, educators, and writers, (notably Emerson , Mann , Alcott , Thoreau , Fuller , Holt , and Dewey ) he suggests that these days schools are rarely the sites where education takes place. Furthermore, he makes a strong case that schools have become so ossified in their structure and practice that change does not even come to mind. “The central irony here is that the institution in our society most explicitly charged with encouraging thought has become the most impervious to reflective, unbiased thinking about its own workings; it has been running on automatic pilot for the past two centuries” (p. 8). Bickman proposes that the institution conceived (by Mann and others) as quintessentially democratic has become one of our most stratified and hierarchical bureaucracies.

What makes this book particularly useful (and enjoyable) is the way in which the author has applied his premise – uniting practice with pronouncements – to his own work. In 165 pages he deftly guides us through nearly 200 years of philosophers and practitioners who saw education as vital to democracy and essential to an engaged life, while frequently returning to practical and real life examples. Only occasionally does the reader get bogged down in quotes and citations. Bickman moves with speed and agility from the general to the particular, and from the specific to the thematic. In the current climate of high-stakes tests and NCLB legislation (which attempts to control curriculum by tying funding to statistics) it is exhilarating to find a book that has a chapter titled “Education by Poetry” and asks: “How do we turn the world into symbols without destroying the rich, concrete realities from which these symbols are derived and of which they are often anemic ghostly versions?” (p. 27)

Most importantly, Martin Bickman provides some guideposts for present-day educators to evaluate and remake their own practice in order to embody the formative ideas of Emerson, Dewey, and others, and to once again embrace the idea of education for democracy. Woven throughout the book, but laid out more explicitly in the last few chapters, are some possible directions for teachers at all levels. True to his word, and to the spirit of those he references, Bickman does not provide recipes. This is, unabashedly, a process-oriented approach, and the dynamic tension between integration and disintegration is urged on us repeatedly. Making unifying connections is critical to good teaching, he asserts, but so is the challenging of that unity, lest it become fixed, discouraging original thought. Quoting Emerson, that “experience is converted into thought, as a mulberry leaf is converted into satin,” Bickman cautions “we should be less like the bookworm than the silkworm” (p. 14). No simple solution is proposed here, for this is philosophy, not methodology. Disembodied facts memorized simply to be regurgitated on standardized tests are no worse than an artificially imposed “integration” such as “themes” or “units” that suggest a logical, real-world context when there is none. Both create passivity in students and paralyze the natural “sense-making” impulse.

Bickman argues that when the subject matter makes no sense and has no relevance to the students, it ceases to be alive for them, no matter how inspired the teacher may be. He warns us that enthusiasm for subject matter is usually not contagious “like a virus” (p. 154), and that the animation of the teacher is often not reflected in the students. In fact, he cites research that suggests teaching is the best learning, and that classes with enthusiastic lecturers generally are of more value to the lecturer than the students. This is wise counsel for us all, and leads Bickman to an examination of his own practice in an attempt to create a style and a classroom environment that cultivates active learning. The story he tells of reflection and self-evaluation in the last chapter gives the reader a practical example of putting one’s beliefs into practice.

There is such richness and thoughtfulness in Martin Bickman’s book, and so much for teachers to take away with them, that this should find its way onto many teachers’ desks and bookshelves. It is the kind of book one wants to keep within reach, to revisit often, for both its references and its insights.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 5, 2004, p. 1005-1007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11215, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 11:37:55 AM

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