Thoughts on the Work To Be Done

  August 2007

It’s 6 weeks since I returned from China, and it has stayed on my mind (click here to see photos).

Someone wrote to ask me: can there be progressive schools aimed at developing the habits of heart and mind that nourish democratic life in a country ruled by a single all-powerful party. Does the existence of capitalism, side by side with a ruling Communist Party create any useful contradictions that have educational implications?

I’m inclined these days to think that many of the leading forces in our society, like China’s, mostly see schools as serving an economic, pro-development purpose. Thus they sincerely want schools that develop future employees who can think on their feet, take initiative, work with others, and in at least some cases, come up with new and different ideas—be creative. But…

How many of such students are—in China or the U.S.—needed for “the economy” to be competitive is unclear to me, and whether “they” care whether such employees are American citizens (in the case of American-based corporations) or not, I truly have no idea. Surely we still need lots of low-wage so-called low skill employees (see Mike Rose’s book, Minds at Work, regarding what we mean by “low-skill”). And is it useful if they also think “creatively”?

Nor do I know whether many of those powerful enough to be leading educational reformers actually care about or, in fact, favor employees who ask deeper political and organizational, “meaning of life” questions. Being creative may be less desirable than we rhetorically proclaim. It’s an open question whether in seeking one kind of out-of-the-box thinking one can avoid producing the other, less sought after kind! Furthermore, if the low-skill types are still needed, and no one denies they are, how does society think about what their education ought to be like? (Off hand, the answer we’ve settled on seems to be a two-tired school system—one more like boot camp and the other more like rich-kids summer camp?)

Simon Head’s review of three new books on capitalism et al in the NY Review (They’re Micromanaging Your Every Move, August 16 ) raises a question that has, I fear, direct connections to current schooling reform. He describes something called “ES technology” (the ES stands for “enterprise systems”). ES, the Wal-Mart approach, stream-lines not only the “business” side of corporate life but the personnel side too. And it’s the direct parallel to what I see Klein, Bloomberg et al doing regarding schooling. Maybe unintentionally? Head sees ES as a way, in the “new” information age, to reduce employees to the status of factory line workers once again. Read it.

Reading Stanley Fish’s column in the NY Times recently reminded me of still another way of looking at what we’re going through. Fish, perhaps unrealistically, hopes for a return to a traditional authoritarian classroom. He believes in schools—including those for adults—that do not encourage students to question beyond very tight academic limits, set by the faculty and trustees. To quote Fish: “Although Thomas [Clarence] does not make this point explicitly, it seems clear [in a recent Supreme Court decision] that… when he tells us that it was traditionally understood that ‘teachers taught and students listened, teachers commanded and students obeyed,’ Thomas…is someone who shares that understanding… As do I. If I had a criticism of Thomas, it would be that he does not go far enough.”

I can’t even see such a stance working well for Production. It would be like having schools train auto-mechanics where the students were deliberately unable to observe the give-and-take trial-and-error that goes into being a good mechanic. But perhaps the ES technology has found a way around this dilemma. But it’s even more of a puzzle how such an approach will nurture adults who can defend democracy.

How one sees schools depends on one’s hopes for our shared future. I see the central function of K-12 schooling being to “produce” 18 year olds ready to take on the world’s weighty as well as frivolous questions; To be partners in running it. They probably need more specialized further education in the fields they hope to enter. However, K-12 is needed to set the stage for a powerful citizenry—for, in Dewey’an terms, joining the “ruling” class politically. It’s the only institution we have for doing so—however weak a reed.

I’m as pleased therefore with the kids who went straight on to become policeman, hair stylists, legal paras, etcetera as those who chose Harvard .  I wanted our K-12 graduates judged first of all on their democratic “habits”—including participation in society. This includes, naturally, the capacity, and desire, to become productive in some field—to do things worth doing well. Then it also means that if there is productive and useful work to be done in society we must insure that it pays well enough to offer young people a decent future. If we “merely” did these two things, I’d be euphoric.

Both useful work and citizenship (in both the smaller and larger society—including one’s family) rests on habits—like reliability and trustworthiness, and exercise of initiative, perseverance and judgment. And specific expertise. Hopefully we can keep improving K-12 schooling so that it simultaneously supports both the work ethic and intellectual habits that range from curiosity to skepticism—to know how to dig deeply, and yet also think outside the box, sift evidence with care, and tolerate uncertainty when need be. I know, I’m dreaming. But in fact, such schools can be.

My late friend Tony Kallett, whose work has been collected in a booklet published by the North Dakota Study Group (see below for ordering) starts the first essay asking: “Should our children grow up audacious? bold and daring? spirited and adventurous?…How can we but say, yes.” Amen.

But I fear China’s rulers probably can say “no”—for the vast majority anyhow. Ditto for Stanley Fish and Clarence Thomas and the ES crowd. And I fear the same “no” dominates the American school reform wave we’re now in the midst of.

My landscaper cousin, Judith Larner Lowry, says it well in Landscaping with Jays in Mind (University of California Press, 2007). You have to see each plant in context, it’s not enough, she knows, to be a narrow garden “expert.” One needs to keep the jays, the worms, the people—including oneself—and the terrain in all its specificity, in mind at once. She quotes at the end author Elaine Scarry: “Beauty often comes to us through no work of our own, then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labor.” The work of building a democracy, like building a landscape requires giant labor; and “hope.” “Hope pours through it,” Judith concludes.


*Few Adults Crawl, Essays of Tony Kallet, 1995, University of North Dakota, PO Box 7189, Grand Forks, N.D. 58202-7189

© 2007 Deborah Meier

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