May 2008

No Place but Here:
A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community
By Garret Keizer
Viking. 164 pp.

The Mind at Work
By Mike Rose
Viking. 249 pp.

The Craftsman
By Richard Sennett
Yale University Press. 326 pp.

Garret Keizer, Richard Sennett and Mike Rose are my latest “must reads”—and for much the same reason.

Keiser’s book, called No Place But Here, describes his work in northern Vermont today – in 1988 actually. Sennett’s is a broader more “philosophical” study of what it means to be a craftsman. Mike Rose’s Minds at Work is a study of the ways we use our intellects in the pursuit of both so-called low and high-skilled trades. He starts off with his mother—a waitress.

Keizer’s language betrays his bias at every turn. E.g. his “two great commandments for shaping the mind of student ….Thou shalt instruct criticism, thou shalt instill wonder.” From birth on, he claims, we are endowed with two qualities of mind: “to be critical and to wonder.” Schools must address both. All the rest, as we are reminded by Hillel on Passover, is commentary.* (On Sunday Keizer is a Lay Vicar at an Episcopal Church. And Jewish atheist that I am, it resonates with me.)

The three authors’ styles, experiences and strengths are quite different. But their work is imbued with a kind of respectfulness that literally takes my breath away—at a time when disrespectfulness seems ever present. I have to stop often and let things sink in while I am also wondering, with pain, at how often I have failed the test myself. The ways in which we speak of people as “smart” and “not smart,” “successful” and otherwise betrays something so pervasive that we do not even notice that it contradicts our aspirations—all the talk about “all children” can learn.

The Forum for Education and Democracy presented a report called Democracy at Risk at the Press Club two weeks ago, on the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. From 1983 on we’ve been told we are in a crisis—our test scores were not globally competitive. The test score “crisis” is much overblown, but there is a scarier crisis. We have no competitors when it comes to the rate at which we incarcerate our citizens, particular our youth. We stand alone, at the very bottom. And we stand alone also among modern industrialized democracies when it comes to the conditions of our prisons, for our own citizens but more appallingly still for so-called “detainees”—imprisoned foreigners. And a host of other statistics about the quality of life in America.

How do we account for a system of schooling that has produced such horrors? In what ways are they “accountable” for these hard facts? Keizer, Sennett and Rose talk to a different kind of crisis—and one (as Sennett notes) is not just American-made. Keiser describes it best in a chapter on Courtesy, of all things.

Behind our claimed commitment to democracy is a leap of faith. It rests on a imagining a level of mutuality that we are unaccustomed to articulate much less practice, an acknowledgement of each other’s worthiness that we don’t often even pretend to. It asks of schools something we haven’t seriously considered. Hoover Institute’s Charles Murray calls it romanticism. But it’s a romance that has led us to hold dear to an equally fragile idea—democracy; it’s an idea sometimes hard to defend until one considers the alternatives.** It’s the “romanticism” that led Rose to go back home to interview members of his family about their working lives, and Sennett to re-examine the place of craftsmanship in the ideal of democracy itself.

Keiser’s simple chapter on courtesy inside the classroom and school is worth everyone stopping to read and discuss. Figuring out how to practice such “courtesy” on a daily basis would constitute a major step toward unwrapping the mystery of what a democratic culture rests upon.


* Hillel was, in fact, referring to the equivalent of the “golden rule”—but the point is the same.

** Paraphrase of a speech by Winston Churchill

© 2008 Deborah Meier

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