Monday, October 4, 2010

Who Speaks for Public Education? Elevating Education Reform Dialog

One cannot climb a number of different mountains simultaneously, but the views had when different mountains are ascended supplement one another: they do not set up incompatible, competing statement of an end may suggest certain questions and observations, and another statement another set of questions, calling for other observations. Then the more general ends we have, the better. One statement will emphasize what another slurs over. What a plurality of hypotheses does for the scientific investigator, a plurality of stated aims may do for the instructor. (John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916/1994, p. 110).  
There was a bit of a brouhaha over at Twitter concerning a panel of educators who have been invited to speak about education and the criticism from at least one that the panel does not include a full-time teacher.  Issues of representation remain challenging, especially in these days when who speaks for education, especially public education, has become more overtly contentious, narrowed and seemingly recast as a falsely singular matter.  I can think of no student, teacher, principal, researcher, professor, administrator, board of education member, parent, community member,  or politician who could actually represent the public education viewpoint,  as there is no single viewpoint, and want to suggest that multiple voices are essential and worth fighting to attain.  The idea of a single voice, be it "the teacher" or not, resounding is largely as mythical as our continued fascination with superheroes.  We would do well to clarify that aims of education are not singular in nature, nor can aims be represented by one voice.  Before writing at length about educational aims, Dewey (1916/1944) warned that "[e]ducators have to be on their guard against ends that are alleged to be general and ultimate" (p. 109).  So long as we continue to privilege the myth that an ultimate way exists, be it charter or public, progressive or not, or what ever new fix finds itself on our collective horizon, we limit the discussion of pluralistic education as an epic construct.

We need to talk more, not less and listen well, especially when what is being said contradicts a truth we may seem to know. If not, we are left with only an epic.

An epic is a closed form where the events have already been decided and what is left is the retelling of what has been established as happening.  Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) explains that epic is “a man speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible” (p. 13).   The only way an ultimate can exists is in an epic state. In contrast, we understand that meaning is not ready-made, but rather occurs in the lived exchange among people, at points of utterance.  Again, Bakhtin (1981) reminds us  that “[d]iscourse lives, as it were, beyond itself, in a living impulse toward the object; if we detach ourselves completely from this impulse all we have left is the naked corpse of the word” (p. 292). We do not need one national conversation. We need many and these discussions need to be public, not to resolve, but rather to illuminate, complicate, and explicate. We would do well to practice being a bit more nomadic in our thinking, and less dogmatic.

So tonight, a panel of educators in some sort of virtual discussion, Elevating the Education Reform Dialog will add their voices to a discussion about public education, as well as an hour open forum for others to give voice.  I for one will be listening. 

Note: In an effort to be transparent let me disclose that I am a director of curriculum for a public school district, female and white-European.  During the last 29 years, I have taught students at the primary, elementary, middle, secondary, undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as certified teachers and administrators.  I am also married to a public school English teacher and the parent of a child in public school. But none of these "credentials" are necessary badges to engage in civil discourse about teaching and learning. They should neither gain me entrance, nor limit me. An important aim of public education is to ensure that public discourse is privileged.   Public education is the conduit for democracy.  Kill public education and democracy is sure to follow. We are what we stand for. As Dewey wrote, “The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action” (p.351).  It is in the choices we make, fail to make, consider, and reconsider discussions aims of education and its relationships to democracy might be (in)formed.

I hope you will be listening too.

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