"Ask an impertinent question, and you're on your way to a pertinent answer." —Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
As of October 2015, my goal for this blog is to ask 101 impertinent questions.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Letter to Richard Brodhead, Cochair of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

Dear Dr. Brodhead,

I saw you several nights ago on the Colbert Report and previously with John Lithgow on the PBS NewsHour. Yesterday, I read The Heart of the Matter. As a former English teacher, I am overjoyed to find that so many prominent citizens are making a case for the arts and humanities. However, as a teacher who was driven from the profession for her crimes of imagination against the system, I feel there are some pieces missing from the education section of The Heart of the Matter. I’ve therefore decided to send you my heartfelt two cents.

This matter of restoring the arts and humanities to their rightful place alongside the sciences has been my cause since the National Defense Education Act of 1958 turned me into second-class citizen behind my fellow students whose talents lay in science and engineering. I’ve always thought it unfortunate that instead of trying to beat the Soviets in the arms and space races, we didn't do more to inspire the Russian people’s love of poetry in our own citizenry. I mean, great science is often metaphor: Einstein’s ride on a beam of light, Watson and Crick’s climb up the spiral staircase, and Loren Eisley’s fabulous lessons in humility as he takes us into the many worlds that exist beyond the edges of human consciousness. 

So that you might know I’m not just an idle complainer, I have included my memoir, Prisoner of Second Grade. I wrote this book because what happened to me during the forty-six years I spent in school as a student and teacher is a metaphor for why we can’t solve the problems in our education system. But my story also shows the more intimate consequences resulting from policies that in many schools have reduced 30,000 years of what it means to be human into an occasional elective.

I wish with all my heart that you would take the time to read at least the two sections about my experiences at the Home of the Wildcats. This school was a microcosm of the great American melting pot, and what happened there shows how much human potential is lost when policymakers and administrators cannot see past their programs for change into the hearts of those they would change. Improving education in civics will mean nothing if young people are taught by example that the way to get ahead is to sit down, be quiet, and do whatever it takes to get the grade. The tragedy of our country is that so many children’s lives are turned to dust before they even have a chance to contribute their considerable talents. Perhaps there might be a way to add a new dimension to your commission’s goals that would include more average and poor people in your planning—not to help them but to allow them to help policymakers, academics, and corporate leaders discover a deeper, more inclusive vision for America.

It seems to me that The Heart of the Matter is by academics for academics. I understand that the map is not the territory. However, the academic language of the document lacked the poetry of a humanistic vision. Where is the passion and imagination that would make scientists believe they can’t live without us? Where is the call to give more respect to teachers by allowing them the power and initiative to do what they know is best for their students? Where is the promise for changing the mindset of so many schools administrators who are so afraid of their jobs that they won’t risk any deviation from the policy manual? Like the education system and the country itself, ordinary people are not made to feel welcome. The language has no, well, heart.

Nowhere is the lack of heart more evident to me than in the fact that this commission that has tasked itself with bringing heart back into American life and education did not include one public school teacher. And where was Arne Duncan? Nothing is going to change in our education system until someone in authority addresses the mindset that determines education policy. And nothing in our country is going to change until we have a national education policy that will solve the problems in our schools. When Finland reinvented its education system, everyone was involved.

Changing the mindset of public education policy has come to mean soliciting contributions from foundations and donors. Having such contributions sounds great but will do nothing to generate the kind of vision that we need to solve the problems that have been compounding themselves over the last fifty years of ineffectual education reform. We’ve seen this in the efforts of Bill Gates and Eli Broad, among others. Diane Ravitch, more credentialed than I, says the same thing. But I would also point out that there is little that she has seen following her conversion that that my colleagues and I didn’t see as young teachers back when she was rising in the ranks of power. 

I found in my teaching that the arts and humanities can change lives—and the system. The problem was the policymakers. I am convinced that with fewer bureaucrats and more imagination, solving the problems in our schools would not be as expensive and difficult as we’ve been led to believe. But this can happen only by enlisting teachers because the problems our schools face are as diverse as the schools themselves. Administrators and funders should be facilitators, not policymakers. 

Believing this, I found The Heart of the Matter’s praise for the National Defense Education Act of 1958 disturbing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that many of our current problems began with that legislation. Yes, the NDEA did promote international studies, and we do live in a global world and must learn to communicate. However, the NDEA also narrowed the vision of the education system to beating the Soviets in the arms and space races. Faced with the challenges of the sixties, the education system had nowhere to go. Even as we walked on the moon, our education system was in serious decline. By 1983, a U. S. Department of Education study declared us to be “a nation at risk.” Since then, things have only gotten worse. When will policymakers begin to communicate with teachers before imposing policies that are based more on political expediency and academic fad than on the welfare of children? And when will we make effective education reform the priority it should be? 

Also disturbing to me is the support for the Common Core. The Common Core will not work because it’s stated goal is to prepare children for college and careers. This is not a bad objective, but a narrow one given the problems with achievement, discipline, and class disparity in our schools. We saw a similar reform in the early eighties when schools went rushing back to the basics in response to A Nation at Risk. The goal there was also to get more children into college. The result was to push students in a direction they were not prepared to go. The only way to get them there was to lower the standards. And we see how well that has turned out.

Mostly, though The Heart of the Matter made me sad because what I read in that document was an academic proposal prepared and promoted by academics. Its vision was corporate, not personal. I felt nothing in it that would touch the heart of the nation or inspire We the People to a more humane consideration of each other and the problems that threaten our everyday lives. Change must be personal, not bureaucratic. It will require heart, not goals and mission statements—teachers, not academics and corporate funders.

I hope that I’m wrong here, that the map is not the territory you and the commission envision.