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Lines Between Courtesy and Democracy


Dear Diane,

The question may be: Which aspects of the Finnish “answer” are most pertinent? Maybe we should simplify our alphabetic system, maybe we should improve healthcare, maybe we should have a more homogeneous society, maybe a national curriculum.

America’s “genius” has rested not on its fixed intellectual “tradition,” but on its enormous and equal respect for “practical smarts”—including thinking outside the box intellectually. We can force an artificial curricular consensus. But teachers forced to teach it, and students to learn it, will not succeed as well as they might in Finland—because their students are coming at the world from much more disparate views, customs, experiences, and values. And because some come from a state of poverty and ill health that Finland does not know.

I’m in the midst of reading a book that I think we would both applaud, entitled “No Place But Here, A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community” by Garret Keizer. It was first published in 1988. I read it and try to imagine how a national curriculum would have affected Mr. Keizer’s and my life.

Granted, maybe rural northern Vermont and East Harlem are more alike than we pretend. But what about our particular expertise and passions? Or a new idea! I fear we’d lose us both. But equally I think we are far from understanding the potential of public schools to reach and transform the lives of what our “friend” Charles Murray (whose views we might explore in the future) sees as the God-given natural losers. There are too few examples of “what works” if we intend to reach his “unreachables” and “unteachables”—whose votes and views impact on our culture, who serve on our juries, who we call neighbors and friends, and whose intellect thus is critical to our future.

You and I might, in short, quote from different parts of Keizer’s book. You’d note that his freshman high school class reads "Antigone," "The Odyssey," "Macbeth," and Thomas Hardy’s "Return of the Native". None abridged or paraphrased.

I’d want all our readers to underline profusely from the chapter entitled “Courtesy”. Combating the common discourtesies of our larger culture requires huge self-conscious doses of adult modeling in school. “I avoid sharing anything with a class that a student would want to share with himself or herself alone. I avoid writing comments on top of a student’s writing, or putting a grade on top of a student’s name. We work one-to-one, not one-on-one. I ask permission before quoting from a composition…. I try to be certain that no students stand for any length of time while I sit…. I apologize, privately if the offense was private, publicly, if public…. With all of its opportunities for trespass, with all of its peculiar relationships, a school is a good place for younger and older people to discover the pleasure of reciprocal acknowledgement. Which is what courtesy is.” What a lesson in democracy!

Slightly reworded, we’d both probably appreciate his reprint of the F.F.A. Creed (Future Farmers of America). Maybe the one from Finland that you told us about and the F.F.A.’s are a good place to start. I know that many readers would like to find a magic bullet that could cure us of our schools’ problems. Me, too! Just as I’d like to find one to cure our larger social mess! The latter is no more easily fixed than the former, and vice versa. But I’d love a nationwide discourse about those two documents!

The Japanese have social promotion until the end of high school, and their teaching day is only slightly more than half as long as ours. The Chinese and Indian economies are booming, even though half of their citizens barely complete elementary school. Many a well-educated American graduate cannot find a job that couldn’t be done by a high school dropout. (And Massachusetts outperformed most of the world before MCAS.) But how much smarter would we have to be to justify the standard of living we cling to?

As Keizer would say, what’s even worse is our failure to be thoughtful in the most basic senses of the world. Our tolerance of Guantanamo speaks more to my distress about our schools than international test comparisons. I can live with our being somewhere in the middle when it comes to math and science test scores, if we weren’t at the very bottom when it comes to domestic rates of incarceration, death penalties, income disparities, rates of voting, etc. Schools need to be places that are “accountable” for those comparisons, too. That I rest my hopes on “democracy” is not easy to justify by hard data, or evidence-based studies. It’s a leap of faith. But it is a leap we as citizens of this land have agreed to. That’s what makes it seem reasonable to me that we could demand that schools address it more seriously than they address calculus.

I can live with many ways to produce a democratically minded citizenry, if only we’d agree that it’s first among many noble goals! Just that. I suspect it starts with Keizer’s way of thinking about courtesy. What does it take to create school settings in which adults are responsible for that first step?

My defense of small schools was originally based on only one hope. That if the school was small enough the entire faculty could sit around one table and thrash things out—courteously. Only through such a process could the school’s adults hold themselves accountable for their impact on the young. We’ve gotten plenty of “smallish” schools, mandated ruthlessly from above, in which the faculty is still too large, too numb, or too powerless to sit around and thrash anything out, and where accountability is therefore conducted “discourteously”.



I'm enjoying this discussion of a national curriculum immensely, as it's an issue I'm passionate about and frequently address in the Core Knowledge blog.

A point of order, if I may: I think it's important to note just how "burdensome" a national curriculum would or would not be. Core Knowledge, for example, advocates spending 50% of the school day on core curriculum. That leaves the other 50% for purely local and elective interests.

I look forward to reading Keizer's book and thank you for the recommendation. But in answer to your question "how a national curriculum would have affected Mr. Keizer’s life," I have to believe the answer is not much at all.

The point, as Diane observed earlier this week, is how we might come to agreement on what to teach, not how, and then for no more than half the day. The adult modeling that Ms. Meier cites is curriculum neutral, no? The thoughtfulness and care that Meier cites approvingly is a function of how Keizer is teaching, not what he's teaching.


Thanks for turning us on to Keizer, although I should admit that I just read links and pages that were presented for free.

I was struck by his comparison of courtesy with craftsmanship. Again, I'm remindeed of the wisdom of Richard Sennett, another socialist, who describes teaching as a craft, and bemoans the American concept of "respect." In America, respect is earned while in the Old World respect is given. Although I prefer American dynamism, our code of respect is discourteous - as well as a blueprint for remaining in the isolation of generational poverty.

I also agree with Keizer and you that discourtesy - like our dysfunctional code of "Respect", comes from adults not the young.

Keizer described teachers as the "hicks of the professional world, " and I proudly agree. (and its not just because teaching allows me to sing "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road," Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and other lyrics from my "good ol' boy" canon.)

If we could be honest about our craft, teachers would not be so attracted to "quick fixes." We could affirm with Keizer the "power in bargaining." When I was younger we always talked about schooling as a place for "creative insubordination." When I read his affirmation of "creative rebellion," it was a reminder of how far we have given in to illiberal educational forces (and I don't me liberal politically in this case.)

Lastly, in northern Vermont as in Harlem, and as in my school, our students share the "need for exposure alongside the need for confidence."


I have been thinking about the American love of novelty--it's a distinct phenomenon that you don't find in quite the same flavor in European countries. I don't want to set up stereotypes--Europeans have their own longing for newness, and many of their ancient monuments have been destroyed in the world wars. Nonetheless, there's an American zest for starting from scratch, discovering the world anew. It may originate in the frontier. It may have effects as far flung as technological invention and born-again Christianity. One definitely sees it in education.

An approach isn't working? Try something "new" (well, different from what we did last year). A school isn't working? Close it down and open three new schools in the same building. Teachers? Recruit them fresh, by the thousands. These tactics also have a cynical side--they push failure out of sight for a little while until it forces its way into view again. Nonetheless, our autocratic leaders would never get away with these "reforms" if Americans didn't in some way love the "cutting edge." I have heard educators speak glowingly of this or that "new" pedagogical model based on "new" research--where clearly the appeal is in the "newness" and not in the substance of the model.

This "cutting edge" has its gift and its dangers. You say that "America’s 'genius' has rested not on its fixed intellectual 'tradition,' but on its enormous and equal respect for 'practical smarts'—including thinking outside the box intellectually." I would contest this. Yes, America does have a certain kind of creative genius. But it relies on intellectual tradition more than we may realize.

Chicago University, one of our outstanding (and creative) educational institutions, has had a famous "core curriculum" since the 1930s. (If I could go to college again, I'd go there for that!) Many of our top universities had a highly specific curriculum at their inception. While they have loosened their requirements over the years, there has always been a healthy tension between structure and freedom.

In his introduction to the poetry collection Winter Dialogue by Tomas Venclova (which I translated from the Lithuanian), Joseph Brodsky writes, "...we should recognize that only content can be innovative and that formal innovation can occur only within the limits of form. Rejection of form is a rejection of innovation...Form is appealing not because of its inherited nobility but because it is a sign of restraint and a sign of strength."

So much of this could apply to a discussion of curriculum. Of course, curriculum is both form and content; in that sense the analogy is not direct. I take from Brodsky the principle that innovation absolutely depends on tradition, and if we deny ourselves the latter, we also cheat ourselves of the former.

We have great intellectual (and artistic, and literary) tradition in America. For some reason there's a great push to ignore it: to think "outside the box" instead of taking the time to appreciate its contents. I'm not sure there is any such thing as thinking outside the box. I see something like a series of boxes, like Russian nesting dolls, one inside the next.

That said, some of what you propose appeals to me greatly (and I look forward to reading Keizer). I particularly like the part about thoughtfulness and courtesy, and the idea "that if the school was small enough the entire faculty could sit around one table and thrash things out—courteously." Yes, that would be wonderful. I would add that we should not have to thrash out the same things over and over again.

Correction to the above: "University of Chicago," not "Chicago University."

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