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On the Art of Listening to Each Other


Dear Diane,

I’m in the midst of reading a marvelous book by Danielle Allen called Talking to Strangers. I’d love to discuss it with others. Do read it so we can converse about it soon. Her concept of “political friendships” between strangers intrigues me.

Which relates to my unpleasant encounter between NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg that you refer to in your letter yesterday. The New York Post reported that the mayor’s aides claim: Bloomberg demanded that the Senate’s grant to NYU be redirected it to CUNY, because of … Deborah Meier! My critical stance toward the mayor’s educational policies (the story quoted me as regarding the absence of parent voices in school policy) seemed a sufficient explanation. Why the Senate capitulated, and why The New York Times didn’t report it, and why the mayor’s aides “leaked” this explanation to the media I do not know. What’s more interesting to me is that this public attempt to threaten NYU, by one of the most powerful and richest politicians in America, was apparently seen as uncontroversial. It’s clearly an abridgement of academic freedom, an abuse of his enormous power; and, perhaps above all, so petty. (In fact, I’m “merely” an unpaid—hopefully not un-honored—member of the NYU faculty.)

I’ve always loved NYC’s feistiness, a quality of mind that seems often missing in more laid-back sections of the country. But even New Yorkers can be cowed by the kind of power and intimidation that the Bloomberg oligarchy has exercised for so many years.

Which gets me back to Allen’s argument in favor of bending over backwards to encourage reasoned, thoughtful dialogue between political friends—arguments not crippled by fear of retaliation or retribution by the authority of the State. The habits of a democratic citizenry are precious, and schools are the only institution I know of that might be training grounds for such citizenship. They are both the potential lab and think tank for reasoned discourse—in a climate of friendship and mutual respect. The art of listening to each other requires careful nurturing.

And, of course, reasoning requires judgment—and both require knowledge (including experience).

Which leads me to E.D. Hirsch’s latest book (The Making of Americans). He and I even agree on many matters. But I’m intrigued by the unexamined assumptions we disagree about! He does not even acknowledge any risks inherent in a nationwide imposition of a single year-by-year curriculum. Local school boards, parent organizations, and teachers' unions can be a pain in the ass (and I speak as one who has been at both ends of each). But I see democracy resting on our reviving these institutions, not in abandoning them. The ease with which we seek to “overcome” unwelcome citizen voices by pushing power ever higher—or to more elite experts—has a long history. It’s not “unreasonable,” just dangerous. “It’s too important to get this right’” is a cry I’ve heard over and over as respected friends seek to circumvent democratic procedures. “We dare not let them vote on this” is not the defense of just fools or demagogues. Yes, democratically delegating some decisions to experts, as well as recognizing when decisions are best made in collaboration with other governmental units, are reasonable objections to placing authority in local democracies. But years of such rationales have led me to be hard-pressed to find places left where ordinary citizens experience decision-making processes. Surely not in many schools. Even hearing each other out is not something we often do in our schools, although we do grow accustomed to not talking back to the textbook, teacher, or principal—more out of boredom (or its uselessness) probably than courtesy. (How rarely do we confront any passionate convictions in our lives in school.)

We’re bad at imagining other ways of seeing the world—and probably always have been. But it is our unique human capacity. While I think that if we devoted the 13 years from K-12th grade to nurturing and training such capacity we’d get better at it, probably it will always be hard. It takes, as does science, mathematics, and the arts, hands-on-practice in a good old-fashioned “apprenticeship.”

Ah, too much rhetoric! There are some wonderful books out by practitioners that describe how we can organize schools that serve both the academic disciplines and democracy better than a “standardized one-size-fits-all” curriculum. Next week.


P.S. The health debate is instructive—reminding us of how difficult it is to engage in serious debate when the stakes are high. But the solution is not to invent a behind-the-scenes, pretend consensus where none exist, as Duncan et al seem to be doing with regard to so-called educational “reform.” For more on meaningful school reform, I highly recommend that readers seek out an excellent opinion piece by Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves that appeared recently in The Boston Globe. Among other things, they write: "Why not choose the bolder paths not yet taken in our educational system’s much-hailed “race to the top’’ and join those schools at the top of the world already?"


Deb, Welcome back! How sad to hear your summer marred by such an untidy chain of events. Still, it was rejuvenating?

I did not get, yesterday, to answer Diane, being off to a Tea Party and otherwise engaged in local citizenry, building, and decision making.

More than that, 'twas icky to jump right back into confrontation with Diane; Would that we might all spend a moment drawing from some of summer's better pleasures. The beach, for example, and not just an afternoon visit, but a lazy swath of days wandering slowly, or at least refreshingly, about pretty much the same sandy, sun-filled area.

Its a good way to remember how much we have in common with others.

In our case, Ocracoke Island, a tiny community living somewhat in 1950, though full of our modern friends. Plenty of good music and food; you can still get your frappaccino, but it takes a very, very long time. The ferry ride is a pleasure just to leave mainland far behind.

Indeed we were island bound longer than expected, as the state police closed road and ferry in the passing of hurricane Bill. One gets to meet so many good people in the events.

Which takes me to an earlier trip to Gettysburg. Gettysburg the Park holds a unique place in our nation. You get this more when you come back and talk about it with others who have had the experience. I wonder...How many readers here have really taken it in?

Gettysburg the Educational experience is what I aim to summon here. In part because...they do something there which does not make it into too many kids' classroom experience. I mean here the mechanism of stirring passion and implanting feeling.

Yet also because what they teach--the content--is so vital to the American soul. Gettysburg of course was the turning point toward the end of slavery. Impassioned by the Emancipation Proclamation, and guided by Lee's vision, the Confederacy was having a pretty good year when they arrived in Pennsylvania in July, 1863. They never quite recovered after those three days. Yet, so many things could have sent it the other way.

What you really learn at Gettysburg is the power of one or a handful of men. Each ranger there will tell you stories of how one or two men by their action (or inaction) caused a particular piece of the battle to be lost or gained.

Our kids need that lesson so badly. They need to know that this may not seem their moment. Yet that moment may well come when it is their small decision which turns the tide of history.

And here is the rub: there were way too few of our African-American neighbors there. Despite the centrality of the story to the African-American heritage, despite the proximity of the pak to huge numbers of minority homes, despite the low cost of the experience (effectively free for the best parts), few Blacks indeed were there on July 23-34 of this year.

Which brings us to the circle of education. Why weren't these children there? Why weren't their parents? What is going on?

The Hebrews as a civilization and then a dispersed people have lasted mostly because of one thing: they held tight to their common stories.

Then, too, they had some agreed-upon rules of behavior that defined themselves as a people. Our rules today are often based on those. Yet we also have rules which we believe makes a successful nation and economy. Those kids not at Gettysburg? They're not learning the natural laws of economics, either.

This summer, extremists in Congress tried first to get something by us, then to severely divide us. They produced a plan which pretends the laws of economics don't exist, or else they just thought no one would notice. In both, they failed completely, a moment of reassurance anyway.

I think we can work together. Its just taking some patience and education. Late, but still perhaps on time, we're getting that educating done. I hope.

Now, how do we get all those kids to learn the many lessons of Gettysburg's rangers, not to mention the value of joining the great swath of America which values going there?


Welcome back. I really enjoy reading this blog and missed it during the summer.

I was shocked to hear how Bloomberg used his power and money to punish NYU for having certain opinions. Hopefully the university will do something about this. I'm also hoping university researchers will refuse to base studies on questionable test scores in city schools.

Please keep us posted about this unfortuate situation. Thank you.

Hi Deb and Diane... hope this finds you well and welcome back!!!

To expand a bit outside of NY city...

Draft guidelines for school improvement grants released U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Wednesday released the draft grant guidelines for $3.5 billion in stimulus funding that will be used to turn around the country's worst-performing low-income schools over the next three years.

Every state must identify the bottom five percent of its Title I schools in school improvement status and target the majority of the school improvement funds to implement robust and comprehensive reforms to dramatically transform school culture and improve student academic outcomes.

The Secretary is offering states flexibility to concentrate funding over multiple years to support the kind of dramatic, far-reaching changes that have not been possible under the existing program. Because Title I disproportionately supports elementary schools, the Secretary will grant waivers allowing states and districts to use school improvement funds to intervene in low-performing secondary schools that are eligible for, but don't receive, Title I money.

Under rules the Department of Education is releasing for comments, districts will choose from four models of turning around their schools.

Those models are:

1. Turnarounds: Replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff and also adopt new or revised instructional strategies. The new leadership needs to consider extending the school day and year, offering social services, and recruiting, placing, and developing highly effective teachers.

2. Re-starts: Close the school and re-open it under the management of a charter organization or an education management organization. The school must admit, within the grades it serves, all former students who wish to attend.
Closures: Close the school and transfer its students to higher-performing schools in the district.

3. Transformations: Implement a comprehensive transformation strategy that, at a minimum, replaces the school leadership and develops and rewards teacher and leader effectiveness; adopts comprehensive instructional programs; extends time for students and staff and offers community-oriented services; and provides operating flexibility and intensive support.

Districts should choose the strategy that works best for each school. To ensure districts are choosing a variety of strategies, any district with 9 or more schools in school improvement will not be allowed to use any single strategy in more than half of its schools.

Yikes.......very wrong road!

be well.. mike

Prof. Meier,

Thank you for your outstanding post.

Yes, we are bad at imagining other ways of seeing the world--and worse, we don't seem to be improving. You see so clearly what schools could be, how do you keep from getting depressed at what they are, and where our politicians are taking them?

Tom Amper

I love how they stress "innovation" - a new method, idea, product ...

Unfortunately, they want and expect the results true innovation encourages and offers after they've crammed it tightly in a box, and you are only allowed to "innovate" inside that tight box. Not true innovation in my book ... at least not innovation that has much chance of making a difference or fostering or promoting new ideas and methods. I hope Obama doesn't look for much support from teachers and students in the next election if he continues the Bush method of education reform ... only worse.

I did read the article by Shirley and Hargreaves mentioned and linked to at the end of this post. I'm sorry to be the grinch once again, but I didn't think there was much substance to it. We should emulate successful schools? Well, sure, but how? How do we know what parts to emulate, and what parts are irrelevant?

Finns support “collective responsibility,’’ Okay, what does that mean? How do we implement that? I realize that to a lot of people a phrase such as that resonates deeply, but to my ears it grates. Once again we are told if only we will "do it together" everything will be wonderful. Hasn't the field of education been infatuated with that theme for decades? And isn’t it vague to the point of meaningless?

The article says that Tower Hamlets has made wonderful progress, but with only the sketchiest of description or explanation. We are told that they reached out. The “built ties with local community groups”. Good for them. But this is not a new idea. How did they make that work better than many others who have tried their best to do exactly that?

We are told that The Alberta Initiative for School Improvement “has engaged 90 percent of all schools in the province in designing their own local innovations and solutions to educational problems”. Well, good for them. Details please. I’m afraid in America if we ask schools to “engage in designing local innovation” we will hear about wonderful new ideas, like using group projects, that have been around for most of a hundred years.

Of course the authors cannot give details in a short article. Indeed volumes and volumes might be filled with details and we’d still only scratch the surface. But surely we can learn something from studying what successful schools do. Volumes of details would be a first step. Does that exist? Perhaps it does. Perhaps someone can give me a source of information of how schools operate in different places. I don’t have much of an idea how schools are operated in France, or Japan, or Iceland, or anywhere else, and I know even less of the local circumstances, history, values, and customs that shape their schools. I would like to know. I don’t have much time for reading, but if someone will tell me about a book that could be described as the “Left Back” of comparative education, I will gladly buy it and consider it a long term project to study it.

Those volumes of details would be an important first step, but only a first step. Out of those details we need more than description. We need analysis. We need to know why culture A has custom B, and not custom C. We need to know and understand things like that if we are not to import custom D from Country E and find from sad experience that custom D is a disaster in our culture.

Brian, thanks for taking the time to do what I wished to do, but didn't, exposing that fluff piece for its emptiness.

I continue to be terrified at the idea that we look to Europe for macro education solutions. Learn from them in small things, sure. But put them on a pedestal for education?

Does Europe have a space station orbiting the earth? Did they change the world with the Internet? Release most of the miracle drugs? Change the world with the PC? Change the world again with the iPod and iTunes? Change it yet again with Facebook, Ning, and social networking? Could Europe stop a despot's army anywhere? Can they be the go-to-guys in situations like the Asian Tsunami, earthquakes, floods? Do they take on the world's aids problems?

Our customs and ways have been pretty successful when we stick to them.

Thanks again.

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