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The Price To Be Paid

Dear Diane,

Back to choice vs. a standard one-size-fits-all curriculum. (For a fuller explanation of my views, plus responses to them, read Will Standards Save Public Education?)

The idea of an official history of the United States appalls me. Historical interpretation is the one and almost only reason to require studying history. It's true that I, for example, devour stories of the 15th and 16th century English royalty. But for novelistic reasons! I might also learn things of importance, on the side. I might also mis-learn.

But historical study is another matter. There is no way to just tell the facts, ma'am. And the best way to remember, to turn the past into a historical narrative, is filled with danger. (While there are ways to lie that one can get caught doing, the "truth" is harder to defend.) What isn't included deserves consideration as well as what is. That's why I love old history books. There are implications on every page of a 1938 history of the USA—implications that help us think about 1938 as well as contemporary events.

Was it inevitable in the 18th century that the European immigrants ignored the idea that the continent of the United States was already settled? We all grow up assuming that the Tories were wrong in 1776 because, had they won, we'd have lost the great opportunity to invent the United States. But a good history might enable us to imagine the positive side of losing that war! If Lincoln had accepted the Southern secession, maybe it would have been the better of two bad choices. Certainly, without World War I, we might never have experienced Fascism or Communism. And so forth. If there is always just One Right Path for the past, then is there, after all, just one possible future? If we accept the idea that history did not "unfold," but rather was made by men and women who bear responsibility for their choices, do we encourage active citizenship?

Should what and how we study be left to local professional choice vs. to the vote of some politically chosen body? There's a price to be paid either way. Are there alternatives? Are there some professional "principles" regarding uncovering history that can become "standard"—e.g., the ones we called "the five habits of mind"—about evidence, alternatives, etc.? Would that satisfy us?

Who are the likely winners and who the losers in such decisions? Would there be a way to skew it so that the less popular suspects and opinions don't get skewered?

The same holds true in science and math. If we teach more about odds and statistics we may have to teach less about ... something else. If we spend two years on physics, we may not get to chemistry. Who should decide this?

An education that prepares us for democracy would take such questions seriously from cradle to grave. Above all, we must take it seriously in public school. But I don't believe it should be done by fiat nor should we fight to replace one version for another (as some friends on the Left favor.) Maybe, however, we do have a right to agree (by fiat) that making sense of the world, and above all of democracy is a prime goal of schooling in America. We might even agree that the percentage of our graduates who bother to vote (or have reasoned objections to doing so), who read or view opposing viewpoints in the newspapers or in the TV they watch is worthwhile data to collect.

It was many years into my adulthood before I discovered that there were interesting disagreements of relevance to our lives in the sciences (even math). I realized how much I'd missed. We take the juice out of subject matter before students have a chance to taste it. We reserve it for those who survive the ordeal long enough to major in the subject. Our teachers were so intent on covering everything that we missed the heart of it.

Yes, there are downsides to any imaginable choice. But foreclosing Path X by fiat, or stacking the deck for one or the other view based on decisions made on how it will be assessed comes at a heavy price. We were semi-agnostic on such questions at the old Central Park East high school, and at Mission Hill. "All" we demanded was that in their graduation presentations students demonstrate their awareness of alternative interpretations, weigh the evidence that they built their accounts on, and defend the implications of their work.

I was just reading a Frederik Pohl science fiction series (Galaxy) where the protagonists have a robot named Einstein who presents the evidence for and against different decisions in statistical terms. Of course, one would have to know more statistics (and maybe less calculus) to use his advice. It's a fun idea, however.

I had the advantage of having attended two schools that I consider educated me well: Antioch and the University of Chicago. They were hardly similar in their approach. Hopefully we'll never demand that they both conform to the one right approach.

Maybe, Diane, there are ways to offer controlled choices for families—and teachers—so we don't have to all come to an agreement on these matters. Urban Academy (a public school in New York City), for example, has pioneered ways to insert debates into all topics. Maybe there are ways to use their ideas so that we can ensure that students are exposed to different and conflicting theories—not secretly behind closed doors, but openly and proudly!

By the way, I was on a panel with Mike Petrilli (Fordham Foundation) and Steven Means (of the U.S. Department of Education) at Johns Hopkins University last week. We all sometimes agreed! We came nearest to blows over Mike's characterization of unions. We needed more time to uncover where our differences began. Maybe, someday.

It's the "no excuses" folks who puzzle me most. Why do so few of them insist that all kids attend the kind of schools their own do? A rich lady, whom I shall not name, once suggested to me a novel idea that she planned to try out in her new charter-like school. Instead of teaching about Russia out of textbooks, she proclaimed, we'll fly the kids to Russia. I nodded, hoping she'd offer to fly the Central Park East students along with hers. Instead ... (Forget it! No more whining.)

Best,
Deborah

P.S. I'm going to Japan in early January to talk about and visit schools at the invitation of a wonderful colleague, Professor Manabu Sato. I hope I can send my first 2012 Blog from there! Remember when Japan, not Singapore or Finland, was the nation to catch up to?

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