"The Root, Stem, Leaves, & Fruit of American Education" [Part 1]

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An abridged version of this post appears on GOOD as
Performance v Learning: What’s the Purpose of Education?

This is Part 1 in a series. | Part 2  | Part 3 | Part 4


“The Root, Stem, Leaves, & Fruit of American Education:”

Pedagogy, Policy, Politics, & Progressivism


Chris Thinnes


 We must not forget how closely the school is
connected to the society in which it is situated.
– Carla Rinaldi

We want to see democracy, not capitalism, survive as
the root, stem, leaves, and fruit of American education.
– Peter Gow

1. Introduction: Old Wine into New Bottles


In a series of posts in the coming weeks, I want to explore a central and sweeping proposition: that pedagogy, policy, and politics have been isolated and protected as separate discourses — both in the hyper-local conversations of our learning communities and in the national discourse on education — and that this separation has caused damage to our schools, to their stakeholders, and to our children from which we now must decide to recover.

I want to propose that the anxieties experienced by our schools’ stakeholders in a time of transformational change, the factionalism that limits our participation and collaboration in the creation of more effective policy, the disengaged and disengaging practices that persist in many of our schools’ classrooms, and the devaluation of ‘learning’ in a nation obsessed with ‘performance’ will continue to demoralize us, unless we work together to bridge those conversations about pedagogy, policy, and politics in a common conversation that identifies – no, I am not kidding – the purpose of ‘education’ itself.

And I want to venture the suggestion — along with Bo Adams, Grant Lichtman, Peter Gow, and many other colleagues — that an appeal to the principles of John Dewey will be the key to unlocking the many doors that have been closed: some we have locked to protect ourselves, our children, and our students, some that have been quietly closed between adjacent rooms to protect our private conversations, and some that have been slammed in our faces:

It is this separation, this lack of vital unity, which leads to the confusion and contention which are so marked features of the educational situation. Lacking a philosophy of unity, we have no basis upon which to make connections, and our whole treatment becomes piecemeal, empirical, and at the mercy of external circumstances.

The situation thus ceases to be a conflict between what is called the old education and the new. There is no longer any old education, save here and there in some belated geographical area. There is no new education in definite and supreme existence. What we have is certain vital tendencies. These tendencies ought to work together; each stands for a phase of reality and contributes a factor of efficiency. But because of lack of organization, because of the lack of unified insight upon which the organization depends, these tendencies are diverse and tangential. Too often we have their mechanical combination and irrational compromise. More prophetic, because more vital, is the confusion which arises from their conflict.

We have been putting new wine into old bottles, and that which was prophesied has come to pass.

What John Dewey wrote in 1902 is true today not only of pedagogy in our schools, but of policy in our nation – and invites a more urgent call than ever to the collective resolution of pressing questions in both domains. These are in many ways the same questions in each domain, owing to the misguided political ideology that infects each discourse — though we endeavor in our classrooms, and allege in our legislative halls, to appeal to more intrinsic values, authentic evidence, and higher principles than our parties’ platforms might suggest. The driving question to which we need to calibrate our efforts is simply this: “What is the goal of education in our country?”

To answer this question we’ll need to identify the answers that haven’t worked to date; deconstruct the answers we’ve provided so many times before; and reconstruct an answer that can help us develop a shared vision — firm enough to establish certain shared principles, but flexible enough to be responsive to our local contexts — to guide our collective movement forward in our schools, and as a country. A central premise of this exploration, and an invitation I would offer you to consider, is perhaps best framed by Carla Rinaldi:

We must not forget how closely the school is connected to the society in which it is situated.

Artificially to separate our conversations about teaching and learning in our schools from the political discourse in which they, as institutions, are situated, is to ignore the opportunities we have in front of us to discover a unified purpose and a higher calling: such a separation “would mean that the requirements of civilization are fundamentally at war with the conditions of individual development; that the agencies by which society maintains itself are at radical odds with the forms by which individual experience is deepened and expanded.”

This inquiry and exploration, like any other, exists only on the shoulders and in the shadows of others’ contributions. To that end, and before I dive in more deeply in the coming weeks, I have to acknowledge, first, this extraordinary call to action issued by Grant Lichtman (please watch the whole presentation here):

Why have we yielded that high ground of the progressive era of education to the industrial age model that has been planted on us? In addition to the anchors, dams, and silos that have isolated people and practices in our schools, we also have a fundamental question — perhaps the most fundamental of all questions about education — to address in our country: What purpose do our schools serve in and for our country?

Too often our answer to this question has relied on myopic and reductive assumptions about the symbolism of our country in the world’s imagination. As such, we are preoccupied as a nation with products, rather than processes; with competition, rather than collaboration; with dominance, rather than participation; with achievement, rather than imagination; and with results, rather than with passion. The same has become true in our schools.

And so it is, first, with Peter Gow’s haunting and lyrical call — which has triggered most of the thought I’ve explored in this introduction — that I’ll leave you with an invitation to reflect:

We want to see democracy, not capitalism, survive as the root, stem, leaves, and fruit of American education.

And it is, second, with the urgency of Carla Rinaldi’s warning —

For the future, school must have a decisive influence on the present; otherwise the message and the very identity of school will not survive.

— that I’ll leave you to consider the urgency of such reflection, to offer your input on these questions, and to take my leave to do the same.


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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • Grant Lichtman

    This promises to be a powerful exploration at the roots of the existential issues facing education, not only in America, but around the world. Others have stated what many of us now take for granted: the world is changing and education must respond. Others have also asked the question “what is the purpose of education?” Chris now starts to take the next critical and reductive step: What are we going to do about it? How do we best convert thought to action in ways that honor both what we know about learning and what we know about its place in a democratic society?

  • Lisa Lopez

    My response to Grant Lichtman’s blog might work for your questions. I also involved you in my vision of how it plays out… 🙂
    So, I’ll just post the link here, it’s all inter-related anyway…

    • ChrisThinnes

      What a great voice and vision you represent when you write–

      How might we explore hybrid models, partnerships that allow us to get messy, creative and experimental together? How might we blur the lines of private and public?

      Let us embrace a new way of thinking where we are not victims of a system, or simply witnesses, where we help one another reclaim the responsibility and power of our craft. A place where our passion and purpose merge in response to the challenge in ways that empower all of us to make positive changes personally and professionally.

      Why not co-author this chapter?

      Though I can’t pretend to the expertise you so generously attribute to me in those comments, I’d sure love to help support, promote, and join exactly such and effort!!!

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