Who are we but a mirror of what we have learned over our lifetime coupled with the DNA shake we have been served? We have believed for a long time that the role of high schools and especially colleges was to prepare thinkers. That has morphed into preparing students for the specific discipline they have chosen (or have chosen for them) in which they will immerse themselves for the rest of their lives.
Students arrive pre-molded by the tall tales, myths, legends, values et al. given to them by the institutions of family, community environment, religion, media, and now even more so – social media. As a result we have all seen their propensity to have an opinion on everything. I spent a great deal of time with my students getting them to see the difference between “opinion” and point of view substantiated by research and evidence, not just the evidence the find to support their intuitive opinion. Too often they start with an apriori opinion and simply find the “facts” to support it.
This should sound familiar in dealing with those elite we call education reformers. They “know” schools must reform (and so do we) but they already have their answers based on their lives and the groupthink they all share. The problem is that they have both the influence and money to be heard and supported by those in power until they, themselves, get to those positions of power.
Deresiewicz refers to this groupthink as Plato’s “doxa” and tells us what we already know. “The first purpose of a real education…is to liberate us from “doxa” by teaching us how to recognize it, to question it, and to think our way around it.” As novice teachers in the Bronx, our Platos (my immediate supervisors) taught us that was how to teach social studies. I have been doing that ever since, trying to develop skeptics, not cynics. Our elites, however, are too often cynics who refuse to believe the Platos of their education matter. Why? Because more often than not they distrust everything and everyone but each other because of fear.
More specifically, many, from the time they entered school, were motivated by fear of failure by those institutions that molded them. They think they are leaders, but in fact are only trained to follow with the fear of failing to please the real authority, wherever it lurks, otherwise they fail.
On elite high school and college campuses, remarks Mark Edmundson, author of Why Teach?,
A leader “is someone who in a very energetic, upbeat way, shares all the values of the people who are in charge…. When people say ‘leaders’ now, what they mean is gung ho ‘followers’ ”.
Deresiewicz pleads to colleges to train citizens, not leaders; to train those who ask whether something is worth doing in the first place, rather than just a way to get things done. This is especially true in education policy where the “leaders” have all jumped on the data driven reform train with the rest of the pack, instead of asking whether or not that train is even on the right track.
Are they willing to go against the grain and say, “Hold on a bit, many public schools provide terrific education to their students, maybe we need to use our brains and resources to spread those ideas rather than crush them?” Are they willing to say, “Maybe we should focus on the environmental issues that lead to problems in schools rather than blaming those who work in schools?” And what if they asked, “What if we recognized that teachers, as the real experts in the field (not us), deserve to be heard and have a leadership role in revitalizing American schools, not reforming or destroying them?”
Do they have the courage to go against the au currant grain? Can they change the world for the better by listening to others beside themselves? Can they learn from those who led the positive changes in education 50 or more years ago? Can they figure out that justice, not condescending charity, is a virtue? Can they question their fellow entrephilanthropists and policy makers? Can they admit TFA in its present form is a bad idea, even though one of them created it and it is filled with thousands of them? Can they figure out that doing good doesn’t mean doing well, or becoming a success and getting to the top by doing good?
Now that would be real leadership, wouldn’t it be?