Yesterday a truly great educator died. I hope truly great education does not die with him.
The following come from his obituary in the New York Times.
Dr. [Thomas Sobol was the New York State education commissioner for eight years, appointed by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (the wise father of the tyrannical Governor of NY, Andrew) in 1987.“During Dr. Sobol’s tenure, the percentage of high school graduates going to college increased, as did the number of students passing advanced placement exams.”
“Despite that success, Dr. Sobol resigned in frustration in 1995, accusing Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican and current candidate for President [if you didn’t know], and lawmakers from both parties of making his department and the policy-making Board of Regents scapegoats for the grinding bureaucracy, violence, family dysfunction, poverty, poorly trained teachers, deficient buildings and inferior learning materials that had plagued public schools.”
“As commissioner, Dr. Sobol had pressed for what he called A New Compact for Learning, a broad manifesto aimed at transferring policy making from sluggish bureaucracies to educators and parents, and at creating grade-specific curriculum standards that local school districts could implement on their own.”
“His first annual report as commissioner painted what he described as an alarming picture of a divided public school system: “one largely suburban, white, affluent and successful; and the other largely urban, of color, poor, and failing.”
Diane Ravitch: ‘Tom Sobol was the last state commissioner who understood that education means something more than test-taking and high scores.’
He was the last great Public Education Policy makers. I have met his wife, Harriet, noted friends, and fellow educators in and around Westchester and Scarsdale where he was Superintendent and I once worked. Anyone who ever met him understood his sincerity in providing the best education for those he served, either at a local or state level. He will be missed. He was one of the true romantics left in education.
How times have changed since he was Commissioner. We are now in the middle of a STEM led, technocratic, career pursuing, data collecting, resume building, computer controlled, and standardizing age of Education. Children and teachers fight constantly to not become cogs in this machine or “ another brick in the wall”.
It seems humanity has been sucked out of education. Tom Sobol and Mario Cuomo, above all, were humanists. What have they been replaced with? David Brooks has written his latest NYT column about the need for a rebirth of “romanticism”. Historians, Philosophers, students of literature and even of science know this has happened before.
The Scientific Revolution and the enlightening Age of Reason emphasized analysis. The Romantic Era that emphasized humanity and liberalism followed the Industrial Revolution’s switch to capitalism and machines that ground up laborers.
Romanticism also highlighted “heroic” individuals whose examples would “raise the quality of society”. It promoted the freedom of individual imagination as a critical authority of the status quo. It led to transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s “On Walden Pond” and even Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and “with malice towards none and charity towards all” Second Inaugural Address.
We are now in age where the Industrialization of education is grinding up both students and teachers. I believe that our society has reached a point where we too must veer away from the STEM led technocratic, career pursuing, data collecting, resume building, computer controlled age the beginning of the 21st century has bound us to.
Ironically, it may be the technology itself that forces that change. As Brooks notes, Ironically, technological forces may be driving some of the romantic rebirth. As Geoff Colvin points out in his book “Humans Are Underrated,” computers will soon be able to do many of the cognitive tasks taught in places like law schools and finance departments.
Colvin argues that people should now ask, “What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?” rather than ultimately be done by computers.
Brooks goes on to say, “Empathy becomes a more important workplace skill, and the ability to sense what another human being is feeling or thinking.” He also points out, “The ability to function in a group also becomes more important — to know how to tell stories that convey the important points, how to mix people together.”
Mark Edmundson, English professor at the University of Virginia is the author of “Why Teach” and “Self and Soul”. He is convinced that ““culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and skeptical.”
We need more heroes of courage, compassion, and serious thought who will be more Socratic and less Newtonian. We need “those who voice honest perceptions” and do more for the poor and less resume padding.
We need more “heroic” policy makers like Thomas Sobol who will “ground his or her life in purer love that transforms — making him or her more inspired, creative and dedicated, and therefore better able to live as a modern instantiation of some ideal.”
That’s the world I want to live in.