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Many people today seem to believe that the main purpose – perhaps the only purpose – of getting an education is to make more money after graduating. Indeed, there is a move afoot to judge the worth of colleges by the salaries of their graduates. This move is motivated in part by unhappiness with the enormous increase in college tuition and the fear that graduates who have acquired large loan debts will be unable to repay them unless they can obtain well-paying jobs. One might say that making a lot of money provides a unity of purpose to aspiring graduates. But making money is not an educational purpose, and it is not what I am referring to when I argue for a unity of purpose.
Feelings run high on the matter of purpose. After an article appeared in the New York Times describing the rankings of colleges by graduates’ salaries published in PayScale.com, two respondents wrote to praise the colleges from which they had graduated (Oberlin and Grinnell) for their low rankings on PayScale. The writers expressed pride on both the high academic rankings of their alma maters and their low rankings on PayScale. One quoted his former history teacher as saying, “Our graduates may not always do well, but they always do good.” One can admire the pride of these writers who have not given way to “money-grubbing” but still sympathize with the many students who have achieved neither financial security nor a sense of becoming somehow a better adult – one who “does good.”
In this book, I concentrate on problems and debates about our high schools. However, disagreements over the purposes of higher education are closely related to those concerning secondary education, and a brief examination of the debate on higher education should be useful. If the purpose of higher education is economic gain, then – in the pursuit of equality – our society must try to prepare all students for college.
In our search for what should be meant by a “better adult,” we will have to look at least briefly at every major facet of adult life. That search will be assisted by a preliminary look at the difference in talents and interests relevant to vocational life (in this chapter) and at major differences in gender interests (in Chapter 3). By starting this way – with an emphasis on differences and variety – we should avoid the mistake of describing a better adult in specific, idealized terms.
Preparing for a vocation is one of the seven aims posited by the Cardinal Principles, and it is at the top of today's popular list of educational/financial aims. In this chapter, we will look first at the question of whether all students should be prepared for college and what reasonable alternatives might be suggested. Then, assuming we agree to expand vocational educational at the secondary level, we will explore ways in which that education can be intellectually enriched. As we move along in this exploration, we will encounter political and social issues; these, too, are controversial, but they must be addressed. Finally, we will consider how our middle schools can contribute to the success of vocational programs in high school.
EVERYONE TO COLLEGE?
At least two of our recent presidents have explicitly endorsed the idea that all of our young people should attend college, and many in the general population seem to agree. I have already mentioned some critics who disagree with this recommendation, claiming that some (perhaps many) students are not capable of rigorous college work. Either we admit fewer students, they advise, or we sacrifice the quality of our college courses. Whether or not we agree with this argument, we must acknowledge that interests and talents vary, and I will argue that the job of the school is to help students locate and develop those interests and talents. The wrong question has been asked repeatedly.
In the first five chapters of this book, I have tried to make some sense of what might be meant by a “better adult” and how our schools might promote the development of that adult. On the basis of that exploration, I have made some general suggestions and a few definite recommendations. First, in our search for a “better adult,” we do not seek one, carefully detailed, ideal toward which we will educate every child. The production of better adults gives us a unity of purpose, but it does not imply uniformity of curriculum, pedagogy, or outcomes. In trying to develop better adults, we are directed to consider every important facet or aspect of human life and to renew our respect for the full range of human talents across those aspects and within them. With this understanding, I have recommended the following for our high schools.
• Vocational education should be expanded and enriched. That expansion should be accompanied by the establishment of a four-year social studies program that includes students from all of the school's programs and socio-economic groups.
• Deeply meaningful material on homemaking and parenting should be included in the curriculum.
• Teachers from each discipline should work together in interdisciplinary teams to select themes that connect the disciplines to each other and to life itself. The great existential themes associated with the traditional liberal arts should be among the themes included in both academic and vocational programs.
• A first-year preparation period should be provided for students who are not academically ready to move from middle school to high school. Teachers selected for this year's work should model the best parenting practices and provide not just remedial work but a rich, stimulating environment that will – in a sense – make up for the previous years of possible deprivation.
• Good schools, like good parents, should give far more attention to the social and moral development of students and, in general, to the sort of society they are promoting – one that will help its citizens to develop and retain an intact morality.
I have suggested that producing a better adult might serve as a unifying purpose for education. What should we mean by a “better adult”? So far, we have looked at two aspects of human life to explore as we consider what makes people “better”: vocation and homemaking. What follows in this chapter should be construed not as a prescription but, rather, as an invitation to think, reflect, and engage in a continuing dialogue – a never-ending, vibrant examination of what we mean by a “better adult” and by “education.”
It is important to remember that we are not seeking to construct one saintly ideal that will serve as a model of that better adult. In Chapters 2 and 3, on vocational education and women's interests, respectively, the variety of human interests and talents was emphasized, and that variety should continue to influence our search for a way to describe better adults. What may properly be thought of as universal is the whole range of categories that constitute human life and that we seek to enhance through education: moral, physical, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, social, home/family, vocational, civic, and spiritual. In this chapter, we continue the search by examining three areas of education that contribute substantially to the development of better adults: command of the fundamental processes, education for citizenship, and moral education.
COMMAND OF THE FUNDAMENTAL PROCESSES
In today's postindustrial society, it is obvious that command of some basic knowledge and skills is essential. For many years, the fundamental processes were known as the 3Rs, and these were the skills to be addressed in elementary schooling. Today we would have to add certain technological skills, and I have suggested also that we should add oral language, or “speaking.” As pointed out earlier, inability to speak grammatical English can be a handicap comparable to the inability to read a newspaper or to manipulate the numbers involved in daily life. An acceptable level of oral language should certainly be regarded as one of the fundamental processes.
Teachers in the United States have long struggled for professional status. In this chapter, we will revisit some of the history of that struggle and try to identify both promising recommendations and discouraging mistakes that were made in that effort. Then, working from the chapters preceding this one, we will explore what a strong secondary-teacher education program should look like. In that section, we will consider both the major subject to be taught and the subject matter of education more widely construed. In the last sections, we will consider how teachers can be prepared to define and sustain the ethos of their schools and how that work and their daily interaction with students might contribute to a more genuinely moral civic society.
THE STRUGGLE FOR PROFESSIONAL STATUS
Formal teacher training began in the United States with the establishment of normal schools, the first of which appeared in Massachusetts under the urging of Horace Mann in 1839. It was obvious to Mann and other supporters of public education that well-trained teachers were needed if the public schools were to succeed and grow. As the school population grew, and especially when more children began to attend high school in the early twentieth century, the normal schools gave way to teachers colleges, and these schools began to offer college degrees. But although the degrees were bona fide BAs, some organizations – the American Association of University Women (AAUW), for example – refused to admit women whose degrees were earned at teachers colleges. The status problem persisted.
A huge change occurred at the end of World War II. Hordes of returning veterans, supported by the GI Bill, sought admission to higher education. The teachers colleges were ready to expand. They had subject-matter departments similar to those in liberal arts colleges and universities, and most of them were eager to welcome the influx of new students. Almost overnight the low-status teachers colleges became state colleges. Montclair State Teachers College, for example, became Montclair State College and, after several decades and the addition of specialized schools, Montclair State University.
The Common Core Standards are permeated by a concern for critical thinking: critical reading, the analysis of documents, editing for meaning, defining problems, solving problems, searching for order, and conceptual understanding. This emphasis is to be applauded, but questions arise not only about how to teach critical thinking but, more basically, about how to define its scope and application over a wide range of human activity. Must everyone learn to apply critical thinking to the foundations of mathematical operations? Must everyone become capable of using critical thinking in reading historical or scientific documents? And how is critical thinking related, if it is, to the moral dimension of life?
Although philosophers and educators have long agreed on the importance of critical thinking, they have engaged in lively debates about how to define and teach it. Some forty years ago the debate centered on whether critical thinking is field dependent or a subject/skill that can be taught on its own. Those who argued for its field dependence pointed out – rightly, I think – that one can hardly think critically in an area about which one has no knowledge. One can hardly criticize a taxonomy of flowering plants, for example, if one knows nothing about plants. Similarly, it would be difficult to argue the merits of a political proposal if one knows little about the purpose of the proposal and the context in which it is proposed.
However, strong counterarguments have been made for the centrality of logic in all forms of critical thinking, and symbolic logic can be taught without reference to a specific subject or field outside it. Certainly, all students should become familiar with the basic form of a syllogism: If all birds can fly and robins are birds, we may conclude that robins can fly. As a math teacher, I learned that many students find logic in both words and symbols fascinating and useful.
It is widely recognized that the quality of parenting is important in determining a student's success in school. Indeed, it may be the single most important factor in promoting that success. Yet while we insist – in the name of equal opportunity – that all students must study algebra, we stubbornly refuse to teach parenting in our high schools. Admittedly, there are difficulties in making such a move. Some critics insist that instruction on parenting belongs in the home (another example of the bureaucratic thinking that pervades public life). Others argue that only some students require this instruction, and their identification would be another example of blaming the victim, of singling out kids who are already economically disadvantaged. Still others would dismiss the very idea as anti-intellectual and demand to know what important subject matter would be displaced to make room in the school day for a course on parenting.
I am not recommending that we add a course on parenting to an already full academic program, and I certainly do not advocate singling out those students who, we suspect, are especially in need of such instruction. Rather, in the spirit of what has preceded this chapter, I suggest that we recognize the supreme importance of parenting in human life and ask how each subject already in the curriculum can contribute to the development of better parents. In addressing themes related to parenting, I do not suggest that we teach how to feed and bathe infants, change diapers, and establish regular visits to the pediatrician. These things are important for new parents, of course, and classes should be available for teenage mothers and others who need immediate help. But I am talking here about the deeper meanings of parenting and homemaking that we discussed in Chapter 4. It is a matter of connecting school subjects with the central aspects of human life, of bringing real meaning to the school curriculum.
Many of the ideas and recommendations I have offered in this book are not new in themselves, but examining them in light of current conditions may encourage a renewal – a richer, brighter vision for our high schools. The hope is to produce better adults, a better country, a better world. In his work on excellence, John Gardner suggested that a richer view of education might encourage this hope: “We should be painting a vastly greater mural on a vastly more spacious wall. What we are trying to do is nothing less than to build a greater and more creative civilization.”
One important factor in building a better world is the education of people who will be thoughtful and willing to work in a participatory democracy. I have suggested that a four-year sequence of social studies courses be implemented and that its classes be carefully composed of students from all classes and programs. We often hear complaints from well-educated critics that our society is divided not only into economic classes but also into social-thought classes. It seems almost impossible for people from these two opposing groups to engage in dialogue. If we are to achieve constructive political dialogue in our adult society, that dialogue must start earlier; high school students should have regular opportunities to study and discuss controversial issues with their teachers and one another. Providing such opportunities will not be easy because the introduction of controversial issues requires the very critical competence we are trying to induce. That means that we must start with the preparation of teachers as highly competent critical thinkers.
I have suggested that the education of teachers should integrate preparation in the discipline they will teach with comprehensive preparation in the subject matter of education itself. Further, teachers should continue to study and analyze the history of their profession, particularly its central concepts and efforts at reform.
In this chapter, we will consider more closely the ideas so far discussed and see what might reasonably be done to bring the curriculum and extra-curricular activities into line with these broad recommendations. This is to be done without insisting on a sweeping transformation that would eliminate, or even threaten, the traditional academic program. As pointed out throughout this book, such a transformation would be both utopian and hopeless. What follows, then, should be practical. We will look first at some modifications of the curriculum, then at the importance of extracurricular activities, and finally at the physical setting for high schools of the future.
It seems entirely feasible to expand existing courses with the theme and interdisciplinary team approach already described. The challenge, of course, is to apply the concepts of intellectual continuity and shared responsibility to the whole enterprise. Where possible, we want to connect the themes not only to central human questions but to each other and, certainly, to the subject matter of the standard classes. It is not suggested that the officially prescribed work of mathematics, science, or literature be suspended but, rather, that it should be enriched to include the chosen themes. The use of biography and literature can enrich the curriculum in every subject.
For example, in discussing the centrality of law, power, and economy of expression in mathematics, Barry Mazur departs from formal mathematics briefly to describe the use of dactyls in poetry. He asks us to consider the power of W. S. Merwin's “Elegy,” a one-line poem (“Who would I show it to”) consisting of two dactyls. As we learn about imaginary numbers from Mazur, we also hear all sorts of things from Rilke, Ashbery, Wordsworth, Yeats, and Coleridge. Mazur also reminds us that – for some odd reason – the later letters in the alphabet are considered somehow harder than the earlier ones, and he gives an example of this thinking from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.
In addition to an emphasis on critical thinking, the Common Core advocates attention to such “soft skills” as collegiality, cooperation, communication, teamwork, and social skills. This chapter will discuss how we might promote these skills for both students and teachers. I will start with collegiality, then discuss the need to establish relations of care and trust in order to support the whole array of social skills, and conclude with an argument in support of continuity of subject matter, people, and place in our high schools.
“Collegiality” conveys the notion of shared responsibility. In Chapter 1, I commented on the collegial organization used at Columbia University in planning and implementing its freshman core course. Its benefits, described by Andrew Delbanco, include the mixing of students from various departments, socio-economic backgrounds, and social clubs.
The Core also counters the provincialism of the faculty. Senior and junior professors, along with graduate student instructors, gather weekly to discuss the assigned texts – a rare opportunity for faculty from different fields, and at different stages of their careers, to consider substantive questions. And, not least among its benefits, it links all students in the college to one another through a body of common knowledge; once they have gone through the core, no student is a complete stranger to any other.
I am not sure the claim that “no student is a complete stranger to any other” can be sustained, but the random assignment of students to small core classes is certainly valuable in extending both friendships and information on various programs at the university. I have already suggested that such a mixture of students be used in the four-year social studies classes designed to treat collegially planned interdisciplinary themes. High school English teachers might also adopt this process and use random assignment of students to small discussion groups as they promote the interdisciplinary knowledge required for contextual understanding of the documents students are now expected to analyze. The idea of collegiality – shared responsibility – is valuable for students as well as teachers.
America needs a richer, brighter vision for its high schools. My primary concern is not the one we hear constantly today – that test scores are too low and that the achievement gap between rich and poor is widening and needs to be closed. I share the latter worry, but my main concern is broader: High schools today are not meeting the deep human needs of most of our students. Intellectually talented students are diverted from intellectual enrichment to a concentration on high test scores and top rankings; students with nonacademic talents are discouraged from developing those talents, and, forced into academic studies in the name of equality, they struggle to make sense of schooling that purports to offer a path to secure financial life. Students (and parents) are led to believe that the purpose of education is to get a well-paid job and achieve economic well-being. We seem to have forgotten that there is more to education than preparing to get ahead financially.
Educators once talked seriously about producing “better adults,” about encouraging the development of all aspects of a complete life: moral, physical, social, vocational, aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and civic. We once considered optimal development in these aspects of life to be the aims of education. Aims (as I use the word) are importantly different from goals and objectives, ends we expect to meet with some specificity. In contrast, we cannot specify exactly what outcomes our aims must produce – they will vary with intensity and breadth over the individuals with whom we work – but they guide all that we do. We do not rely on tests to prove that we are influencing moral and social development, but we refer to moral and social aims in explaining our choices for the whole range of content and pedagogical activity, and we watch for signs that our efforts are producing positive results.
Given the emphasis so far on a unitary purpose, collegiality, continuity, and broadly selected themes that reflect concern for connections to real life, how might individual teachers plan their courses? How should they select content, decide on pedagogical methods, and evaluate the performance of their students? How should they evaluate their own performance? We will start this chapter with an exploration of planning, then move to carrying out our plans in the classroom, and conclude with a critical look at evaluation.
Planning is part of the ideal aspect of teaching. For me, it has always been a special pleasure because it presents an opportunity to review and extend my own knowledge and to reformulate it more articulately. Everything is possible at the first delightful stage of planning – all the material that is prescribed, all the material I know beyond what is prescribed, all the new things I would like to learn before facing my classes. My own preference is to overplan, that is, to include in my initial plan far more than I will eventually accomplish because such planning prepares me; it facilitates spontaneity and invites student participation and choice.
All public school teachers are required to maintain a plan book in which daily lessons are briefly described in case the teacher is absent and a substitute is required. These notes are not really plans; they merely direct a substitute teacher to a page in the text, a homework assignment, or a suggestion for student activity that will fill the class period. Clearly, I am not talking here about that sort of planning. Real planning does more to prepare the teacher than the lesson. Well prepared teachers can invite student questions and engage in invitational lessons – lessons shaped in large part by the problems and interests of students. Teachers who have limited knowledge of their subject are likely to be restricted to a tightly organized plan from which they will not deviate. Unfortunately, it is exactly this sort of planning that is widely advocated today.
In today's high schools, education is often reduced to a means of achieving financial security, leading to an overemphasis on quantifiable measures of performance. This approach encourages academically talented students to focus on test scores and rankings rather than intellectual enrichment, and discourages students with non-academic talents from pursuing them. A Richer, Brighter Vision for American High Schools advocates instead a unifying educational aim of producing better adults, which would encompass all aspects of students' lives: intellectual, physical, moral, spiritual, social, vocational, aesthetic, and civic. Nel Noddings offers suggestions to improve high schools by increasing collegiality among students and faculty, enriching curricula with interdisciplinary themes, renewing vocational education programs, addressing parenting and homemaking, and professionalizing the teaching force. This thought-provoking book will act as an important guide for teachers, teacher educators, administrators, and policy makers.
What might the school curriculum have looked like if women had been involved in its planning from the start? Women are not all alike, of course, and it would be a mistake to suppose that they could be represented by a single, universal mind. Indeed, to build on that supposition would be to repeat the error made by so many men in the past. However, it is undeniable that women lived for centuries under the expectation that they would spend their lives maintaining a family and household. In the “best” homes and families, girls learned at home how to manage this challenging work. But how should these “best” homes be described? Just as we must continually deepen our exploration of what should be meant by a “better adult,” we must similarly examine the nature of “best homes.” If we can discover some powerful possibilities, it would make sense to include this information in the school curriculum.
There is a great emphasis today on the connection between poverty and education, and it is often assumed that schools could be more effective if something were done to alleviate poverty. This is almost certainly true. However, it should be worthwhile to explore the idea that educating for better home life might contribute not only to a reduction in poverty but to the greater effectiveness of schools in teaching the standard curriculum. The single most important factor in determining children's success in school is almost certainly the quality of their parenting, and yet we teach little or nothing in our schools about parenting. A whole chapter (Chapter 5) will be devoted to this topic. What else about home life should appear in the school curriculum?
It is not unusual for thoughtful critics to poke a bit of fun at neatness. Witold Rybczynski, for example, writes: “Hominess is not neatness. Otherwise everyone would live in replicas of the kinds of sterile and impersonal homes that appear in interior-design and architectural magazines.” He goes on to describe the condition of his own study and writing desk: “covered three-deep with a jumble of half-opened books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, magazines, sheets of paper, and newspaper clippings.” He follows this with a long paragraph listing the “many personal mementos, photographs and objects” that fill his study. But notice that he has a study in which to pile up his treasures.