There’s a rock in my shoe, a small thing, a really small thing that I started noticing years ago and can’t shake loose. An irritant that has grown in significance. Over the last 20 years, The New Yorker magazine has published 60 articles under the banner “Annals of Medicine,” and 38 of them, 63%, are written by medical doctors. During that same period, the magazine has published 17 articles under the banner “Annals of Education,” and not a single one of them is written by a professional educator, nary a classroom teacher or educational researcher among the authors. To pick two examples of omission, life-long teachers and writers Deborah Meier and Vivian Paley, both recipients of door-opening MacArthur “Genius Grants,” have never graced The New Yorker’s pages.
O.K., I told you it was a small thing. I mean, after all, who cares who this toney magazine contracts to write its articles? And let me admit that I’m a subscriber, and I’d happily read Jelani Cobb or Rachel Aviv or the other regulars who produced these education pieces. They are terrific writers. But this disparity in authorship, this absence of people closest to the remarkable act of educating, has come to represent for me a much bigger issue having to do with the place of education in our society, for the example I offer with The New Yorker is, to some degree, replicated in other elite media outlets. I realize that with the proliferation of new media and Internet platforms, there are many, many venues for educators — from the primary grade teacher to the college professor to the neighborhood parent activist — to make their voices heard, and in some cases to influence the public conversation about education. The backlash against widespread standardized testing and the recent wave of teacher strikes provide rich examples. I’m focusing here on traditional high- and middlebrow media, for they still have strong influence with government, think tanks, philanthropies, high-profile opinion-makers, and other decision-making and gatekeeping entities.
To begin. I and others have been writing for some time about the negative effects our nation’s education policy has on the way we think and talk about school, and the central ideas and vocabulary of that policy reach the general public primarily through traditional print and broadcast media. For a generation, education has been justified primarily for its economic benefit, both for individuals and for the nation, and our major policy debates have involved curriculum standards, testing and assessment, the recruitment and credentialing of teachers, administration and funding, and the like. This economic-managerial focus has elevated a technocratic discourse of schooling and moved out of the frame discussion of the intellectual, social, civic, and moral dimensions of education. If the dominant language we hear about education is stripped of a broad range of human concerns, then we are susceptible to speaking and thinking about school in narrow ways.
But I believe there’s more than sterile policy talk at play here, and let me admit that though my thoughts are based on a long career in this business, I am speculating about a cultural phenomenon, something that even in the best, most empirically grounded of circumstances is a risky thing to do.
When we survey other monumental spheres of human endeavor — medicine, the law, the physical or life sciences, religion — we find cultural space for the practitioners of these pursuits to not only engage in specialized research in their disciplines, but also to reflect for the rest of us on tending to the ill, or on the place of the law or religion in our lives, or on the breathtaking complexity of human physiology or quantum mechanics. We rarely see this treatment of education, which seems to have become an extended and engulfing institutional rite of passage, increasingly crowded with assessments and benchmarks. There is no majesty or mystery here. Publishing houses produce tips for teachers, or guidebooks for students, or recipes for school reform. There is an occasional journalistic account of a colossal policy failure, or of a day, week, or year in a beleaguered inner-city school, or a memoir of a child’s heroic ascent from the ghetto or rural poverty to the Ivy League. But you’ll be hard pressed to find reflections on the extraordinary human drama that daily unfolds as people, young and not-so-young, ponder and struggle to understand told by those closest to it.
Consider this observation by the eminent American philosopher, John Dewey:
The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks, or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it.
I want to hear from people who have spent a professional lifetime in the presence of such discovery — or discoveries of similar magnitude in the lives of adolescents or adults. What can they tell us about fostering discovery, reading the blend of cognition and emotion in it, judging when and how to intervene, what to do when discovery falters? What are the beliefs and values that shape their commitment to this work and what is it about the subject they teach — what core ideas or ways of knowing or exemplars — move them to want to teach it? How do they experience the weight of history on their work, the history of the communities in which they teach, the history of the students before them — and how do they engage that history to enhance the growth of those students? And what inspires or vexes them about the human condition after years of participating with people as they come to know something new about themselves, about others, and about the world opening up around them?
I acknowledge that with some exceptions, classroom teachers are not trained or encouraged to do this kind of writing, and that a lot of research in education suffers from the opacity that plagues academic scholarship. But in my experience, there are also beliefs and biases about education — about the people who do it and those who read about it — that are barriers to the production of first-hand accounts of the everyday wonder that so moved John Dewey.
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Mike Rose is a writer, scholar, and friend of NWP who has spent the last forty years teaching in a range of educational settings, including job training and adult literacy programs. He is currently on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and is the author of many books, including Possible Lives and most recently, Back to School.