I knew I was in trouble when I got the first homework assignment. It was a reading, “Metaphors of Hope,” from “Teachers, Schools, and Society,” our class textbook. “Metaphors of Hope” is an account—supposedly—of what is right about American education. The author, Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld, began teaching in 1956 and is the author of several books on pedagogy. The “metaphors of hope” that Chenfeld writes about are the indications of hope amidst the collapse in every category of the American educational system.
There was one problem: those metaphors of hope were, to me, examples of the kind of thinking that has destroyed American education. But I knew I had better keep my mouth shut. At 45—in the middle of my life’s journey, as Dante might have said—I had decided to become a teacher. To do so requires certification, and to get certification, I had to take education classes. My first two would be “Foundations of Education” and “Introduction to Special Education.” And I had been given an explicit instruction from friends: do not agitate. Keep your head low, your Bill O’Reilly-mouth shut, boomerang back what they teach, and escape with a decent grade.
I signed up for classes at a community college outside Washington, D.C. My professor—I’ll call her Karen—is a nice, attractive woman around 40. She is a terrific teacher—kind, funny, knowledgeable. She has years of experience. On the first day, a few of the students have purchased the wrong book; instead of Teachers, Schools, and Society, they have with them a book called “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.”
When the mistake is pointed out, Karen looks pained and a little disgusted. It’s the face you’d make if you went to an expensive restaurant and were presented a plate of pasta with a booger on it.
“You can return that book,” she said. Not: you can read it if you want, see what you think. You can—the tone was more like you should—return that book.
I made a note to buy “Whatever It Takes” as soon as class ended.
I turned to the first reading assignment, Mime Chenfeld’s “Metaphors of Hope.” The current scene in American education, observes Chenfeld, is like the Devastation Trail in Hawaii. Devastation Trail is a place where a volcanic eruption has left a wasteland of black ash; however, there are plants that manage to grow. This is the metaphor for modern education; yes, there is bullying, drugs, illiteracy and awful teachers. But there are also signs of hope. “As a stubborn optimist,” Chenfeld writes, “I always search for markers of thimbleberry, swordfern, creeping dayflower, and nutgrass—metaphors of hope!” Reading such twee stuff, I didn’t think of thimbleberry and nutgrass—more like dingleberries and nutbags. But I digress.
Our first assignment was to write about our own metaphors of hope. We were also to read the chapter in Teachers, Schools and Society about the history of education. One of the major figures in that history, Karen told us, was Horace Mann. I already knew who Horace Mann was, and I had already formed an opinion about him and his theories about education. Mann was the father of the American public schools. A 19th century Massachusetts reformer, he convinced Americans that they should pay for pubic, or “common,” schools, and created the Massachusetts State Board of Education. Mann was a complex figure, best described by Christopher Lasch in his 1995 book “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.” In the chapter “The Common Schools: Horace Mann and the Assault on the Imagination,” Lasch points to a central paradox that remains unresolved: the theories of Horace Mann were egalitarian, pro-peace, and humanistic. He was completely successful in creating public schools. Yet his methods caused the very problems education is dealing with today.
Mann was a patriot, and a product of both the Enlightenment and New England Puritanism. He referred to “the heroic period in our country’s history,” and claimed that America should have “stood as a shining mark and exemplar before the world.” Yet Mann’s Enlightenment reliance on science, humanistic antipathy towards war and religion, and Puritanical distrust of love and its passions—his disdain, in other words, for all the basic, dynamic phenomenon of life—created schools that were dull. In short, Mann’s theories were a lousy fit for the drama that plays out in the democratic and religious culture outside the classroom window. Lasch: “The history of reform—with its high sense of mission, its devotion to progress and improvement, its enthusiasm for economic growth and equal opportunity, its humanitarianism, its love of peace and its hatred of war, its confidence in the welfare state, and, above all, its zeal for education—is the history of liberalism, not conservatism, and if the reform movement gave us a society that bears little resemblance to what was promised, we have to ask not whether the reform movement was insufficiently liberal and humanitarian but whether liberal humanitarianism provides the best recipe for a democratic society.”
An education that did not deal with war, love, religion and the fierce debate of democracy, Lasch argued, is not much of an education at all; these days, “we share Mann’s distrust of the imagination and his narrow concept of truth, insisting that the schools should stay away from myths and stories and legends and stick to sober facts, but the range of permissible facts is even more pathetically limited than it was in Mann’s day.”
I was under orders to keep quiet, and here I was faced with the reality that I had serious doubts about the entire institution that I was attempting to join. Lasch had exactly summed up my feelings. In fact, it was my life experience rather than anything I had learned in school that made me want to be a teacher. It was the politics I followed, the music and art—and people—I loved, the religious awe I felt at the marvels of the world—a wonder enhanced and not contradicted by science—the philosophy I had formed about what it means to be human; these were the things that made me want to teach. I also had an encounter with death that made me want to do something constructive with my life. But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now I had to find some thimbleberries.
To be continued …
Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.