Reading me some Neil Postman this morning as I continue to be drawn to thoughts about education that are at least a quarter century old. In reflecting on my own thinking about all of this, I find it fascinating the extent to which going back in time seems to inform the path moving forward more than anything else. I’m sad to say that for a long time, I missed some eternal truths about learning and education, truths that if I’d realized them sooner would no doubt have sent my thinking and work in bit of a different direction. But, as they say, better late…
Postman has always been a mix for me. Somewhat a contrarian on technology but also a champion for student “voice and choice” as we seem to want to call it these days. I think he’s aligned with Sarason who says “the overarching goal of school should be to develop students who want to keep learning more about themselves, others, and the world” when they leave us.
But in light of recent events, I found myself thinking about one particular chapter in “The End of Education,” one titled “The American Experiment.” There, he suggests that schools should commit themselves to helping students “acquire/develop a love of one’s country.” But instead of suggesting more rote patriotism a la the Pledge of Allegiance, he offers up four questions that all students should grapple with:
- Is it possible to have a coherent, stable culture that allows the greatest possible freedom of religious and political thought and expression?
- Is it possible to have a coherent, stable culture made up of people of different languages, religions, traditions, and races?
- Is it possible to provide a free public education for all citizens?
- Is it possible to preserve the best of American traditions and social institutions while allowing uncontrolled technological development?
Those are some heady starting points for debate. Sure, we could add others dealing with globalization, the environment, and more. But as Postman says repeatedly, kids are not only intellectually ready to grapple with these questions but, in some cases, they are closer to them in their real lives than the adults.
At the end of the chapter, Postman writes:
I mean to say that this is a powerful story that is at the core of what America is all about. The story says that experimenting and arguing is what Americans do. It does not matter if you are unhappy about the way things are. Everybody is unhappy about the way things are. We experiment to make things better, and we argue about what experiments are worthwhile and whether or not those we try are any good. And when we experiment, we make mistakes, and reveal our ignorance, and our timidity, and our naïveté. But we go on because we have faith in the future–that we can make better experiments and better arguments. This, it seems to me, is a fine and noble story, and I should not be surprised if students are touched by it and find in it a reason for learning.
I’m not sure where we are with this American story that has taken such an unexpected turn of late. The experiment seems a bit more dangerous these days. But the only way to a better future is to engage in the messiness of the debate in all of its passion and, at times, ugliness. Schools can do much to help students develop as citizens able to do just that.
(Image credit: Gabby Orcutt)