Reclaiming Education for All of Us

By William Ayers

Book Cover: Why School

Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us

By Mike Rose
(The New Press, 2009)
192 pp. $19.95

In “Why I Write,” George Orwell gives four reasons why all writers (and particularly Orwell himself) write. Reason number one begins with a lovely, blunt confession: “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood. . . . Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.”

Reasons two and three are also on target: “aesthetic enthusiasm,” or the pleasure one can find in the “firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story”; and “historical impulse,” or the hope and attempt to see things as they really are, to track down true facts and disseminate them.

Orwell’s fourth reason gets to the heart of who he was as a writer and an unparalleled moral force in the 20th century: “Political purpose—using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

Orwell notes that he is a person for whom the first three motives could have easily outweighed the fourth:

In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. . . . Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention.

I kept thinking of Orwell while reading Mike Rose’s impeccable Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us. In all of his work Mike Rose shows himself to be an elegant writer, someone who understands the rhythm of a good story; he’s also demonstrated over and over through an impressive body of work the value of tracking down the facts and sifting through the evidence. But what characterizes him as a writer (and as a teacher and a singularly engaged citizen) is the humanity apparent in every line of prose he writes. Rose describes and portrays things as they are or as he finds them—but that is never the end of the matter, for he has another eye riveted on things as they could or should be. One feels the love, but it’s neither romantic nor innocent; with Rose one gets love edged with anger, love on a mission of repair, love that is urgent to do justice.

Education: Commodity or Human Right?

In Why School? Mike Rose begins with the basics: Why does school matter? What’s distinct about education in a democracy? Why does equity matter? What constitutes good teaching? Rose’s purpose is to get to the root of things, to transcend the surface arguments about this or that reform agenda, this or that practice. Specifically, his ambition in this modest volume is nothing short of upending the controlling metaphor and the dominant discourse that has precipitously lowered the horizons of our collective imagination for many years.

In the contested space of schools, the widely accepted framework among politicians and media commentators posits education as a commodity rather than a fundamental human right or a journey; it imagines schools as little factories cranking out products. The metaphor leads easily enough to concluding that school closings and privatizing the public space is as natural as rain, that relentless standardized testing is simply sensible—these are the kinds of things that are today steadily passed off as “reform.”

Michelle Rhee, the CEO (it’s a business, remember) of Washington, D.C.’s schools, is the poster child for this kind of initiative, and she warranted a cover story in Time called “How to Fix America’s Schools” in early December 2008. The pivotal paragraph praised her for making more changes in a year and a half on the job than other school leaders, “even reform-minded ones,” make in five: closing 21 schools (15 percent of the total) and firing 100 central office personnel, 270 teachers, and 36 principals. These are all policy moves that are held on faith to stand for improvement. Not a mention of evidence that might connect these moves with student progress; no gesture toward getting greater resources into this starving system, nor a word on kids’ learning or engagement with school; nothing about relationships with parents or communities; nothing about forward-looking curriculum nor commitment to teacher well-being and long-term satisfaction. But of course evidence is always the enemy of dogma, and this is faith-based, fact-free school policy at its purest.

Mike Rose isn’t buying any of it. He takes us into real classrooms and shows us specific, detailed interactions among students and teachers in the process of learning to read, for example, or mastering the concept of polarity. Through detail and thick description Rose offers “the feel and the clatter of teaching and learning,” and this in turn takes us beyond the “contentious abstraction” that characterizes the debates around school policy and politics. Rose asks us to ground those debates in the complex, nuanced, and vital reality of school life. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose. We should also ask why we’re evaluating. To what end?

Mike Rose challenges the system that reduces teaching to a “knowledge delivery system,” a system that values anything that can be quantified over everything that can’t. He urges us to become attuned to teaching as an intellectual and ethical enterprise that “carries with it the obligation to understand the people in one’s charge, to teach subject matter and skills, but also to inquire, to nurture, to have a sense of who a student is.” He demonstrates how holding and valuing standards, and even creating high standards with and for students, is a world away from standardization, the rounding off and sanding down of the wild diversity that is humanity. Mostly he encourages us to think deeply about what we want our schools to do and to be, to name the basic tenets of education in and for democracy.

Know a Society by Its Schools

Schools always serve societies; society is always reflected in its schools. In the modern world we see some differences as well as interesting similarities and noteworthy overlapping goals across systems. School leaders in fascist Germany or communist Albania or medieval Saudi Arabia or apartheid South Africa, for example, all agreed that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, and master the subject matter, so those things don’t differentiate a democratic education from any other. We all want the kids to do well. Practically all schools want their students to study hard and do their homework. Furthermore, schools in autocratic or authoritarian systems have produced excellent scientists and athletes and musicians. They have also produced obedience and conformity, moral blindness and easy agreement, obtuse nationalism, and a willingness to follow the orders that sent people into the furnaces.

In a totalitarian society schools would be built for obedience and conformity, and regardless of whatever else was taught, obedience would be on the agenda; in a kingdom, the schools would teach fealty; in a racialized society, educational privileges and oppressions would be distributed along the color line. But in an authentic democracy we would expect to find schools defined by a spirit of cooperation, inclusion, and full participation, to be places that would honor diversity while building unity. Schools in a democracy would resist the over-specialization of human activity—the separation of the intellectual from the manual, the head from the heart, the creative from the functional—as a distortion. The goal of democratic schools would be the fluidity of function, the variation of work and capacity, the mobilization of intelligence and creativity and initiative and work in all directions.

Teaching Democracy

In a democracy, theoretically at least, one would expect education to be based on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being. This core value and first principle has huge implications for educational policy: racial segregation is wrong, class separation unjust, disparate funding immoral. There is simply no justification in a democracy for the existence of one school for wealthy white kids funded to the tune of $30,000 per student per year, and another school for poor immigrant kids or the descendants of formerly enslaved people with access to $5,000 per student per year. That reality—a reality in Illinois, where I live, and across the country—offends the very idea that each person is equal in value and regard, and reflects instead the reactionary idea that some of us are more deserving and more valuable than others. It also expresses the simple but crude and cruel message we send to children in the U.S. today concerning social policy toward them: Choose the Right Parents! If you choose parents with money, access, social connection, and privilege, your choices and your chances will expand; if not, sorry, you’re on your own.

The democratic injunction has big implications for curriculum and teaching as well. We want our students to be able to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own. We want them to ask fundamental questions—Who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? What are my choices? How shall I proceed?—and to pursue the answers wherever they might lead. Whatever else we teach, we teach initiative, courage, imagination, and creativity. These qualities cannot be delivered in top-down ways, but must be modeled and nourished, encouraged and defended.

Democratic teaching encourages students to develop the capacity to name the world for themselves, to identify the obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act upon what they know. This kind of education is always about opening doors and opening minds as students forge their pathways into a wider, shared world.

How do our schools here and now measure up to the democratic ideal? Much of what we call schooling shuts down meaningful choice making. Much of it is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime throughout history. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There’s little space for skepticism, irreverence, questioning, or doubt. While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested and often false bits of information. This is a recipe for disaster in the long run.

Mike Rose helps us re-articulate and re-ignite the basic proposition that in a democracy the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each, and conversely, that the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all—none of us can be all we need to be unless our brothers and sisters are all that they need to be. We focus our efforts, then, on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in our shared public life.

A Guidebook for Organizers

Why School? is a powerful antidote, a guide, a brief for the ethical conduct of life in classrooms, and a manifesto of sorts. It’s crisp, concise, lively, small in size—the perfect companion to cram into your backpack among the vitamin E, a toothbrush, and your bottle of water, and as necessary to daily survival as any of those. Read this book—please!

Once you’ve read it, organize a study group of teachers, parents, and community folks to read it together, and to plot out next steps (taking the book to your school board meeting, writing reviews for local radio or newspapers, blogging and getting a Facebook group agitating, developing op-eds, making a banner that says, “Why School? Why Does it Matter in a Democracy?” and standing on a street corner during rush hour, leafleting with key quotes at bus stops, canvassing in neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking to strangers—and much more). Then buy a second copy and press it into the hands of an elected official.

Mike Rose is calling us out, alerting us to the fierce urgency of now, and reminding us that we can’t sit idly by in a democracy waiting to be saved by some higher authority or more powerful person. We are the people we’ve been waiting for. Let’s speak up and speak out, get busy and get active. Organize, organize, organize!

William Ayers teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is a member of the executive committee of the faculty senate, and is vice-president of the curriculum division of the American Educational Research Association. His book To Teach will be reissued in spring 2010 as both a new third edition of the text and as a graphic novel called To Teach: The Journey, in Comics.