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Education Reconsidered: Beyond the Death of Critical Education

After years of neglect by politicians and the media, education is now a public issue. The reasons are straightforward: in this depressed economy, credentials seem to have lost their advantage; parents and politicians are complaining that the schools have faltered in delivering what students need; there is a widespread perception that illiteracy is rising, if … Continued

After years of neglect by politicians and the media, education is now a public issue. The reasons are straightforward: in this depressed economy, credentials seem to have lost their advantage; parents and politicians are complaining that the schools have faltered in delivering what students need; there is a widespread perception that illiteracy is rising, if we mean the ability of more people to read complex texts; and, of course, evaluations of the first year's results of George Bush's No Child Left Behind, with its draconian, high stakes, standardized testing regime, have been disappointing, to say the least. Mainstream educators and commentators are warning that the United States, once in the forefront among advanced capitalist societies in graduation rates, has fallen to 12th place and is still tumbling. Many are concerned that education has become a national security issue. Others point out that the engines of the global economy are math and science and this country is turning out fewer trained physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians and computer scientists. A sidelight to the anti-immigration history, some have even warned that the United States is now dependent upon foreigners for its scientific and technological talent. Given that the United States suffers from the plague of historical amnesia, they forget that foreign scientists like Einstein, Fermi and Leo Szilard made many of the scientific discoveries that formed the basis of US temporary superiority in producing weapons of mass destruction such as supersonic aircraft, radar and the atom bomb.

Some have trumpeted as solutions the usual neoliberal bromides – charter schools and for-profit private schools at all levels of the education hierarchy. But the prevailing studies have been no more kind to these alternatives than they have been to failing public schools. Having rejected the long American experiment with progressive education, in which students are the subjects of schooling, not just its object, in the 1980s, school authorities decided that what kids need is more discipline, more time in school and, above all, more homework. Many have added another brilliant policy concept: reward or punish teachers for their students' performance. Teachers' unions have soundly rejected this “solution,” calling it a blatant attack on teacher professionalism and living standards, although, at a time of severe cuts in school funding, teacher layoffs and school closings, their resolve to oppose performance-based tenure and layoffs has considerably weakened. Brave denunciations of legislative cuts aside, many locals of both major national teacher unions have meekly accepted layoffs, increased class sizes and have capitulated to performance criteria in many instances. Above all, none of the unions, the most powerful education organizations, academic and educational authorities have offered serious alternatives to the conservative-led drive toward neoliberal privatization. And the left seems content to roll out the usual reform proposals: more money for schools, wider access of poor and working-class students of color to higher education, the end to privatization.

While these reforms are necessary, they are hardly sufficient. The right offers an educational program based on a few principles: keep the kids' noses to the grindstone by testing them into submission; hand off schools to the entrepreneurial profit makers; throw the unworthy, disruptive kids out of school or at least relegate them to “special education,” the only thriving sector in k-12. But most educational liberals lack a similarly direct and powerful program. Their proposals are mainly a hodge-podge of Band-Aids. But more important, on the whole, they have accepted the dominant framework: education or, more accurately, schooling should serve the economy; first and foremost students should be prepared to take their respective places in the world of work. Despite the rhetoric of the centrality of critical thinking, a legacy of the progressive era, they have embraced the idea of school as a training ground, and have largely accepted the concept that the main problems of education can be resolved with money and greater access. Not true. What the educational radicals should offer the handwringing liberals is what radicals do best: go to the root of things. Education should be a preparation for life, especially helping kids become active in determining the conditions that most affect them.

The Root of Things

Start with the kids themselves and what they need. Three leading 20th century theorists of developmental psychology agree on one central point. Vgotsky, Piaget and Bruner argue that the curriculum, the heart of school learning, should be articulated with the sensory motor skills of children. They have asserted forcefully that the imposition of academics is inappropriate for young children until ages eight or nine. They reason that, while kids of three to seven have developed significant cognitive abilities, the algorithms associated with the acquisition of most academic skills are really beyond the capacity of most children. This is a time of life when the imagination should be the subject and the object of learning. Reading, writing and math need not be withheld, but the main content of learning at the earliest years can be delivered by means of play. The model of kindergarten is the right one for younger kids. They are learning to get along with their peers; to manipulate objects; to experiment with painting, sculpture and music; and to be able to express themselves orally as well. For kids who express an interest in reading, for example, their interest should be encouraged and the teacher should provide good materials and integrate reading with the play dimension.

Even when academics are placed near the center of the curriculum, the classroom should be transferred, to a large extent, from the school building to the wider world. Vgotsky's point is that confining the kid to a desk for many hours a week subverts what her development indicates: the years 8-12 are times for exploration, for the flowering of curiosity: the city as school means that the museum, research laboratory, health and senior centers, concerts, factories, offices, parks and the streets are all major learning sites. What the school calls “trips” are no longer occasional activities, but are regular events and closely woven into the entire school day or week. In the context of exploration, students meet musicians, artists, industrial and service workers, scientists, urbanists, all of whom become part of the school faculty. Reading, math and science become important components, but in terms of assisting the learner to effectively negotiate her or his environment and to stimulate further critical learning.

At ages 11 or 12, having explored the social and physical environment, the student has acquired the developmental conditions for academic rigor. In this regard, it should be acknowledged that some domains, such as math and science, grammar, history, are full of rote dimensions. But rote should be combined with a broader understanding of the uses of times-tables addition, multiplication and division; algebra and geometry in math; the significance of chronology in the learning of history; the stories, as well as the laws and procedures of physics, chemistry and biology; and the importance of the laws for both practical and theoretical consequences. In our time, ecology should become an important part of every level of schooling and its comprehension should have a theoretical as well as descriptive content.

But history and literature should not be treated as subjects that privilege nationalism. As we now know, so-called American history is closely bounded up with the African slave trade, with the reasons for immigration, with the drive for imperial domination with the need of capital for vast supplies of industrial labor that could not be found in the United States as long as the former slaves were confined to the cotton and tobacco producing plantations of the South and barred, except as strikebreakers, from the metal and textile factories except in times of war, that workers struggles were intrinsic to the American story, giving a lie to the official ideology that America was the great exception to the European experience of class and class struggle. And great American literature was and is produced by blacks as well as whites, and from the slave narratives, the work of Melville and Whitman as well as Hawthorne were always bound up with the narrative of American history.

The distinction between middle school and high school has been challenged by many enlightened school people in recent decades. The 7-12 model could be more widely disseminated because these are the main years for cultivating critical, intellectual capacities. As a small minority of educators have discovered, young people of these ages are able to read original texts rather than suffering the watered-down textbooks, which remain the lifeblood of the curriculum. Music and art must remain a vital component of the curriculum, and students need their own periodicals that they control without interference by school authorities. These are not only important for peer communication, but as places where criticism of both school and society can flourish outside the official channels.

In France, high schools have included philosophy as a required domain in the school curriculum. In some French schools, the philosophy component has either disappeared or been reduced to ethics clarification. But in its classical form, the student graduated high school with a knowledge of the main traditions of European philosophy. They knew the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, medieval thinkers, Descartes and Kant, Bergson and something of 20th century philosophy. With the partial exception of elite, mostly private schools, philosophy has been excluded from US secondary schools. This omission is a tell-tale sign that we don't take critical thinking seriously as an educational goal. For, if philosophy has pedagogic value, it is to teach students the value of doubt, without which it is impossible to penetrate propaganda and discern the presence of particular interests within knowledge, a discernment that spans the realms of science, the humanities and social studies.

I can hear the critics of these proposals. All well and good, but who will teach all this stuff? What happens to teachers trained in the old curricula? The short answer is that we need a major reformation of education schools. If they are to exist – a proposition that requires extensive review – the students must be required to major in subject matter, and education becomes only a minor. The education minor should not focus on teaching methods, but on the concepts associated with critical thought, that is, philosophy and history, but not only of education. And there needs to be a massive (yes, massive) program of faculty development to prepare experienced teachers for the new curriculum. They should not be “trained” but, even as they widen their own scope, should be asked to participate in planning elements of the curriculum. So the curriculum no longer remains the prerogative of central authorities whether administrative or legislative. The proposal for renovation of teacher education would, of course, involve the professoriate as well.

These ideas are all subject to debate, discussion and revision. For example, some may question the developmental assumptions. For years, head start proponents have favored and implemented a program of early childhood academic learning as a way of creating an even playing field for poor black and Latino children. Some have even argued that, in view of often chaotic surroundings (absent fathers, overburdened mothers, dangerous streets), the school must be a source of order as well as tough love. While these are not small matters, the question is whether an environment conducive to the needs of poor, especially black kids, requires this type of authority or whether a more open classroom can be equally effective if teachers and parents really care for kids and are sensitive to them. In learning regimes in the early years of the Soviet Union, Israel, Nicaragua and Cuba, more creative approaches resulted in high rates of literacy and other types of educational attainment. These experiences should be the object of intensive inquiry. Parents and teacher unions should become part of the planning process for any fundamental educational renovation.

Having said this, I believe that without radical political and social movements standing behind educational change, school reform is unlikely except in the cosmetic sense. But we need projects that challenge the mainstream if there is to be any change at all. At the moment, these projects are few and largely invisible, partly because they have not made a public display of their difference. But education activists need to begin to explore what an education reveille for radicals (to borrow a phrase from Saul Alinsky) would look like.

A version of this article was originally published in The Indypendent.