Books, Learning, and Things That Matter, Including Black Lives

I am 82 years old and somewhat world-weary. Yesterday my grandson asked if I was in despair about the events in Dallas and the killings that preceded them. Yes, I said, I was deeply saddened by it all. I mentioned how I myself had once tried to address such issues. Though my efforts could be considered failures, I felt that they had not been in vain. I took comfort in the thought that though they had ended up on the discard heap of history they had also entered the ether and at some moment yet to come they would magically affect future generations who would learn from them and build upon them. I told him that I remained hopeful about the country and its future.

1968-protest

The year was 1968 and our country was reeling. The war was raging in South East Asia, and the struggle for civil rights was reaching its crescendo at home. Swirling about were massive protests and growing dissent against the War and demonstrations of militancy by Black Americans. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, more than 200 rebellions occurred nationwide on that night alone. Serious violence erupted in 38 states and 138 cities.

The unrest was accompanied by a massive and unprecedented level of counter-action by the Police and the National Guard. In the month of April, more National Guard troops were called out than in the previous year. Never before in the history of our country has such a massive military response been mounted against domestic disorder.

Robert Kennedy was a white man who had established an especially close relationship with the Black community. He was a symbol of reconciliation and a promising candidate for President. Only four years before he had expressed his anguish at the assassination of his own brother JFK. On the night of his victory in the all important California primary, he was also assassinated. The nation was coming apart at the seams.

On the campus of the Divinity School at Yale University, far from the disorder, a small program in compensatory education was taking shape. It was a small skirmish, part of the other war, the war on poverty, an articulated national commitment to address issues of social and economic injustice.

The school had been in operation for four years. But in 1968, a small group of educators redefined the enterprise and gave it a new direction. As in previous years, most of the students came from backgrounds of poverty. But that year the student body was especially challenging. Many were alienated from traditional schooling; underachieving academically and written off by their home schools. They were African-Americans from the large cities as well as from the rural South; Latinos from the far West, Native Americans from the reservations of the Southwest and white kids from Vermont and New Hampshire who had never before met a kid of color. For the first time ever, young women were enrolled as students on the Yale campus.

These students were as confused as we were as to the meaning of the events unfolding before them and how best to respond. The external turmoil reflected all too accurately the inner contradictions of our staff and students, bringing sharply into focus the conduct of individual lives as well as that of the nation.

For us it could not be business as usual. One could not simply seek refuge from these forces at our schools and universities. Schooling was part of and not apart from society. Rather than simply sit by idly, reflecting on these events, our schools were morally compelled to step forward—to generate new thinking, alternate visions and active approaches to the events of the outside world consistent with the needs and demands of its students. This was the stuff of a real education, intellectually challenging and spiritually and politically transformative.

We took to heart the words of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator, that when we educate for personal liberation, we raise social and political consciousness. We believed that though schools serve primarily as hand-maidens of the larger culture, perpetuating its values, traditions, and myths, they must also play the gadfly, holding the culture accountable, helping shape it in a more humane image.

Central to our effort was our curriculum. At its heart lay the forbidden issue of our culture — racism. We made discrimination, its nature and its origin, the centerpiece of our learning, using it as the touchstone of identity and a metaphor for the human condition. We examined the issue from all sides, beginning with ourselves, the students and staff, using individual concerns and interpersonal relationships as the primary subject of study. Beyond this was the issue of community, as we searched together for the values that ground people and bind them together.

We lived and breathed these matters daily. Nothing was swept under the rug. We were a vibrant laboratory in the American dream, struggling actively to better understand the problems and potential of our democracy.

Assisting us in our quest was a full range of academic and aesthetic resources, from the great books of the Western literary tradition, to poetry, drama, dance, music, and film. At a time when multicultural education was coming into vogue, we complemented it with the words of “dead white men,”looking to classical literature for guidance in order to better understand the external crises of our day. Their words and thoughts helped mediate the day-to-day encounters between students and staff, illuminating the realms of the personal and interpersonal strife and confusion.

Today, we find ourselves once more at a watershed moment in our history. If educators need a clarion call to step into the current breach, I humbly offer the prospectus for our school, written almost fifty years ago:

This prospectus represents the product of our total reassessment of the Yale Summer High School. We feel that the need exists for a national educational community where, in microcosm, our strength in diversity might be brought to bear on the critical areas of American life.

Our point of departure is the widespread disaffection and estrangement felt by many members of the body politic towards the quality of American life; whether reflected in the Black-White polarization and the spasms of civil disorder that have shaken our cities, or in the apathy and despair of those who have chosen to “turn off.”

For many of its most talented youths, as for many of its most gifted adults, America has ceased to inspire commitment. A functional concept of citizenship itself is in crisis; a crisis stemming from the gradual loss of common bases for action and common social goals. As educators, we feel compelled to address ourselves to this problem.

Our effort is directed primarily to those potentially creative youngsters who are in danger of being ignored and discounted by society. We would have them grow into responsible participants in our culture. We would nurture a valid commitment to American society via those young people currently most at odds with it.

However, there exist few values, taken seriously, either universal or uniquely American, which might bind our citizens together. An effort must be made to structure contexts wherein such values might be rescued from our past; and new values generated so as to ground our common choices and imbue them with redeeming significance.

We agree with Socrates that “wisdom cannot be taught”, yet feel that contexts can and should be structured where it might best be learned. Nowhere is the need more clearly felt than in the area of race relations; for it is only through the recreation of shared values that freedom will be possible for both Black and White.

Our school would be such a workshop, for young persons, in the problems and possibilities of modern America. It may appear that we are seeking students of heroic dimension, and exhorting them to a heroic task.

Perhaps this is true; but we concur with Max Lerner that one of the saddest things that has happened to American Education has been “the squeezing out of the heroic.” Adding this necessary dimension is one of our goals as a model educational community.

It is 2016. Our nation once more finds itself at a critical juncture. We anxiously search for answers, Our failure to fully explore new ways in which a diverse population might learn to live and work together in harmony can only lead to an extension of the present state of thoughtlessness and confusion that now divides the nation. We look to our politicians for answers . But this is an important teaching moment for our country. And politicians are not teachers. Our schools and universities should be leading that conversation rather than simply following or re-formulating that which passes for thought in Washington.

Where are our schools today and the educators who lead them? When will they step forward to assume a leadership role and help show us the way? Might they, at the very least, create a context in which that conversation might occur? When it happens, please let me know. I’d very much like to join in.

More from Larry Paros on education:

Stanley Fish on One End of a Log and Carly Fiorina on the Other: Can Schooling Get Any Better Than That?

larry-paro-education-reform

Stanley Fish recently made a tongue-in-cheek endorsement of Carly Fiorina for Secretary of Education. OMG! Strange bedfellows indeed — a philosopher, detached from the real world and an entrepreneurial opportunist thoroughly immersed in it.

Fish takes on the people he calls “Solutionists” who decry that despite hundreds of years of innovation and technological progress, the 21st century classroom is basically just like the classroom in Plato’s dialogues: eager students sitting at the feet of a master teacher — a condition he fully endorses: “As far as I am concerned, that’s the good news and it is news Carly Fiorina was broadcasting last week.”

Alas, the good old days that Fish yearns for existed only as a Platonic ideal. They were anything but good — a two-tiered authoritarian structure based on business-like management models which emphasized testing and grades, were cluttered with irrelevant curricula, emphasized rote learning and grill and drill, and had as its central mission, the sorting and classification of children by class for a future dead-end role in society.

Forina, who knows firsthand about jobs, having played a major role in destroying large numbers of them, nobly states that education’s great task is not to prepare people for jobs, but to “fill children’s souls,” to make of them the kinds of citizens who can contribute to a participatory democracy.

Agreed, the purpose of education in a Democracy is not to elevate the quality of Boeing or Microsoft personnel, enhance our GNP, or better allow us to compete in the world. Its true purpose is to help the individual person act more effectively as an autonomous center of power and responsibility; to help her to be more creatively engaged, and to assist her in learning how to best use the gifts with which she has been blessed. It teaches her how to act not only better towards herself but towards others, helping her in her spiritual development so she night better act in accord with moral purpose. That is the tripartite purpose of education — hopefully resulting in a free, autonomous, responsible, and moral being. Knowledge is understood for what it is, a means towards those ends, not an end unto itself.

But one does not “fill children’s souls.” That speaks of “pouring it on or in,” or what noted educator Paolo Freire called “jug to mug education,” whereby the teacher pours from his jug to the student’s mug. Come examination time, the student returns the favor.

Might they better follow Freire, rejecting the traditional banking approach — the staple of traditional education whereby inert material is simply deposited into the student’s account, replacing it with a process that is mutual and dialogical, one in which students continually question and take meaning from everything they learn.

In the process, students learn how to think democratically and to take control over their own education and their own life, developing an elevated personal, political and social consciousness, whereby they became the subjects, rather than objects, of the world.

It’s easy enough to single out standardized testing as a villain in the piece. Everyone knows the excesses of same and the preoccupation, if not obsession, with quantifiably verifiable indices of success. And the havoc such obsession is wracking on contemporary education.

But cool your jets on the issue of technology. Agreed, there is a misplaced faith in technology that it can somehow deliver us to the promised land of enlightenment. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water or become a Luddite on the subject.

Ironically, the very technology generally regarded as cold and impersonal, also offers the best opportunity for re-humanization of the culture. It has the potential to return learning to the learner. By recognizing his unique identity and personal interests, it can assist him in addressing his primary concern: liberation, affirmation, and acceptance of self, helping him to regain the right to determine his own experience.

This does not mean a diminished role for the teacher, but a new one. No longer will the teacher be relied on as the source and primary transmitter of data. Employing the new technology, the student instead will have the ability to access information faster and more accurately through his own efforts. This, in turn, allows the teacher to redefine himself — to embrace a new role as mentor and catalyst, guiding the student in an intelligent application of his knowledge and helping him explore new connective principles.

Technology also puts up for grabs the very concept of school as a building. Transcending time and space, technology frees educational thinking from the impersonality of constrictive brick and mortar structures. Technology does all of this… and more.

What technology does not do, however, is provide the conceptual framework for its employment and the values which inform its use. Technology can be put to whatever use we want. Rather than being employed to insure greater compliance with mandates from Madison and Pennsylvania Avenues; its services can be employed on behalf of a higher calling.

Why not enlist it on behalf of the regeneration of intimacy and redefinition of community we so sorely miss? This very same technology which puts us each into our own individual orbit, dividing and setting us apart, which personalizes our buying habits and identifies us as good consumers — also offers the best hope for bringing us together. We first need, however, to affirm those values loudly and clearly, lest that same technology become yet another set of tools for our enslavement, rather than our liberation.

What is missing most from the Fiorina-Fish vision is an examination of the larger questions which go to the heart of the educational process and the most basic assumptions on which the entire superstructure rests.

  • What social and moral imperatives should guide the learning process? Education for whom; for what; towards what end; for what purpose?
  • How might our own educational history and past efforts at reform inform our current efforts?
  • What role do the larger social, political, economic, and technological forces play in shaping our schools? How do they help or inhibit our efforts to create a more just and humane educational system?
  • What are the alternatives to what presently exists? What are its essential components?

Neither Fiorina nor Fish makes mention of social justice, the meritocratic ethos which dominates to the exclusion of children of color and those who are less advantaged or the failure of our schools to meet their needs.

We’re all for greater exposure to music, literature, art and philosophy — the very subjects identified as victims of the current infatuation with computer learning and the STEM subjects. As for ideas, indeed — but not simply ideas for ideas sake. .

This has led to an intellectual bias in the educational process which falls most heavily and discriminates most greatly against children of color and of disadvantaged.

Why don’t they mention how our schools might instead consider identifying and nurturing skills, talents, and mindsets that have more influence on adult success than does IQ? What of creativity and independent thinking? What of emotional and social intelligence? — enhanced self-awareness and self-control, how intellect and emotion might work in tandem, political and social consciousness/conscience, the capacity for working with others and helping them work more effectively?

We believe that the classics, including Plato, can play an important part in the educational process. But not as ends unto themselves, not as interesting relics of sorts, received by students as antiquated pieces of history, divorced from their most basic concerns.

Our job as educators is to make the classics, and the questions they pose, relevant to the times and to the lives of our students. Creating a relevant curriculum means developing a coherent framework of study which might aid our students in their struggle for identity. It is one that speaks to them directly and to the times in which they live.

Education would then be not apart from the world but a part of it. At its most effective, it would be transformative for both the learner and the society.

I’m not sure that’s what either Carly Fiorina or Stanley Fish had in mind.

Think about the world you want to live and work in.
What do you need to know to build that world?
Demand that your teachers teach you that.
— Prince Peter Kropotkin

Follow Larry on Huffington Post

More from Larry Paros on education:

Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as “exemplary” and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.

Teachers Wanted… Forget It, I’ve Got Better Things to Do

teachers-larry-paros

Recent headlines scream out: “Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional).” A day later, there’s a follow-up in an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Frank Bruni, “Can We Interest you in Teaching?

Together, they hit a nerve. God, I would like to teach again! Teaching is my passion. I love young people, and I have dedicated a large portion of my life to them. But I am an octogenarian and …

Age aside, however, even if I had the opportunity, I would not teach again; not because of any lack of desire but because there is simply no place any longer for me or others like me in education.

I find myself instead adrift in memories. The year was 1960; the place, West Haven High School, just outside New Haven Connecticut. I was somewhat new to teaching. I identified myself a “math teacher,” a misnomer of sorts, given that my primary background had been in history and political science and I was then currently enrolled in graduate work at Yale in International Relations.

I had become a math teacher by default, accepting a position in a small mill town in the Berkshires, shortly after graduating as a history major from college, in order to escape the tedium of a temporary factory position and to avoid having to make a hard and fast decision about a future career.

I really had no business teaching the subject. I was not born to the calling. As a student, I hated the subject and received my poorest grades in it. My cover was provide by a temporary emergency teaching certificate, testimony to the scarcity of credentialed math and science teachers and the abundance of those in the humanities.

West Haven high at the time was then bulging at the seams and unable to accommodate all the students within the course of a normal school day. It scheduled double sessions. Teachers were to be in school by 7:30 AM. Classes began at 8AM and concluded at Noon. This was followed by a quick lunch, after which the school cleared to make way for the second wave which began at 1 PM and ran until 5 PM.

The principal was a grizzled veteran from WWII who was sealed off in his office bunker, in his very own fortress of solitude and seldom heard from or seen. Much more evident was the assistant principal, an ubiquitous figure who roamed the corridors in search of miscreants, calling out both students and teachers. Suffering from severe arthritis, she made the rounds, clutching her cane much like a swagger stick, lacking only a pith helmet to complete her image of a reigning colonialist. Each night she stood outside the school, peering at the window shades making sure they were evenly drawn, calling out teachers the next day whose judgment was askew.

It was she who gave me my assignment. It was pretty straightforward: Five periods of Algebra I and Geometry I and one of General Math just before lunch. Second shift was Algebra II, all six periods–a total of more than 250 students and a school day that extended for more than eight hours.

After a brief orientation, she passed me on to the head of the department who went to great lengths explaining my responsibilities, primarily preparing these kids for the SATS and college. And, oh yes, there was also the section of general math. It was composed of the kids who were not good enough for Algebra or Plane geometry.

These were the kids who had stumbled and fumbled their way through the system. They took general math, each year adding a few more numerals and decimal points, tedious and mind-numbing exercises. “Keep them busy and you’ll be fine,” she added. “Don’t take it personally, you’ve been assigned these kids, because you’re the rookie in the department and lack the seniority of the other teachers.”

They were the “black leather crowd”–white kids from working class backgrounds–“dese” girls heavily made up and “dose” guys, featuring D.A.’s, haircuts, culminating in a pattern similar to the rear end of a duck formed by combing the hair back on the side of the head and holding it with place with hair grease (hence also the general term for these kids as “greasers”).

They were the kids caught smoking in the lav. The ones you hated to have in a large study hall at the end of the day, given to pranks dropping books on signal and doling out noogies on unsuspecting classmates. The ones responsible for the sorry state of the lavs, the graffiti on the stall doors and the tossing of rolls of toilet paper into the toilet, causing backups and flooding. Forget about teaching them anything. They were the walking dead of academia.

What to do with them? What to teach them and how? I mulled the situation over and over, getting nowhere fast.

I finally went for a walk, eventually ending up at the local bookstore. There my eyes came to rest on a new volume on the bottom shelf. It was entitle “The Trachtenberg Speed System of Basic Mathematics.”

Ask and you shall receive.

teachers-larry-paros

I love books, embrace ideas which engage my mind and the off-beat and the peculiar. I also have a particular place in my heart for the outlier, the pioneer, and the gadfly, those who think and live outside the box. I love those who look at things with fresh eyes, see them without prejudice or prejudgment. Jakow Trachtenberg and my general math kids–what a potentially beautiful perfectly odd fit!

Born in Odessa, Russia, Trachtenberg had risen to the position of chief engineer of the Russian navy under the Czar. But with the Revolution, he was forced to flee Russia, finding refuge in Germany. There he made a good life, but with the advent of Hitler, of whom he was an outspoken opponent, he escaped to Vienna. Captured by the Nazis, he was shipped in a cattle car to a concentration camp.

It was there that he developed his system of mathematics. To maintain his sanity and peace of mind amidst the horrors of confinement, he found refuge in a world of his own–one of logic and order. There he used every spare moment developing and refining his simplified system of mathematics, devising shortcuts for everything from multiplication to algebra.

Lacking books, paper, pen, or pencil, he scribbled his theories on whatever scraps of detritus he might find lying about; most of the work, however was done in his head, arranging and re-arranging his beloved numbers, manipulating them in new and creative ways.

He visualized gigantic numbers to be added and he set himself the task of totaling them. And since no one can remember thousands of numbers, he invented a fool-proof method that would make it possible for even a child to add thousands of numbers together without making a mistake without, in fact, ever adding higher than eleven.

teachers-larry-paros

Stirring further interest in me was that after his release, Trachtenberg first taught his new and simplified way of doing arithmetic to children who had a history of doing poorly in their school work; those used to failure, many of whom were shy and withdrawn; or boastful and unmanageable.

My first day of general math, most of the 30 plus students stared blankly out at me, Others cradled their head in their arms in mock-nap like fashion on their desk. A few glared defiantly: “Bring it on!” their eyes said, “We’ve been there before and we’ve done this shit a hundred times over.”

I told them we were going to try something different. I related the story of Jakow Trachtenberg. They sat quietly and listened intently. It was a great story. But they were not yet convinced that math could be interesting, challenging or hold their interest.

Arithmetic is one of the poorest-taught and most hated of subjects in our schools and there has been little or no progress in teaching the subject in this country in the past century, despite a succession of “new maths.”

In Trachtenberg, there are no multiplication tables, no division. To learn the system you need only be able to count. The method is based on a series of keys which must be memorized. Once you have learned them, arithmetic becomes delightfully easy because you will be able to “read” your numbers.

The important benefits of the system are greater ease, greater speed, and greater accuracy–all without having to learn or have a reliance on the multiplication tables. I loved how it challenged most of the givens, long standing fundamental assumptions about arithmetic.

It took several sessions to convince the kids. But after things kicked in, things went like wild-fire. They quickly saw the magic in it and took to it like a game. The feeling of accomplishment was accompanied by a poise and assurance, and each level of success built and led to the next. It awakened a new interest in mathematics, instilling them with confidence, and offering a challenge that spurred them on to mastering the subject

They loved junking the basic assumptions and starting from scratch. They were fascinated by the fact that the course was not a series of unconnected tricks, but a complete system.

Trachtenberg took the drudgery out of arithmetic. Most days the kids came to class eager and excited to learning something new, great attitudes and great sense of humor about it. They had new eyes on math and new eyes on themselves.

The class was held just before lunch. The bell for lunch would ring, but rather than jump from their seats and rush for the door, most of the kids would instead stay in their seats and continue with the exercise, often in rapt competition with their fellow students. It came to be my favorite class, the one I most looked forward to.

I graded accordingly. When I gave Frank Paglia an A for the term (which he fully deserved based on his accomplishments in the course) , he rushed up to me after class and gave me a big hug. “Holy shit…I never got a fucking A in my whole life!” he screamed out. “You deserved it,” I told him as he ran from the room.

The word soon got out, and the head of the Department called me in. She was irate. “How dare you give Frank an A,” she fumed. This was general math and A’s were reserved for real students studying real subjects such as Algebra and Geometry. I argued how this was a real subject and how Frank deserved an A for his work in it. She remained unconvinced, however, arguing how I did not understand how the academic world worked, and if I did not learn quickly or was unwilling to accept it, there was no place for me in it.

We all move on. When I left West Haven High, I stopped by the principal’s office as a courtesy. The principal rose from his desk, firmly grasped my hand, patted me on the shoulder and said, “You were one of the best teachers in the school. We will miss you.” “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, I asked, but how did you arrive at that conclusion? I don’t remember you ever having been in my classroom.” “That’s easy, he said. You never sent anyone to the office.”

A few years later, I was in a local bank to make a withdrawal, and lo and behold if one of the tellers standing before me was a former student from that same class. “Mr. Paros!” he blurted out excitedly. Would you believe where I am?” I smiled and told him how cool it was. “I love it,” said he. Great course you taught!” The line behind me was growing longer and slightly edgy with the wait. The former student handed me some money. “You count it, said he, you’re the teacher.”

In reference to today’s teacher shortage, Carlos Ayala, dean of the school of education at Sonoma State University, noted that, “There are not enough people who will look at teacher education or being a teacher as a job that they want to pursue,”

Frank Bruni’s wish list for adding more allure to the profession included better pay, career growth, and greater prestige, including higher licensing standards. Mentioned also was autonomy.

Autonomy is really at the nub of it all. Teaching is an art, and we need to respect the artist and give him full reign in his expression. What repels many of our best and most creative prospective educators is the fundamental distrust of the teacher as a free-wheeling artist, opting instead for the passive employee who will digest and regurgitate pre-cooked curricula, worship at the altar of standardized tests, and uncritically accept quantifiably verifiable indices of success as the gold standard for evaluating student growth as well as their own worth. Why would any free-wheeling educational artist search out work under such conditions? Only the drones need apply. Creative and independent thinkers should look elsewhere.

I eventually became a pretty good math teacher, but not because I knew anything about math. Math-challenged Larry had to reinvent the subject matter, to make it come to life for him so that it in turn might resonate for his students,. He taught math as he would have like it to have been taught to him. And it worked.

There may no longer be any place for arithmetic, even speed arithmetic in the educational process. Calculators, GPS, and Siri have rendered such skills obsolete. I would have liked, however, to believe that there might still be a place in today’s educational world for me or a variation of Jackow Trachtenberg…but apparently there is not.

So for now, I’ll just have to pass on any job offers.

More from Larry Paros on education:

Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as “exemplary” and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.

Reflections of an Octogenarian: Education and the Symbols of Oppression – Charleston, Dixie, and the Confederate Flag

Larry-Paros-Political-fun-1
Introduction

As a retired educator, I often wonder whether my efforts have made any difference in the lives of my students or the course of the culture.

A partial answer recently came to light in the shadow of the horrific events in Charleston and the ensuing controversy over the Confederate flag– a particle of thought from the assorted fragments of memory with which old age is filled. I share it with teachers past and present as an article of faith on the worthiness of education.

In 1968, I was Director of the Yale Summer High School (YSHS), a program which brought together 150 students from poverty backgrounds from all over the nation. At a time of racial rioting and civil disorder, the school was created as a living laboratory in the problems and promise of the American democracy.

Our curriculum drew heavily on the ‘Great Books’ of Western literature, using the classics to bring volatile issues of race, tolerance and personal identity more sharply into focus. It ranged from Marx’s “Das Capital” to Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” and Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”

Larry-Paros-Political-fun-2

Among the works we studied was “Antigone” by Sophocles. It is about the meaning of loyalty and the dictates of conscience versus those of the state.

One of the kids that summer was an African American student named Charles Langley. After the conclusion of the program, he returned home to North Carolina from which he sent me a series of letters. They were a follow-up of sorts to a statement he had made at the conclusion of the summer and a question he had posed.

Larry-Paros-Political-fun-3
New Haven, CT., July, 1968

The students at the YSHS were so diverse that it was almost impossible to “follow the crowd.” For one thing, there were no crowds to follow since there was no majority or minority in a traditional sense.

Everybody thought and did according to their beliefs. At the YSHS there was an unlimited freedom of expression. Yes, one could express exactly what he felt without being beaten or ostracized.

Was the YSHS merely a seven week dream? A dream in which one sees life and the world as it might be, in its true perspective. Will we, as students, be forced to wake up from this dream when we return home? When home, will we forget this dream as we have forgotten others?

Greenville, N.C. August 1968

It is August. I have come to the end of my YSHS experience. Living in the new society, I have really found myself. No longer hindered by either my mother or society, I was able to become my true self. I practiced black pride. I let my kinky hair grow out and took a course about my black ancestors. I became more militant in my fight for “human rights;” so what if I lived in a racist society! It didn’t mean I had to be one!

I found philosophers who shared many of my beliefs. I became aware of the problems around me, I was able to have personal friends regardless of their color, I was able to discuss freely in class such forbidden subjects as sex, race, Communism and revolution.

I must say Yale did change me a lot. I have found a sense of black identity, self-confidence, rational thinking and militancy. Please don’t be alarmed; in the South a militant is anyone who is not conservative or on the right.

Last week our lily-white band (only two black members, including me) elected me as their president. Of course I was surprised. Now, I am involved in the “Dixie” controversy. I have refused to play or sing “Dixie.”

Larry-Paros-Political-fun-4

To the Black people of the South, “Dixie” carries a long list of bad connotations. Whites, on the other hand, love it as though it was the South’s National Anthem. While playing it, they wave the confederate flag and sing and shout; tears even come to their eyes. But for me as a black person, Dixie was very offensive.

My band director was very shocked when I told him I was not going to play “Dixie.” He always considered me the good obedient type. I thought about Antigone. What impressed me was that she was willing to stand up for what she believed in–even if at the cost of her life.

Larry-Paros-Political-fun-5

Now I find myself facing the same situation. Antigone took a stand. Although my stand is very shaky, I am willing to accept my fate as she did. Tomorrow I’ll see what my band director has in store for my disobedience.

Greenville, N. C. October, 1968

I’m still fighting against “Dixie”. At first I didn’t care if they played the song as long as I didn’t have to. But now I think differently. It is no longer a matter of tolerance but of respect.

My band director stopped playing “Dixie” at two football games because of my feelings. But then the band students and the student body demanded “Dixie;” so he gave in to the pressure.

Larry-Paros-Political-fun-6

I addressed my band members on my beliefs concerning “Dixie”. The reaction was mixed. Only a few understood my views. What was really shocking was that there were only two black kids in the band (Linda and myself) and Linda (Uncle Tom’s grandchild) stated that she saw nothing wrong with “Dixie;” so she would play it. I thought I was alone for a just cause. Then the band director said he would play “Dixie” at the next game. I felt he had no respect for my feelings.

Greenville, N.C. January, 1969

At the game “Dixie” was played twice. Both times I sat down and didn’t play in “silent protest.” I was surprised for my band speech did some good. At least five other white band members joined in my silent protest. Of course, Linda played like she said she would. I am now in the midst of writing an article about “Dixie” in my school newspaper.

Greenville, N.C., March 1969

As far as the “Dixie” affair, it is over for awhile. This controversy gave me my first chance to test my newly acquired militancy for a just cause. My peaceful sit-down protest was quite effective. Even an act of this nature exposed the problem and displayed my personal discontent.

The principal, however, finally had the last word on the issue. I wrote an article for our school newspaper to give the Black’s viewpoint concerning “Dixie.” The newspaper staff was pleased with the article.

All that was left was to get the article approved by the principal. He firmly refused to print the letter, because he thought his students should not be exposed to such a controversial topic.

Even so, my protest was not a complete failure for -like Antigone– I exposed a problem in which at least a few got the message.

YSHS Reunion, New Haven CT., 2009

Larry-Paros-Political-fun-1

Teaching the Children of Poverty: A Short Trip From Italy, Brazil, New Zealand, Selma, and Washington, D.C to Baltimore

Larry-Paros-School

I can’t believe we’re having this conversation, but let’s try.

The events of 50 years ago which culminated at the Edmund Pettus Bridge were dramatically recreated in the film Selma. The very same issues are now being played out in real time on our television sets in the events transpiring over the past several days on the streets of Baltimore. Both serve as reminders of the work yet to be done to achieve a more equitable and just society.

Hillary Clinton acknowledged this reality, saying, “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America” — to which we would add, “Why stop there? What about the schooling of children of color from poverty backgrounds? Don’t we also need to come to terms with some hard truths about race and education as well?”

Who, however, will depict their plight? Who will speak for the children?

What better voice than the children themselves?

Italy

“Dear Miss,

You don’t remember me or my name. You have flunked so many of us. On the other hand I have often had thoughts about you, and the other teachers, and about the institution which you call ‘school’ and about the kids that you flunk. You flunk us right out into the fields and factories and there you forget us.”

Thus began Letter to a Teacher (Lettera a una professoressa) by the Schoolboys of Barbiana, a book in the form of a letter addressed to a composite teacher, by eight students speaking with a single voice.

All were students in a small school, located in a remote Italian village of about twenty farmhouses in the hills of the Mugello region, in Tuscany.

The school was the brainchild of Lorenzo Milani (1923-1967), a progressive educator, journalist and priest who created it as an alternative educational setting for poor children who had been pushed out from traditional schooling. Born into poor families, these schoolboys had been told by former teachers that their futures were limited. Most had either flunked out of school or were bitterly discouraged with the way they were taught.

It began with 10 peasant students, schoolboys, 11 to 13 years old and a rigorous schedule of eight hours of work per day, six to seven days a week and later grew to 20 students, with the older students teaching the younger ones.

The school was quite different than anything the children had previously experienced. Under Milani’s guidance, they learned how to write and think for themselves. They also learned to overcome their social-class limitations. The school respected the boys as learners and honored their backgrounds.

It s curriculum included the analysis and discussion of the children’s own lives, which included a year-long project (coordinated by Milani) about their experiences in the school system, a two-tiered authoritarian structure based on business-like management models which emphasized testing and grades, was cluttered with irrelevant curricula, placed an emphasis on rote learning and grill and drill, and had as its central mission, the sorting and classification of children by class for a future dead-end role in society.

Larry-Paros-School

The letter is an eloquent diatribe of the children’s own experiences in the public schools and the favoritism and class-bias of the entire educational system. It is one of the most simple but most forceful pieces of writing of the 20th century on school and social class and a powerful, indictment of how schools are complicit in perpetuating social injustice.

Brazil

That very same year (1966), Paolo Freire’s classic work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published. Freire had worked for years with the campesinos, “the shirtless ones,” those laboring in the fields of Brazil in efforts to raise adult literacy.

His approach to schooling also began with his students, integrating the mainsprings of their lives; their fears, hopes, aspirations, and concerns as the point of departure and the subject matter, dictating both classroom practice and the politics of the school.

Larry-Paros-School

Rejecting the traditional banking approach–the staple of traditional education whereby inert material is simply deposited into the student’s account– he replaced it with a process that was mutual and dialogical, in which students continually questioned and took meaning from everything they learned.

In the process, they learned how to think democratically and to take control over their own education and their own life, emerging with an elevated personal, political and social consciousness, whereby they became the subjects, rather than objects, of the world.

This had implications on a much wider level as well. Education would be not apart from the world but a part of it. At its most effective, it would be transformative for both the learner and the society.

New Zealand

Four years later, Sylvia Ashton-Warner published her book, Teacher, recounting her experience teaching the Maori children of New Zealand.

Larry-Paros-School

Her approach towards introducing primitive children to the world of words was simple yet direct.

They (the words) must be made out of the stuff of the child itself. I reach a hand into the mind of the child, bring out a handful of the stuff I find there, and use that as our first working material… And in this dynamic material within the familiarity and security of it, the Maori finds that words have intense meaning to him, from which cannot help but arise a love of reading. For it’s here, right in this first word, that the love of reading is born, and the longer his reading is organic the stronger it becomes, until by the time he arrives at the books of the new culture, he receives them as another joy rather than as labor. I know all this because I’ve done it.

The approach of Milani, Freire, and Ashton-Warner is far different than the philosophy which today dictates the education of urban kids (read poor black and brown children). Martin Haberman called it “The pedagogy of poverty.”

Rather than facilitating student ownership of the educational content or treating them as partners in it, content is directive, tightly controlled and superimposed from above.

It has powerful and varied advocates: Those who fear minorities and the poor and have low expectations for them; those obsessed with control; and those who themselves have been brutalized and marginalized by the process; as well as business and reform-oriented leaders working from their narrow world view, believing it to be the only way of structuring reality,

Call it what you may, the approach at its heart is racism, masquerading as hope, working to perpetuate the current social and political reality.

Washington D.C.

We are fast approaching the 50th anniversary, one of the single best-known pieces of social science research ever done on our schools. Named in deference to its senior author, sociologist, James Coleman, “The Coleman Report” is the second largest social science research project ever produced in this country’s history–an effort deemed “impressive,” even by today’s standards. The study was produced under the authority of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The resulting report, “Equality in Educational Opportunity,” was published in July 1966.

Larry-Paros-School

The central finding of the report was that what occurred in a child’s home and in their neighborhood and though their interactions with peers were far greater determinants of academic success than anything schools might do. Few school-related “inputs” seemed to matter much in terms of overcoming the academic disparities which children brought with them. Only teachers’ verbal ability seemed to be linked to higher student test scores and improving student achievement.

That’s what people remember most about the report. What many took away from it was the notion that “schools don’t matter,” an argument which many politicians used in opposing further educational funding–an interpretation which was greatly oversimplified.

Virtually lost in its discussion was what the report found to be the next–most important determinant of academic achievement after family characteristics–a student’s sense of control over his or her own destiny.

If the motivational problems of the poor is to a significant degree rooted in the conviction, resulting from the experience of a rigid or chaotic home and street life, that they cannot influence the relevant parts of their environment, surely the efforts of school to prevent their reflecting on, evaluating, and attempting to influence the environment of the school itself, could only further confirm their belief in the fruitlessness of making any effort toward self-mastery.

If the primary cause of lack of motivation among the poor is their feeling that they cannot control their own destiny – that feeling can only be reinforced by placing them in highly politicized and manipulative programs of compensatory education whose success is largely defined in terms of percentage of students gotten into “quality” colleges.

Oh yes, the report also noted that African-American students in schools with mostly white students had a greater sense of control. But forget about that. The goal of school integration has long since passed us by.

Baltimore

The Baltimore school system ranked second among the nation’s 100 largest school districts in per pupil expenditures in fiscal year 2011, $15,483 per-pupil, second only to New York City’s$19,770. As reported in the Baltimore Sun: Respondents asked to grade the Baltimore public schools, gave it the equivalent of a grade-point average of 1.45, about a D-plus.

Larry-Paros-School

How to address this disparity? Empowering the students might be a good place to start. Taking the lives of students seriously invariably leads to having to also take seriously the larger context in which schooling is played out. Empowering students goes hand in hand with empowering the community.

That is the challenge we face today.

Whoever is fond of the comfortable and fortunate stays out of politics, he does not want anything to change. To get to know the children of the poor, and to love politics, are one and the same thing. You cannot love human beings who are marked by unjust laws, and not work for other laws.
—-The Children of Barbiana

Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as “exemplary” and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.

Reflections of an Octogenarian IX: On Educational Leadership — Principles for Principals

education-reform-larry-paros

In a recent article in the New York Times, Will Miller argued that if we hope to turn our schools around, we need not only great teachers, but also great principals.

It’s not an unreasonable premise. The school executive plays a significant factor in determining a school’s fate. He sets the tone of the enterprise, determines its priorities; holds its participants to account; and is responsible for the overall energy of the setting.

The title “principal” is, however, a dated concept from our educational past, carrying with it certain connotations and expectations.

Old School

The primary concern of the traditional principal is maintenance of order. He presides over a tightly run no-nonsense organization, committed to the amelioration of conflict. As the chief disciplinarian, he moves swiftly and surely to exorcise any “unreliable” or uncertain elements, ensuring that the rules are properly enforced by his underlings, i.e. the teachers, even if he has to intervene personally in punishing offenders.

He is protector of the status quo, staff, curriculum, and the school’s way of life from the “uneducated” onslaughts of its students, the community, and the media. His actions are informed primarily by political considerations and guided by conventional ethics and what passes as the conventional wisdom.

Though he welcomes the imagery of change and being thought of as forward-looking and progressive, he is fearful and apprehensive of genuine innovation given the unrest and anxiety it brings in its wake. Real change is messy and anarchic and replete with errors. There is no place for error in his school.

As the institution’s most visible figure, he embodies and articulates the conceptual framework of the institution — “L’école, c’est moi” — ” and is, in fact, the one least critical of it. All look to him as that force which will assuage their fears and render them secure. A goodly portion of the energies of the school is spent alternately praising or damning him.

Its public spokesperson, and its focal point, he is the head public relations man for the school. His task is to “sell” the school to the community.

Educational Leader

He is not what is needed today. Agreed that, “We need to figure out how to get more people with the right training and support to take on one of the hardest jobs in America,” as the author argues. But what exactly are the job requirements? What is the job?

The job is to head up a school, but it is not school as it is currently known, but school as it might be — one in which new ideas might be incubated, alternate approaches to life explored, and the conventional wisdom, challenged.

The role of the leader is to initiate and expedite that process, relentlessly questioning existing practices and procedures, paving the way for innovation and change, and supporting and encouraging his staff in those efforts.

The path forward is neither neat nor linear. Much of the terrain is unchartered and marked by trial and error. Negotiating it requires that she learn to live with the impermanence and failure without which true education cannot occur.

Unlike the traditional principal, who engages in PR and “sells” his program to the community, the leader “educates.” Her efforts are directed at not giving her audience what it wants, but what it never knew it wanted. Rather than engaging in a slick sales pitch, she employs rational discourse, explaining and defining the actions of her school and its people to the public. First, last, and always, she is a teacher.

Her primary task is to guarantee the one permanent feature of the school — reason and self-reflection, which she, herself, must embody.

That Certain Something

It is fashionable today to treat education as an impersonal business enterprise whose efforts are dictated by the cult of efficiency. It is in reality a deeply intense and personal process. Dare one even speak the word “love?”

Without love and the accompanying passion, schooling is but another hollow corporate venture, commanding the allegiance of its participants only superficially. There is no joy. And without joy, there is no learning.

The educational leader is a lover of life and people. Her love is unconditional, manifesting itself as respect for her students, accepting them fully for where she finds them as opposed to where she would have them be, supporting them in their striving towards personhood, rather than obsessing on issues of external validation.

But as they say, love is not enough. A school must also have a certain mindfulness about it — a conscious purpose. The leader has to be not only a philosopher queen but a technologist as well, one versed in educational history, and the variety of ways one can learn and the most creative and imaginative ways they might be deployed.

Rather than recruit and train the right people for an anachronistic position and ask recruits to accommodate to it, we need to reformulate and redefine the job and the context, clearly articulate the values which should shape him/her and inform their actions and then recruit and train based on those same values.

We also need to muster the political will and determination to stand by these leaders, providing them with the moral support and political backing they require. Then and only then will we get the educational leaders we need and deserve.

____________________________________________________________
Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as “exemplary” and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.

Reflections of an Octogenarian VIII: Charter Schools: Old Pepsi a.k.a. the New Coke

education-reform-by-larry-paros

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand; while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” — Albert Einstein

Charter Schools, hailed by many as the savior of our educational system, funded by technocrats and promoted by super-heroes, now find themselves under heavy fire. Even Success Academy in Harlem has come under scrutiny as evidenced by the recent articles in the New York Times.

The charter school movement promised much: To improve the public schools by providing them with competition; to empower parents and students; to expand choice, to respect and respond to individual needs, to free schooling up from its most stifling regulations, to and allow students and faculty to embark on new and exciting ventures.

That was the ideal. The reality is far different. Charter schools, at their heart, are really not radically different than those they hope to replace. They share the same mantra — longer school hours, increased student accountability through higher academic standards, more rigorous promotional requirements and a heavy reliance on standardized testing and assessment mechanisms based on state and national standards.

The only difference between them and their public counterparts is that they want to shift power to the private sector, and replace all the inept teachers with apt ones — those committed to doing the same thing, but only better. It is a concept which someone once likened to aiming to recruiting a team of all-stars, when all-stars are by definition not the norm.

There’s really nothing revolutionary about that.

Educational Philosophy

While they differ widely in their pedagogical views, many of the charters, especially those in urban areas, typically use a hard as nails, no excuses approach. Their overall philosophy emphasizes a strenuous and regimented style which they argue is needed to rapidly close the achievement gap. So what else is new?

Their approach rests on a series of assumptions about the nature of learning and the structure of knowledge from education past: It’s holds that there are absolute truths–a set body of knowledge which can be accumulated bit by bit, subject by subject–honed by precision; and that any knowledge lacking such precision is unacceptable. The goal, accordingly, is that students be precisely right.

Learning how to learn, problem solving, conceptualizing, and analyzing; dealing with complex issues of values, all take a back seat to the accumulation and regurgitation of inert and obsolete data. Wisdom, the intelligent application of knowledge–because it is not quantifiably verifiable–has no place in the scheme of things.

This is further reinforced by the specious belief that it is both feasible and desirable to impose a single way of learning on all, a tenet which runs totally contrary to the new knowledge technology in which individualization and differentiation are fast replacing centralization and standardization. And one which contradicts the self-evident truth that children do not develop at the same pace or in the same way.

education-reform-by-larry-paros

Having decreed that the only knowledge deemed worthy is that which is repetitive and objective, it follows that it can only be measured by culturally shared test procedures. From this comes the clarion call for “higher standards” of measurement and results and accountability in such matters.

Testing

The testing mania is the logical extension of this mentality. What these tests measure is intelligence — the capacity for abstract reasoning and problem solving. In turn, the primary function of our schools is seen as the development of the same intelligence that these tests measure.

Alas, intelligence and intelligence testing, the lodestar of contemporary schooling, is, inherently inequitable. It has no interest in expanding access on a larger scale, traditionally serving instead as an instrument of the ruling meritocracy — a calculating means for sorting winners from losers, for purpose of reinforcing and expanding the influence of those currently in power. By allowing a few select students from the underclass to participate in higher learning, it simply perpetuates the mythology of openness and access.

education-reform-by-larry-paros

Its supporters also tout intelligence as the path to future employment. Studies, however, show that is highly overrated when you consider the relationship between IQ and occupations of high prestige: Even Arthur Jensen, high priest of the IQ, conceded that “Intelligence, via education, has its greatest effect in the assorting of individuals into occupational roles. Once they are in these roles, the importance of intelligence is less marked.” In other words, many factors besides intelligence are largely involved in success on the job.

Earlier, Christopher Jencks and his colleagues in their study, On Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America, noted that the mastery of cognitive skills is not the primary reason why some are more successful than others as adults. This has been further underscored by Daniel Goleman in his work on emotional intelligence.

This does not mean our schools should ignore intelligence but that they complement it and work strenuously towards identifying and nurturing skills, talents, and mindsets that have more influence on adult success than does IQ.

Such an approach would recognize other forms of human excellence and a more balanced human development and assign priority to creativity and independent thinking; emotional and social intelligence; enhanced self awareness and self-control; better ways in which intellect and emotion might work in tandem; an elevated political and social consciousness; and a greater capacity for working with others.

Educational Racism

This intelligence “bias” in our schools falls most heavily and discriminates most greatly against children of color and of disadvantaged. It is endemic in our public schools.

The curriculum for them often consists of a series of acquisition of skills, through a great reliance on worksheets more than real books, emphasizing rote practice more than the exploration of ideas, and memorization more than thinking. Drill and grill is the overriding leitmotif.

education-reform-by-larry-paros

From his first-hand observation of inner city schools, educator, Jonathan Kozol, describes a mechanical, process for drilling black and Latino children in “obsessively enumerated particles of amputated skill associated with upcoming state exams.”

Adds Kozol: “The children of the suburbs learn to think and to interrogate reality,” while inner-city kids “are trained for nonreflective acquiescence.” At one of the urban schools he visited, a teacher told him, “If there were middle-class white children here, the parents would rebel at this curriculum and stop it cold.”

Many charter schools have simply followed suit and even raised the ante. Enrolling mainly poor and minority students, they emphasize high academic standards, strict disciplinary codes, extended instructional time, and targeted support for low-performing students.

Not all, but many, have policies and styles of teaching calculated to breed compliance. In the process, the children are for the most part stripped of autonomy and any semblance of independence

iPads may have replaced paper workbooks, but the approach is the same. Rote recall is still promoted ahead of real understanding. Individuality, creativity, and the imagination count for little.

The results are devastating. The destruction of the spirit of the young as would be learners and undue stress and anxiety and aberrant behavior resulting from the inordinate pressure under which they have been placed.

Experimentation

When people evaluate charter schools they most often measure them against the same criteria by which they evaluate public schools — better academic outcomes. Schools which are truly experimental, however, should be judged not by their ability to outdo the system at its own game, but by the risks they take, the respect they accord their students, and the new paths to learning they have charted. Their purpose is to play gadfly to the system not to merely refine and reinforce practices which have long failed.

education-reform-by-larry-paros

Through its unholy partnership with high stakes testing, the charter school movement has diverted our attention from the real issues confronting us and discouraged genuine innovation and reform. To paraphrase Einstein, “Charter schools are to experimentation as military music is to music.”

____________________________________________________________
Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as “exemplary” and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.

Reflections of an Octogenarian VII: Educational Reform: That Vision Thing…Which Way is Up?

education-reform-larry-paros

A new vision for Education does not spring full blown like Athena from the head of Zeus. It originates in the interior of one’s being, but it is grounded in the past.

Fade back to the year 1932. The great Depression is raging. The landscape is dotted with failed businesses; millions are forced into the ranks of the unemployed; and breadlines are everywhere. The very existence of our democracy hangs in the balance. Talk of revolution is everywhere.

Many believe that the dispossessed are about to overthrow the government and take power into their own hands. It is a watershed moment–a time of great truth when we as a nation are forced to come came face to face with our contradictions. Politicians thrash about, frantically searching for “practical” solutions; others look for a moral imperative to guide them through these times.

In academia, George S. Counts, head of the Teachers College of Columbia University, pens his response. It takes the form of a series of lectures incorporated into a slim volume entitled, “Dare the Schools build a new Social Order?” A forceful rebuke and a challenge to the members of the Progressive Education movement, it calls on them to expand their focus on the child by developing a realistic and challenging vision of human destiny and a broader theory of social welfare which might inform and guide the educational process.

School, he argues, has to become not merely the contemplator of our civilization but the leader in its reconstruction. Its task is not to simply reflect existing values, but to generate a vision of society’s potential and enlist students’ loyalties and enthusiasms in its realization. Once articulated, other social and political institutions can then be examined in light of that vision.

As we know, our schools and the educators who led them failed to answer the challenge. Captive of the prevailing political and economic interests, they not only lacked a sense of the moral imperative but also a blueprint on how to begin such a reconstruction as well as the resources to do so.

Fast forward to the 1960’s and yet another defining moment in American history. A war is raging in South East Asia and the struggle for civil rights is taking place at home. Anti-war protests shake the college campuses. Student demonstrations are a commonplace occurrence, from peaceful sit-ins to the seizure and occupation of buildings. Virtually every major campus experiences some disruption.

education-reform-larry-paros

Alongside it, a different kind of war is being waged–the War on Poverty–an articulated national commitment to fully address issues of social and economic injustice– to assure every American family of an adequate home, relieve old and poor people of the financial burdens of illness, widen the educational opportunities of poor children, and speed the integration of the Black community into the mainstream of American life.

But the effort is found wanting. Blacks soon lose faith in the country’s intentions. A parallel front opens up in our cities — there are riots in Watts, Harlem, Detroit, and other urban centers. Civil insurrection is fast becoming a fact of everyday life. America is in crisis.

An integral part of that War on Poverty was a series of programs pointed towards improving the education of disadvantaged children. It was a substantial package: everything from Title I and Head Start, to programs intended to broaden access to higher education, including Educational Opportunity Grants, loans to individuals, and a concerted effort to strengthen and expand facilities at traditionally black colleges and universities.

The Upward Bound program was established, as well, providing special pre-college training experiences through joint college-community programs to help kids develop the skills, habits, and attitudes required for success in college.

Edgar Friedenberg, the noted educator and authority on adolescence, considered a number of these programs, which he visited personally, to be among the very best schools he had ever observed. The best were gifted with leadership that both digs and respects underclass youth and “showed that it was possible to cut through the stultifying mass of value-judgments that accumulate in the form of high school records and identify and nurture the creative, often disaffected intelligence underneath.”

They and efforts such as Yale Summer High School are examples of the painful, tedious, and complex task of creating a viable educational setting– many of which also made a conscious effort to seamlessly blend thought, feeling, and action together. Schools that took Counts up on his “dare.”

Our past is replete with such examples, both from the 60’s and the community based alternative educational models of the 1970’s. Many were initially touted as “exciting,” and “progressive,” and “heralding the future.” Some even had intimations of the 3rd wave. But they were always stopped short of coming to fruition. Most have been relegated to the dust-bin of history, or only dim shadows of them remain.

Why did this commitment fall short? Why did these well intentioned efforts fail to adequately address the needs of the disadvantaged? What lessons from these failures can we apply to our current efforts?

education-reform-larry-paros

What if we revisited these programs? Examine how their values informed their structure and process. Reflect on how they align with the values we most currently treasure. Let the resultant values then serve as a road-map on how best to proceed.

Let us then roll up our sleeves and dream. What if?… What if we had the opportunity to start anew— to rethink the entire issue of education and schooling from the proverbial square one, drawing freely on that extraordinary repository of knowledge from projects past.

Rather than accepting the existing framework and ethos and expending our energies tailoring our values and our technology to it, begin instead with a clear articulation of our values. Let the values then dictate the process and the structure.

Begin a dialogue in which the most basic assumptions about schooling and education and its relationship to social and political change are freely questioned. Begin with what we want, rather than what is possible.

Imagine that everything is up for grabs. Question all the traditional givens. That includes even the concept of school itself. Perhaps its day has come and gone–a concrete building, age segregated, and organized by grade level; the working definition of a teacher, courses, and grades, the idea of a school year.

As to confronting the social-political reality–it is indeed a daunting prospect. Tackling it head on can easily produce either despondency and despair or a detached and jaundiced cynicism. It, however, need not end there.

Ideal models may have little chance of realization, but so what? Others need to know of them–what we, as a people, at our very best, might achieve; what things might be like if things were right with us and the world. They need to be reminded of the importance of principles–a consistent set of values by which one can lead one’s life; and of goals–having a centerpiece to one’s existence–something to actively strive for and towards. They need to experience, even vicariously, the passion, and the bliss that comes of living one’s life in accord with one’s principles and one’s dreams.

We need to think outside the box. Those boxes are our schools. In education, as in all areas of contemporary life, we need to not just recreate the past or amend the present but to actively shape the future in ways that fire the imagination.

It might be argued that we are seeking heroic persons and exhorting them to a heroic task. So be it. We need to stretch ourselves and welcome that idea. Max Lerner, author and critic, once noted that one of the saddest things that has happened to American Education has been the squeezing out of the heroic.” Adding this necessary dimension is what it’s all about.

____________________________________________________________
Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as “exemplary” and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.

Reflections of an Octogenarian VI: Educational Reform: Batter Up! Time for a Whole New Ballgame

charlie-brown-by-larry-paros

Charlie Brown stands astride the pitcher’s mound–alone–having concluded yet another engrossing conversation with his teammates, everything from the meaning of life to the motivation of our Puritan forefathers. Forlorn and bereft of hope, he muses: “We don’t win very many ballgames, but we sure have great discussions.”

Similar thoughts, no doubt, run through the minds of contemporary educators, contemplating the conversation swirling about them: the racial gap, equality of educational opportunity, charter vs. public schools, the preparation of teachers, disparate disciplinary policies, the role of the unions, standardized testing, etc. It’s a conversation that’s also relentless and never-ending.

Perhaps, like Charlie, it’s time we called a halt to it and examine instead why the same issues continue to bedevil us, and why we have won so few ballgames over the last 100 years.

Could we be having the wrong conversation? Or could the time for conversation perhaps have come and gone?

…Good Grief!

Education is among the most critical factors influencing the quality of human life and to which the survival of the species is most closely linked. The primary form which education takes in the industrial world is schooling. Schooling is the largest single corporate enterprise in the world. Its power and influence exceed that of even the military-industrial complex. On any given weekday in the United States, one of every three persons can be found in school.

education-by-larry-paros

As befits its magnitude, its problems are super-size. Its focus, however, is limited to reinforcing and putting a better face on that same superstructure. Its challenge–to do so without ever having to address the bedrock axioms upon which it all rests–long standing assumptions and premises which underlie the existing system and support its practices.

As hand-maidens of the larger culture, our schools exist solely to reflect the dominant values of the culture and advance its goals. Behind the facade of advanced placement courses; student government, and probing literature courses lie its true purposes–a hidden curriculum which dominates and dictates the one it publicly projects: perpetuation of the system’s mythology (tales of upward mobility and the like); reinforcement of the “right” values; i.e. those which create good and obedient workers ( see tardy passes, rules of conduct, suspensions and the like); the sorting out and cataloging of talent, determining who makes it and who doesn’t (push-outs vs. valedictorians); and putting young people on ice, holding them back from prematurely entering the labor market.

Educational “change” can thus only go so far. Talk about reform is just that– so much talk. At its best, the kind of change being bandied about describes a vestigial effort–a simple mopping up operation; a matter of a few alterations here and a few there; some fine-tuning and incremental adjustments, not a drastic overhaul or restructuring.

What is seldom addressed are the moral dimensions of the educational process– focusing not on on a series of sub-issues, qua problems, but on the values which inform and shape the entire enterprise.

We are suggesting a different sensibility–a future consciousness.–one which entails a vision, drastically different than anything which presently exists, embodying our highest and noblest aspirations, hopes, and ideals.

Nothing embodies our view the future better than do our schools. Our children are the future. How we educate them speaks directly to the future we envision for them. When you look at our schools–the world your children now inhabit–what kind of a world do you see? Is it one you would want them to inherit as adults? Do you, perhaps, envision a different world? What would it take to build that world? That is what we need to ask of our teachers, our schools, and our policy makers.

education-utopia-by-larry-paros

We have long charged our schools with several overwhelming mandates, including rectification of social and economic equality. Critics argue, however, that schools alone cannot address those issues–that these problems go far deeper–to the very heart of our culture. Look instead to prevailing patterns in housing, employment, and criminal justice, to political and economic forces and underlying mindsets of racism and nativism. It is simply too much to expect Education to solve these issues.

Fair or not, whether by intent or default, is irrelevant. The fact is that the onus for solution of many of our social ills and the burden to help set society right has fallen on our schools. That being the case, there is no separating how we educate our children from efforts to reformulate the larger culture.

Martin Luther King hoped that the civil rights movement would be the headlights showing the way, not the footlights reflecting what lay behind. Can education do likewise?

An activist educational movement must also be propelled by a vision–an overarching framework of values, to guide and inform its action. Only then can we see what lies ahead; where we are going individually and collectively

Any future discussion of education cannot be pursued in isolation of a parallel discussion of national purpose. Only then can we ask which social and moral imperatives should inform the learning process — education for whom; for what; towards what end; for what purpose?

education-utopia-by-larry-paros

Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as “exemplary” and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.

More from Larry Paros on education:

Reflections of an Octogenarian IV: Whatever Happened to the Core in the Core Curriculum? Now You See It, and Now You Don’t

larry-paros-Octogenarian-yale

It’s a new day in the world of op-ed, and time for yet another commentary on the role of the humanities; the goals of a university; and the pros and cons of the core curriculum. Hopefully, this one will be different.

Flash back to 1968, a time when American cities and campuses were rife with protest, racial rioting, and civil disorder. Simultaneously, a small group of educators were working to create a living laboratory in the problems and promise of the American democracy.

It was called the Yale Summer High School. Created as part of the War on Poverty with a mandate to address issues of social and economic injustice, the school brought underprivileged kids from across the nation to the Yale campus during the 1960s.

Many of our students were alienated from schooling and academic subject matter. They were adolescents, and their focus was less on abstract subject matter and more about personal identity. Many felt academics and intellectual discussion had little to do with where they were at…and with good reason.

As Kenneth Benne, the educational philosopher, once observed, “A person deeply involved in working on the problems of his identity will hardly be able to focus his energies on acquiring the tools, skills, and disciplines of intelligence which intellectual liberation requires.” The mission we chose was to turn this around.

A number of the faculty had been teaching in the civil rights movement and had been using what are considered the “Great Books.” We thought, “Why not begin there?”

larry-paros-Octogenarian-yale

We believed the classics played an important part in the educational process. The primary reason others did not share our enthusiasm had less to do with the works themselves, but the poor manner in which they were often taught — as interesting relics of sorts, received by students as antiquated pieces of history, divorced from their most basic concerns.

Our job as educators was to make the classics, and the questions they posed, relevant to the times and to the lives of our students. We had faith in our students– many of them from the inner city– to take on such an intellectual challenge. The language in which the classics were written often made them difficult to read, but that being the case, students simply had to be schooled in how to read them — which is why we have teachers.

Creating a relevant curriculum meant developing a coherent framework of study which might aid our students in their struggle for identity. It would have to speak to them and to the times in which we lived, for the alienation of our young simply mirrored the deepening crisis in the country as a whole: the increasing estrangement of its citizenry from each other and from the entity to which they pledged allegiance. It was a crisis not dissimilar to the one facing our nation today.

In 1968, the crisis found expression in the increased tension over race; the continuation of poverty; polarization over the war in Vietnam; the deterioration of our cities; and the widespread use of drugs to “drop out.” Like the young, our nation, as a whole, was wracked in pain and actively striving to forge a new self definition.

larry-paros-Octogenarian-yale

We believed that any “school” worthy of that designation had to address these questions. Few, however, had chosen to do so. We felt it to be our duty. The times and our students demanded nothing less.

We then asked: “What should be at the center of our curriculum– its core?” We decided it would be race.

Race had become an issue of increasing concern to society at large. Both the U.S. Riot Commission and the advocates of Black Power saw the root causes of the major schism in our nation resulting not only from the poverty, social inequality and injustice, but from the racism which informed and created those conditions. Our nation, in short, had simply failed to live up to its professed ideals.

We also knew from our experience as teachers that race was very much on the minds of young people. We realized, however, that it interested them not simply as a theoretical issue of sociology and moral philosophy, nor even as a practical matter relating to poverty. It concerned them most deeply because of what it implied about the possibility and/or the desirability of their using contemporary American ideals as grounds for their own identity.

Because the issues surrounding race posed simultaneously and in an immediately apprehensible way all of the value questions relevant to the problem of identity, it was apparent that it would constitute the ideal focus for a core curriculum and facilitate discussion of the contemporary American crisis in the most concrete terms possible.

It was further our conviction that the humanities, rather than any specialized discipline or collection of disciplines, had a unique contribution to make in the investigation and clarification of this issue.

No course in Black History or abstract exhortations to brotherhood and equality could by itself clarify the complex interplay of ideals and actuality, of individual aspiration and social reality, which characterize the contemporary situation. A close and critical reading of humanistic texts might however, help the student to become aware that there existed a plurality of approaches to human problems and that the dogmatic affirmation of abstractions and ideologies could only distort one’s perceptions of concrete realities.

larry-paros-Octogenarian-yale

And so we read. From Sophocles’ Antigone to Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Faulkner’s Light in August, to Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and several stops betwixt and between, searching together for that which eluded the nation–a working definition of “community”–the shared values that ground people and bind them together.

Through the classes and the daily interactions of one with another, the program generated an authentic conversation on race, as students of different backgrounds came to respect and learn from one another.

I don’t know of any other occasion where something as conservative as the “Great Books” approach to education was so effectively applied to something as radical as the Civil Rights movement, the Anti-war movement, and to the personal lives of students.

End of story.

The program was discontinued by Yale, our host university. The University further refused to provide the necessary support for submission of a proposed grant to the National Council on the Humanities to develop a national core curriculum based on our work.

All that visibly remains of the program is a film made 40 + years later, called “Walk Right In” (www.walkrightinthemovie.com) which catalogued that summer’s events, followed the students to where they are today, captured their memories of that summer, and recorded its continuing impact on their lives. It has never been screened at Yale, and the work from that summer, for the most part, remains unknown.

So here we are– almost five decades later. Educators are still talking about a core curriculum, but nothing about its core. A few isolated voices call out for a “national conversation about race,” but, for the most part, it goes unheeded. “The true purpose of the University?” has never become a legitimate subject of study in our schools of higher learning. These were all powerful queries when posed in 1968. They remain so today.

larry-paros-Octogenarian-yale

A reminder in the words of some of our students in 1968:

To really feel like you’re educated you have to have exposure to the humanities. They allow you to actualize yourself as a person.

—- Sam Sutton

Yale taught us that education indeed could be a subversive force. It could be a force of transformation. It could be power. It could open new vistas.

—- Irma McClaurin

Call it brainwashing; call it what you will, I’ll call it rewarding and one of the most important experiences in my life. I guess one of the most, or the most significant aspect of the summer was the core course. I really grooved on Hegel, Marx, Plato, and all those other eggheads. No, I really learned an awful lot more from that course, most important of all it made me think, which for me comes next to breathing in importance…

—–Floyd Ballesteros

The YSHS took academic subjects such as literature – it took critical thinking – it took analysis – it took logic – it took philosophy – it took history – and made it relevant to me and to the other kids that were there. I think that’s what academics should be.

—– Algeo Casul

____________________________________________________________
Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as “exemplary” and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.