Education for What Is Real #2: The Book’s Argument

Posted on December 25, 2012


I’m a first paragraph guy. After that, I’m willing to forgive a lot of flaws, but for me that first paragraph is like the feel of a handshake or a first kiss: it is pure revelation–of character and sensibility and intent. Not that it needs to be perfect, or even start-to-finish good, but it needs to be interesting or engaging or inviting…or something. Start strong, right?

This is the first paragraph of Education for What Is Real:

The following comments are not cheerful. Would that the current scene could be honestly viewed and happily described. But, unhappily, we have learned how to destroy each other before we have learned to like each other. And unless we can learn to like each other before our mutual feelings of distrust result in action, we are lost. This is a large order, but not a hopeless one. We can start to lay down patterns of living which will enable us to survive. It is my hope that a look at our present scene will help us to face our necessities; and thus this is not a counsel of despair. Let us look at our selves first, and plan our action in light of, and in the face of, what we see.

Pretty good, right? This is a book about education that opens with a doomsday scenario, pretty much. That sentence about “laying down patterns of living which will enable us to survive” is golden. Someone who takes education very seriously (me, for instance, and possibly Alza Matz) will find a lot to like in a first paragraph like that. It’s the same sort of rhetorical move deployed by the writers of A Nation at Risk. (Which, by the way, is terrific. It outlines a terrible plan for education, but it’s a terrific read.) Underlying the specific argument in the book is the assumption that education matters, and in times like these, that’s refreshing.

Even though it was published in 1947, Kelley’s first-chapter catalog of the social and economic stresses of the post-war era feels less remote than you might expect: the plight of the veteran, latent bigotry, disputes between capital and labor, and to “our characteristic neglect of our young people,” which is made manifest in delinquency (a reflection, Kelley says, of what children learn in the “adult-managed world”). In its way, Kelley’s argument here is reminiscent of Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd–that our young people are the first casualties of a repressive, violent, and largely incoherent social order, and (here’s the good news) that they are therefore also the first defense against the continuity of such a world.

But if you’re looking for a truly radical text, Goodman’s is much more bracing and urgent than Kelley’s. Education for What Is Real is aimed at teachers, administrators, and others who are generally familiar with and interested in the language, policies, practices, and history of mass compulsory education.

The book’s argument runs along the following premises:

  • That the world is in pretty bad shape, because people’s actions appear to be largely motivated by fear, coercion, and compulsion.
  • That the world is in bad shape perhaps (and at least partly) because our education system is also organized around fear, coercion, and compulsion.
  • That the reasons we use fear and coercion and compulsion as motivating factors in schools is because our assumptions about the nature of knowledge and purposes for learning are fundamentally flawed in some very specific ways that make more intrinsic motivations largely unavailable to students.
  • That we can use the tools at our disposal (the curriculum mainly, but also the physical and temporal boundaries of schools) to improve our conception of schooling.
  • That improvements in schooling will result in some widespread improvements in society at large.

For me, reading this stuff in 2012, there are two important facets to this line of thinking. First, the idea that there is a legit social purpose to education that has nothing to do with “value-added” economic benefit seems foreign. To say that learning has value in itself, aside from its connection to earning power or college admissions (see, shudder, Common Core) is apostasy. Second, and perhaps most useful to our conversations now, we need to get smarter about examining our own thinking; we need to learn to distance ourselves from our practice as a way of seeing the ideology at work in our actions and institutions. Theories of knowledge, theories of mind, and the theories of curriculum that emerge from them are not highfalutin nonsense. They are not pointless. They are not disconnected from classroom practice. (This is sort of my defense of school of education.) They are the ideas and assumptions we hold about our work, and they impact our actions. Common Core (to choose a timely example) is the endpoint of reasoning that makes certain assumptions about the nature of knowledge. These are not settled points. And while our duties as members of school organizations may dictate that we fall in line, we don’t need to stop reminding everyone that alternatives exist. The  message to our students and to our colleagues should be that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can’t ever hope to improve education until we improve (or at least clarify) the ways we think about education, and we need to sustain a conversation.

As Kelley himself points out a number of times, this series of premises and the argument as a whole is nothing new. It is classic Progressive education. But just because it isn’t new, doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, fun to read, engaging to think about, or important.

Kelley, Earl C. Education for What is Real. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1947. Print

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