Poles Apart

by Robert Pondiscio
August 29th, 2012

“Are we hopelessly polarized, or are we suffering from fatigue?” legendary PBS education correspondent John Merrow asks in a thoughtful blog post. “I think many of us are just tired, worn out from listening to the rants and negativity.”

What he said.

To his credit, Merrow is saying out loud what a lots of folks in the education blogosphere have been saying privately for a while now.  “Debate” has become trench warfare, with the usual suspects saying the usual things, over and over, louder and louder.  They’re merely getting more shrill and strident.  It’s getting tedious out there.  Hearts and minds are not being won.

Merrow’s no fool or squishy appeaser pleading, can’t we just get along?  “Sometimes one position is correct, or largely correct. Sometimes people’s strongly held convictions are just plain wrong,” he writes.

Merrow lists several ways in which education debate is polarized: accountability, the achievement gap, school management and structures, assessment, technology, and our expectations for what we should expect of schools and teachers. Are we also polarized about the purposes of public education? Here Merrow hits his stride:  “The goal of school is to help grow American citizens. Four key words: help, grow, American, citizen.  Think about those words,” he writes

“Help: Schools are junior partners in education. They are to help families, the principal educators.

“Grow: It’s a process, sometimes two steps forward, one back. Education is akin to a family business, not a publicly traded stock company that lives and dies by quarterly reports.

“American: E Pluribus Unum. We are Americans, first and foremost.

“Citizen: Let’s put some flesh on that term. What do we want our children to be as adults? Good parents and neighbors, thoughtful voters, reliable workers? What else?”

“We need to get beyond polarization and figure out what we agree on,” Merrow writes.  Wise and heartfelt words from one of education’s elder statesmen.


  1. Yes to both Merrow and you. The problem with polarization (or part of the problem) is that it fosters the illusion of good guys vs. bad guys. Most of us are a mixture of things; so, too, with the sides.

    Another problem is that moderate or complex arguments can get overlooked. The debate reduces itself.

    People will have strong opinions and passionate debates about education. That in itself is not a problem. The problems arise when people stop listening to each other. Listening is tricky, of course, because we can’t listen to everyone. Each of us has to make selections. The challenge is to perceive merit in opposing opinions and to try to enlarge one’s own view.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 29, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

  2. I think we have to understand that much of what we call “debate” is not really debate, in the sense of a reasoned discussion of disputed statements with the goal of seeking freely given agreement, so much as a power struggle in which certain parties seek not consensus through understanding but acquiescence and capitulation to their largely unspoken agenda. Much of our “debate” about education really is a campaign by corporate America to take over education in order to get access to school tax revenues; the arguments about achievement, quality, etc. are just talking points used to generate public anger towards public education and encourage acceptance of the corporate agenda regardless of the actual quality of the education provided by that agenda.

    I recently wrote about this as just another manifestation of the century-long efforts to cast public education in the likeness of a business model on Diane Ravitch’s blog:

    I started reading about the history of education reform in America about 10 years ago, when our national insanity was becoming too extensive to ignore under the reign of “W”. Wondering how a country could boast both the most widely and extensively educated population in history and also have the greatest disdain—if not outright loathing—for intellect, I found my way to Richard Hofstader’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”. Hofstader’s book (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964) gives an excellent description of America’s historical distaste for intellectual discourse, instead favoring a volatile combination of fundamentalist religion and laissez-faire capitalism that emphasizes received wisdom over deliberative thought. In discussing this history, Hofstader gives an excellent overview of the heavy influence that business had on the education reform movements that started about 1890 and their brutal treatment of those who wanted to center American schooling around a traditional liberal education model. His comments on the NEA’s “The Committee of Ten” report in 1892, advising a rigorous liberal arts education for all American children and its drubbing by the elites at schools like Columbia’s Teachers College makes rather depressing reading.

    Following Hofstader, I came across a copy of the first edition (1940) of Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book”. Adler’s book, which I found to be an excellent tutorial for what we now seem to call “deep reading”, included a blunt discussion of the reformist forces that demanded the end of the traditional liberal arts curriculum and its replacement with electives which he and Robert Maynard Hutchins fought against at the University of Chicago in the ’30s and ’40s. I’ve read both Adler’s and Hutchins’s later critiques of education as well, and, having attended several of the notable schools in this country (including Chicago) and watching the increasing barbarity of our culture the graduates of the schools seem so bent on imposing on us all, I can only say I consider much of what they wrote to have been prescient. I’m a big fan of Adler’s Paideia approach to education.

    I also highly recommend Diane’s book “Left Back”, which is a more focused history on reforms in public secondary education than Hofstader, Adler, and Hutchins. Diane, I hope you will write about your book to share the history of our reformist “misery-go-round” in education in which the same tired and failed ideas are recirculated every generation or two, and the wild-eyed, take no prisoners reformers simply move from one fad to the next without any care of the history of reforms. American education reform truly echos Santayana’s famous remark that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’m currently reading “Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces That Have Shaped the Administration of the Public Schools”, by Raymond Callahan. Callahan’s book take a very focused look at the influence that business leaders have had on reform, how they and the elite university Education schools drove a brutal “efficiency” agenda in the early decades of the 20th Century, and how so much of the criticisms we see today are nothing but rehashes of the same straw men, red herrings, and defamation that were common a century ago. Callahan makes many references to the demands of business leaders that schools abandon traditional education in favor of what is essentially job training and the rebuttals from educators, including an excellent excerpt from a school superintendent who called out the reformer’s charade for what is really was (and still is): another public subsidy for big businesses.

    From all of this, I have come to some tentative conclusions:

    1. Americans won’t ever be happy with public education until they understand that education and job training are two different things, and that we can’t have a functional democracy and market economy—the two most intellectually demanding forms of society imaginable—without the sort of education that historically has done the most to produce sound thinking—a traditional liberal arts education that develops the whole intellect.

    2. The reformers will continue their pernicious campaigns until we abandon the childish fantasy that education can be done cheaply, painlessly, and effortlessly by some technical fix. Having earned two degrees in chemistry and a law degree, and having taught my own children as well as the children of others, I know that learning any subject is an intensely personal experience. Good teachers are more like good coaches than sales persons or entertainers. The idea that we can substitute pedagogical training for mastery of actual subject matter, or that filmstrips, radio, television, movies, or computers, or whatever whiz-bang technology comes next can substituted for actual intellectual engagement between a teacher-master and a student is nothing but charlatanism. We—parents, school boards, and tax payers—have to start saying “no” to the self-proclaimed experts reformers who are nothing but shills for corporations that seek to insert they probosces into the tax revenue stream.

    3. Our political and economic structures are founded on certain ideas that grew out of a region of the planet we call the “West”. These political and economic structures thus reflect certain cultural ideas and practices that are different (not necessarily better, just different) from the cultural ideas and practices found in other parts of the world, and are expressed in a large body of history, philosophy, literature, and art that all who want to be citizens of our country should understand. These ideas and practices are open to all people, not just to those who claim some vestigial cultural heritage (like northern European Protestant ancestry). The best way to create a tolerant society is to teach everyone about that society’s cultural heritage, so that the members of that society have a sound foundation from which to study and understand other cultures. (I have to agree with Allan Bloom on this point.) The key however, is that we recognize there are differences among cultures, that we have to accept that our way is unique (but not necessarily better), and that we first must understand our culture and ourselves before we can understand other cultures and others. Now, I fear, we start from the premise that all cultures are equally valued; therefore all are the “same”; therefore there is no need to learn about our history, philosophy, literature, and art; therefore we should just learn what we need to in order to get a job. And we wonder why America is beset with bullies and war mongers.

    I urge everyone to learn about the history of reform movements in America, so that we all can better communicate the current reform charades we are plagued with. And any comments on my thoughts are most welcome. I expect some will find point 3. controversial, I can only say that I make my points without prejudice to anyone.

    Comment by David Lentini — August 30, 2012 @ 11:19 am

  3. This is why I think the charter schools are at least one way forward. I just went through a whole teacher education program where social justice was the (implicit and sometimes stated) focus. Nothing I could say in presenting another viewpoint (mainly that their approach to teaching content wasn’t helping those whom they wanted to help) was going to convince anyone that their approach wasn’t achieving its desired end. We are a diverse and pluralistic society. Choice is the way forward. You can send your kids to school to find their “authentic voice” in writing class and I will make sure my kids are taught Aristotle’s 3 modes of persuasion and how they are used (and how to use them).

    Comment by Jim — August 30, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  4. My experience is that much of the ire is caused by using terms of art in education that are not immediately apparent. One side assumes the term means its standard dictionary meaning. Another group is aware it has an unappreciated meaning and intends it to have that meaning. Anytime I have tracked any of the so-called wars in education the duplicitous use of terminology is at its root.

    Unfortunately, citizen is yet another one of those terms. Many of us hear that term and envision America as it currently exists. A sizable number of educators involved with what Common Core will look like in the classroom though envision the term “citizen” as meaning cultivating Transformative Change Agents that will recognize inequities and inequalities and seek to change American institutions and the political and economic structures to “promote full democratic participation.”

    Further delving into what that means makes it quite clear the educators intend to develop students who will first re-vision and then recreate a collective future for the US grounded in a new communitarian vision. It puts primacy in the group and its consensus on the “common good” rather than the individual as the US Constitution currently does.

    There are so many discussions relevant to the Common Core actual implementation and American education and the future of American society that need to be occurring in the daylight. With everyone involved actually agreeing on the meaning of the terms being used.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — August 30, 2012 @ 11:52 am

  5. Too often and I have certainly done this, anecdote becomes data. Experience can also vary so much even within a district. It is very hard to generalize something as broad as the American education system. But we all do it in posts and comments. Figuring out how to share experiences and not make them fighting anecdotes would be an important step.

    Comment by DC Parent — August 30, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

  6. Robert,

    You should be proud of the fact that the dialogue on your CK blog is so civil and non-toxic. Maybe it’s just a place where people visit who agree with the philosophy of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

    It’s clearly a different conversation than some other blogs that shall remain nameless. Even when people disagree on issues here their debate remains cordial, absent ad hominem and insults.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 30, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  7. Yes, it’s good to be reminded that the U.S. constitution clearly states that the purpose of government is to provide for the individual welfare, as opposed to the communitarian and un-American general welfare.


    Comment by Harold — September 1, 2012 @ 12:00 am

  8. Thanks Jim! My new favorite quote:

    “You can send your kids to school to find their “authentic voice” in writing class and I will make sure my kids are taught Aristotle’s 3 modes of persuasion and how they are used (and how to use them).”

    Comment by Cassandra Turner — September 10, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

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