Mission Impossible: Teaching for Justice without the Canon

by Guest Blogger
May 7th, 2013

In my last post, I noted that teacher educators who put shaping future teachers into social-justice activists above shaping them into effective instructors are, in my opinion, terribly misguided. I strongly agree with diminishing society’s inequities—and I think effective instructors, by narrowing the achievement gap, are doing just that.

One thing I did not mention is that the most effective instructors narrow the achievement gap in two essential ways: they build students’ knowledge and character (both of which contribute to achievement). Talk of character passes in and out of policy circles. Whether it’s shock at more teenage girls joining gangs or buzz about a book like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, leaders tend to use character as an easy clap line without putting much thought into its cultivation.

But there are effective teachers who think about it every day. More importantly, they strengthen it every day.

Take, for example, Jessica Lahey, whose school emphasizes prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice: “In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles’ impulsive rages, King Ozymandias’ petulant demand that we ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,’ Macbeth’s bloody, ‘vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.’ ”

With a rigorous academic program, effective instructors accomplish academic and character goals simultaneously. Assignments that are challenging and thought provoking develop students’ academic knowledge and skills—and also draw them into humanity’s centuries-long debate about what defines a worthy life.

For those of us lucky enough to have a liberal arts education, this makes perfect sense. But many people with advanced degrees never had the benefit of being educated for freedom. They may not be stuck in the cave, but they aren’t enjoying the sunshine either.

I was reminded of this a couple of times over the past few days. The first reminder came with Mark Bauerlein’s excellent commentary, “What does University of Minnesota have against classics?” Bauerlein writes:

Given that only 39 percent of Minnesota eighth-graders score “proficient” in reading, … we might assume that the University of Minnesota would applaud high school English classes that assign great literary works of the last 500 years.

What could be better for students to read than “Macbeth,” “Don Quixote,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Frankenstein,” or the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Wilde, Willa Cather, Camus, Orwell, and Toni Morrison?

Yet sadly, when a high school offered such a syllabus to the University of Minnesota’s College in the Schools program, it was turned down…. CIS provides a reading list of 86 titles, syllabi outlining assignments and policies, and professional development for high school teachers.

The texts that were rejected are some of the most brilliant, demanding and profound writings in history. But they aren’t on the reading list. The list signals a narrow conception of what 17-year-olds should study. The oldest works are Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and two 1899 novels, Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Apart from a few midcentury texts, the rest of the list is entirely contemporary….

The motives behind this restrictive corpus are indicated by the sample syllabi. One announces the goal of the course in terms common to multiculturalist instruction: “students will understand diverse experiences, languages,”…. The other syllabus declares: “Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and other forms of bigotry are inherent in our culture.”…

The point here is not to censure the course for its contemporary, multiculturalist focus…. Instead, what matters is the active exclusion of the great tradition from Chaucer to Austen to Joyce — from the Puritans to Frederick Douglass to Edith Wharton.

Like Bauerlein, I am very concerned about the works being excluded. I am not concerned with constructing a course that uses literature to help students value diversity and challenge bigotry; that is fundamental work in the humanities. But I think that by excluding time-tested works, these courses limit their ability to accomplish their goals.

History offers us a great variety of cultures. Can one seriously engage in multicultural studies without reading broadly across time and space to find that cultures around the world in the past and present have produced works of lasting beauty? Can one really grasp racism, sexism, etc. by looking at them only in the current context?

Let’s hope that the University of Minnesota will reconsider.

Now, onto my other reminder of how many of us are not being educated for freedom. This reminder, happily, came in the form of a blog post by a retired English professor who would create a spectacular course for high school students. A course that would not only beat back bigotry and be worthy of college credit, it would foster virtue.

Spoiler alert—here’s the ending: “Life doesn’t just happen. We make it happen, for good or bad. We do it best when we learn pietas, or character, with its legacy of decency and discipline fostering empowerment and destiny.”

How would this professor teach character? Through great literature:

I’ve read a lot of books across the years, not surprising I suppose for someone who’s invested more than forty-years in academia. Of those many books, there are a chosen few I’d take with me into island exile. Let me list them. I’d add some poets, too, but not right now:

David Copperfield
The Varieties of Religious Experience
On Liberty.
Mill’s Autobiography
The Odyssey
To Have or To Be
How to Find Freedom in an Unfree World
The Aeneid

I fashioned this list in less than a minute, since each of the items triggers easily recalled memories of excited discovery, awe, and insight.  David Copperfield, for example, I read in eighth grade. From the very beginning I loved it, identifying with David, whose childhood, in good measure, mirrored my own as well as that of Dickens.

Walden, with its eloquence, gave sanctuary not only in wilderness, but in its verbal tranquility.

And there’s John Stuart Mill, that proverbial “saint of rationalism,” two of his books here. On Liberty taught me to hold out against censorship for the rest of my days; how to discern between just and unjust laws; the importance of protecting minority voices in a democratic society.

His Autobiography demonstrated a first rate humanity, a life of balanced thought and feeling, a passion for social justice. There isn’t any person I’d like to imitate more.

I could go on about the remaining works, too, as each of them has constituted a grace upon my life–a favoring of wisdom and influence….

When I studied in Europe on two occasions, England and France, I came upon an important word, character, something I find rarely talked about in America.  Europeans would often talk of someone’s character, encompassing integrity markers like dependability, perseverance, equanimity, fairness, empathy, all adding up to a fundamental decency. It’s what Vergil advocated. It’s what Mill is all about. It’s what I’d like, when all things are said and done, people to say of me: “I like his character.” I think it’s what you want too.

It is what I want. And I thank all the effective instructors in my life who put challenging, thought-provoking, freedom-giving works like these in my hands. Teachers who assign works like these set students on a path of finding what matters most—and provide the academic knowledge and skills needed to lead others down the same path.

Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said (quoting Theodore Parker): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

How did King, and Parker, know that? Not by restricting their studies to relatively recent works. Not by schooling more concerned with social justice than with effective instruction. Their deep historical and literary knowledge revealed that humanity was capable of wickedness and beauty—and that inch by inch, the circle of those exposed to beauty is growing.


Is Grit Enough?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 5th, 2012

I highly recommend Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed.  Tough’s premise – that IQ and cognitive ability matter, but character traits like tenacity, curiosity and optimism matter more—is a strong challenge to my long-held notion that when students struggle, in high school or college, much of that is attributable to a lack of academic preparedness.  How Children Succeed largely argues otherwise, but there is a brief but fascinating passage late in the book that suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to worship at the altar of grit alone.

The first half of Tough’s book unpacks clinical research that demonstrates the importance of parents protecting children from adversity in the first years of life.  But it is the ability to persist in difficult tasks that ultimately seems to lead to success.  Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that to the degree to which there is a formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and “grit.”

A chapter entitled “How to Think” discusses at great length and thrillingly, the remarkable success of the chess team at IS 318 in Brooklyn, New York and the uncompromising approach of teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, whose unconventional methods involve “spending most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments. “Spiegel often defied my stereotype of how a good teacher, especially a good inner city teacher, should interact with her students,” Tough writes.  “She does not hug.  She clearly is devoted to her students and cares about them deeply, but when a student gets upset after a loss, Spiegel is rarely one to go over and offer comfort.”

At the end of the chapter, Spiegel takes on the challenge of preparing James Black, one of her star chess players, for New York City’s specialized high school test, the entrance exam for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and other elite public schools.  Under Spiegel’s tutelage, James, an African-American boy from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, became a national chess champion and achieved “master” status in chess, one of only three African American masters under age 13.

“John Galvin, the vice principal, told her that she had given herself an impossible mission, that there was no way a student who consistently scored below average on statewide standardized tests could ace the specialized-school exam.  But Spiegel had seen James absorb chess knowledge astonishingly quickly and she had faith in her own teaching ability.  As she put it to me in an e-mail message in April, ‘I figure with six months, if he’s into it and will do the work, I can teach a smart kid anything, right?’”

Wrong.  By mid-July, Tough writes, Spiegel was getting frustrated.

“She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself, even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he didn’t know.  He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map.  He couldn’t name a single European country.  When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial. By September, they were working together after school and on weekends for hours at a time, and she was starting to despair, trying to keep James’s spirits up while her own were sinking.  When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Is school just like chess?  Perhaps not.  UVA cognitive scientist Dan Willingham points out there are several differences between becoming a chess master and a earning a high score on a school’s entrance exam.  For starters, the relationship between chess and intelligence is not unambiguous.  “Though it’s considered an intellectual game, you don’t see straightforward connections between chess ability and intelligence,” he says.  

At an elite level, chess becomes in part an exercise in memory, Willingham points out.  You and I look at a chess board and have to painstakingly evaluate endless permutations of attacks and counter attacks.  James and other masters see patterns.  “Even if they see a chess board in the middle of a game it feels familiar to them because they’ve played so many games,” he notes.  Elite players have as many as 50,000 board positions stored in their long-term memory.   Plus anytime kids try something new, some of them really seem to take to it rapidly. That’s especially notable with skills like music, math. . . and chess.  “For some kids their learning curve is rapid.  They get good quickly in ways that most people do not,” says Willingham.

But broad general knowledge is different.  Willingham notes. “Academic knowledge and skills are wide ranging and accumulate over a very long time.”  It is nearly impossible to “get good quickly.”  Spiegel’s principal might have been exactly right.

Tough writes that James “represented for me (and for Spiegel, I suspect), a challenging puzzle.  Here was a young man clearly possessed of a keen intelligence. (Whatever intelligence means, you can’t beat Ukrainian grand masters without plenty of it.) And he seemed to be a case study in grit.”  Yet despite his own and his teacher’s clear and obvious effort, James failed to win entry into Stuyvesant, New York’s best high school, whose best chess players, Tough ruefully notes, James “will no doubt crush.”  Why?

“When Spiegel talked with me that fall about studying for the test with James, she sometimes sounded shocked at how little non-chess information he had been taught thus far in life. “I feel angry on his behalf, she told me. “He knows basic fractions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation.  He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade.  It feels like he should have learned more.”

“The specialized high-school exam is, by design, difficult to cram for,” Tough writes.  “Like the SAT, it reflects the knowledge and skills that a student has accrued over the years, most of which is absorbed invisibly throughout childhood from one’s family and culture” [emphasis added]

Tough is undoubtedly correct that much essential knowledge is indeed family driven.  There are clear benefits to growing up in a home filled with books, college-educated parents who engage their children in rich dinner table conversation, museum visits, travel, and other enriching cultural experiences. But even without knowing a thing about James’s schooling, it’s not hard to surmise that Spiegel is precisely right.  James should have learned more and it’s his failure to accrue a lifetime’s worth of academic content, background knowledge and vocabulary—not his grit or raw intellectual talents—that likely doomed his effort to get into Stuyvesant.

Family background matters.  But it doesn’t follow that schools cannot or should not make a concerted effort from the very first days of school to provide as much rich content knowledge across the curriculum that kids need to be successful—especially for “school dependent” learners who are less likely to be exposed to it, like second-hand smoke, through their daily lives, contact with educated adults, or via what Annette Laureau termed “concerted cultivation.” Tough hints at this when he observes, “It might not have been possible to turn him into an elite student in six months, as Spiegel had hoped.  But how about in four years?  For a student with his prodigious gifts, anything seems possible—as long as there’s a teacher out there who can make succeeding in school as attractive a prospect as succeeding on the chessboard.”


Long-time readers of this blog know it is a misconception to think of knowledge as mere grist for the mill—content to exercise critical thinking skills or other cognitive processes upon.   “A reading of the research literature from cognitive science shows that knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills,” Willingham wrote in an important 2006 article in The American Educator titled, “How Knowledge Helps.”

“It actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes — the very ones that teachers target — operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate the smarter they become.”

Paul Tough has written an outstanding book, and one that will no doubt be deeply influential on parents and educators, and deservedly so.   But I fear the takeaway—through no fault of Tough’s—will be “it’s all about character” or “grit trumps cognitive ability.”  Not quite right.  As James’ experience shows, grit matters a lot, but it’s not sufficient to compensate for a lack of knowledge if we expect kids to clear the high academic bars we place in front of them.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.