Sunday, March 05, 2006

Going beyond a "short-lived and illusory brilliance"

Each individual is born with a distinctive temperament…We indiscriminately employ children of different bents on the same exercises; their education destroys the special bent and leaves a dull uniformity. Therefore after we have wasted our efforts in stunting the true gifts of nature we see the short-lived and illusory brilliance we have substituted die away, while the natural abilities we have crushed do not revive. - Jean-Jacques Rousseau cited in John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916).
What Rousseau called “the same exercises” over two hundred years ago is the reality today in many schools around the world. Last fall I taught a new graduate seminar on John Dewey, with special emphasis upon his legacy in current teaching and learning. I should rather say current books and articles by university professors. We read these hopeful tomes that argued and mapped how we could cultivate or revive participative practices in teaching and learning. But there is a chasm between what these professors, all friends of mine and fine authors, advocate, and what actually is happening in most schools. There is scant legacy of Dewey’s progressivism, and certainly even less evidence of the cultivation of Rousseau’s “true gifts of nature” in classroom practice. In this country, under the continuous pressures of standardized assessment measures only ratcheted up by No Child Left Behind, too many teachers and their students are ground down…might one say abused? Who then can blame many teachers for wanting only to know what to teach and for their students only what to master for a grade? Don’t hit me; I will do what you say.

The situation is hardly better in much of higher education. At my university, Socrates is described on a monument dedicated to the university’s best teachers as someone who “orated” at his student Plato’s Academy, though Socrates sipped hemlock 12 years before the Academy was established. Perhaps my students don’t feel PowerPoint slides on Socrates in a large lecture hall are all that unusual, given his designation as a smooth speaker from the grave.

Flickering brightness, such as what Tim Burke advocates as “interoperability,” is there, but such are too few and unsupported to make a great deal of difference, at least now. Burke, writing on his blog in response to Gerald Posner’s comments on the effects of the resignation of Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, thinks his neologism is an idea whose time has come:

That’s not a word that flows off the tongue easily, but in this case, it’s just the thing I have in mind. The more that faculty are transparent to each other, dependent upon one another, the more that their expertise is mobile to sites and areas of changing interest, the faster their institutions can respond to new challenges, both intellectual and fiscal. This isn’t so much changing the way faculty formally participate in governance as it is a re-engineering of their institutional cultures of practice, a structured lowering of the transaction costs that presently make universities so sluggish in the face of change, that produce so many nooks and crannies for feudal turf wars.

But I find hope in Burke’s idea. It’s generative and may lead us back to more fecund ways of relating to each other. I wish I knew ways and means I could help my colleagues in the schools achieve their own forms of “interoperability.”

1 comment:

Craig A. Cunningham said...

I don't know as how I understand the relationship(s) between methods that cultivate students' "special bent" and "interoperability" as you and Burke describe it. The first seems spiritual and individualized; the second, yet another alleged silver bullet to make universities easier to manage. What say you?