First, a favorite quote:
"An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing just because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its philosophy will hold water."- John William Gardner
This semester, I have been thinking about the ideology of inclusion in special education in the public schools. And in my thinking and reading about the issue, I had come to the conclusion that the mindset of the inclusion ideologues--those who would have us essentially deconstruct special education in favor of full inclusion in the face of contradictory evidence about what kind of instruction works for many students with disabilities--is the consequence of a shoddy philosophical foundation for American education. Essentially, the epistemology (theory of knowledge) embraced by modern American education has been positivism--which has its philosophical origins in Pragmatism. But Positivism is an incomplete philosophy that has neither metaphysics (a theory of reality) nor ethics that are grounded in the foundational axioms of the philosophy. And worse, Positivism does not simply neglect metaphysics, but actively rejects them. An incomplete philosophical basis makes the philosophy unable to "hold water" as John Gardner says in the quote above, or more to the point, it cannot hold its own against the incursions of post-modernist (deconstructivist) thought.
As my thinking on this issue has evolved to this point, I realized that for my Trends and Issues in Special Education class it might be useful to look into the foundational ideas of modern American education, a review of the history of the field, so to speak, in order to understand how we got to this point where advocates for children with disabilities could, with the fervor of the true believer, want to tear down the field entirely, and reconstruct it as a kind of place in which every child will be treated the same regardless of their differences.
And so I have been reading. I started out with secondary sources, such as Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, and then went to primary sources such as John Dewey's Democracy in Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education.And as an antidote to the "schooling" mentality, I also pulled out John Taylor Gatto's An Underground History of American Education. I had ordered this book last year, along with A Different Kind of Teacher, and I read part of it, but got busy with other things and did not finish it then. Although it is not a scholarly book in the traditional sense, Gatto does cite his sources in the text, and presents a compelling view of the aims of modern American education from his experience, as well as from some of the same sources that I am reading.
And this is where it all gets so very interesting, because in the past few weeks I have also
read the columnist Jonah Goldberg's new book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. (I just realized that I was reading an "underground" history and a "secret" history at the same time. I am hearing the Twilight Zone theme in my head). This book is about the American progressive movement's foundations in, and admiration of European fascism, the history and consequences of progressive politics in the US, and the consequences of a marriage of progressive policy and the American character. Although I am not going to review the book here, I will say it is a fascinating read and that I learned a lot about the history of the early 20th Century in the United States that I did not know previously.
Reading both of these books at the same time produced one of those moments of serendipity that seem almost prophetic. I began to notice that I was reading about the same people and the same big ideas. John Dewey. William James. Jane Addams. Woodrow Wilson.
Of course it was not a complete confluence of thinking--Gatto also discussed the founders of American education as we have it today, and Goldberg was outlining the progressives of the same time period. But the interesting thing to me was that many of these people were the same. Or they knew each other. And they had the same pragmatic, statist world view. Essentially, the goal was to overthrow the "cult" of individualism, and create humanity anew, as cogs in the wheel of the state. If you had to read Bellamy's Looking Backward in high school (a very boring dystopia meant to be a utopia--I admit I read the first 50 pages and then used "skippibus" to pass the test), use that to get a picture of what these people envisioned.If you have not read it, think of the dull, gray monotony of the Soviet Union in its waning years, but without the KGB and the Gulag. Or think of the movie GATTACA.
Of course Education (with a capital "E") was to be the principal way this would be accomplished. In the system envisioned by these reformers, schools would be used to separate the children from their families, their particular cultures and belief systems, and made into useful slaves of the state. Woodrow Wilson said: "The chief job of the educator is to make your children as little like you as possible." In other words, the point of schools at least from the point of view of the educational establishment at Columbia Teacher's College, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, was to destroy the sovereignty of the family, and train (I will not use the word educate) students to think of the state as their true home. Only a few, elite people would be educated in the true sense of the word, those who would have the wisdom to order life for everyone else.
These are scary ideas. And they can be found in the primary sources that I have mentioned. This is not some wild conspiracy theory made up by Gatto, Goldberg or others on the right. Gatto presents a much darker view of the envisioned "nanny state" education, the pernicious violence of empty minds, and the dull unreality of Disneyland. Goldberg believes that an American fascism would be 'totalitarian-lite': Less of the jack-booted brownshirts, and more of the social worker mentality. Less of "Sieg Heil!" and more "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
One ray of light in all of this, is that the teachers and school administrators do not necessarily share these ideas nor do they agree with the incomplete philosophies upon which they are founded. In fact, most schools of education do not teach this history of education in the United States. In my own experience in graduate education (although I cannot speak for the undergraduate level having come by my teaching license in an alternative way) at the master's level, the focus was on methodologies and curriculum, and the history of educational thought was not considered. And although some of the ideas could be gleaned from these very methodologies, I suspect the average teacher working on a project for a class after a full day's work, was not likely to even begin to think about the big ideas at all. Since I was in Gifted Education, we did consider some larger ideas about teaching, and we did discuss the hostility inherent in American education toward the gifted. It was clear to me that American educational philosophy was anti-intellectual, but we did not explore the roots of this, leaving the student to think that it was engendered in the ordinary citizen. We were not let in on the "secret" "underground" history that would make it plain that the anti-intellectual bent of American schools comes from the social engineers of the Progressive movement, not from the farmers and factory workers who wanted their kids to be educated for a better life in the singular, individual sense.
Do you dectect some frustration on my part? You are correct. It is part and parcel of the rearrangement of my internal "maps" of the world. It is the sense of betrayal that Adam and Chava must have felt when they partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and discovered another layer of reality.
Ah, well, this is an education in the true sense. It is the need to grapple with the big ideas of a field, and consider how those ideas shaped the reality we call school and schooling. Certainly, with respect to the current trends and issues in special education, the problem is an incomplete philosophy. But there is an even larger problem to consider. The argument on this larger level is about the purpose of public education in the United States. Is it about preparing our children for the future, teaching them to read and write, to think and to take their place as free citizens of the Republic? Or is it about re-making humanity, and creating a utopia controlled by those who know best what's good for us? The first idea is what the general public thinks about education, and the second resides on the level of progressive social planning. And that leads to another question: Which one of these goals does school, as we currently know it, best fulfill?
And that brings me in a round about way to a personal insight about my choices with regard to my career as a teacher and my choices about the education of my own son. In my years as a teacher, my job choices were toward smaller classrooms where I could teach kids using methodologies that were different than those commonly in use in this day of educating to least common denominator. By teaching special education for children with learning difficulties, behavioral difficulties, and then, the gifted kids, I placed myself outside the mainstream. The first such class I taught were the throw-away kids, the ones that no one cared how I taught them. And the gifted kids were those that the system did not worry about--they'd already met the minimum standards. In this way, I was perhaps, a guerrilla teacher, although certainly I did not think of myself as engaging in subversive activities. My purpose was simply to get through each day with these kids without boring either myself or the students to death. That required the use of 'stealth' methodology. "When an administrator comes in," I'd tell the kids, "look serious. When we close the door, though, we can have fun and get something real accomplished."
And I still had to leave the classroom. Not because I was a bad teacher, nor because I disliked teaching. I was a pretty good teacher, I think, and I enjoyed the teaching. But dealing with the educational establishment became more and more joyless and wearing, though I did not understand why. And there was my son to think about. He was not making it in the classroom. This was partly because he had disabilities that the school had difficulty dealing with, but it was mostly because they could not capitalize on his unique strengths.
But when I took N. out of school, I did not fully realize the implications of our choices. As we evolved toward unschooling, I still did not recognize the revolutionary nature of what homeschooling means. Only now, as I reflect on how it has impacted the growth of my son, who has become a confident, self-reliant, adventurous learner; and the impact on our family, for we have become people who like each other and want to be together--only now do I have an inkling of how revolutionary homeschooling is. It appears to be a political act done for deeply personal reasons. It is a repudiation of the fascist notion that people are interchangable parts, who exist for the purpose of some greater "utopia" governed by those who always know what's best for everyone. And it is a very personal journey from the narrow places where my son's future could be predicted by IQ scores and standardized tests, to a vision of the high places of individuality and choice.
And is there hope in this field? How will I continue in it, knowing that everything I believe stands in opposition to the philosophy and to the commonly held beliefs about the field I have chosen? And yet, within me there is a sense that this is an important pursuit. And I take hope from the very sources that have made me wrestle with my internal maps.
"A relative handful of people could change the course of schooling significantly by resisting the suffocating advance of centralization and standardization of children, by being imaginative and determined in their resistance, by exploiting manifold weaknesses in the institution's internal coherence: the disloyalty its own employees feel toward it. It took 150 years to build this apparatus; it won't quit breathing overnight. The formula is to take a deep breath, then select five smooth stones and let fly. The homeschoolers have already begun."
--John Taylor Gatto, "I Quit, I Think" from The Underground History of American Education.
This wrestling with a philosophy that does not hold water may have its uses. After all, it is water that smooths the stones.