I hold onto old news, now in my computer’s memory, but in years past, before the advent of Steve Jobs’ wondrous Macintosh, I would file my hard copies in cabinets, in particular my scavenged copies of magazine and newspaper columns that I found illuminating, thinking that some day I’ld do something with one or more of them.
Here’s one of them, one I came across just this morning while transferring pieces from my article horde to the appropriate slots of MacJournal (which if you don’t know about check it out).
Just over 4 years ago, in an April, 2008 issue of Ed Week Howard Gardner wrote that he no longer believed in a uniform approach to our “education problem.” (You know, I don’t think he ever did. Also, doesn’t he assume, and not surprisingly, that we have a problem, but he doesn’t say what that problem is.)
For those who may yet believe in the viability of a uniform approach he would give them the “Jesse Test.” Just as there is nothing that the three Jesses,— Jesse Helms, Jesse Ventura, and Jesse Jackson, could ever agree on regarding education (or probably anything else for that matter), so there is no uniform approach to the problem of education, or as Gardner himself says, “a uniform solution is misguided at best, and in all probability dead wrong.”
But he does call for the educational system, any system we might come up with, to “produce” (his word) good workers and good citizens. (That he even said this is truly startling, to propose this in spite of our utter failure to come up with such a system during almost 200 years of trying.)
Trying to arrive at a solution of his own, one that would give us those good workers and good citizens, he spins his own Tale of Three Systems —the first consisting of the schools in our inner cities, featuring a diverse, disadvantaged and mostly minority population. Then a second being the mostly middle class schools of the heartland, the large rural areas in the center of the nation, as well as those of the working-class suburbs that surround the metropolitan areas.
His third system is that of the almost independent public schools in the wealthy suburbs with their elite student populations with ambitious career goals and plenty of options including good chances of going on to prestigious four-year colleges.
Gardner says that the emphasis in each system needs to be different, that the kids in these three systems need different treatments and programs. This is where I lose him: “Quality education,” he says, “in the inner city may lie in bringing students to an excellent level of performance; in the heartland, in catalyzing a greater degree of engagement in learning; and in our affluent urban and suburban areas, in strengthening the ethical musculature of young people.”
One’s first response is to smile, that someone would take these differences of goals seriously. Only “some,” but not all would need “strengthening of their ethical musculature?” Ethical musculature! Whatever that means I wouldn’t be caught saying that. As if “an excellent level of performance, engagement in learning, strengthening the ethical musculature” were not all three (and much else) equally critical and needed, if not desired, in all three systems!
If I did hold on to the Ed Week article at the time it’s because I liked his Jesse test, and do agree that there are different student populations in our public schools, although probably hundreds if not thousands of them (not to speak of the millions of different students), and Gardner was at least acknowledging that there were important differences among the students, and that one size didn’t fit all.
But more important did anybody else at the time read, let alone hear what he said? Probably not. Hundreds of other people, and a number of them no less intelligent and perceptive than Howard Gardner, write about the schools, and what they say, as well as what Gardner is saying in this Ed Week piece, although highly reasonable and interesting, is probably quickly read and quickly forgotten, having probably little or no application to the problem of our schools.
Why is this? Perhaps because they don’t know, or at least don’t say, what that problem is. Gardner especially ought to have known. After all he did write a number of books, including To Open Minds (1989), The Unschooled Mind (1991), and Multiple Intelligences (1993), all of which do more than suggest that learning doesn’t depend on what we do to the schools, the places of learning, but on what the kids themselves do, in but even more outside of school.
Liberals, and particularly Progressives, all of whom would reform the schools, are a lot like the Socialists who would reform society. In order to do so the Socialists would expand the roles and responsibilities of government, the Progressives the roles and responsibilities of the public schools.
But the power of government to better the lives of people stems much more from what the people do, not from what the government does. Wealth, which is after all the principal means to improve conditions on the ground, comes from the productive activities of the people. Governments have no wealth of their own, create no wealth of their own. They only have the wealth that comes to them as taxes from their people, their citizens.
Learning also is a kind of wealth, and it comes, not from not from schools and teachers, but from what the students themselves are doing, from the efforts they are making to learn.
This is our school problem: Too many kids, whether in Gardner’s divisions, in the inner cities, in the heartland, in the elite schools of the suburbs, or elsewhere, are not learning. Why? Because they’re not working. And they’re not working because they’re not interested, not motivated to learn for themselves. Where are the reforms that would tackle this one?