Category Archives: plus ça change…

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Here’s a strange thought for you. Strange, but based on these facts: 1) Less than 200 years ago most people, 90% or more, were agricultural workers and lived in farming communities. 2) Not even 100 years later 50% or more of the people, men but women also, now living mostly in cities, held jobs in manufacturing. 3) And finally, today, or another 100 years later, nearly 70% of the people living in this country, and in fact according to the World Bank living in all the world’s richest countries, hold jobs in the service industries.

The strange fact? —that the public schools during this 200 year period of enormous changes haven’t themselves changed in any fundamental way. Begun as Thomas Mann’s common school in Massachusetts in the 1840s they’re pretty much the same today as then. It’s as if our schools and our principal occupations were those ships or trains not passing one another but traveling in parallel paths alongside one another but without ever making contact. For what if anything in our schools has changed that at all reflects the fact that people’s occupations, not to mention neighborhoods and communities, are no longer today what they were 200 years ago?

Isn’t this strange, that somehow we’ve acted during the 200 years as if what the parents were doing in their lives had little or any relevance to the education of their children? It may very well be this single fact that most accounts for the frequently noted failure of our schools to educate, as well as the failure of an endless and still ongoing series of reform efforts to improve things. The schools have from the beginning tragically separated themselves from the work of the people, and consequently from the lives of the people’s children.

Reading John Harvard’s Journal in the current issue of Harvard Magazine

In a portion of his Journal John Harvard writes about “Tackling Teaching and Learning.” The irony is that from the vantage point of our most respected if not admired educational institution this writer seems to know so little about the subject.  In fact, it’s not often that I read so many words of so little substance and interest.

I wasn’t able to finish”Tackling Teaching and Learning,” but just about the point when I stopped reading there was one comment that caught my interest, not by Michael Smith, a Dean of the Faculty  of Arts and Sciences, and whose comments were most often referred to in the piece, but by a biology professor, a Richard M. Losick.

“We spend,” he said, “a lot of time at Harvard talking about what students should learn, and far less about how they should learn and what they do learn.”

Well, I said to myself, le plus ça change …. For isn’t that what all institutions of learning, schools and colleges, have always done, talk mostly about what they’re teaching, what kids should learn. And why? Well probably because they know so little about what the kids are actually learning, and even less about how they learn.

Know it all schools like Harvard don’t like not to be in charge so they go on talking about what kids should be learning, which means they go on, as Losick points out, talking about what they know, and not about what their students might or might not know thanks to their efforts.

Albert Einstein on testing, plus ça change…

I take the following passage from Stephen Hawking’s A Stubbornly Persistent Illusion, the Essential Scientific Works of Albert Einstein.

Einstein himself is doing the talking:

“… one had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a a deterring effect upon me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an antire year…. It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely  strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly….”

Mail to Michael Goldstein


Sometimes I pass my time reading articles stored on my laptop. The most recent one was: “Where is American Education Going, Report on a Convocation.”  If you skim over it a bit yourself  you will recognize most of the voices and be already quite familiar with most all of what is being said.

Many of the participants are still with us, still saying pretty much the the same things they said at the 1995 Convocation (Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, Merseth, Elmore, Darling-Hammond, Linda Nathan et al. And many others have passed on (Shanker, Sizer, Howe et al.), although perhaps still repeating the same things from up there somewhere.

As I read Holton’s (my Harvard Physics teacher of over 50 years ago!) and Goroff’s admirable summary report of the Convocation I said to myself that nothing has really changed, — plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. Educators today are saying today pretty much what they were saying some 15 years ago, and probably, even, many years before that, going back at least to the time of James Bryant Conant and the comprehensive high school of the 1950s.

I also thought of my writing, and yours. Do you ever get the impression that you’re speaking, writing primarily to and for  yourself? For that’s the impression I have when I write, and also I’m pretty much convinced that what I write has zero influence on anything out there. (That, of course, may not be your impression.)

And even when you are someone with influence, or at least someone who is read, and even more important listened to, someone like the Times’s Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman, does anything really change, anyone’s thinking, as a result of what these two, or any of the other tens of thousands of Blog and op-ed writers, have said?

Anyway, most of what is summarized in the Holton/Goroff Report could have been said today, with few if any changes.

So what’s going on? Is it that the whole education elephant while out there somewhere, for it has to be, is never seen in its entirety by those looking? Also, perhaps what is being said by the  Convocation participants is so divorced from reality that it has no effect on reality?

Sure, we have to agree with Madeleine Kunin, that “We are dealing with the most important responsibility of any society—of any species for that matter. The primary responsibility is the education and rearing of the young in order to continue the life of the species.”

But this “rearing of the young” is happening in spite of us, going its own way, almost regardless of those of us who think we’re instrumental in shaping it. We’re not. The interesting question is who, what is…


Jaime Escalante’s Example to which few have responded

Andrew, it’s just not going to happen. (I’m writing this in response to Andrew Coulson’s piece in the WSJ today, Escalante Stood and Delivered. It’s Our Turn.) Andrew, “Our Turn” is just never going to be. Only a tiny few will ever respond in their turn, if at all, to Escalante’s example.

Instead, what works, say Jaime Escalante’s calculus class as Coulson describes it, is going to remain isolated from other educators, even as it was at the time from those sharing the same school building with him.

What works is going to remain enclosed in its own niche until whatever original life force that brought it into being dies out, taking along with it into oblivion even the memory, as in this example, the memory of Jaime Escalante’s calculus class.

Coulson understands this, but he (I too) would like to believe otherwise, to say it ain’t so, that the system, and not just a part here and there, can be changed.

If it can’t perhaps it’s because public education is too much like a piece of the country’s infrastructure, and infrastructure, without experiencing a war or other destructive juggernaut, cannot be changed except piece by piece over lifetimes.

New bridges don’t make the old ones disappear. In fact, most of us for most of our lives go on using and crossing the old ones.

And new schools don’t do away with old schools, always in the majority, and in spite of the endless reforms that come along most kids continue to still spend their school time in the old schools.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Didn’t you know this, Andrew?

And successful schools, be they KIPP or Achieve, or any number of selective and high performing public schools, have never much influenced, let alone done away with the majority of our public schools, still unsuccessful, still uninspired and, helas, still uninspiring.

But you knew all that, Andrew, when you wrote today in the Wall Street Journal about Jaime Escalante, didn’t you? I wonder why we don’t tire of saying the same thing over and over again?

You note that Bill Clinton in 1993 didn’t hesitate to say it (yet once again): “People in this room who have devoted their lives to education, are constantly plagued by the fact that nearly every problem has been solved by somebody somewhere, and yet we can’t seem to replicate it everywhere else.”

And of course it’s true as you say while writing about Jaime Escalante who recently passed away, “America not only needs more teachers like Jaime Escalante, it needs an education system that recognizes them and helps them to reach a mass audience.”

But again I cite the bridge comparison —there’s just too much concrete out there to move. It can’t be done. And this must be the reason, there’s just too much, what, “dead wood,” inertia in the present system for us to move it.

This is the reason why (tell Bill Clinton) we’re not able to bring to scale the things that do work, such as Escalante’s successfully teaching calculus to poorly prepared and thoroughly disadvantage kids at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in the 1980s.

The reason why we haven’t been able to reach by this example the kids in the hundreds of failing school systems throughout the country.

This is especially troubling when we have before us one example after another of successful technological innovations, Facebook, the iPod, the iPhone, and now perhaps the iPad, and many others, all bringing successful innovations up to scale almost effortlessly and in the process reaching, if not bettering the lives of, hundreds of millions.