Recent news about the Texas Republican Party (“we oppose the teaching of…critical thinking skills and similar programs that…have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority”) struck me not for its typically reactionary tone, but because it reminded me of a conversation I had last winter with my father, about his career as a university professor and the struggles that led him to finally abandon the teaching “racket.”
We were talking about a recording he made fifty years ago at Arizona State University. On this fascinating fragment of tape, he and his students and colleagues present a series of skits designed to explore several theories of education. The best one features a group of community leaders discussing the role of schools in maintaining the status quo. Despite the recording’s quaint, archaic, almost naïve quality, its activist message and cautionary warning are still, sadly, relevant to today. Back then, progressive ideas were an accepted part of the dialog. Fifty years later, the rhetoric has become so extreme as to render this tape almost incoherent to modern ears.
As my father warmed to my questions, I had the presence of mind to pull out my phone and record some of the conversation. What follows is a partial transcription from before the meal came and the discussion devolved into our usual bitterness over the miserable state of the country.
Listen to “Four Views of Education”:
Derrick: On this tape, you play the role of an administrator explaining strategy on how to hold the teachers down.
Ed: I think I was doing that as part of student project on comparative educational theory. It was a group presentation.
Derrick: This was part of the Introduction to Education class?
Ed: Yes. What would be most important to the introduction of teaching a teacher would be trying to get kids to think for themselves. They’ve been brainwashed their entire lives to believe what their teachers have taught them. So you’ve gotta break that mold. What happened at ASU was very strange. There was a group of people that were in the core faculty…remember this was during a time of emerging progressive thought. This group had identified the philosophy of a guy by the name of Korzybski, called “general semantics.” For a few years, that was the philosophy of the education faculty of ASU…until they figured out what the hell we were doing. My dissertation was on critical thinking. I wanted to determine the function of class size and its effect on the development of critical thinking skills.
Derrick: This is a controversial idea.
Ed: Oh my god, it’s subversive. The job of the teacher, from that point of view, is to be subversive — again: to get kids to think for themselves. By the way, I found out that class size doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with it…
Derrick: But it does correlate. It has to do with money and budgets, and budgets are the control. They use the budgets to remove things that they don’t want taught.
Ed: One thing that I was very much opposed to was the term “training.” I was a professor and was allowed to give my point of view, until they decided they didn’t want us around anymore — which basically they did. They did away with this whole general semantics orientation, because they realized that we were in the process of trying to get people to think for themselves. And that’s subversive activity in our society. We had people that certainly thought you can’t think for yourself and still be a teacher. And some of ‘em said screw that. I’m not gonna do that. I have to buckle under to an administration that wants me to basically, simply perpetuate the values of the conservative society.
Derrick: But that’s the way it works. When they use the word “training,” they mean “indoctrination.” It’s corrupt.
Ed: Exactly. I would say you train dogs, you educate people. See, one of the reasons why I got out of teacher education, and this happened when I was at Wichita State, was just exactly what you said. When they found out we were doing some of this stuff, teaching comparative philosophies, they just cut the course out of the program.
Derrick: And that’s what they did here in Tucson, and that’s what they’re doing across the board. All they have to do is cut your budget and then you’re screwed. So it requires a better strategy to get your stuff done.
Ed: And there are no strategies.
Derrick: Not on an institutional level.
Ed: The people like us are in the minority. The people who control the budget strings are conservative. That’s what I tried to tell my students. Schools are public institutions. They are paid for by the conservative forces who are the property owners. So, why wouldn’t they want their values to be promoted?
Derrick: I want to hear more about this program.
Ed: What we did, somewhat arbitrarily in terms of belief systems, was basically five theories of education focus. They were the Progressivism of John Dewey…Social Reconstructionism was very close. Utilitarianism was the “socialist” point of view of educational theoretician Theodore Brameld …whereas Dewey was more “liberal.” Then there was the Essentialists…I can’t even remember the guy’s name who was the head dog in that one…but that was the conservative, functioning society. Then there were the Perennialists, which is the Hutchins University of Chicago program, The Great Books…Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler….Then there’s the Ecclesiastical Perennialists, which is the Roman Catholic. And then there are the Existentialists — Jean-Paul Sartre, primarily, Camus, others. Those are the positions that we exposed students to, and then I would require them to write papers in terms of what were their values. Within those schools, we talked about three things. Ontology refers to the question: “What is real?”; Epistemology to the question: “What is true?”; and Axiology to “What is good?.” A great oversimplification but, from the answer to these questions one can begin for form a philosophy of life. We focused upon these questions to help students formulate their “philosophy of education.” So they had to function on those within their own framework, and then devise their own…where they were at that point in time…in terms of what their belief systems were, where they were coming from. Well then, how did they apply that to education? And I would have people come in, like I said, I would have a Catholic educator come in and talk to them; I would have somebody come in and talk about John Dewey.
Derrick: And you were more of a progressive guy?
Ed: I was always — and I would share this with my students, and am still to this day — split between the Progressive-slash-Liberal notion and the Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. How do you deal with that? I never will answer that question.
Derrick: You mean like a Relativist?
Ed: Well, no. That’s whole other story. A Relativist would be more in keeping with the Progressive notion. That truth is determined on…this goes back to Plato and Aristotle, and we dealt with all of this stuff, very superficially. I wanted ‘em to start thinking about it…Then I would have them apply that. What are you gonna do in a classroom situation, where you have a given product. How are you gonna deal with that as a discipline? A problem of, uh, teaching social studies for example, or dealing with math and science. These have implications for philosophy. I would have them apply that. And then I would carry that through. We had them student teaching — that was on down the line. And I would want them to talk to me in our sessions, where are you now personally, you’re dealing in an essentialistic kind of a structure, though we didn’t talk like that. You’re in a public school, where you have curriculum that you have to teach. Now: you have to do that, because you have to get through this goddam course.
Derrick: It’s the job.
Ed: If you wanna do that. However, what would YOU do if you had your choice to teach that particular class? Usually, it would be very essentialist: “I would teach these facts, and they would get those facts…”
Derrick: I would do what my boss asked me to do.
Ed: Exactly! That’s fine: you’re gonna be able to get through and you’re gonna be able to get your certification. But what would YOU do if you were the one making those judgments?
Derrick: And I’m sure some of them were like, “how the hell do I know?”
Ed: Yeah. So then you say well, by that point in time you had to have exposed them…
Derrick: Right. You can’t grade them on whether or not they were coming up with answers to that.
Derrick: You just want them to get through the material.
Ed: Now see, that all dovetails into this idea of critical thinking.
Derrick: How did you get to this? Was this in the air, or was this something that you yourself were pushing for?
Ed: No. Like you and your brother, who came by your radicalism, your liberalism, honestly — through your parents — I came to it through my dad. You’ve heard me talk about that a thousand times. He was a Unitarian in Methodist sheep clothing. So that’s something. A merging of philosophies; I don’t know where else it could have come from. And then, it was there at ASU.
Derrick: At some point when I was in high school, I realized why they taught us all these different courses, and how they all fit together. And then I realized: they’re GIVING me the answers. I’m not expected to come up with this stuff on my own.
Ed: This is perfectly understandable and therefore, quote, acceptable in society, because that’s what you’ve got: you have public institutions. So you’re gonna have that. As long as you have a function of challenging the kids, that should be — in a democratic society — the teaching priority. It isn’t, but it should be.