Provenzo and the Myths of Education

by Mr. Sheehy

Once again, Provenzo generates a great deal of reaction from me, and I’m not totally sure why, though I think it may have something to do with my classic reaction against anything that attempts to summarize grand schemes of time or anything that acts like what is going on now is new. I’m a huge “nothing new under the sun” guy, and I suppose at root this postmodern-world-as-a-brand-new-world idea grates at me, because it seems to me that if we read the history books that are available to us, we’d find that what we’re seeing today is not nearly as unique as we think it is. It seems a tad narcissistic to read history this way, and that may be what drives me so crazy about texts like this. Maybe that’s what bugs me, but I’m not going to devote any more text today to this particular question.

I’ll restrict myself today to two observations, and the first is that education is a place where myths are dominant. Provenzo cites folks like Colin Greer and their work that has exposed “The Great School Legend,” a myth that schools are the key cog in the American Dream, giving poor and underprivileged people the opportunity to rise to the middle class. In response rose a group of “revisionist” and “radical revisionist” theories of educational history (pp. 32-35). In my experience, however, I would not accuse the early purveyors of the Great School Legend of being unique. In fact, I hear theory after theory about what schools are like and what they do and what they’ve done, and these come from fellow teachers, neighbors, students, former students, politicians, professors, and more. And practically each person has a unique theory, many more naive than the Great School Legend.

Schools and education are mightily complex. My wife and I marveled recently at the complexity of our oldest daughter’s personality. She is rambunctious and never stops talking at home (only the slightest hyperbole there), but when in Sunday School, she stands back and watches kids, observing closely, remaining on the outskirts almost the entire time. Add this one complex personality to 25 others, then throw in the complexity of an adult, then throw them into the bag with hundreds of other children and dozens of other adults, and is it no wonder no one has clear solutions to the problems that develop?

The theories vary according to their technique of data collection. A professor or professional researcher may have some fairly reliable data if SBR procedures were followed, but for most people in the world (and many of them decision makers), a quick anecdote or two trumps the research. The special place for anecdote in conversations about education makes myths especially abundant. Each person has some kind of schooling experience, and it takes a lot of data to usurp the perceptions that have developed. And even then, it’s likely that no amount of data will convince a person that you are right to have students choose their own books, even fantasy books, if he has declared, “When I was in school, we had to read Shakespeare in 4th grade!”

My second observation is directed toward Provenzo’s section on the school as the builder of “a new social order” (42-43). Like in the past, I object at this concept as I think it’s silly to think that any block can pass along just a neutral set of valuable values. A school that passes along a set of values, as Provenzo admits earlier in this text, makes a judgment according to where it is silent (the “null curriculum” p. 26), and at any given point, one could easily ask the question, are the schools substituting a set of values or complimenting them? Are they overriding or are they providing a part? Many religious believers rightly question public schools relevancy as they contribute towards a nation-wide secularism that has become somewhat intolerant of (or at least condescending towards) religious conviction. And even aside from questions of tolerance and non-tolerance, I wonder what will happen as people begin picking at further values, questioning whether this concept or this idea should be taught. Last year one of my colleagues was challenged by a parent for mentioning her husband in a letter home to parents. The case seemed extreme, but as schools become dominated by a culture of fear (fear of litigation, primarily), the extremes win out. And the schools could be left with nothing worth teaching.
Provenzo, E.F. (2002). Teaching, learning and schooling: A 21st century perspective. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.