Finishing one book, pushing through another

by Mr. Sheehy

Sometimes endings are better than beginnings. Those are the cases where I should read like my mother, the woman who cannot resist opening to the last pages of whatever book she has begun in order to see what will happen. I wonder if she would feel the outrage I feel when a student gives away the ending to Of Mice and Men. But I should move on – I believe Mom thinks I have already berated her enough for this moral shortcoming.

For graduate classes at USD, I’ve finished Andy Hargreaves’s book Teaching in the Knowledge Society, and I thought I’d share two final thoughts in brief. The first is a paragraph that stood out to me, because it began to echo an idea that has been chewing on my brain for a couple weeks. I have felt a growing concern for the way the word tolerance is held so high in our society, not because I have some concern over the term or do not think it a virtue, but because in many cases it seems that people are substituting tolerance for a more important concept – justice. It’s a poor trade, I think, if we are settling for tolerance where justice is needed. Tolerance implies putting up with one another and having a “you do your thing and I’ll do mine” attitude, whereas justice stands up for what is right, even if that means one person cannot do her thing. I had thought to develop that idea into a more articulate post, but I haven’t had time to attach details and examples to make my argument make sense, so I’ll settle for tossing it out before I quote a passage kind of like it from Hargreaves:

In recent years, we have become too coy about openly promoting social justice in public schools. Instead of race or social class, we talk about “diversity.” The injustices of exclusion are replaced by the technicalities of achievement gaps. Political and moral outrage about impoverishment have given way to technical debates about improvement. Educators preach the importance of having a moral purpose but, beyond a few cliches, they dare not say what it is. Our diluted vocabulary betrays a lack of courage and a loss of nerve (202-03).

As Hargreaves explains the importance of school reform and leaves his readers with an inspirational push, I cannot drop one nagging feeling. That is, this school reform thing is frustratingly political, and I tire of the political push. And I don’t think I am alone, since people like me are likely exactly why “failing schools” (those dogged by the performance training sects and micromanagement) cannot recruit and hold experienced or talented teachers, as Hargreaves describes. So when Hargreaves describes the things required of those participating in these schools and lists the

need to develop more sophisticated strategies of school improvement that acknowledge the differences among teachers and schools and construct distinct paths of development for all of them (207)

I think about the shallow nature of our country’s political dialogue and grow weary of the attempt to explain any sophisticated strategy before even trying to explain it once. This is part of why I didn’t go into anything resembling politics, I thought.

Now my other book, Provenzo’s Teaching, Learning, and Schooling, is talking about immigration, and I am a bit at a loss for how to transition smoothly from the one book to the next. So I chose the train station as a mover.

It seems that the dominant culture is apprehensive about the incoming culture because the incoming culture is likely to change the existing dynamic. Add another ingredient to a recipe, and you get a new mixture; it will not blend in and disappear. In that sense, I understand the apprehension – there’s a fear of the unknown change. Unfortunately, as articulated in Provenzo’s text, it has often been assumed by the dominant culture that the incoming culture will dilute the virtue of the existing one. And obviously, that is not a healthy perspective. The worst version of this in our country didn’t get much mention in Provenzo. I realize he mentions the internment camps during WWII, but I have yet to see anything as horrible as the cultural seek and destroy campaign set against Native Americans. Forbid the language, lock the young in boarding schools, push the people onto reservations – it’s a tragedy from which entire nations are still trying to recover.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to lament the natural power of “the forces of assimilation” (193). How, I wonder, can a dominant culture bear the burden of maintaining the new group’s cultural identity? That burden naturally falls upon the immigrants’ native cultural community. That’s not a comment on bilingual education so much as a thought about what kind of perspective is possible from the dominant culture. That dominant culture has a moral responsibility for weeding out racism, but I can’t see claiming it has a responsibility for building ways to preserve other cultures. At least that’s what I think today, unless someone can convince me otherwise.


Original image: ‘Milan Train Station at Midnight‘ by: Trey Ratcliff