Hello to Prof. Stearns’ class. I must apologise for my “absence” after accepting Prof. Stearns’ invitation to join your conversation on this blog. I have been nursing a severe case of sciatica for the past few days, and it’s only in the last 24 hours that I’ve even been able to sit at my desk. So although I have read through the posts on the blog, I have been unable to post my own comments until now. I’m sorry if I threw off your schedule for discussion.
Thank you, Allison, for your thoughtful questions about my article. You raise many good questions, but let me take up two of them.
You write, “Do you think one or both of these theories should be abandoned? Can we teach without the ideology of social and economic utility? Based on this quote from McNeil, ‘Our present high schools were organized, and their reward structures set, at a time when schools were being overtly and deliberately used as agents of economic and social control,’ do you think that schools can achieve something besides a reinforcement of socieo-economic divides? Can schools work outside of this system while it’s still in place?”
In a sense, you are posing here a question that many of us in English education have wrestled with for many years: Are we agents of social change or advocates for the status quo? Although I’m sure it’s clear from my article which I am (unapologetically, I should add), the question is really a very fundamental one that gets at the very foundation of your beliefs about education, literacy, and the role of schooling in society. In my view, no teacher should teach without confronting this question and being able to offer a reasonable answer to it. That answer is likely to change over time, as one gains experience and deepens his or her understanding of teaching and learning. But to teach without reflecting on the fundamental purposes of education seems to me to be unethical and irresponsible. How can you determine what or how to teach if you don’t first know *why* you are teaching? That’s why I believe courses like Prof. Stearns’ are so important for new teachers. They are among the very few places where teachers actually have the opportunity to think carefully and critically about *why* they do what they do.
As for the possibilities for change that you allude to in your question, I can tell you that I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t think those possibilities were real. Given the fact that formal schooling may be the single most influential institution in contemporary society (experienced by virtually every American), schools represent an enormously powerful vehicle for change. They are also deeply conservative institutions that resist change–and whose purpose has increasingly been defined in economic terms. The challenge is to harness their capacity to influence our culture for the better, rather than simply to prepare students for a status quo that clearly needs to be improved. That’s a big challenge. But then, what could be a more important one?
I hope to continue to participate in your blog discussions in the next week or so. Thank you again for your questions.