From Bob Yagelski to ENG 541

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.



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5 responses to “From Bob Yagelski to ENG 541

  1. Why I Want to Teach

    Thank you so much for being a participant on our blog! I hope you know how much it means to our class. I want to take up the question you pose about why we are each going into this field. Every time I tell someone that I am going into education as a profession, they assume that they know the reasons why. According to most, I desperately love kids, or I love my summer vacation or I am just plain crazy. However, few have stopped and genuinely asked me why, so up until this class, I really hadn’t thought about why, other than the fact that I love English, I love to read and write, and I want to share that with others.

    However, in a previous class, I was fortunate to discuss all the different philosophies of education, (Progressivism, Humanistic, Essentialism, Perennialism, etc) and your question about why we teach reminded me of that class. I think these philosophies directly relate to why people decide to teach, as you mentioned, since through considering these ideas in comparison or contrast to our personal and professional philosophies, we have an opportunity to decide why we want to teach, what we want to accomplish, and what values and ideas we want to preserve or change. I was on information overload and I had a difficult time drafting a personal philosophy of education. I felt then, and still feel now, that schools should be a mix of all these philosophies, trying to accomplish a variety of different goals. I strongly agree that promoting social change should be a primary goal, as you mentioned, along with others.

    In my limited experiences, I have observed that many people believe that one philosophy or purpose is superior to another. Yet, I don’t think that any of the existing educational philosophies completely encompass all the functions that schools should serve. I think this is very unrealistic and I don’t understand why we can’t we take bits and pieces of all the things we want to do and throw it together to create the ideal philosophy. I suppose the problem is that as a community, society, country, we have never been able to agree on what exactly ideal educational institution or philosophy is, or what an ideal curriculum looks like.

    I think I got a little off track in my post, but essentially, all of the questions regarding “why to teach” are really provoking, and through your readings and Dr. Stearns class, I have slowly been sorting this out. I want to teach because I love English, I want others to love English and appreciate the depth and scope of this subject. I want students to be able to be able communicate, something that I feel strongly about, which is all to often not achieved. Also, like Sofia said, I want to provide students with a classroom where creativity and individuality are encouraged. And as you previously mentioned, I want schools to be an institution where students are expected and encouraged to challenge rather than conform and where teachers are expected and encouraged to change lives. By no means does this represent my entire philosophy, but these are just the things I have been thinking about.


  2. allison

    I would also like to thank you for your participation in our blog. I see this as a great opportunity to learn a new perspective, since I came into education for different reasons than the ones you have outlined.

    Like Mandy, I wanted to be an English teacher because I love to read and write. I love to encourage teenagers to engage in these enriching activities. I consider myself lucky, because I have already had several chances to do this, and I have found that it is a passion of mine. I agree with Mandy that we should encourage creativity and individuality. That was my own experience in high school. At the same time, I felt as though I was educated in the “dominent discourse,” and therefore prepared for success in the “real world.”

    My question to you, Mr. Yagelski, is why cannot all students have this experience? I suppose I am a little confused about the Utopian project that you envision. I understand that there are other purposes for education besides economic ends (although I think preparing students for jobs is important). What I do not understand is the kind of change you are talking about. My goal would be to educate all students to succeed when they go beyond the walls of school. I suppose I am having trouble grasping the bigger picture you are talking about. What changes in society are you looking for?

    Thank you again for your response and I look forward to learning more about your opinions.

  3. Robert Yagelski

    I apologize for taking so long to respond to your comments, Mandy and Allison. I missed them because I was following the other thread. So let me respond to each of you separately. (I’m getting ready for a meeting of our writing project site leadership team, so I may not get to your comments, Allison, until later.)

    Mandy, you raise several important and complicated questions in your post. Let me take up two of them.

    The first is why we, individually, teach–as opposed to why we, as a society, educate our children, which I’ll take up separately. I completely understand your impulse to become a teacher because of your love of English. In my years of experience, I’ve found that this is the most common reason that people decide they want to teach English. It was a big part of why I became a teacher–not the literature part so much as writing: I wanted to share with students my passion for writing and my belief in its power. This is a perfectly acceptable reason to want to become a teacher. But over time I have come to believe it’s incomplete. Teaching should not be about us but about our students. And if all we give our students is our passion for our subject, we have given them something valuable but also something insufficient. We are obligated, I believe, to give students more than a passion for English (whatever that means). We are obligated to give them knowledge, ability, perspective, and experience to enable them to negotiate, as literate and thoughtful persons, the complex and changing world they will inhabit. My passion for writing or your passion for literature alone will not give our students that.

    I recognize that I what I am suggesting means a considerable burden for those of us who choose to be educators. But I believe that’s as it should be, because we are given responsibility for the intellectual development of our students. That’s an awesome responsibility that should not be defined in terms of our individual goals and passions.

    The second big issue you raise has to do with the question of society’s purpose in educating its people. You wonder, Mandy, why we can’t have an eclectic approach to educational philosophy: “I don’t understand why we can’t we take bits and pieces of all the things we want to do and throw it together to create the ideal philosophy. I suppose the problem is that as a community, society, country, we have never been able to agree on what exactly ideal educational institution or philosophy is, or what an ideal curriculum looks like.” I think you’ve answered your own question: we have never really been able to agree on what schools should do and why.

    The point here is that education is inherently political and ideological; it is not neutral. Consequently, the battles over what should happen in schools are intense, because the stakes are large. That’s as it should be, because what’s at stake is not only the future of individual students but our society’s collective future as well. Schools exert an enormous influence over how we think and act, and as such they represent great power for change–or to resist change. That’s why we will always have controversy and conflict about educational policy and practice. If you are a teacher, you should not only expect conflict but also learn to make it part of your professional life–not because conflict in itself is desirable but because it is unavoidable. Teachers are political beings and should know that and embrace that part of their identity. I’m not talking about being a political activist; I’m talking about recognizing that everything you do as a teacher is inherently political and acting accordingly. Ultimately, that means participating in what happens in schools in a much broader way than our specific subject area backgrounds might suggest.

    I’ll stop here, because this is getting too long. Allison, I’ll get to your comments when I get back from my meeting.

    Thanks to you both for taking up these questions and engaging me in conversation.


  4. canadawr5

    The French have a saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The more teachers try to become agents for social change, the more they end up becoming advocates for the status quo!

    Ray Canada

  5. Bob Yagelski


    You ask what kind of change I am advocating. That’s a big question (about which I’ve written elsewhere), but I’ll try to offer a reasonably succinct answer. And I’ll start by parsing your question.

    You write, “My goal would be to educate all students to succeed when they go beyond the walls of school.” Your statement reflects an extremely common way to think about the purpose of systemic education. But note that when we think about it in this way, we are making some fundamental and crucial assumptions. The first question I would want to ask in response to your statement is, How do you define “success”? Like most educators, you seem to be defining it in individual terms. “Success” might mean different things to different individual students, but the important thing is to teach in ways that enable individual students to “succeed.” But in defining success in these terms, you also seem to assume that success will be defined in terms of the status quo. In other words, you want individual students to leave your classroom and take their places in the society in ways that they might consider to be “successful.” If that’s the goal, then your job as an educator is to identify the knowledge, skills, ability, etc. that would enable students to fit into the status quo. And that means essentially accepting the status quo. Why would anyone want to develop knowledge, skills, etc. that would enable them to “succeed” in the status quo and then go out and change it? I think you see my point. When we define “success” in individual terms (as we tend to do), then we are implicitly accepting and perpetuating the status quo.

    Let me be clear that I share your desire for individual students to do well, whatever that means for them. I want my students to benefit from my teaching in ways that make their lives better. That’s a very common and powerful impulse that we educators have. But for me it’s not enough.

    What I propose is that we reject the radical individualism on which conventional education is based and redefine both the practices and purposes of schooling in social and communitarian terms. So “success” wouldn’t be a matter only of individuals “succeeding,” as it were; success would also be a matter of the extent to which our communities benefit and thrive as a result of the “success” of individuals. “Success,” from this perspective, would be measured by the extent to which schooling fosters in students knowledge, abilities, perspectives, etc. that enable them to imagine and create more just, more equitable, and sustainable communities.

    I have come to believe that schools define success in individual terms because they are inherently conservative institutions that serve primarily to perpetuate the status quo. So education becomes a matter of preparing students for their places in the world as we know it. I want to prepare students to re-imagine that world and make it better. That’s my Utopian dream. (What counts as “making it better” is a complicated and contentious question that must be worked out through democratic processes, which should be part of the process of formal education. In other words, we should be teaching kids how to function within these messy and often contentious processes of deliberation and decision-making.) You can reject that dream, but then you have to make a case that the status quo is acceptable. I understand that the system we live in is better than many available alteratives, and I benefit in many ways from it. But I am also unwilling to accept the injustice and inequality that are too common in our system; I’m unwilling to accept that consumption is the highest good, especially when our lifestyle is destroying the planet on which we depend for life. So I want schools to be part of the project of building a better future.

    With such a goal, I would advocate a different kind of curriculum and pedagogies that foster a certain kind of awareness among students to help them develop critical and sophisticated knowledge and skill to function effectively in a complex and changing world. Preparing them for jobs just wouldn’t be enough.

    There’s more to say, as always, but I hope this helps.

    Thanks again for asking.

    As for your comment, Ray, I’m not sure how to take it. For one thing, it simply doesn’t make sense. I don’t agree that working for change inevitably means working against change. For another, statements like this let us all off the hook too easily. If you like the status quo, then make a case for it. If you believe educators should perpetuate the status quo, make a case for that. That’s part of the dialectical process of inquiry that I believe all educators should engage in. But our thinking isn’t extended or complicated in useful ways by statements that seem like truisms, because such statements tend to close down, rather than open up, inquiry.


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