Teacher, Author, Advocate
“Kids don’t need martyrs.”
In 1974, she founded Central Park Elementary School in Harlem, as an alternative school emphasizing active learning. Later, she opened two other Central Park elementary schools and, in collaboration with the National Coalition of Essential Schools, the Central Park East Secondary School. She is the recipient of the Macarthur Fellowship and widely lauded as one of our most influential and acclaimed educators. Her books include The Power of Their Ideas, Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem, Will Standards Save Public Education, and In Schools We Trust.
Our conversation occurs at her home in upstate New York. She lives in a dairy farmhouse which she had renovated in the seventies. A small pond is nestled in the rolling hills on her property. She is swimming when I arrive, and she urges me to come in. When I confess to being a non-swimmer, she says, “Then come in and splash around.” We talk on the porch until Jane Andrias, a former principal of Central Park East, arrives for dinner.
Debbie and I resume our conversation later at a table where stacks of papers wait to be archived. We talk until midnight.
Some of this is from my childhood. And papers I wrote in college, letters I wrote my parents. I didn’t realize how much I wrote to my parents as though it was like a journal. Not personal, but sort of a political journal. That’s interesting, because I wouldn’t have guessed that I had written them so much about what I was thinking. That was a surprise to me.
On the other hand, it was rather nice, because I could see threads of my educational views in my earlier political history. It’s a reinforcement of my realization that education changed the way I thought about politics, but also, how politics affected the way I saw teaching. I always wrote a lot. I always wrote thinking about policy, thinking about the ways in which the system obstructs good practice.
I didn’t go into this work [education] to change the world. I went into it accidentally in my thirties. I started as a sub to add to the family coffer. I was a sub on the south side of Chicago, an area called Kenwood. It was pretty much all black schools. I learned quickly that I was a terrible sub. No natural instincts. The primary experience of subbing for me was shock at what it meant, if you’re a low income kid, to spend twelve years in school. It was news to me.
Later, I was asked if I wanted to teach kindergarten. I thought, this is fascinating. It became an exploration of how much influence schooling could have from my viewpoint. You had enormous freedom to create your own environment, to go home and think about how to do something, and the next day come in and do it. Didn’t always work out, but then you do it again. Listen to the kids carefully, their language, their ideas. Immediately, it was intellectually the most exciting single year I’d ever had.
My apocryphal story about teaching kindergarten is this: I’m at dinner where I got an honorary degree. There’s this woman there, a kindergarten teacher, who also got an honorary degree. A man was sitting between her and me, and he was a chemist, as I recall. He got into a conversation, mostly with her, about her field and his field.
At the end of the conversation, he said, “It has been a pleasure talking to you. You have the kind of mind that could have been a college teacher.” And she beamed with pleasure. Later, I started talking to him. I said, “I was overhearing some of your conversation. You know, you explained it all so well, you could have been a kindergarten teacher.” [Laughs] I still call myself a kindergarten teacher, even though it’s been forty years since I was.
I always felt more optimistic when I was in schools. Possibilities seemed endless and fun to contemplate. You have get enough joy out of a classroom full of kids and out of your colleagues to keep hope alive. It has to be enough fun so you are not always worrying, “Am I making a difference?”
I remember Steve Phillips [then head of New York alternative schools] got furious at me once because he was talking about something I should do, and I said, “Well, if I took this as far as you’re talking about, it would stop being fun.” He said, “Well, why do you expect this to be fun?!” I said, “Well, I’ve stayed in it because it’s been fun up to now, and I intend to leave it when it stops being fun.” We may not be able to change the world, but who knows? I’m not saying we can’t. I’m just saying you can’t go into it if that is your goal.
When I speak to young teachers, I tell them, You can’t view yourself as a martyr to a cause. Kids don’t need martyrs, and working harder won’t change the world. You have to go into it thinking, “Well, I have these kids in front of me. I can have an influence on their lives, and they’ll have an influence on me.”
I don’t believe that schools can change America. Schools can only change America if people believed in schools. If we believed in them, we’d already have a different America. The kind of education that I talk and write about can’t happen overnight. By its very nature, it can’t happen overnight. But people could aspire to something more in that direction. If people didn’t look at test scores as the answer, if we had more thoughtful ways of explaining what’s working, it would open up doors for people. I want kids to experience respectful judgment in school so that they will carry that habit of respectful judgment outside of school.
When I think of your “five habits of mind” I can’t help thinking that if we had been teaching them to children all along, we might have a very different society today, a populace that has learned to ask, “Why do you say that? Where’s the evidence?”
I think there was a moment in history when I believed what you just said. Because there was a while in which corporate America was interested in our ideas, the Coalition [of Essential Schools’] ideas. A lot of these people, conservative businesspeople, acted like they loved our ideas. They thought that their world, the world of business, needs to have better educated people. They believe that the modern worker can’t be like a factory worker. So for their own interests, I thought they might be interested in our kind of education. The fact is many of them send their own kids to private progressive schools.
But I was wrong. It’s not merely that they want to take over; I think they want to take over in a way that leaves less decision making on the ground level among teachers. And now they’re just as hostile to parents. If you’re disrespectful of the adults in children’s lives, you can’t be respectful of kids. Do they think it’s only necessary for low income kids, this top down? That’s going to be a dilemma if they try to impose that. Because, can they impose it only in some places, not others? I don’t know. Not everybody thinks everything through logically. I am interested in how they see it.
You seem to have a curiosity about what others have to say and how they are thinking.
It’s my belief in rationality and reason. If I could understand their reason, I would either see that there’s something right about it or I would think of a way to help them see differently. That’s why I find it satisfying to think that people may have relatively good motives. Which is what I think we mean by respect. To start off with the assumption that people’s intentions are not evil.
You could be wrong about that, ultimately. But you introduce yourself with the assumption that the two of you have good reasons. Their conclusion may not be accurate, it may be lopsided, but if I could figure out what led them to that conclusion…you know? Because something did. They’re not just being lazy or stupid. There’s a good reason. Finding that out interests me.
It seems that who another person is, what they’re about, what they want and the way they think is always kind of an open question for you.
Yes. I think it’s related to a kind of passion about democracy that went back early in my life, my family. My father was head of a big Jewish organization called Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in our city. My mother was active in leftist politics. Democracy absolutely rests on the fairly counterintuitive assumption that most people are doing things for good reasons.
My translation of Dewey is that he was confronted by the problem of democracy. That is, if everybody’s supposed to be able to aspire to be a member of the ruling class, then everybody needs to have the education fit for the ruling class. I think the traditional good education didn’t worry about whether this or that was necessary for life, because part of its necessity was to separate them from the others. You learn Latin because other people didn’t know Latin. If everybody spoke Latin, then it’s not special anymore. There’s a long history of the vernacular being put down. Part of the identification of the ruling class is they speak a different language than the ordinary people. That’s a mindset that’s essentially undemocratic.
A friend of mine who was part of a generation that would get dressed up to get on an airplane, used to grumble, “The problem today is that anybody can fly.”
You’re right. [Laughs] That’s wonderful, that’s exactly right. Once you call something “practical math,” everybody can know it. The word practical is by itself an insult, because only a ruling class can afford to know things that are of no practical use. Their education is not vocational in the usual sense. Their vocation is to rule, and the rest of us need a vocational education because we have to make a living.
So the leisure class gets a leisurely, a “gentleman’s” education, and the working people, the 90%, get a vocational education. Now we have to reinvent what it would mean for everyone to have a ruling class education. The conversation I’d love to have, which I have a hard time getting going, is this: Are there some things that we feel confident enough to argue that everybody needs in order to be part of the larger conversation about our destiny? The habits of mind were an attempt to get at that. We shouldn’t be teaching anything for which you don’t use those habits.
You wrote that “the question is not, is it possible to educate all children well, but rather, do we want it badly enough?” Do we?
We don’t, that’s the answer. I shouldn’t say we; they don’t. We do. They’re looking for a shortcut. I have a friend who will say we need to move fast, we can’t afford another generation of kids who don’t know algebra, for example. We need to find the way it can be done, he says, and we need to mandate things. That’s the fastest way, and we can’t afford anything slower than that.
Charles Payne says, “Change takes time and kids don’t have it.”
Because it is true. None of my schools were ever available to my children, and it always frustrated me that they went to such bad schools. I have a friend who had an autistic child. This was quite a long time ago when there wasn’t much interest in autism. It was seen as bad mothering. She got involved in a number of things and finally helped start a publicly funded program for young children with autism. Her kid was too old by the time she got it going.
Do you believe that schools are improving?
I think the idea of progressive education is right. I just hope that we can keep this way of thinking alive until it has more political snowballing effect. I don’t think it can snowball without a larger movement for the things that are relevant to it. Respect. Political action. The notion of community. Historically, the drive for liberty and fairness is innately human. It’ll have up periods and down periods, be defeated most of the time, but occasionally it won’t. The fight itself will keep going. I hope I possibly might live long enough, but I probably won’t, to see a resurgent optimism in the democratic world.
Larry Cuban talks about “tinkering toward utopia.”
I’m not sure we’re tinkering toward utopia. I hope he’s right. We’re definitely tinkering. The tinkering toward a more democratic vision will keep going on, but will it create such a society… ? His implication is that it keeps getting better. It may get better and then get worse. I’m just not sure.
The world doesn’t stay still, so it’s hard to judge. So many things seem worse right now about schooling, but worse than what? And that was the sixth habit of mind that I should have added. Compared to what? The 1930’s when a black person in New York City’s west side of Manhattan, couldn’t come up the passenger elevator? I think, how could that have been in my lifetime? In some real ways it’s gotten better.
You once wrote that you wished you could come back in 100 years to see what others have made of your work. Do you still have that curiosity?
Yes. One thing that keeps me going is that I’m always curious about tomorrow. The question is whether somebody will reconstruct this work we’ve done, just as people like Lillian Webber rethought progressive education in the 70’s. There can be continuity, but also a new way of picturing how it could be expressed. I’d kind of like to see how, in this next period, this all becomes expressed. I just want to peek. I don’t want to get into it again. I just want to be able to watch, maybe from a cloud. But I’d like to know what happened. Yes, I would.