A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.


Humans have always dreamed of being free of labor. Yet, now that that day is foreseeable, now that technological advances idle both blue and white-collar workers at an astonishing pace, our society does not seem the have the wherewithal to grapple with the implications of a future in which more an more goods and services will be created labor-free. We intuitively know that the answer to the dilemma involves education, but we continue to think that if we can just train people in science and technology, they will be equipped for the emerging economy. It is in this frame of mind that we are teaching little kids to write computer code, to do mathematics that people my age didn’t do until college and cram their school days with activities inappropriate to their stage of development. We feel obliged to destroy their childhood in order to ensure a good place for them in the economy of the future. The name of the game in k-12 education today is STEM, science, technology, engineering and math.

Putting aside the absurdity of everyone learning to code and the other nonsense we inflict on children, less and less of a young person’s education today is spent on what we used to call a liberal education, literature, history, art, civics, comparative religions, languages. Fewer and fewer teachers dare to take time from preparing students for the high stakes tests they must pass to have any hope of a place in the economy of the future to talk about things like the degradation of our democracy, media literacy, the implications of the decline of the middle class, unending wars and, above all else, what it means to live the good life.

Several years ago I suggested that we needed to have a sexy acronym for liberal arts education. I suggested HEART for humanities education advances reading and thinking. I went on to say, “HEART is not about training, but rather about making sense of the world and the people in it. HEART is about envisioning a better world and having the knowhow to organize people to call it into being. HEART is the antithesis of training. It’s not about making a living but learning to live. It’s about having HEART.

One look at the HEARTless baboons who have taken over our country, these people for whom knowledge is a handicap and gut instinct a many art, one look at them gives us a glimpse of what a society devoid of broadly educated citizens looks like. We need to look closely and take HEART.

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Bits and Pieces

Handmaidens of High Tech

Leaders of teacher organizations are often heard to say, “Ask teachers to organize a firing squad, and they form a circle.” I couldn’t help but notice the tweets from some of the administrators in my home school district. Almost every one has pictures of kids staring
at computer screens. Nowhere is a teacher to be seen. The message is clear to anyone who cares to think about it. Teachers are at best tangential to the education of children. How almost effortlessly the tech companies are getting teachers to become the means of their own destruction. How subtly they are defining education in their own business interest.


Yesterday, I spoke to a group of retirees from my home district, urging them to oppose the constitutional convention that is up for a vote in New York this November. It was heartening to see their understanding of the threats to public education and public employees from such a convention. As I spoke, many were taking notes, obviously getting ready for what they knew would be my final point – that they can have an important impact on the defeat of the referendum if each member sets a goal to motivate family and friends to vote NO in November.

Kids and Guns

Long term the way to dial down the passion for gun ownership in this country is the educate generations of children to the fact that their safety and the safety of their families is imperiled by the indiscriminate way in which the United States permits gun ownership. The gun lobby has been winning the propaganda war for decades in the absence of any serious and sustained countervailing argument. Public schools played a significant role in teaching children the dangers of smoking. The can and must do the same job on gun violence.

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Teaching Adults to Talk to Each Other

One on the loudest laments I hear from elementary teachers concerning the ever increasing academic burden we have been placing on young children is the lack of time to do many of the activities that were once very consciously aimed at socializing our children. Teachers are deeply concerned that in the test centered would in which they work, children are missing opportunities to hone the social skills that come from activities requiring interaction with other students and adults, not the least important of which is play. In a world in which their time after school is increasingly spent being engaging digital media, where is it that we expect children to learn the skills that lubricate the interactions between people.

This subject has been on my mind since I hear an NPR piece last week about a police training program in Spokane Washington aimed at millennial officers who are seen by their superiors to generally lacking important social skills necessary to engage strangers. In a era in which community policing is the favored approach to public safety (except, of course for Donald Trump), Spokane is undertaking training of its young officers in how to talk to and read the citizens they are expected to police.

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The Dystopian Paradigm Shift

We’re making significant progress in the battle to save public education from those who have fostered a culture of test and punish with the aim of discrediting public schools with the goal of enticing the public to embrace private and semi-private education models. The corporate sponsors of this pseudo-scientific data driven school reform must be apoplectic as they watch the politicians they bought and paid for retreat from their agenda as the elections near. Where we haven’t been as successful is in exposing the myth that technology is about usher in a golden age, one in which equipped with tablets students will receive an individualized, technology mediated education, free at last from the limitations of a single teacher attempting to educate a group of students with differing needs and abilities.

I’m drawn to this topic this morning by a post on the Long Island Opt Out Facebook page that invites our attention to a piece on the Questar website, Questar being the company that recently got the testing contract for New York State. There we are asked to abandon the “one –to- many teaching approach” in favor of a tablet with links to software in the cloud that will free students to have a customized education, one that provides learning and assessment all in one package. Like many 21st century snake-oil salespeople, this pitch seeks to distract our attention away from the reality that at best such systems are designed to inculcate skills and information rather than offering what we used to recognize as education. It does so by employing a favorite device of the 21st century snake-oil salesperson. It invites us to engage in a paradigm shift. Have you noticed how all paradigm shifts are presumed good and how those who oppose them are mired in the past? Have you noticed too that after a decade or more of huge expenditures on school related technology few, if any of the promises of wired education have been achieved? Maybe we need to shift a different paradigm.

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Digital Schools?

A week ago I had the pleasure of having dinner with Kris Alexanderson, a recent history Ph.D. and an assistant professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. At some point in our dinner conversation, I found myself talking about how it seemed to me that the focus of much of the contemporary discussion of education is on training for employment rather than what I understand to be education. Kris responded with a reflection on her undergraduate years at Bard College and how living in that learning community for four years changed her life, how she recognizes that she is a different person today for the engagement she had with professors and students there. Although not at all aimed at any specific employment, her education was to her infinitely more valuable in that it left her with the ability to learn essentially whatever she choose to learn in her life and world.

I foud myself thinking about that conversation this morning as I came across the term “digital school” in my daily attempt to keep up with the news in public education. Digital school? Digital education? To me a digital school is to education as masturbation is to love.

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