Educating for Wisdom


by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm and Bruce Novak
Teachers College Press, 2011

The dissonance between the vision that now animates public education in this country and the view offered by Jeffrey Wilhelm and Bruce Novak in their new book on teaching English is sharp indeed. The most recent cheating scandals that have rocked the public schools in Atlanta and Philadelphia only underline the disconcerting direction in which our schools are headed. Public education continues to be gripped by debilitating mantras of utility and accountability.

Leaders focused on “utility” insist that the overriding goal of education in America is to provide the skills and aptitudes needed in the job market. Education is to be seen, first and foremost, as a vehicle for transforming students into the human capital demanded by the economy. Of course the plausibility of this educational “need” is belied by high levels of unemployment and underemployment and the inability of so many with educational credentials and qualifications to find suitable (or any) employment. Job projections in the United States offer a bleak picture of the lack of fit between the “output” of our educational institutions and the prospects of meaningful, decently paid, and appropriate work. Contrary to the myths of an economy requiring masses of highly skilled, cognitively sophisticated employees, for many the future looks to be one of low-skilled and insecure labor. On this basis we may as well dispense with the importance of public education for a large swath of our young people. Indeed this is already part of the Tea Party educational agenda, which sees well-supported public education as a pointless and futile expense—one more area where we can save our tax dollars and limit the function of government.

By now the deleterious consequences of our fixation on educational accountability have been well documented. Even some of those who, like Diane Ravitch, were advocates and architects of the accountability “regime” have concluded that it has become a blight that is destroying much that was good in our classrooms. Accountability has, among other things, limited what counts in education to only those things that can be counted. It has reduced learning to those things that can be made into testable items in the form of standardized tests. It has made classrooms into places where the primary focus is on preparing for the next test. {{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt] It has meant a curriculum that has increasingly limited what children encounter or are exposed to—especially in terms of learning that encourages artistic expression, creativity, imagination, individuation of understanding, critical interrogation of ideas, and the joyful unfolding of curiosity and interest. Learning has followed the one-size-fits-all model of seeking out standardized and homogenized answers—preset responses to preset questions. Whether intentional or otherwise, the regime of accountability is one that induces boredom, passivity, and conformity among students. And, not least, it is a regime that makes school a place of enormous stress with its focus on endless competition and meeting the bar of increasing test result expectations. For many of us who have followed this development, the epidemic of cheating (involving not just students but also teachers and school administrators) comes as little surprise.

It is in this damaging and dispiriting context that we encounter Wilhelm and Novak’s book. To say that much of what they write echoes the words of a great many other educational visionaries in no sense detracts from the importance of their words. What they have to say represents a light in dark times. Their book offers not just an uplifting vision of what education for literacy might be, but also the wealth of the authors’ accumulated teaching experiences. They have written a book that is at once a sophisticated philosophical treatise on education and a radical guide for those who teach kids in the classroom. I cannot do justice in this short space to the scope of this book, but it is worth, I believe, highlighting a few important dimensions of their writing.

In the first place the book provides a powerful countervision to the desiccated, depersonalized, alienating experience that pervades so much of the learning culture of schools today. It suggests that, more than anything, the purpose of teaching (in their case, teaching English) is nothing less than to evoke and animate the life energies of students. Teaching is that experience that can allow us to encounter the power, beauty, and force of human existence itself. In other words, education can provide us with experiences that are catalysts for discovering the significance of our humanness. In this sense teaching is not merely for some extrinsic or instrumental purpose (a grade, a test, even a job), but the means by which we can discover the depth and richness of human life itself. The authors make the radical (by today’s criteria) assertion that education is nothing if it is not a joyful or pleasurable process—one in which the individual feels more alive and more connected to others in the world.

Like many before them in the progressive educational tradition, they insist that for education to be meaningful it must connect with the world of the student—his or her concerns, interests, desires, passions, fears, and fantasies. Without this connection the classroom becomes a place where learning is nothing but a process of “banking” inert, dry, abstracted bits of information good only for regurgitating at exam time. From their perspective it matters little whether or not students are reading the canon of “good” literature or the latest horror fantasy or teen zine. What is key is whether or not reading becomes the means for reflection on the questions that animate our lives, concerns, and purposes. Does it enable us to deepen our understanding of what it means to be human?

This process, they make clear, is not a solitary one. The classroom is a place for encountering the other—whether the other is the voice in a text or the voice of one’s fellow student. Indeed the classroom as a community is central to their pedagogic vision. The deep evoking of being human requires seeing ourselves in the face and experience of the other. In the words of the feminist theologian Beverly Harrison, we nurture ourselves into being through our connections to others. So the aliveness that is so prized by Wilhelm and Novak demands an openness to the authentic lives of others. The classroom they promote is one that continually asks for students to open their lives to others. In breaking through the armor and defenses that separate us from others, we can see how alike we are in our concerns, fears, and hopes. In this sense the authors are critical of the overemphasis in the critical discourse of the language of difference that highlights what separates rather than what unites human beings. It is perhaps for this reason that they speak little to the more usual concerns of critical inquiry with its focus on race, gender, class, and sexuality.

There is, in this work, an attempt to offer a spiritual vision that emphasizes the commonality in the human condition. This concern is reflected too in their impatience with the deconstructive character of so much critical inquiry in literature, which distances and analyzes rather than promotes the spirit of empathy and immersion in life that is so important to their educational project. In this sense, however, I believe that the authors shortchange the critical tradition, especially in education, where there is ample evidence of writers (from Paulo Freire on) who insist both on a deep interrogation of the social and political interests that govern education and on providing a transformative vision of a life-giving, democratically-inspired pedagogy.

Still, what is to be applauded in this work is the insistence that the goal of education must not be seen as something purely personal. Like Dewey, who asserted that when we educate we make a world, Novak and Wilhelm assert that education’s purpose is, in the end, a matter of what kind of society we are creating. Meaningful education for them is always about bringing individuals together to discover and affirm our shared concerns and fate. The classroom is a place where human beings can meet in the fullness of their being. In coming together to share and face one another in ways that allow and encourage honest, open, and authentic dialogue, we create the kind of community that is the wellspring for real democracy (not to be confused with the polarizing intransigence that now characterizes our dysfunctional politics).

Like Maxine Greene or Hannah Arendt, Wilhelm and Novak understand democracy’s essence not simply as a mechanism for decision making, but as a vehicle through which human beings come into reciprocal interaction, augmenting their powers of reflection and expanding human capacities for empathy and ethical consideration. The classroom as a place for communal conversation here becomes a site in which, as the authors note, wisdom—not just knowing—is encouraged. This is a crucial distinction in which teaching that focuses on “decontexualized information and skills … and totally impersonal … factual and procedural knowledge” is contrasted with the kind of learning that engages students existentially in the totality of their lives as thinking, feeling, and acting beings.

The aesthetic dimension is the defining focus of Wilhelm and Novak’s pedagogy. For them it is the capacity to see human identity and consciousness as a story that can be told, reflected on, and transformed through engagement with others and with texts (all are forms of language communication) that is the lynchpin of all cultural studies. This is undoubtedly an important assertion that opens the door to seeing ourselves in ways that liberate us from what appears fixed and unalterable in our personal as well as social lives.

I, however, am less inclined to accept the power of the aesthetic unless it is explicitly situated within a moral framework that is committed to social justice and the incompatibility of our present economic system with a humane, compassionate, and environmentally responsible world. I believe that the questions that must be posed about the stories we live by do not inevitably arise in the classroom, even when there is the freedom to talk and exchange ideas. This requires educators who have the courage and moral commitment to question the injustice and inhumanity of our national and global communities. The validation and affirmation of our personal narratives still requires us to challenge and deconstruct those beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes that support, however unwittingly, the destructiveness and dehumanization that are deeply insinuated into the dominant worldview of so many of our students. Yet these are matters for debate among friends and should not detract from the overall importance of this work. This book is a powerful and inspiring contribution, not just for the teachers of English, for whom it is especially intended, but for all of us who hope and struggle for the vision of an education that liberates our minds and encourages us to repair or reconstruct our world.


(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


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