Featured 30th Anniversary Article: "Back to Basics: A Politics of Meaning for Education"


[Managing Editor’s note: Tikkun is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and to mark the date we have put together a special online anniversary issue that you can access at www.tikkun.org/tikkunat30. The issue includes articles, like the one featured in this post below, from the first decade of the magazine that are representative of what we have been doing for 30 years. And as another way to mark the occasion, we have temporarily reduced the price of a one-year print subscription to the magazine from $29 to $18. Click hereor visit http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/28103-2to subscribe! Already have one? They also make great gifts!]
From Tikkun Volume 8, No. 1. 1993.
If the Clinton administration wants to succeed in changing America’s education system, it must start by recognizing that the Right’s campaign to “return to basics” contains, at its heart, critical insights into the psychological, moral, and social context in which parents face their own future and that of their children. Although progressives have dismissed the conservative education agenda, citing its dehumanizing prescriptions and its distractions from the real issues, the Right has been able to harness deep-seated human concerns and anxieties to the practices and goals of schooling. As we build our own politics of educational meaning, it becomes imperative for us to take these concerns seriously and to address them in ways that will genuinely enhance the dignity, responsibility, freedom, and opportunities of the young.
Basic Skills: Toward a Curriculum for Survival
One of the rallying cries of those who believe America’s schools are cheating youngsters out of their educational “rights” has been the need to emphasize–or re-emphasize–the “basics.” On the surface, at least, what the basics are seems straightforward: teaching kids how to read, write, and do arithmetic. At one level there is an unassailable sensibleness to this demand: It is debilitating, disempowering, and deeply injurious for any American to lack these skills.
There is in the expectation that schools will instruct children so that they are functionally literate and numerate an obvious logic that is reinforced daily by the experiences of working-class and middle-class parents. To the extent that radical or progressive educators have taken issue with the Right’s version of the argument for the primacy of basics in the schools, they have seemed out of touch with Americans’ everyday concerns, needs, and demands. No agenda for education can possibly succeed if it does not take seriously the importance of teaching reading, writing, and numeracy.

How the public discourse about educational basics came to be so thoroughly identified with the Right is one of the most instructive political phenomena of recent years for those seeking to promulgate a progressive agenda. Throughout the Reagan and Bush years, conservatives championed the position that public education must focus on the acquisition of literacy skills among children. Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and his minions pilloried liberal educators’ policies and practices, blaming them for the decline in kids’ ability to read or write. Liberal education practitioners were depicted as hostile to the salience of the basics in school curricuIa.
There is considerable evidence that the conservative attack on liberal education policy was a misrepresentation or obfuscation of reality. Nevertheless, framing the educational debate in these terms has been disastrous for progressives, since it has cast the long-term struggle for social justice in America in opposition to the more immediate concerns of parents. Literacy as the concern of schooling has been falsely counterposed to the goals of an education that might help bring about a more equitable social order.
The public discourse on basics education evokes images and concerns much wider than the Three R’s. Those observers who ascribe a reactionary aspect to the mentality of some proponents of a return to basics are correct. Encoded in the conservatives’ call for a new traditionalism in education is a wish for schools to prepare youngsters for jobs and roles of a bygone era, thereby to recapture that time and its cultural norms. There is, too, in the notion of the basics (as well as in the related concepts of “minimal competencies” and “performance standards”) the implicit expectation of self-sufficiency and self-reliance–compelling ideas in a time of economic and social insecurity. Thus, the power of the conservatives’ basic skills rhetoric stems from the equation we make between schooling and the acquisition of those skills or knowledge that might, in some way, protect individuals from the insecurity and predatory nature of our social and economic environment. Defined in this way, education becomes an expression of the concern for survival in a hazardous, fragile, and precarious world.
Parents’ desire for their children to master the basics is both understandable and rational, as is their desire for their children to possess the skills and knowledge they need to survive in the world. It is not the reactionary response of know-nothings wishing merely to repeat their own school experiences and stubbornly refusing to try anything new. Yet, if alarm over survival, for ourselves and our children, drives the wish that kids master the basics and become minimally competent, it is a sadly restricted and unimaginative notion of what it takes to survive. While the emotion-laden discourse of basics is deeply rooted in the experience of individuals struggling daily with the crises of survival–material, moral, spiritual, and psychological–in its present, limited form it offers very little to help us cope with existing realities.
As with other aspects of a survivalist worldview (which stress the importance of narrow, clearly defined objectives), basic-skills-oriented schooling offers a curriculum that virtually ignores questions of personal meaning. There is scant emphasis on the transmission of a cultural literacy that might provide the kind of narrative threads that allow young people to grasp their place in the totality of our social life. The Right’s model of a basic skills curriculum is a discontinuous inventory of skills, information, and behaviors, remote from an education that could foster the intellectual capacity to connect history with the present, or to link individual experience with that of the collectivity. Avoiding any real attempt to confront our shared human predicament and needs critically, it attempts only to facilitate an individual’s adaptation to the shoals and currents of our turbulent and threatening reality. In this sense it is profoundly individualistic–an approach in which society’s common problems and difficulties must be faced by the solitary individual who, with the help of schooling, has learned to “cope” with the world alone.
The basic skills perspective, as it has been defined by conservatives, thus mirrors the Right’s orientation to the world: Life consists of isolated acts and events without pattern, structure, or unfolding narrative. The basics approach to curriculum has little interest in making sense of the world, in connecting experience with meaning or meaning in one part of our world with that in another. The knowledge conveyed through such schooling is fragmented and experienced as isolated bits of information. Unconcerned with matters of awareness, insight, or imagination, it supplies, instead, a set of skills and the knowledge needed to simply (if not easily) get by.
A progressive agenda for schools must include the technical skills necessary for economic survival. But we also want to expand the definitions employed in this discourse and attach its concerns to broader, more transformative goals. Schools should indeed instruct students in the skills, knowledge, and abilities that will enable them to cope with the demands of the everyday world. This means that schools must help students learn to think critically about what they read as well as what they receive through the media. Literacy is a necessary but insufficient expectation of schools; it must become a critical literacy, the capacity to penetrate the surface descriptions that commonly represent (or misrepresent) our world. Reading must enable kids not only to read the word, but, as the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire has suggested, to “read the world.”
Because there is great interest and support across the political spectrum for helping youngsters learn to decipher and discriminate among the complex, often confusing or deceptive messages of T.V. advertising, and other mass-mediated images, we have the potential for broad-based popular sympathy for a radical expansion of what it means to be literate in America. Widespread awareness of corporate and governmental abuses of the process of public communication has heightened the demand for “communicative competence.” Indeed there is a growing sense that our young people are endangered by the abuses of public communications and that children and adolescents are enormously vulnerable to powerful interests and the images they generate. As a result, the idea of “decoding” television, movies, and advertising has increasing resonance among parents. “Basic skills” so defined becomes a front line for protecting children from the relentless influence and seductions of corporate capitalism.
Insisting that basic skills today means communicative competence gives a transformative twist to the existing public discourse on education, rooting the basic instructional work of schools in the work of empowering young people to cope with the complexity and confusions of the contemporary social world. Such a redefinition places us fully on the side of the need for achieving literacy, more comprehensively and relevantly construed.
Work: Powershift and Educational Reform
A resonant progressive agenda for education must deal with the connection between jobs and schooling. Whatever disdain radical and progressive critics may have for the increasing vocationalization of schooling–the reduction of broad educational goals to specialized or technical skills–its importance to people cannot be dismissed. Decent employment stands at the center of most of our attempts to establish the conditions for family security and material well-being. And education is the means by which most people hope to attain these goals. But a progressive education agenda recasts training for work, taking it beyond the traditional, narrowly conceived, specialized forms of vocational or technical training.
Support for a broader conception of education for work has begun to grow among a number of influential constituencies. Concern over low or declining productivity has directed attention recently to the problems of human capital formation–the need for an educated, trained, and skilled work force capable of meeting the demands of an advanced industrial infrastructure and defending itself against the effects of low-wage competition from developing countries. Addressing the problems of low productivity, a number of commentators (including Thomas J. Peters and William G. Ouchi) have proposed strategies aimed at wider worker participation such as broader control of investment decisions, a democratization of the structure of the workplace, support for the introduction of “democratic technology,” and the need for a more responsive and accountable corporate sector. These analysts have argued that only through such changes will it be possible to address the economic (as well as the social and human) needs of the United States in the coming years. The widely reported–if limited–experiments in decentralized management, quality circles, job rotation, and cooperative decision-making as well as the widespread interest in Japanese forms of corporate management have opened up unprecedented possibilities for an expansion of responsibility and control in their work by workers and middle-level employees. Clearly, we cannot disregard the manipulative nature of many of these changes, which stem from managements’ attempts to squeeze more productivity out of workers. Yet they are nonetheless tacit recognition of the need to address the creative and participative dimensions of workers’ lives.
A more flexible, democratically structured workplace requires workers who have been educated more broadly than existing specialized technical training curricula allow. While specialized training will certainly be a component of the new vocational curriculum, it might also include “training” in democratic processes, the capacity to evaluate social needs critically, and the human and environmental consequences of economic decisions. It would have to take seriously the functioning of institutional democracy, the politics of control, the assumption of collective responsibility, the negotiation of priorities, the elaboration of procedures, and the resolution of conflicts–all of which can be learned only through opportunities for genuine democratic participation and governance in our education institutions.
Given the hierarchial and authoritarian character of most American schools, such change would be every bit as radical as the changes proposed for the control of the workplace itself–no less than a democratic restructuring of educational institutions. While a human capital focus implies only the need for an appropriate specialized education, the social restructuring of industry to unite the concern for the execution and conception of tasks requires an education system that allows individuals to understand the broader purposes and ends of production and other activities in their society–an understanding that includes a critical examination of existing purposes as well as possible alternatives. To make popular participation in fundamental industrial planning and investment decisions feasible, workers must have developed awareness of and insight into the interrelatedness of such decisions with matters of social, human, and cultural significance; the effects of the allocation of human and material resources; the consequences of industrial development on the environment; the issue of human needs and appropriate or necessary levels of consumption; productivity and the relation between work and leisure time; the relationship between forms of technology and human experience; and the interconnections of the world economy.
Thus, a more democratic approach to the management of economic institutions requires moving from an education in which a highly circumscribed knowledge is emphasized to one embracing the totality of social concerns and relationships. Specialized training gives way to education aimed at broad understanding of the meaning and purpose of a productive life. In an important sense, education for economic democracy implies a renewed commitment to cultural education–one in which human life, its meaning and significance, and the social order in which these are constituted are central concerns. The questions that are integral to an education for economic democracy transcend those derived from technical criteria. Issues of allocating resources, environmental effects, technology and worker experience, or work and leisure cannot be dealt with through an instrumental rationality, since they are indissolubly connected to wider aesthetic, ethical, and existential considerations.
While the technical training of human capital embodies a rationality in which ends, purposes, and effects of economic activity are, to a large extent, presupposed (the “bottom line” is always efficiency, the minimization of costs, and the maximization of profits), the notion of meaningful economic democracy implies choice among the possible goals of our productive energies. Education geared toward economic democracy would be likely to raise questions about the wisdom or necessity of centralization and concentration of industrial development; the possibility of forms of technology that enhance rather than reduce craftsmanship and worker creativity; the development of labor-saving technologies versus full employment; and the social need or usefulness of current industrial priorities (for example, the emphasis on private modes of transportation).
Social Responsibility: Schooling for an Ethic of Communal Care
Across a wide and divergent set of social constituencies, there is a sense that American society has become irresponsible. From left to right it is argued that there is a deep moral crisis manifested in selfish, narcissistic, and careless attitudes and a lack of mutuality and obligation to others, although the causal factors of this crisis vary significantly depending upon the ideological perspective of the viewer. For some (most often conservatives), the crisis stems from the spread of an ethos of entitlement and the desire for immediate gratification and pleasure without any concomitant sense of obligation. For others, usually progressives, irresponsibility toward the society takes the form of extreme individualism and materialism exemplified by the get-rich-quick philosophy of the 1980s that seems to have so shaped the industrial and economic decline of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. Its face is the Savings and Loan scandal, the merger mania and financial double-dealings on Wall Street, and the flight of capital and industrial plants from the United States to cheaper labor markets in the developing world. Other manifestations include the misuse and abuse of natural resources and indifference to the dangerous, hazardous, and wasteful environmental consequences of corporate behavior. Proponents of this view decry the emergence of a society that treats with indifference or callous disregard the growth of homelessness, poverty among children, and degradation of public utilities and amenities. The language of individual responsibility toward society thus resonates within many sectors of the national culture. This is a function of the strength of its appeal, but therein also lies its weakness: it can become all things to all people. “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” lends itself as easily to militaristic patriotism as it does to concern for the social ills of our nation. Yet the risk is worth taking. The moral imperative to cultivate a concern for the welfare of the larger community among the young is the underpinning for any progressive agenda for the schools.
While most of us might agree that there is a greater need for social responsibility, ensuring that it takes the form of compassionate concern for those in our community who are poor, excluded, and victimized rather than mindless flag-waving will require public debate. It will help to keep in mind that the intensity of emotion surrounding the question of the flag and other expressions of patriotism reveals the desperate desire for a strong sense of community in a highly fragmented, atomized, and egotistical culture.
There is potentially great support for a dimension of schooling that seeks to inculcate in youngsters a sense of the importance of service to the community; the development of an attitude of care and stewardship of our natural environment; the value of aiding the sick, the elderly, those who are alone; the importance of doing for others and not simply taking for oneself; the value of addressing the consequences of social injustice whether among the poor, immigrants, the homeless, the handicapped, the sick, or those subject to discrimination and racism. How these impulses might be addressed, developed, and nourished in schools is best left to local educators and institutions. The particular emphasis will depend on the place and character of their school and the community of which it is a part.
Linking education to the individual’s responsibility for society requires addressing a widely perceived crisis in citizenship. The degeneration of active, meaningful, and involved citizenship is most readily discernible in voting behavior, although it is also apparent in the now well-documented apathy and disinterest among young people toward national and international events and affairs. In emphasizing the need to take citizenship education out of the textbooks and into the community, a progressive educational agenda might find allies among those who have long advocated mandatory community service as high school and college requirements. Such community service expands democratic participation, deepens civic awareness and understanding, and enhances the concern for social justice. The crisis of electoral apathy and civic disaffiliation might provide an important opening to an education for greater political empowerment.
Discipline: Unlearning the Culture of Narcissism
The question of discipline in schools ranks very high among the concerns of parents and other members of the public, cutting across races and classes. Survey after survey demonstrates that Americans expect schools to teach disciplined behavior to the young. Parents and other citizens consistently have voiced alarm about the failure of schools to ensure that young people develop sufficient respect for authority and appropriate attitudes and behavior.
Predictably, this concern has been a central element of conservative discourse about schools and a focal point of the Right’s educational agenda throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. And, for a number of compelling reasons, the Left has been hostile to these widely supported public demands. For example, the call for order and discipline often has elements of a deeply rooted psychological interest in squelching children’s playful, erotic, and anarchic impulses.
However, the widespread concern, even panic, about the lack of discipline among the young may also be a response to other aspects of our society and culture. It is time to re-examine this position with more care and sympathy. We live in an era characterized by cultural relativism; few elements of our moral and normative world remain unquestioned or sacrosanct.
Notwithstanding the periodic efflorescence of “traditional” patriotic, family-centered, career-oriented values, the pervasive influence of disbelief and cultural/moral flux is simultaneously at work in our culture, arguably making cynicism the characteristic attitude of our time.
Whatever its reasonableness, the concern for inculcating discipline and restraint is usually expressed through coerciveness and demands for conformity and a blind submission to power. The usual inflection of the public discourse on discipline remains narrowly focused on behavior, and “discipline in schools” translates into keeping kids under control, managing their behavior, and exacting compliance with the rules of the institution–whether or not there is any real comprehension of why the rules exist, or whom they are intended to benefit. As a response to the need to promote thoughtful self-regulation and reflection on the effects of one’s actions on others, our present approach to discipline is self-defeating and futile. Its demand for mindless restraint and conformity brings into further disrepute and contempt among the young the real value of discipline as a dimension of human conduct.
Our agenda for education must affirm the validity, and indeed the dire necessity, of discipline as a way of being human in the world. The Left’s inability to incorporate the importance of human discipline into its education project has allowed the Right’s monopolization of an issue of enormous public concern. Yet our condition as a national and international community cries out for an alternative, socially sensitive, humanly transformative notion of discipline–not the rejection of discipline among the young as an educational goal, but its redefinition. Discipline as a practice concerned with an unreflective, unthinking obedience toward authority is to be rejected. To insist on such behavior among the young is, for obvious reasons, antithetical to the education of citizens for a thoughtful, questioning democratic culture where individuality and dissent are valued and prized.
Yet in a society rife with unbridled egoism, greed, excessive consumption, the misuse of limited resources, and indifference to the impact of how we live on the lives of others, a discipline that might instruct the young about the need to moderate one’s demands and to act with restraint and care is urgent. We wish to nurture in our young a discipline that makes clear its connection to the care for and respect of others and of the earth. It stands in opposition to a culture that encourages the profligate, selfish, and unrestrained depletion of our resources, the irresponsible destruction of our air and water, and unbounded consumerism.
To act with discipline is to act with regard to limits: to curtail what one wishes to say, do, or have because of its potentially deleterious consequences for others. Discipline, in this sense, is a crucial element in acting with responsibility to and for others. To transform the meaning of discipline into this sense of self- and collective restraint is to become cognizant of the dangers of behavior when our expectations, desires, or assumptions go unchecked, or without critical moral reflection. It is to become aware of the hurt we inflict on others when we waste or destroy precious resources; when we squander time, energy, or money; when we imperiously assume that everyone around us shares our religious faith, language, history, or culture. Whenever we act without learning to limit our needs, without curtailing our power and prerogatives, without checking our assumptions that everyone is just like us, then we have acted recklessly and without discipline. So it is that progressives can affirm the public’s alarm about the lack of discipline among the young–and the importance of schools as agents of change–while insisting that such change does not entail a reflexive capitulation to institutional rules, but rather a relational, morally sensitive, and reflective process of learning to live with others in community.
What has been discussed here represents only a partial formulation of a politics of meaning in education. We have not begun to address other influential dimensions of the public discourse about schools. There is, for example, the pervasive liberal notion of equal opportunity in which school is viewed as the primary arena pitting children against one another in the fierce competition for honors and success. Nor have we explored educators’ professional commitment to the illusory idea of education as morally neutral. Here again, the Right may be on to something important; in their emphasis on teaching values, conservatives have shown an appreciation for the inextricable connection between education and society’s fundamental ethical, political, and ideological concerns.
Whether or not we choose to recognize it, school is inevitably a place where children learn to understand what it means to be human and how they should live together with others. It is time for the Left to accept this challenge and affirm our own moral and spiritual vision of the meaning of education.
Svi Shapiro is professor of education and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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