Thursday, October 6, 2011

Teaching Values Across Cultural Difference

There’s been a lot of discussion on this blog lately, both in the posts and in the comments, about the teaching of values. Most of these discussions have dealt with, if not necessarily middle-class values, at least values taught by middle-class educators—and taught, for the most part, to working-class and poor children, with the idea that these children are short on good values. Today, I want to talk about a different scenario.

I recently happened upon this blog post by “Teacher MRW,” an African-American first-generation-college-graduate teaching in a predominantly white, upper-middle class private school. Inspired by the discussion of moral education generated by my post on the London Riots, MRW writes about the cultural dissonance between herself and her privileged, white students, particularly around conduct, manners, and responsibility. She opens with an anecdote about her attempts to make her students take their hats off when they enter the classroom—a wonderful bit of old-fashioned decorum that my Jesuit-educated 6th-grade history teacher enforced with an iron hand, to my baseball-cap-wearing classmates’ surprise and, at first, consternation, but ultimately half-frightened, half-amused respect. MRW’s demands that “gentlemen take their hats off in class,” as my history teacher used to put it, however, met with only bafflement and resistance, and she finally gave up on the hat battle.

In a lot of ways MRW’s predicament seems to mirror that in which many privileged, white college-graduates (myself included) find themselves, when they take teaching jobs in inner-city public schools. For MRW, however, the gradient of cultural privilege runs in the opposite direction, a fact that drastically alters the terms of the cultural exchange in ways that are frustrating to MRW and far from beneficial to her students. The particulars of the exchange also highlight some of the difficulties facing middle-class education and harken to some of the themes discussed in my last full-length post. (Yes, there are difficulties facing middle-class education; admitting that does not belittle the difficulties facing inner-city education.)

Privileged white educators feel perfectly entitled to hold black and Hispanic inner-city students to privileged white cultural standards, not only in terms of conduct and decorum, but in terms of language, attire, and values. This is seen as being done in the students’ interests—and I’m not questioning that; I think it really is in their interests, for the most part. The ability to speak standard English and the habit of practicing good manners will open doors for these students. Likewise, teaching them to value education and intellectual development and (with some important caveats) to aspire to a college degree and a middle-class job is likely to create more opportunities in their future and increase their upward mobility. (More on this.)

Faced with the parallel dilemma—a dissonance between her own culture and that of her students—MRW feels no such entitlement. She writes,

I have also learned to temper my reactions when my students fall short in their responsibilities with homework. A soliloquy on the importance of preparing for the future gets lost on them.  Having been a first-generation college student, such a speech would have had a significant and heart-felt impact on me. However, given that many of the students I teach are but one of a long sequence of people in their families to have completed college, there really is no use in inflicting that degree of moral shame on them.

The loss here is on both sides. MRW feels compelled to swallow her own values, to accept less from her students than she would demand of herself, and to conform her behavior to their dominant culture. The students, for their part, miss out on powerful character lessons that MRW could have taught them, had she been empowered to do so.

The Anxiety of Influence

Interestingly, MRW seems to recapitulate the values of privileged private-school culture, even in her determination of how to negotiate the interaction between those values and her own: she uses their values to weigh her values against their values. “Inflicting… moral shame” seems a harsh way to describe a teacher’s insistence that students hand in their homework and meet classroom obligations. It is as if MRW is saying that to hold middle-class students accountable in the same manner as one would hold poor, upwardly mobile students accountable is to risk psychologically mangling them. This is the same over-protective logic that guides middle-class parents and schools and leaves middle-class children without the resilience and grit in the face of adversity.

I don’t want to pretend that I can fully understand the difficulty and complexity of MRW’s position. The middle-class educator in an inner-city school is surrounded by middle-class colleagues who share her culture and support her interpretations. When she upholds that culture in the face of her students’ culture, it is as if the whole society stands behind her. MRW, by contrast, is surrounded on all sides by a culture that is not her own. Not only is her students’ culture prevalent within the school, but it is the culture of power within the society, the culture of the dominant class. No wonder, then, that she declines to hold her students to her values.

Some of my readers will no doubt argue that a teacher—no matter what her ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic background—has no place enforcing her own cultural values on students who do not share her background. I want to argue that that position is born of that same protective and ultimately misguided philosophy that causes affluent parents and schools to shield children from failure and adversity in all its many forms. It is a philosophy motivated by fear—in this case, the fear of impinging on students’ own values, of forcing them to conform to a set of oppressive, external, adult norms. Such a view is based on a false belief in the fragility of the child and it is counterproductive to its own aims.

If we want children to develop into free-thinking individuals with a strong sense of their own personal values, the last thing we should do is limit their exposure to others’ values. It is precisely through exposure to a wide range of ideas about value, character, morality, and ethics that children obtain the raw materials and the breadth of experience with which to question, analyze, and critique such ideas and, in maturity, to develop their own, well-chosen personal code.

Just as some of the values learned in a ghettoized, blighted community may not best serve the children of that community, some middle-class values may not best serve middle-class kids. The Romantic, permissive child-rearing practices of affluent and middle-class Americans have many advantages, but they have drawbacks too; and a little training in the kind of decorum, discipline, and responsibility that was commonplace in middle-class parenting a hundred years ago will do them good.

Long Live Hat Etiquette

Last week, while I was working on this post, I went to visit a school in East New York, one of the most blighted, ghettoized neighborhoods in Brooklyn. A middle-school boy came into the building ahead of me, and as I entered, I heard the security guard telling him to take his hat off. When I came to her desk to show my ID and sign in, I asked her “Do you tell all the kids to take their hats off as they come in?”

“Yes,” she said. Frankly, she looked a little suspicious: why the heck was I asking? Did I disapprove?

“Cool,” I said. “Good for you.” Now, if only we could get a security guard like that in MRW’s school.

Appendix: Teaching Middle Class Culture to Inner-City Youth
(Return to main text)

There are, it’s important to note, two very distinct valences to the argument for the re-enculturation of inner-city students. On the one hand, there is Delpit’s “culture of power” argument: there’s nothing wrong with the students’ home culture, but, in order to succeed in a white-dominated society, they need to learn the mores and subtle cues of white culture; these should not replace the home culture but rather should serve as a tool-set to be taken out and used when needed. On the other hand, there is the older “culture of poverty” argument: most inner-city students, this argument goes, come from unstable homes and crime-ridden neighborhoods; their home culture is consequently blighted, and it should, as much as possible, be replaced with a healthier culture got in school.

Delpit’s argument seems to me unassailable; even students who do choose to live and work within African American communities can benefit from the power and social mobility afforded them by the ability to “code switch.” The “culture of poverty” argument is a combination of right- and wrong-headed interpretations: yes, many inner-city children arrive at school with beliefs and attitudes that arise out of the frustration, fear, anger, and instability of their home and neighborhood; but, it is not always easy for a middle-class educator to distinguish those cultural traits which are the result of poverty and disaffection from those healthier—but, to the educator, still foreign—traits that are indigenous to the student’s ethnic background. The conscientious white, middle-class educator, working in an inner-city school, is thus engaged in a complicated balancing act, attempting to instill new habits and mores without devaluing the home culture, in such a way as to force the child to choose between parent and teacher, between home and school.


  1. I don't understand the leap from teaching values and character to hats and homework policy. What values are taught by not allowing kids to wear hats? Respect for authority?

  2. Yes: respect for authority, as demonstrated visibly through a particular set of apparently arbitrary signals; the belief that this is an important way in which respect is shown; the rigidity of such codes and the importance of adhering to them in the face of other competing desires (comfort, fashion, etc.); the formality and seriousness of the classroom, as a place with its own particular rules of decorum. Entailed in all this is the classical notion hat appearances are important, that they both reflect and shape the internal, that, indeed, the two are not really separable.

    I've been in private schools where students arrive late, slouch in chairs, and generally show that they do not see the classroom as a particular serious, formal, or sanctified place and that concerns of fashion and comfort supercede the demands of the classroom.

    My point is that, whichever view of formality, decorum, and the classroom one ultimately holds (and I definitively hold with the classical one), it's of no benefit to the students to be deprived of exposure to the other view.

  3. I initially asked myself, as Tom Hoffman did: Why is it beneficial/valuable for students to take off their hats? This isn't Miss Manners' tea parlor and I can learn just as well with a hat on as without.
    Or can I? Maybe not. As Max Bean says: The school should be a dedicated space. Just as when people take off hats or shoes when entering a church or mosque, I am telling myself, "I am leaving my ordinary, on-the-street thoughts and preoccupations and attitudes and behaviors outside the door, so that I can cultivate (- for the time that I'm in this dedicated space) different preoccupations, attitudes and behavior. When I take off my hate, I am telling my head that it's time to enter into a more quiet, attentive, patient, disciplined, respectful-of-myself-and-others mental state because it will help me learn better.

  4. Not so many decades ago, it was expected that any well-behaved gentleman would remove his hat when entering a church or the presence of a woman. The hat signified worldly concerns that were to be put aside in this “sanctified” zone. (Of course, other peoples had to put on a head covering in a place of worship.)

    What’s important here isn’t to wear the hat or not wear it, but to acknowledge by a clear, mandated, physical act that one is entering a special realm where certain rules obtain and a heightened focus is required. The individual gives up “personal expression” (at least in head coverings) and submits to the mores of the realm. By submitting, his "individuality" is not diminished, but enhanced. He "overcomes" himself in a way that is good for him, his classmates and the entire society.

  5. You tell the kid to take off the hat. He says why, you say, because I said so. It's really a problem of progressives, in general, that they feel the need to gain acceptance and buy-in, and are uncomfortable with authority that anyone would even have this conversation. Look at you--you aren't saying Jeez, woman, tell the kid to take off the hat. No, you're writing a whole big blog post explaining why it's okay to tell the kid about the importance of behaving properly. (I'm not saying you shouldn't; I'm just laughing at the idea that you think it's necessary. Kid, take off the hat! Done.)

    But then (as one commenter noted) she, and you, move to lectures about the importance of doing homework because we should value education. That's a value share, which is quite different.
    You morphed from "teaching values"--something I think is very wrong--to "enforcing cultural values", and it appears, although I can't be certain, that you are conflating the two.

    If you are, you couldn't be more wrong. Most people who think that teachers shouldn't teach values almost certainly have no qualms about enforcing their own cultural preferences. They just don't have this endless need to get buy-in.

  6. Hi, Max,

    Thank you for linking to my blog post, and for writing such an eloquent response. I think that you bottle the answer, and are both highly perceptive and respectful in your response. I think that some of the commenters have gotten unhinged about the hat-wearing, and have totally missed the point that I was trying to make, which raises the point of whose values, and the cultural lens through which we view the world, .i.e. Delpit's "culture of power."

    I gather that those who are responding are white and middle class, and therefore don't really have much understanding about the idea of being a credit to one's race. Having said the aforementioned, most of my values, ironically, come from the very society and culture that should be modeled every day by my white, privileged students; after all, it is their culture. So, what I am asking of them shouldn't be as foreign to them as it appears to be.

  7. There's something about hats. I remember middle school and high school and the endless battle to get the boys to take off their hats. It was a public school, the boys were of all races and all classes, and the teachers wanted the hats off. At the time, the whole thing actually made me miserable, because it was contentious and distracting (and now that I think about it, I felt left out, being a girl and hatless) and I thought "Why can't they just let them leave them on? Who cares about the fucking hats?" Now in front of the room, as the teacher, I see the hats but they don't signify disrespect to me. The headphones around the neck drive me a little insane, though.

    I'll say this for the progressive side: When I'm excited about what I'm teaching, when I see that they're excited, I care less about someone being "disrespectful." When I'm having a tough day in front of the room, or not that into the lesson myself, or losing them, I start to get angry about smaller things.

  8. I do think that teachers have needs, and it's okay for teachers to assert the things they need. ("Headphones off your neck, Frances.") The kids will get with the program if you claim authority without guilt. I just think that a BATTLE over authority, where the teacher is trying to prove that their needs come out of a place of moral value, is a waste of classroom time, and a real misunderstanding of student intention.

  9. The kids will get with the program if you claim authority without guilt. I just think that a BATTLE over authority, where the teacher is trying to prove that their needs come out of a place of moral value, is a waste of classroom time, and a real misunderstanding of student intention.

    This is ABSOLUTELY correct, and what I was trying to say. I could care less about whether the kids think my rules are sensible or "white" or utterly moronic. What they need to know is that I'm the boss.

    You say in the earlier post that you are more irritated when kids aren't interested than when they are.

    I think that comes from a different desire for buy-in. What I translate that as is that you don't care if kids buy your cultural rules, but you want them to buy in to your educational values, because it signifies success to you.

    This offering will probably make you less happy, but there is zero evidence that engagement improves academic understanding. (Plenty of evidence that it improves persistence, from what I understand).

    I'm not sure why progressives are so intent on buy-in--whether it be buyin of cultural or academic values. Shouldn't they be more interested in understanding student values, accepting them, and working with them? It's really difficult to get people to change values, but even trying seems to me a bit intolerant.

  10. Cal,
    Maybe I do want the academic buy-in (I've got my own ego) but I question that in myself. I definitely want to understand student values. Engagement is a way for me to understand students better--how they think, what they value--because they are talking to me and sharing their ideas.

  11. Actually, I think you're right about being too attached to the buy-in. When I'm confident that I have something of value to teach, I don't care as much if everyone's engaged. Some students will engage because it helps them enjoy the class, and others will just take what they need and do what's required in order to get by. That's autonomy and it's okay.

  12. The conversation in the above comments about buy-in is an interesting one. I agree with Cal & Rebecca that American “progressive” education is often characterized by an obsessive need to make authority transparent and injunctions comprehensible. (Philosophical sidebar: we’re talking here about the Romantic end of the progressive spectrum, which is quite different, as I am always pointing out, to the Deweyan end.) Frequently, simple management issues are best resolved with a simple, unelaborated command. By and large, the more words you pile on, the more you soften the force of your directions.

    I wrote this post about why MRW does not feel entitled to enforce her own cultural norms in the classroom and why it would be better if she did; that doesn’t mean I think she needs to explain this discussion to her students. My sixth-grade history teacher didn’t give any kind of explanation—but we understood from his tone and bearing that this was a matter of respect.

    That we understood the meaning behind my teacher's command highlights the difficulty of drawing a hard line between teaching values and enforcing behaviors. In the home, the school, or anywhere else, values are most often taught, not through explanation, but through simple behavioral enforcement and modeling. The pedagogical relationship between outward behavior and internal value is a fascinating one, which I’ve written about in several previous posts. In many cases, to enforce a behavior is to teach a value.

    The haziness of the teaching-enforcing distinction points out the deeper haziness of the whole idea of buy-in. A teacher can’t ever force a student to do something; she can only convince him to do something—because what she’s asking makes sense, because he respects her authority, because he’s scared of getting in trouble, because he values education and will do whatever it takes to get one, etc. So, there’s always buy-in; it’s just a matter of what exactly is bought into and how it’s sold.

    What Cal and Rebecca are rejecting, it seems to me, is the explicit attempt to generate buy-in through rational explanation; but the alternative they’re suggesting relies on another kind of buy-in: buy-in to the teacher’s authority, through the implicit force of a direct command. If a teacher regularly gives directions that appear random, inexplicable, and odious (or if, in some other way, he shows himself unworthy of authority), the students will cease to buy in and to obey his commands.

    In a well-run classroom, the students feel that the teacher’s commands generally make sense and are in their interests; they therefore trust the teacher and do not need every instruction justified, because they have faith that there’s a reasonable justification. If this condition is not met, the teacher’s control over the classroom will always be tenuous and the students’ attitudes always mutinous—perhaps subtly so, perhaps blatantly.

    Now, I’m confused by this talk of engagement being unimportant. Do you folks mean that you think it doesn’t matter if students find the class interesting? Is that consistent with your memories of being students yourselves?

  13. In a private correspondence about this post, Teacher MRW talked about the different valence that rules of etiquette and decorum and education in general have for students of different ethnic backgrounds:

    "Whites don't have to pay as much attention to manner, good, bad or otherwise, because they are not judged in the same way if their manners are poor.... [A]s a youth... I believed that my parents were judged on the basis of my actions, e.g. how I spoke, what I wore, my grades at school. Of course, being black, the more articulate, better-dressed, and academically competent I was, I once again evaded the stereotype, and was a credit to my race."

    I think this is a really important point, but I still believe there’s a lot of value in teaching rules of decorum to privileged white kids who can probably get away with not adhering to them—not so much because good manners will open doors for these kids or bad ones will close them, but for other reasons, some of which were raised by commenters on this post. Maybe the point isn't so much the specific question of whether & why taking hats off might be good for a bunch of privileged white kids as it is the general point that being held to each teacher's own cultural code, and thereby, over the course of their lives, being taught a variety of cultural codes, is good for kids in general—for developing flexibility, adaptability, breadth of experience and perspective, and depth of character.

  14. I am a privileged white kid. Back in school, I had lots of problems with authority in the classroom (lots with certain teachers, none or almost none with others), but most of these stemmed from budding selfhood/individuality issues and confusion about the notion of blind conformity in society. To me, my teacher asking for compliance with an arbitrary rule was the same as social pressure to dress a certain way, or not be "weird." From my point of view, I was being sent mixed messages about what society valued and what I should value. I was extremely conscious of the fact that I was being forced to go to school, and, in the small-world bubble of youth, I felt that some small freedoms of my own choosing should have been allowed me within such a totalitarian setup. At some point the idea of "thinking for one's self" had taken hold for me as the most important principle, and I now see that this was in no small part a defense mechanism against all the bullying I received (one can at least take refuge in internal moral authority, and did I ever), and against the seemingly unrelenting structure of school-life in general. I was also an 'A' student in all my classes, regardless of my disciplinary problems in each, and held this fact against teachers who tried to get me to behave in certain ways. I was, I'm certain, a distracting, pretentious terror (at worst). Certain teachers, in whose classrooms I was an asset, loved me, which didn't at all help the others, in whose classroom I was a detriment.
    Of course I now see what was going on—the currents of privilege, bourgeois narcissism and permissiveness, a general cult of 'individual expression' above all else, and a classism I didn't have the tools to challenge or think outside of—that were shaping my identity. But I also think I could not have felt any other way, especially at that stage in my development. I didn't have a sense of the greater needs of the classroom and the social body because for the most part I resented my peers for their cruelty, vapidness and willingness to conform (which I'm certain I ended up being wrong about quite a bit once that idea had taken hold in my mind). And I often didn't sympathize with the teacher because s/he represented arbitrary authority, which I had been taught was a source of evil and mediocrity in the world—maybe my holocaust-survivor grandparentage played into this, maybe that's too the end it doesn't matter.
    Anyway, I'm offering my experience, which I imagine is at least somewhat shared by others, as a case study in white, middle class student mindset. It's confusing being a kid—there are so many things that get in the way of seeing the Bigger Picture, and being forced to follow rules that seem arbitrary, alienating, unfamiliar, uncomfortable and/or disrespectful of your own intelligence/ability to make choices, can make you feel you're being bulldozed or not listened to or understood. I remember feeling like teachers were trying to 'break' me, and this just made my resistance fiercer. Of course, having worked with kids from all backgrounds since then, I totally sympathize with the teacher and know the value of a universal mode of decorum and structure in the educational space. But I can't help but analyze my own experience, and, when I'm not just feeling shameful about it, wonder where the kid that I was fits into the discussion. I also think there must be something here that is applicable beyond class and privilege, around the notion of discipline and the individual, and his/her ability to internalize a sense of responsiblity for a larger social body at a young age. I don't think anyone ever tried very hard to explain this to me, and I think perhaps it would have helped.

    Sorry to post as Anonymous, I hope you understand.

  15. I was, I'm certain, a distracting, pretentious terror (at worst).

    Wow, you beat me to it (I say this in the nicest possible way, of course). You were exactly the sort of student progressives use to justify their endless obsession with "buy-in", and exactly the sort of student who needs to get over himself and learn to just do it. So if it's any consolation, you fit into this discussion by being the reason that so many well-meaning teachers go into fits of angst about explaining themselves to kids. And to teachers like me, you're exactly why progressives are wrong. I wouldn't try to "break" you. I'd just laugh at you. And then I'd make you do whatever it was anyway, or send you out.

    A teacher can’t ever force a student to do something... because what she’s asking makes sense, because he respects her authority, because he’s scared of getting in trouble, because he values education and will do whatever it takes to get one, etc. (emphasis mine)

    Wow, one of these things just doesn't belong. The fact that a teacher can send a student out or in some way discipline the student for defiance is a LONG WAY from the other ones. A student is REQUIRED to obey a teacher. This is precisely why all the nonsense about buy-in is, in fact, nonsense! Because it doesn't matter what the teacher's rules are. The teacher is the boss.

    Many students--far more than anonymous up there--snicker and sneer when teachers try to explain their values and rules for precisely that reason. They know that when push comes to shove, the teacher is boss and all the prattle about "student-defined rules" is garbage. More than one student has told me stories about teachers telling their students to create the rules--then adding her own when the students didn't mention the desired ones.

    If a teacher regularly gives directions that appear random, inexplicable, and odious (or if, in some other way, he shows himself unworthy of authority), the students will cease to buy in and to obey his commands.

    Students have many, many reasons for disrespecting a teacher, and they are almost always about teacher's methods, not the rules themselves. Rules will not create management problems. Teacher authority is what sells the rule, not the rule.

    I want to reiterate, again, that classroom management and rules have nothing to do with "teaching values" as you've been describing it. The school says the teacher's authority is near absolute. Thus, expecting obedience is not an enforcement or application of a teacher's value system.

  16. Do you folks mean that you think it doesn’t matter if students find the class interesting?

    The link between engagement and demonstrated academic achievement is relatively tenuous, and that's when it has been proven at all. Engagement with low ability kids improves persistence and usually has a positive impact on grades, but that's because so many teachers grade for effort. It hasn't been proven to have a terrific impact on test scores. This is why so many charters seem successful--the kids are working hard and enjoying school--but aren't having excellent test scores (particularly in high school).

    Here's a good Larry Cuban post on the imagined link between engagement and achievement. He's focusing on high tech in the classroom, but it's still the same thing--engagement isn't achievement.

  17. Of course I want the students to find the class interesting, and I always preferred classes I found interesting, but I think that I'll be a happier teacher if I accept that some students don't find my class that interesting, either because I'm not their cup of tea, or English isn't their cup of tea, or school simply isn't their cup of tea. I will still try to teach those students, even if they're not as visibly engaged as the kid who's going all out for English 12. To connect this back to the authority/values discussion, I think that mrw might be happier if she didn't need students to agree about the reasons for taking off the hat or share her values about the hat, but just admitted the need was her own, was real, and let the students think whatever they wanted about the rule.

  18. @Rebecca Actually I *do* tell the students that perhaps it's due to my generation, but removing their hat upon entering the classroom is important and necessary for me. So, there it is. :)

  19. Anonymous,

    Thank you for the openness and thoughtfulness of the above reflection. I think you’ve done a nice job of illustrating the complexities surrounding the problem of authority and the light in which many smart, critically-thinking students view it. You thereby provide the counterpoint to Cal’s equally valid (if characteristically aggressively stated) understanding of the fundamental nature of authority as not requiring explanation at every turn. The teacher who tries to explain every rule implies that he has no authority, only rhetoric and logic to convince students to do as he says of their own free will. With apologies to followers of A. S. Neill out there, I think that approach is rarely, if ever, effective. At the same time, your reflections on your adolescence show the fundamental conflict between true authority and critical thought and individualism.

    You reference to the holocaust is thoroughly relevant here. There is a deep suspicion of unquestioned authority in American culture, and young as I am, I have no doubt that it is in part a reaction to the revelations of Nazi Germany and the prison-guard experiments of the 1950s. True, American discomfort with authority dates back to King George and taxation without representation, but the 20th century taught the world a lesson about unquestioned obedience that (we pray) it will not soon forget. Thus, when we seek a return to a more traditional authority, one that is not constantly, neurotically justifying itself—and this is, as I have said, a necessary and valid search—we will do well to keep these lessons in mind. How, then, can we teach students simultaneously to question and to obey? How can we create benevolent authority in a post-fascist world?

    Part of the answer, I believe, lies in the relationship between authority and morality. I refer my readers to the opening chapter of Rafe Esquith’s Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, in which he talks about the moral foundations of teacher authority and about trust as the basis of classroom culture. It’s some of the most inspiring writing on education that I’ve ever read—and, of course, Esquith backs it up by running one of the best classrooms in America.

    The further contrast that you draw, Anonymous, between the individualism of your adolescent mindset and the collectivist view that might have made you less of a terror to your teachers harkens to a much earlier writer on education, and another of my favorites: John Dewey. According to Dewey, education should be grounded in the social process; it is through the group that the individual learns. In most schools, traditional or otherwise, social education and academic education are mostly separate; if schools concern themselves with the social side of development, it is generally addressed in separate, community-building classes. In a Deweyan system, the two are integrated.

    I spent a few weeks last year observing a classroom in a public school in Chinatown that runs a literacy program based on Deweyan principles, in which the integration of the social and the academic appears to be seamless and highly successful: the students are remarkably kind to one another. Perhaps another way of reconciling critical thought with true authority, is to ground that authority in collective, communalist logic.

  20. @mrw: i'm glad you tell them. i had gotten a different sense from reading your blog entry. and don't worry--privileged kids are also insecure about their futures (whether or not they really need to be), and you can always use that insecurity to your advantage. i know my teachers did.

  21. @Rebecca I'm not in the business of using anyone's insecurity against them, let alone students. Having worked in independent schools for nearly 20 years, the students I teach are far more insecure than I ever could have imagined to be at their age. Which says one thing: The world in which privileged white kids live in, aside from the economic accoutrements, isn't always better, especially from a psychological standpoint.

  22. Sorry, sorry. I guess I chafe at this way of discussing student values. I don't like it if it's a white teacher in a charter school or a black teacher in a private school. It's either poverty or it's privilege that causes all these kids to be such lazy goons, but either way it reminds me of that song: "What's the matter with kids today?"

  23. @Rebecca I regret that it makes you "chafe". That's a fresh perspective. In any event, race is the primary lens through which I see the world. Of course, this discussion can be had by ignoring the intersection of race, which would probably be the case if I had not linked to Max Bean's post, and he to mine. However, given the nature of American society, not many discussions that I can think of can or should be had without the intersection of race.

  24. I think race is an important part of this discussion, but I remember teachers in high school telling us we had no values in General Music (where there were latino, white and black kids and the teacher was blatantly racist) and in Honors Biology where we were tracked and it was all white. The biology teacher thought we were grade-grubbers and made us go home and write down a list of our values because he was convinced that we had none. I didn't need any of this from my teachers. I needed them to be better teachers, more interested in their subject matter, and more engaged with how to better teach us.

  25. Let me add that in my experience, there are far more than two value systems operating at any given time in any given school. The teachers are usually not culturally homogeneous, and certainly not homogeneous in values even if they are all white (or all some other ethnicity). Children bring a variety of values to school with them (altho teens tend to create a "teen culture" that at least appears to create uniform values -- until you look under the lid, that is). Parents and grandparents are part of the mix -- anyone else had the hat discussion with grandparents? they can be very insistent on no hats.

  26. I'll add, while Cal is railing against so-called "progressive" models of education, that this corporatist, culturally-competent, client-is-king ideology is precisely the mantra of school-choice advocates who conceive of students as consumers entitled to the optimized purchase of educational wares on the market. The crisis in education and in the various form of realism that attempt to describe and theorize it--this is true, I think, for medicine, social work, etc. as well--is whether to conceive of the school as a, say, factory engaged in the socialized _production_ of knowledge, or as a retail outlet serving the individualized wants of idealized _consumers_. This is the legacy of the historical recuperation of identity politics by notions of economy and economism, and a huge problem for humans; and it deserves better language than kneejerk recourse to name-calling "progressives" and the like.

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  28. "The teachers are usually not culturally homogeneous, and certainly not homogeneous in values even if they are all white (or all some other ethnicity). Children bring a variety of values to school with them (altho teens tend to create a "teen culture" that at least appears to create uniform values -- until you look under the lid, that is)." Yes, that's true. I think because it's hard to get at those values, because each student is different and brings different things from home. It's not always even about cultural values. I have a student who's missed a lot of classes and isn't doing her work. She wrote a personal essay about how her mom dropped dead a year ago, and she's been having trouble finding meaning in anything, or seeing the point of doing schoolwork. It's a human reaction to a tragic situation, and one I understand.

    I want to say that in spite of my angrier earlier posts, I know that Max is a compassionate person, and I can tell mrw is a compassionate person and teacher. I had bad teachers. I saw "values" wielded as a weapon against students, only by bad teachers. Those teachers were failing us, the heterogeneous student body they taught, at every level. Our values should have been the last thing on their minds.

  29. Adam, I don't wish to be rude, but your post was mostly incomprehensible. I think the gist of it was that you don't like me using the term "progressive". Oh, well. That's what the term is. I am not a fan of either Romantic Progressivism or Dewey Progressivism (nod to Max), but it accurately describes a mindset that has the problem I was referring to.

    I'm not "railing", although I'm certainly capable of it. Progressive educators aren't powerful enough to do anything worth railing about.

    "It's either poverty or it's privilege that causes all these kids to be such lazy goons, but either way it reminds me of that song: "What's the matter with kids today?""

    I agree that I don't like the whole "what's wrong with kids" gestalte of the values conversation.

    It's also worth noting that not all teachers are thinking about values when they set rules. I certainly am not. As I've mentioned several times, I think teachers should keep their values out of class. My rules are all about functionality. Even the one about "don't hang pens from your lips" because it distracts me and I can't teach."