Summer 2002

It all comes down to the teachers

Andrew Delbanco
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Andrew Delbanco is Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. His books include The Puritan Ordeal (1989), which won Columbia’s Lionel Trilling Prize, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (1995), Required Reading: Why our American Classics Matter Now (1997), and, most recently, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (1999), based on his Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard. A Fellow of the American Academy since 2001, Delbanco is currently at work on a book about Herman Melville.

Diane Ravitch takes us on a discouraging tour of the “Empire of Boredom” – an imaginary world created and ruled by censors and marketeers, where young people conquer all obstacles and old people are as vigorous and cheery as the cover models in Modern Maturity magazine. It’s unreasonable, as Ravitch says, to expect children to be interested in such a world. The literary genre best suited to represent it seems to be the textbook, which, according to Ravitch, is assembled nowadays with so much tact and caution that the result is unrelieved banality. No wonder that, rather than take school seriously, most children prefer to watch Temptation Island, where envy and desire are up front all the time.

I have to take Ravitch’s word for it that “the range of forbidden knowledge seems just to keep growing” among textbook publishers and those empowered to evaluate their products. My own son and daughter are past high school, and, while they were going through those bumpy years, they were fortunate not to have had many textbooks inflicted on them. Textbooks, I suspect, have never been a good basis for teaching and learning; they have always been either tendentious (America Revised, by Frances FitzGerald, gives a good account of the history of American history textbooks) or – to use Theodore Sizer’s terms – “compendious” and “mushy.” Textbooks are by nature reductive. They thin out the complexities of history into filaments strung between Cause A and Effect B. The only textbook I have ever read that is written with tension and urgency is William James’s Principles of Psychology – but the truth is, I have not read very many.

I realize that saying this may make me sound snobbish or insouciant about the practical problems of the public school classroom, where teachers may not have the knowledge, or students the skills, to approach the past through primary documents or interpretive books. In the “elite” private university where I teach, I see relatively few casualties of the mind-numbing system Ravitch describes, and my own childhood was spent mainly in a private school where textbooks and tests were a minor part of the experience. I cannot assess the realities of a world that I know mainly from second-hand accounts by educational reformers and from a few first-hand memoirs by teachers and students. And I certainly do not mean to suggest that curricular choices of the sort Ravitch describes do not make a difference, or that state-mandated testing standards cannot provide useful incentives for public schools to serve students better. Nor am I competent to assess Sizer’s sly suggestion that Ravitch’s essay confirms (unwittingly) the bad effects of “centralized state and national control of the schools’ curriculum.” My best guess is that sometimes state intervention helps and sometimes it hurts, and that Ravitch is right that “those hardest hit by the conditions I have described are the sons and daughters of parents who lack the means to send their children to outstanding suburban schools or to private schools.”

In short, Ravitch’s indictment of current editorial and curricular norms in K-12 education seems mostly right – but also unsurprising. I appreciate her indignation that more schoolchildren are not given the opportunity to encounter great literature. I share her dismay at the prestige of “groupness.” I recognize the vapidity of the pseudo-theoretical generalizations that students, largely ignorant of history, are expected to recite in essays and on exams.

And yet – perhaps this will sound odd coming from someone who has recently published a book celebrating the American classics – I don’t quite share her outrage at the banishment of the eminent authors she mentions. In fact, I find myself wondering, with Howard Gardner, whether it is really “necessary for young Americans . . . to have read certain key texts in the humanities” in order to become educated. It’s useful to recall that authors we now deem classic (Ravitch names Melville, Dickens, Emerson, and Jack London), were once regarded as interlopers for whose sake the true (Greek and Latin) classics had been shunted aside. Melville, after all, was considered an obscene and half-mad writer in his own time and for a considerable time thereafter. Before Edmund Wilson revamped him as a brooding proto-modern genius, Dickens was regarded by many critics as a vulgar sentimentalist; and Jack London found favor in the Soviet Union because of his socialist sympathies and putatively proletarian sensibility. As for Emerson, he has been regarded by estimable critics as suffering from the same poverty of imagination that Ravitch attributes to the authors of dull textbooks: Yvor Winters once described Emerson’s universe as a habitation fit only for “amiable imbeciles.”

The fact is that arbiters of these matters have never agreed – and will never agree – on which are the “right” books. Of course I believe, with Ravitch, that it is foolish and self-defeating to shield children from the presence of suffering and injustice throughout history, and that literature helps us confront these realities. Nonetheless, I wonder if her emphasis on the content – or contentlessness – of today’s curriculum does not miss the main point with which we ought to be concerned.

The main point is captured by Theodore Sizer when he says, “in reality it all comes down to the teachers.” At every stage of my own life, my education was affected most directly by a teacher.

Many kinds of readings can be turned to good use by a good teacher, who has the power to awaken students to their own distinctiveness by putting them in contact with a world different from their own. The aim of liberal education ought to be, in the nice phrase that Ravitch quotes from William Torrey Harris, “self-alienation” – distancing oneself, that is, from one’s inherited assumptions by waking up to the fact that other human beings, past and present, experience the world differently from the way we do.

In teaching Jane Austen in the core curriculum at Columbia College, for example, I found that this experience of self-alienation is not easily achieved even by students who have benefited from good fortune and been selected for high aptitude. In trying to get a fruitful discussion going about Pride and Prejudice in what might be called our post-marital culture, I realized that many of my students regarded Jane Austen’s preoccupation with courtship and marriage as some kind of eccentric or outmoded prudery. My job was to help them see, through Austen’s eyes, how young women in the emerging middle-class society of late eighteenth-century Britain had to reconcile their yearnings for self-fulfillment with family and class obligations from which there was no escape.

“Self-alienation” does not require a prescribed reading list, and is not likely, in my view, to be much advanced by any textbook. But it can be helped along by a teacher who responds to stirrings of imagination in the best students and provokes lesser students to begin to think. The aim of such a teacher is to help students engage with the past – an aim that can be achieved through art, music, or any number of books. In other words, the perennial challenge in humanistic teaching and learning is to grasp the pastness of the past – or, as some literary theorists like to say, its “alterity.”

This objective, I think, is often missed in our schools and, for that matter, in our colleges and universities – and I don’t think standards or tests or better textbooks are going to restore our ability to attain it. Howard Gardner rightly says that “one can learn to think historically” by studying either Thomas Jefferson or the Ming dynasty. Neither task is easy. In the latter case, the cultural distance is stark and large, and so the difficulty of thinking historically about Ming politics and aesthetics – especially given the linguistic obstacles – can be overwhelming. In the former case, the challenge may seem smaller because of our relative proximity to Jefferson as a “founding father” of our own nation. But the difficulties in thinking about Jefferson are equally daunting because the point is neither to enshrine him as the author of the Declaration of Independence nor to pillory him as an apologist for slavery. The point is to understand how a man of his intelligence and learning could combine in one cultivated mind the advocacy of human rights and the defense of slavery. If we can help our students actually to enter Jefferson’s mind by feeling the force of the ideas and attitudes he drew from his own culture, we will have gotten them started on “thinking historically.” As a teacher, I must and do believe that thinking about the past is at least a partial antidote to smugness in and about the present.

Thinking is hard work – and inciting thinking in someone else may be even harder. Only well educated, well compensated, and well respected teachers can possibly do it. Sizer’s list of the requisite minimal conditions seems about right: “Respect. A fair wage. Appropriate conditions for work. Authority.”

Among the rewarding experiences of my own professional life was the time I spent some years ago leading a seminar sponsored by the National Humanities Center for a group of teachers from a nearby North Carolina public high school.1 The aim was to give these teachers a chance to recover the intellectual and moral passion they had originally felt for their calling – to treat them not as functionaries of a bureaucratic system that besieges them with training sessions and “enrichment” protocols, but to treat them as mentors, pastors, and, most of all, as thinking citizens. Since then, through the education initiatives that supplement its residential fellowship program, the National Humanities Center has continued to bring humanist scholars into the classroom with high school teachers – on the premise that they deserve attention and respect from those of us lucky enough to make our living in institutions of higher learning.

Other private and public organizations, including the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, have mounted similar efforts. I hope that the presidents and deans of our colleges and universities will recognize the crisis of morale in K-12 education and will find ways to encourage their faculty members to work with front-line teachers, who are our best defense against the threats Ravitch describes. In pointing out that the problems she identifies are not novel but chronic, Sizer and Gardner give us all the more reason to decry and assail them.


1 I described this experience in a short article entitled “Converting Life into Truth: Seminars for High School Teachers,” Ideas: Journal of the National Humanities Center 4 (2) (1996): 59–62.