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December 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 4

Teaching What We Hold Sacred

Teaching What We Hold Sacred - thumbnail
On February 1, 1994, the U.S. Postal Service added a new postage stamp honoring Allison Davis to its Black Heritage Series. An important figure in psychology, social anthropology, and education for more than 40 years, Davis was the first person from the field of education to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Unicover, 2003).
In the 1940s, Davis became the first African American ever appointed to a tenured position at a major “white” university, the University of Chicago. His appointment was controversial. Ralph Tyler, chairman of the department of education, and Robert M. Hutchins, president of the university, overcame the opposition's pretext of lack of funds for hiring Davis by securing private funding to underwrite Davis's salary and related expenses for the first three years.
Even so, Davis did not gain access to the amenities that his colleagues took for granted. He unsuccessfully sought housing in the surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood. He was ineligible for membership in the university's Quadrangle Club until women, too, finally gained admittance in 1948. And he could not find living quarters and mixed-race meeting places when conducting field research in the South and the Southwest (Finder, in press).
Much of Davis's research centered on the effects of the color-caste system in U.S. society, particularly on the ways in which biases in standardized intelligence tests unfairly stigmatized poor and minority students. With colleague Robert Havighurst, Davis produced a series of papers arguing thatthe American social class system actually prevents the vast majority of children of the working classes, or of the slums, from learning any culture but that of their own groups. (cited in University of Chicago, 2003)
Davis and Havighurst challenged the conventional wisdom of their day that claimed that social inequalities resulted from racial biological inferiority. They envisioned a day in which this misconception would be replaced by the knowledge that inequalities in achievement stemmed from environmental factors, such as widespread denial of educational and economic opportunities to people of color.
In the ensuing years, innumerable researchers and thinkers have confirmed Davis's message, including James B. Conant (1961), who documented the shameful differences between the relatively lavish provisions for schooling in the suburbs and the shamefully shabby provisions in the inner cities.
Unfortunately, the biological causation thesis as an explanation of social inequality has had a stubborn longevity. As Stephen J. Gould tells us in The Mismeasure of Man (1981), researchers (of a sort) have extended this thesis beyond race. Gould's account of the efforts to assign lower levels of intelligence to women because of their generally smaller craniums is eerily hilarious. He cites the French anthropologist Hervé, who savaged women and black men with one stroke in 1881: “Men of the black races have a brain scarcely heavier than that of white women” (p. 3). As Gould points out, attempts to rank people—whether by brain size or by an IQ test score—have consistently recorded “little more than social prejudice” (p. 28).
History demonstrates that people will find ingenious ways and develop elaborate constructs to create and harden categories of status and privilege among the diverse groups that constitute humankind. And they will produce a litany of justifications to convince the populace that these inequalities are natural and right.
One might argue that a more enlightened era has, in part, arrived. The end to legal racial segregation, improved access to higher education for minorities, and increased economic opportunities have improved individual lives. But the caste system is still entrenched in society; social prejudices and injustices remain.

Our Moral Ecology

Will humankind ever manage—or want—to do away with social inequality? The apparent inevitability and tenacity of caste as a way of life may make us feel hopeless about trying to eliminate this system. Why try to reform what exists? To quote the 19th century British politician, Lord Thomas Macaulay, “Reform, reform, don't speak to me of reform. We have enough problems already.”
Nonetheless, the history of civilization reveals that in every era, some people, somewhere, have envisioned gaining freedom from the caste system. The themes of enlightenment have been argued from both the rational and the divine perspectives. The two perspectives have come together to form a central core of common principles. This evolving center, never static, takes on a kind of cultural sacredness, an abstract moral ecology. It provides, in Seymour Sarason's words, a “sense of interconnections among the individual, the collectivity, and ultimate purpose and meaning of human existence” (1986, p. 899).
In societies seeking to balance the private and public good, we might well consider what we commonly hold sacred. If our moral ecology encompasses equality and social justice, and if we want that moral ecology to guide our society, then equality and social justice must be taught—carefully taught.
Many people assign to our schools the task of nurturing these values in the populace. In its much lauded experiment, universal schooling, the United States set as a major purpose the enculturation of the young—specifically the children of immigrants—into a social and political democracy.
But when we place this responsibility entirely on schools, we forget that between the years of 6 and 18, young people spend approximately 55 percent of their time in activities other than school and sleep. We give little critical thought to the cacophony of teaching that now surrounds our young throughout the day, and nearly all of which is driven by economic ends rather than by the ideals of education that we espouse in the rhetoric of school and college graduation ceremonies.
Political scientist Benjamin Barber brings our attention sharply to the daunting task that schools undertake when they attempt to develop students' democratic character amid the ubiquitous culture that surrounds young people throughout the day:We honor ambition, we reward greed, we celebrate materialism, we worship acquisitiveness, we cherish success, and we commercialize the classroom—and then we bark at the young about the gentle art of the spirit. (1993, p. 42)

The Role of Schools

In spite of the obstacles, it would be the height of folly for our schools not to have as their central mission educating the young in the democratic ideals of humankind, the freedoms and responsibilities of a democratic society, and the civil and civic understandings and dispositions necessary to democratic citizenship. And yet here we are, hardening into place the caste categories linked to test scores, a practice that directly impedes such a mission. When polls ask people what they want of their schools, the people say over and over that the personal and social development of their children is just as important to them as vocational and academic development. As the accumulating body of knowledge about cognition clearly reveals, test scores do not correlate at all with the other attributes that people believe their schools should develop in students.
But not to worry. High test scores will get your offspring into a college or university if the money is available from family resources or scholarships. Forget those who dominate among the low scorers, such as low-income children whose late-in-the-year birthdays kept them out of kindergarten for most of an additional year, during which their families had no resources to send them to preschool. Funding for Head Start did not quite embrace their neighborhoods. And, oh yes, those children in the inner cities who had substitute teachers for every year of their schooling did not reach the upper levels of test scores, either. But let us keep the system, anyway—it offers special rewards for those who succeed and who then join the upper levels of the layers of power.
We need to pay increased attention to the commonalities that bind humankind. Our schools are not lacking in the rhetoric of “respecting diversity” and social studies texts extolling “understanding other people.” What other people?
We all belong to one species—humankind. There is only one ongoing conversation—the human conversation, consisting of the work, play, parenting, conversing, and imagining in which we all engage and of the beliefs, hopes, and aspirations that we hold. To be sure, within those commonalities there is rich diversity—not only in the rainbow of colors to which the Reverend Jesse Jackson refers, but also in all human characteristics. The diversity in color, language, song, ceremony, religion, games, flora, and fauna that exists among us adds to the miracle of life. Why else do we travel to other parts of the world?
But if we begin with the concept of one humankind and then add the concept of diversity in addressing such democratic essentials as liberty and justice for all, we embark on a slippery slope. Some years ago, a critic attacked the late Ernest Boyer's book, High School (1983), and my book, A Place Called School(1984), on the grounds that we did not address special education. A specialist in the field defended us by pointing out that we had addressed special education—by advocating individualized education for all students.
A few years later, Thomas Lovitt and I were gently taken to task for our advocacy of integrating general and special education (Goodlad & Lovitt, 1993). Critics argued that the road to bringing attention—some of it now required by federal law—to students who require substantial deviations from the norms of schooling had been a rocky one. Many of the hard-won gains could be wiped out if schools eliminated special education as a separate service, even with the best intentions of providing for the individual differences and education needs of all children. We agreed with their assessment. Our agreement did not change our basic argument for the benefits of bringing general and special education together in classrooms, but it did caution us to emphasize that exceptional provisions are sometimes necessary to provide equal opportunity in education. The same perspective applies to our efforts to provide equal education opportunities to diverse students, no matter what type of diversity we mean.

Beyond Social Caste

The struggle for justice, equity, respect, and appreciation for human diversity has been long and often troubled. It continues to be so. The human race's proclivity for arranging its members in hierarchies of strongly maintained status and privilege is likely to continue as a malaise that can become cancerous.
The answer, we know, is education. But education, despite our honoring the concept, is not in itself good. We must intentionally and even passionately inject morality into education (Goodlad, 1999).
Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” If we agree, we must do more than teach students only about the political structures of democracy. We must teach students the ideals of democracy and social equality and give our young people opportunities to practice those ideals in their daily lives, both in and out of school.
Unless we work simultaneously as a society to eliminate in our schools and society a caste system harboring and even fostering beliefs and practices that contradict these ideals, our hypocrisy will become transparent. We are all participants in the informal education that goes on outside of schools. The larger community must ensure a democracy that protects and supports the democratic education that needs to go on inside of schools. The clear purpose of schooling, then, becomes attending to all those educational matters that the larger community does not address, especially enculturating the young into satisfying, responsible citizenship in a social and political democracy.
Once formal education inside of schools and informal education outside of schools, working together, make morally grounded democratic behavior routine—as John Dewey said it must become—such principles as justice, equity, and freedom for everyone will need no special advocacy. But when we parcel them out into the tiers of caste privilege, as we often do today, we endanger these precious principles.
References

Barber, B. R. (1993, November). America skips school. Harper's Magazine, 286, 42.

Boyer, E. L. (1983). High school. New York: Harper & Row.

Conant, J. B. (1961). Slums and suburbs: A commentary on schools in metropolitan areas. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Finder, M. (in press). Educating America: The extraordinary career of Ralph W. Tyler. New York: Praeger.

Goodlad, J. I. (1984). A place called school. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Goodlad, J. I. (1999). Convergence. In R. Soder, J. I. Goodlad, & T. J. McMannon (Eds.), Developing Democratic Character in the Young (pp. 1–25). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Goodlad, J. I., & Lovitt, T. C. (Eds.). (1993). Integrating general and special education. New York: Merrill.

Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York: W.W. Norton.

Sarason, S. B. (1986, August). And what is the public interest? American Psychologist, 41, 899.

Unicover. (2003). U.S. proofcard: 29¢ Dr. Allison Davis: Black heritage series [Online]. Available:www.unicover.com/EA4PAD1J.htm

University of Chicago. (2003). The University of Chicago faculty: A centennial view—Allison Davis/Education [Online]. Available:www.lib.uchicago.edu/projects/centcat/centcats/fac/facch25_01.html

John I. Goodlad has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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