Published by The New Press
Why I Wrote "Why School?"
We hear so much about education these days – test scores, reform battles – but little that we hear gets to the heart of why education matters. That’s why I wrote Why School?, to get us to think about why we send kids to school and often return to school ourselves. Along the way, I hope readers reflect on what made a difference in their own education.
Education turned my life around – saved it, really – and I’ve taught for close to forty years, so this issue of the purpose of education is close to me, both professionally and personally. It gets me to the writing desk in the middle of the night and throughout the day colors the way I view the world.
I’ve had the good fortune teach in a wide range of settings: kindergarten, graduate seminars, job-training programs, a program for Vietnam veterans, tutoring centers, an after school literacy club for failing students. I’ve visited good schools and bad, have seen teaching that is mediocre and teaching so skillful and fluid that it makes your jaw drop.
In Why School? I wanted to draw on all that experience to take the reader in close to education when it goes well, and I wanted to provide illustrations from the whole broad sweep of education in the United States: from first-graders caught up in a science lesson, to teenagers solving problems in a woodworking class, to college students becoming more astute writers, to adults coming back to school to jump-start a second chance.
I wanted the reader to sit close by as other human beings struggle with a problem, get that flash of insight, and push toward articulation, alone or with others. I wanted to capture the experience of discovery, of learning to do something you couldn’t do before, and, for some, to begin to think of yourself in a new way.
Sadly, little of this vital detail of teaching and learning has made its way into recent education policy or the political speech we hear about our schools. As a result, our sense of what education is has shrunk. What we hear from across the political spectrum is that the reason we send our children to school is to be ready for the 21st Century economy. And the way we measure our success is through a standardized test that is typically far removed from the cognitive give and take of the classroom.
I come from a working-class family, so I am certainly aware of the link between education and economic mobility. And as a citizen – and someone who has spent a lifetime in schools – I absolutely want to hold our institutions accountable. But I wrote Why School? to get us to consider how this economic focus, blended with the technology of large-scale assessment, can restrict our sense of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development for both individuals and for a pluralistic democracy. In such a policy environment – one that has been with us for over a generation – school can devolve to procedures, to measures and outputs that constrain what gets taught, how it’s taught, and how we define what it means to be an educated person.
Think of what we don’t read and hear.
There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, imagination, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding. For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of commitment to public education as the center of a free society.
If we abstract out of education policy a profile of the American student in our time it would be this: a young person being prepared for the world of work, measured regularly, trained to demonstrate on a particular kind of test a particular kind of knowledge. This is not Jefferson’s citizen-in-the-making. And in my experience most parents of a wide range of backgrounds, though they want their children to develop basic skills and be prepared for work, want much more.
Introduction: Why School?
1. In Search of a Fresh Language of Schooling
2. Finding Our Way: The Experience of Education
3. No Child Left Behind and the Spirit of Democratic Education
4. Business Goes to School
5. Reflections on Intelligence in the Workplace and the Schoolhouse
6. On Values, Work, and Opportunity
7. Standards, Teaching, Learning
8. Remediation at the University
9. Re-mediating Remediation
10. Politics and Knowledge
11. Soldiers in the Classroom
12. A Language of Hope
13. Finding the Public Good Through the Details of Classroom Life
Conclusion: The Journey Back and Forward
From the Preface
Why School? comes from a professional lifetime in classrooms, creating and running educational programs, teaching and researching, writing and thinking about education and human development. It offers a series of appeals for big-hearted social policy and an embrace of the ideals of democratic education - from the way we define and structure opportunity to the way we respond to a child adding a column of numbers. Collectively, the chapters provide a bountiful vision of human potential, illustrated through the schoolhouse, the work place, and the community.
We need such appeals, I think, because we have lost our way.
We live in an anxious age and seek our grounding, our assurances in ways that don't satisfy our longing - that, in fact, make things worse. We've lost hope in the public sphere and grab at private solutions, which undercut the sharing of obligation and risk and keep us scrambling for individual advantage. We've narrowed the purpose of schooling to economic competitiveness, our kids becoming economic indicators. We've reduced our definition of human development and achievement - that miraculous growth of intelligence, sensibility, and the discovery of the world - to a test score. Though we pride ourselves as a nation of opportunity and a second chance, our social policies have become terribly ungenerous. We rush to embrace the new - in work, in goods, in the language we use to describe our problems - yet long for tradition, for craft, for the touch of earth, wood, another hand.
We do live in uncertain and unsettling times, but one can imagine all sorts of responses, and we have been taking - and have been led to take - those that are fear-based, inhumane, less than noble. We yearn for more and as a society deserve better. This yearning was one of the forces that drove the election of Barack Obama.
My hope is that the contents of this book in some small way contribute to a reinvigorated discussion of why we educate in America, maybe through a particular story, maybe because of information I can provide from my own teaching and research, maybe from a perspective that provides a different way to see.
Praise for Why School?
"I interviewed Mike Rose 20 years ago for my series WORLD OF IDEAS. He was already on the path to becoming one of our most exciting thinkers about education in the lives of marginalized people. He lives in the real world, and this new book — slim and vividly written — is an inspiration for how to cope with it in our classrooms."
"Rose gives a larger sense of the interplay between what happens in the classroom and the world outside school ... [and] a capacious sense of what can happen within the interior world of the classroom."
"Rose puts into clear words what so many of us feel is lacking in our children's education. ... [He] recalibrates our thinking in this little book, the first step toward change."
"Rose invites parents, community members, and other stake holders to join the conversation orbiting our educational system and reclaim it in the name of democracy and equity…. Rose profiles remarkable teachers, engaged students, and blossoming schools. His descriptions of each are underlined by his convection that learning, as a human endeavor…is magnificent. It is wondrous."
"Aims to reinvigorate a discussion on the value of education in a democracy … strongly advocates for education that values reflection, curiosity, and imagination rather than the quantifiable measures favored by economics."
"Rose illuminates the ethical stance and the implied moral contract at the heart of teaching, [and] he encourages us to think deeply about what we want our schools to do and be. ... Why School? is essential reading. [It] is crisp, concise, lively."
"Mike Rose is once again at his most bold and brilliant. My favorite parts are the vivid details of classroom life, but Rose's broad scope reaches far beyond the schools and asks essential questions on the meaning of 'a good society' in the great tradition of John Dewey. Rose is a rare treasure in this dreary moment of debate along the dismal flatlands of education discourse. He brings us to the mountaintops."
"One of the most insightful, challenging, honest, helpful, and encouraging books I’ve read in many years."