Friday, September 5, 2008

Personal Aside: Now for a Change of Subject. To Editorial Boards—Discover the Elements of True Public School Reform by Reading the Meeks-Gidwitz Report. Hint: It Deals With More Important Stuff than $$$.

Let this octogenarian graduate of a well-managed and superlatively endowed Chicago public high school curriculum tell you (William Howard Taft highy school, 1942-46), the decision by State Sen. (and Rev.) James Meeks to abandon his two-day school boycott in favor of sitting down with the Governor to talk school funding reform was a good idea…no matter what comes of it. It leaves standing a very instructive program of proposed school reform which Meeks worked out with civic leader (and perhaps, who knows, future governor aspirant) Ron Gidwitz—a comprehensive package which the editorial boards should decide to peruse even though it is not bristling with rhetoric that makes good editorial-writing fodder. So it is time to review the package again. It is brimming with businesslike steps to take emblematic of Gidwitz who in his brief span on the gubernatorial stage impressed many, including me, with its breadth and depth.

The Meeks-Gidwitz program begins with a head to toe curriculum and discipline audit. Then it goes to what I have always felt has been neglected in recent Chicago public school education: the institution of a core curriculum concentrating on (a) literacy, (b) mathematics and (c) the fine arts…culminating in good philosophy at the base of western civilization. It was at Taft that my love of civics and history instilled by my father was further nurtured by a venerable instructor of political science, Kenneth Osbon who conceived of a mock two-party presidential convention between adherents of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey in the election year of 1944 where I was recruited as advocate of the mustached New York governor. We didn’t need literacy coaches as the Meeks-Gidwitz program advises but they are certainly needed now. In fact this carries through far beyond Chicago public schools.

If the crucial issue of our time is education, it is far more important to see what kind of education our children shall receive than how many dollars shall be spent per district. Literacy does not depend on expenditures of dollars alone. I still recall how dismayed I was grading papers from my classes at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard circa 1977. The essential element of the education issue is this. Richard Rorty was a major postmodern philosopher of education (he died in 2007) who believed in and instilled the idea that since objective truth is unknowable, it is essential that we pursue pragmatic ends. “The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think the entire `American liberal establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy,” he wrote. “The parents have a point. The point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students.”

Then Rorty in his book “Rorty and His Critics” said to U.S. parents: “We are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.” He added, “I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers. The only difference is that I serve a better cause.” A BETTER CAUSE? Nazi teachers thought they served a better cause as well. But the point is that Rorty triumphed when inadequate preparatory education ill-prepared students to face thought-tyrants like him. And it is to provide a sound core of training based in the essentials of intellectual discipline that dominates the Meeks-Gidwitz report. Meeks-Gidwitz would, if implemented, bolster the quality of education through its core basics which is even more valuable than numbers of dollars expended.

In fact here is an assignment for the editorial boards…and indeed the Chicago media who chafe about inadequacies of public education. Send for and read the Meeks-Gidwitz paper on rejuvenation of state public education. You can get the details on the program by contacting these gentlemen’s offices. It is called “Illinois 21st Century School Reform Initiative.” Second, examine its recommendations to improve core disciplines.

Third, you might try assigning a reporter to examine what improvements should come in literacy, math and the cultural arts.

No, cynics…I am not hustling the Meeks-Gidwitz proposal because Gidwitz has invested some seed money in “The Observer.” Between John Powers and I, we’ve topped him in investing in our enterprise. But I really think Ron and Meeks are on to something and hope you’ll spring yourselves from the hurly-burly of Chicago politics and give it a read. If you have fond memories as I do of the golden age when Chicago public schools were highly esteemed (there was an era when they topped Catholic schools in accountability, literacy and core curricula) get the document and read it. If you don’t know how to get one, let us know at “The Observer” and we’ll help you.

1 comment:

  1. "Liberalism", the masterpiece of Eric von Luddin (or some such,foreign affairs writer for National Review) notes that teachers in Germany were the largest organized group that voted for Hitler. I've lent my copy out so can't give you the footnote. But, it is interesting.