01 December 2009

Mythic America v. What Our Students Need

In the Sierras last Friday night, climbing out of California, it began to snow. By the time we moved through Emigrant Gap it was a storm. At Donner Summit it felt blizzardy, wind-whipped flakes piling on the pavement. Truckers stopped to put on chains and clanked up the pass trailing the posse of plows clearing the way.

It was a short evening trip to get us started on the way home - we'd head east from Reno in the morning rather than starting back in Mountain View - but it turned into one of those 'white knuckle' journeys at the beginning of this old "Overland Route."

There is something about the name "Donner," of course, which focuses the mind on a winter night.

I can't help thinking about history as I drive Interstate 80 between San Francisco Bay and Council Bluffs, Iowa. This is the ruggedest of the rugged pioneer trails across the American West. It crosses unbelievably steep mountains, vast deserts, unending grasslands, the Salt Flats. It is fiercely hot and unbearably cold. And people walked it alongside primitive wagons. And people - using hand tools - built a railroad across it in the second half of the 19th Century. Cheyenne, Fort Bridger, the Platte River, Reno, the Mormon Trail - these are places which define America's myth of tough independence, this is the wilderness Americans fought through, and the nation hewn from "nothing" with strong, free hands.

In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner produced his Frontier Thesis, in which he saw that in this individualistic belief in the conquest of "the west" was the definer of the American character. And yet... though those quoting him later missed the point, Turner knew these individuals were never alone, were never doing it "on their own":
"Thus civilization in America has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through them, until at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country In this progress from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist."
The Donner Party was not one man, but a thinking, challenging, risk-taking group that came face-to-face with disaster and used their collaborative skills to find a solution.

In our classrooms today - in our society - we prize individual achievement. We see in each student the "Mountain Man" crossing the plains of grammar, facing the deserts of math equations, climbing through the rugged gaps of reading decoding, all independently. We view individual work, and all proving their worth in all the same skill sets, as the heart of our practice.

Yes, we do work together, but our goals in working together are individual. We take tests individually, we get graded individually, we don't accept the answer from Student "A" very often if Student "B" answers for him. Groups and collaborative efforts are addenda to raising the individual who can (get ready for the Americanisms here), "stand on her own two feet," "make his way in the world," "pull himself up by his bootstraps."

Now, individuals are wonderful, and I am a huge proponent of individualized education. But the cult of "individualism" - that mainly American and Australian disease of making oneself believe that they are successful on their own - is a huge problem for me.

Because we take the wrong lessons from our pioneers. Nobody did it alone. Nobody did it all themselves. And every group had people of differing abilities contributing differing things in differing ways. And, one might note, those first pioneers were sent out exploring by "big governments" who financed their way.

Lewis and Clark did not assemble their team because they all passed the same high school proficiency exam. Some could navigate, some could cipher, some could climb, some could write and draw, some could lift huge amounts, some could translate. Those who came after them not only built on the knowledge of those who came before, they brought their own assortments of skills, from reading the stars to cooking whatever could be found, from repairing wagons to sensing weather shifts. Meriwether Lewis didn't get flunked because he wasn't good at building canoes. Nor were other team members "left back" because they could not write. But alone, none of those people would have made it out of what is now Missouri.

So, damage from myth number one: Everyone must do the same things in school because we'll all be on our own when we "grow up." When we create one required skill set - our graduation cum NCLB "standards" - we make most, if not everyone, into a failure of some sort. But we should not be making failures, we should be finding ways to leverage every human talent.

Every explorer and every pioneer depended and depends on the tools crafted by those who came before them. Columbus did not invent the kind of ship he sailed in or the quadrant. John Fremont had dozens of maps on which to base his "pathfinding." Those travelling to the California gold fields did not build or design their Conestoga Wagons, make their weapons, or found the US forts which offered shelter at the start of the path. What makes human history amazing is our ability to build on the previous invention of our predecessors, and rarely can this be seen more clearly than in the spread of Europeans across two distant continents: it is a kind of evolution run wild. Verrazano's maps lead to Dutch explorers, fur traders lead to the need for farming, and roads. Farming and roads lead to the need for wagons suited to those roads. Bad roads lead to canals, canals lead to a new kind of boat, which brings farmers to new kinds of land, which requires new kind of plows, which requires new kind of factories which make those plows, which... It is a stunning story - a story based in the rapid adoption of new technologies no matter what the investment in the old. I passed Pony Express stations on this trip. The Pony Express was a brilliant solution to an immediate problem. It lasted less than two years before a better technological solution was found (telegraph wires).

Damage from myth number two: Humans all need to "go back to basics." Students can not deal with the technologies of their own time until they master the technology of the past. The problem here is that "the basics" are always "where the last generation began." Nobody teaches quill cutting anymore or filling a fountain pen, but "handwriting still matters." It is our obligation to give our students the world they have inherited, so they can move forward. Not the world you inherited, because we hope you have already moved forward.

The Spanish Government sent Columbus. Jefferson's Administration sent Lewis and Clark. Dewitt Clinton's New York State Government built the Erie Canal. Abraham Lincoln - the first really "big government" president - financed the Trans-Continental Railway, created the Homestead Act, and the Land Grant Colleges Act. US Administration after US Administration sent soldiers out to protect settlers and travellers, and built roads and canals, while publishing maps. In other words, our accomplishments are not those of individuals, but those of a society working together - building, exploring, educating together from the first forays into North America to the Moon Landing. The thing that matters most is creating a place where individual creativity flourishes and nurtures group learning and group action. On the Oregon coast Lewis and Clark took a vote - a vote which included a Black Slave and an Indian Woman. The Donner Party made the horrific - but essential - group decision to suspend conventional morality, to adopt situational ethics, in order to survive. Western towns banded together and enforced gun prohibitions to build their communities. Learning is not individual, action is rarely individual, both are part of the social construction which makes us human.

Damage from myth number three: Children who attend school sitting and working only or primarily individually will be ill-prepared to function in our society. If only individual goals are measured, our students will not learn to function effectively in the world as it really exists. Our classrooms must be about group learning, group dynamics, and group decision-making. Collaboration, the ability to make those around you better, the ability to allow those around you to make you better, is the essential human skill. The ability to effectively lead and to effectively follow, is critical, as is the ability to form groups for study and action, as is the ability to move effectively into new environments and the ability to welcome newcomers from unfamiliar environments. When these are not the priority in our schools, when they are not taught and modelled in our schools, we have failed our students.

Meriwether Lewis was constantly surprised. So were many pioneers. They looked around and were astonished. Imagine a thousand mile tall grass prairie broken only by cottonwood edged flat rivers. Imagine mountain ranges which dwarf the Alps in every dimension. Imagine a three or four day hike across a surface of pure salt, white and so flat it literally curves with the earth. Imagine a million buffalo rushing across a plain. Imagine meeting people with nothing culturally in common with yourself. Now move in and settle down.

The adaptive skills of our pioneers were remarkable. No wood? Build houses of sod. Grow crops in a salt earth? Carry dirt from the mountains and dig irrigation channels to move the snow melt. Develop new engineering methods, new bridge types, new forms of social organization, new clothing, new professions. It is that art of adaptation, as Frederick Jackson Turner saw, which truly created the identity of the young United States.

Damage from myth number four: "We are a conservative nation." Well, not when we are good. When we believe we are a conservative nation we idolize a past rather than celebrating it. Only someone with no actual understanding of American history could argue for "strict construction" views of the national constitution, or think that something is a good method simply because it was done in the past. If those who built our history thought that we'd still be a tiny nation clustered around the Atlantic Coast and our open hearth stoves. And so our students need to be honored for their adaptive capabilities, for their invention, for their challenges to the system. When we honor compliance and storing of old knowledge we tell our students they have abdicated their position of global leadership.

By the time we sat down to dinner in Council Bluffs, Iowa, not so far from where Abraham Lincoln selected the start point of the great Union Pacific Railway, not far from where the Mormon Exodus outfitted its wagons, I knew the history of America's rise lay not in individualism, but in the wonder of creative, adaptive, flexible, forward-looking, future-accepting, dynamic groups.

If I looked into your classroom today, is that what I would see in progress?

- Ira Socol


Bill Genereux said...

Aren't the qualities you describe such as adaptability and flexibility natural human qualities? Isn't this what has made our species what it is today?

How much damage are schools really doing when they don't recognize, cultivate and honor these qualities? I ask this because I sometimes encounter young adults in my college courses who seem unable to cope with adversity- to them, any speed bump in the road can seem insurmountable. I have to wonder, even with all of the poor preparation they have had until this point in their lives, won't that human spirit eventually kick in once the reality of life stares them in the face? Or will they travel through life perpetually handicapped and helpless?

irasocol said...


I so struggle with this. It seems so basic to humanity that it should be very hard indeed to "train out," yet, like you, I see the same thing - an inability to flex or respond to adversity, even difficulty, even surprise.

And we think our K-12 schools aren't effective...


Please readers, any answers out there?

Paul Oh said...

Thank you for composing this thoughtful and compelling post.

I would also argue that American individualism in its worst form has led us down the path of deep economic trouble in which we now find ourselves. There are many culprits in the collapse of the housing market and the subsequent near collapse and collapse of US financial institutions. But I don't think any of us could argue against the idea that greed was at work. And in my mind, greed is a function of individualism run amok, a lack of a sense of a collective good. It's so interesting to me that in the aftermath of what feels like the greedy acts of individuals, it is the collective - our federal government, our tax dollars - that is asked to conduct the rescue. In fact, is the only actor that has the wherewithal to undertake the effort.

Bonitadee said...

Nice post--First post I have read and I look forward to more. I, too, wonder about the ingrained habit of self. Like you, I think some of these idea-relics are borne at the very heart of American history. I am not sure we can completely counter the culture that is so ingrained (and easy to fall back upon in the classroom).

Dan McGuire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan McGuire said...

Going for a drive has always been one of my favorite ways to think; high prairies are especially good.

The myth of the NCLB is one of the most un-American of notions that has ever been floated. I don't think it would have been possible without 9/11. There just wasn't enough courage around in the first part of this decade to look at the myth seriously. It has never made sense from any perspective except as a way to dismantle public education.
When I heard today that my practicum students were actually debating the issue in their intro to ed class I was shocked, but I guess it's a way to get the undergrads to actually read the stupid thing. NCLB is like the Reconstruction of the South. I suppose you could say it's paybacks by the South to the Northern Union (as in teacher unions)cities.

Carl said...

Students will work together if one allows them to. Students will find ways to share and enrich each others' lives if allowed. Like participants supported by a crowd at a rock concert, we all succeed when everyone works together. Somehow, we have forgotten that.

Anonymous said...

This is lovely and compelling... I hope to respond more, later, but I have school to prep for today. :-)

Chris said...

Ira, I learn so much from you! Thanksgiving Day has past, but please accept my thanks today for your continual efforts to educate and challenge your readers.

Andrew B. Watt said...

As I said earlier, I really liked this post.

I'm currently teaching the Iliad to my students in ancient history class, and my students are definitely struggling. But I loaded the text of the epic into a wiki, and they're leaving comments on the discussion pages.

Charlie Roy said...

@ Ira
I learn so much from your posts.

HomerTheBrave said...

Hack! Hack away at the idols of mythic individualism! :-)

From a disability standpoint, people (including myself) tell me I don't try hard enough. As if I could just *try harder.*

And that's the paradox it grows out of: You're not worthy of belonging because you're not enough of an individual.