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Tim Crane

Towards a Rhetoric of Education


Philosophy has a reputation for abstraction. Given that reputation, these sorts of documents
can seem convoluted, evasive even, as they try to jargonize their ways to representing articulate
statements of the authors’ beliefs on what education should and must be. At this point though, I
wish to be unconventionally clear in summarizing my stances on the matter. Education, at least in
this country, is a responsibility our citizenry has to itself. It is our job as citizens to prepare our
children (our students) to function as informed and competent members of what is to be their
democracy. Ideally, schooling works as an instrument of and for the people, preparing us for the
challenges of ruling ourselves.
While many seek to deny the political nature of schools, I refuse to ignore the reality that as
tax-funded institutions legally mandating our children’s attendance, schools are not just political,
but inherently and necessarily so. However the politics involved run much deeper than keeping
track of tax dollars or the election of the school board. The sort of politics I discuss here involves
matters of civic responsibility, public deliberation, and the involvement of citizens in the making of
their realities. This country self-identifies as a democracy and requires capable, culpable citizens
equipped with the willingness and ability to commit to the responsibilities such a form of
government demands. As public institutions, schools present citizens with enormous opportunities.
They can enact social change as we reconstruct our communities to fit to our needs. They can allow
us to provide every citizen with a chance at success on his or her own terms. They can help us
realize democratic praxis at every level of our society. Of course, bringing these possibilities to
fruition requires enormous effort and even more patience. Nevertheless, the school remains one of
the few places where students can learn not only who and what to be when they “grow up,” but how
to be. It’s where they grow into members of a democratic culture that celebrates diverse opinions,
ideas, practices, and people. Every facet of school responds in some way (be it fulfillment, denial,
or otherwise) to the promise of democracy that we have already made to our nation’s children.
These children represent the democracies that have yet to come. As a teacher, I take it upon
myself to place these students in a position of prominence in my pedagogy. After all, teachers are
public servants and it is often the students to whom we must answer. I believe students to be
naturally curious, social beings who want to make sense of the perceptions comprising their worlds.
They want to ask questions, explore topics, argue, deliberate, and solve problems. This is not to say
that their social groups are in line with our best wishes, nor that they are curious about the
curriculum, nor that their solutions are perfect, final, or even sensible. This is to say though that
schools wishing to see children flourish do well to nurture these natural tendencies. Each student
already comes to the classroom with the abilities to learn and succeed. It is the teacher’s challenge
to not only alert students to these abilities (some students have been convinced that their talents are
either wasted in school or worse, non-existent) but to help channel those abilities to productive and
empowering ends.
Democracy’s promise and students’ natural abilities place teachers in circumstances forcing
us to perform a myriad of challenging and contradictory tasks. Democratic teachers reflect on the
events that have occurred in their classroom but they also predict attitudes, questions, and events
that may be on the horizon. We often transmit facts to our students so they have a clear grasp of a
truth then co-construct interpretations of those facts so students develop the audacity to challenge
truths. We clarify abstract theories just to complicate assumptions that were once taken for granted.
We listen to students as they tell us what to do. We question answers.
We stretch ourselves across eras, cultures, languages, and identities because while we are
human beings just like our students, we are also human beings nothing like our students. We work
to identify with our students in each of their complexities but we respect our students enough to
remember that we are not capable of being them anymore than they are capable of being us.
Empathy is powerful tool for understanding but makes a poor substitute for personal experience.
We feed insatiable curiosities and wish to spread these curiosities within and beyond our
classrooms. We exhibit remarkable flexibility when we attempt to meet our students’ needs even
when we know that perfection to be but an ideal. And, most necessarily, despite the challenges,
limitations, and setbacks we face in fulfilling these tasks, our senses of humor remain resilient.
When it comes to the actual content of the classroom, the curriculum, I take a
multidimensional approach. Firstly, I see the necessity and validity of the academic standards. I
intend on every child meeting those standards but I also set personal standards for my students and
these sit at extremely challenging levels. Still, my primary concern with standards does not focus on
where they are but on the pathways students and I take in reaching them, in short, on matters of
“how.” In answering this question, I combine the academic side of school with a more implicit
(often referred to as “hidden”) curriculum. This implicit curriculum consists of skills, bodies of
knowledge, and methods that work beyond the standards of states or professional organizations.
Through this curriculum, children learn cultural values, acceptable behaviors, and what skills the
“real world” will demand of them. Because of its often-unnoticed presence and its institutional
pervasiveness (no one teacher or custom is wholly responsible for it), the implicit curriculum often
surpasses the official curriculum in its effects on our always-thinking, constantly-learning students.
Hence, like the political nature of schools, this curriculum deserves to be reckoned with in each
teacher’s pedagogical considerations.
Such considerations bring me to some admittedly difficult conclusions. For instance,
knowledge, once defined as the center of the curriculum, becomes displaced as tentative, flexible,
and temporary. If our ways of managing students are particular to our ways of life, then that means
other ways are possible. These possibilities do not automatically render our current ways invalid,
but rather indicative of just one approach. And what works for one culture, one school, one student
does not necessarily work for all. When times change, people change and when people change, the
facts change. Since it is impossible to keep up with the evolution of information, we face a decision.
We can choose to content ourselves with existing bodies of knowledge that, while appropriate and
useful for some, do little to serve students by and large in the here and now. Or, we can choose to
put knowledge in its rightful place as supplementary to skills engendering and exercising them.
Our world is rich with vast, inspiring bodies of knowledge that yearn for examination and
reflection. But without the proper skills to (en/de)code the world and become participants in it,
students find themselves unequipped for democratic life beyond schools. This life endures an
unprecedented information revolution not just with regards to quantity, but to accessibility and
quality as well. Skills such as critical reading, persuasive writing, and divergent thinking are no
longer luxuries afforded to the high-achievers or the exceptional students. They are now basic
requirements of living in a twenty-first-century democracy. Focusing on the classroom, I insist on
teaching students these skills through whatever course content and knowledges best suits their needs
and the form of the skill to be learned; everything is on the table. But just like the world that awaits
my students, my assessments will test their skills in a variety of ways. Students of all intelligences
and abilities should have opportunities to put their talents to use in the classroom. Whenever
possible, my assessments will represent authentic tasks that have direct bearing on the lives of the
students.
I openly admit that my affinity for democratic education resists more common attitudes and
beliefs. Few teachers acknowledge the immense and opposing roles available to them, often
selecting a handful of like-minded roles to permanently inhabit. Even fewer view students as valid
sources of authority and expertise. And even fewer see classrooms as rehearsal spaces for citizens
and the birthing rooms of democracies to come. Still, while I have studied and developed a full
awareness of the obstacles to my vision, I continue to strive for a praxis based on possibility.