Gone Fishin’: Creating Relevant Educational Curriculum

Photo of Sculpture: Teacher and Student

Going rummaging through my old papers, I found my notes on comments made during the last presidential primary by the noted academic, Stanley Fish in a tongue-in-cheek endorsement of Carly Fiorina for Secretary of Education. OMG! Strange bedfellows indeed — a philosopher, detached from the real world and an entrepreneurial opportunist thoroughly immersed in it. As silly as it was, it sparked a variety of thoughts.

Fish takes on the people he calls “Solutionists” who decry that despite hundreds of years of innovation and technological progress, the 21st century classroom is basically just like the classroom in Plato’s dialogues: eager students sitting at the feet of a master teacher — a condition he fully endorses: “As far as I am concerned, that’s the good news and it is news Carly Fiorina was broadcasting last week.”

Alas, the good old days that Fish yearns for existed only as a Platonic ideal.

They were anything but good — a two-tiered authoritarian structure based on business-like management models which emphasized testing and grades, were cluttered with irrelevant curricula, emphasized rote learning and grill and drill, and had as its central mission, the sorting and classification of children by class for a future dead-end role in society.

Forina, who knows firsthand about jobs, having played a major role in destroying large numbers of them, nobly states that education’s great task is not to prepare people for jobs, but to “fill children’s souls,” to make of them the kinds of citizens who can contribute to a participatory democracy.

Agreed, the purpose of education in a Democracy is not to elevate the quality of Boeing or Microsoft personnel, enhance our GNP, or better allow us to compete in the world.

Its true purpose is to help the individual person act more effectively as an autonomous center of power and responsibility; to help her to be more creatively engaged, and to assist her in learning how to best use the gifts with which she has been blessed. It teaches her how to act not only better towards herself but towards others, helping her in her spiritual development so she night better act in accord with moral purpose.

That is the tripartite purpose of education — hopefully resulting in a free, autonomous, responsible, and moral being. Knowledge is understood for what it is, a means towards those ends, not an end unto itself.

But one does not “fill children’s souls.” That speaks of “pouring it on or in,” or what noted educator Paolo Freire called “jug to mug education,” whereby the teacher pours from his jug to the student’s mug. Come examination time, the student returns the favor.

Might they better follow Freire, rejecting the traditional banking approach — the staple of traditional education whereby inert material is simply deposited into the student’s account, replacing it with a process that is mutual and dialogical, one in which students continually question and take meaning from everything they learn.

In the process, students learn how to think democratically and to take control over their own education and their own life, developing an elevated personal, political and social consciousness, whereby they became the subjects, rather than objects, of the world.

It’s easy enough to single out standardized testing as a villain in the piece. Everyone knows the excesses of same and the preoccupation, if not obsession, with quantifiably verifiable indices of success. And the havoc such obsession is wracking on contemporary education.

But cool your jets on the issue of technology.

Agreed, there is a misplaced faith in technology that it can somehow deliver us to the promised land of enlightenment. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water or become a Luddite on the subject.

Ironically, the very technology generally regarded as cold and impersonal, also offers the best opportunity for re-humanization of the culture.

It has the potential to return learning to the learner. By recognizing his unique identity and personal interests, it can assist him in addressing his primary concern: liberation, affirmation, and acceptance of self, helping him to regain the right to determine his own experience.

This does not mean a diminished role for the teacher, but a new one.

No longer will the teacher be relied on as the source and primary transmitter of data. Employing the new technology, the student instead will have the ability to access information faster and more accurately through his own efforts.

This, in turn, allows the teacher to redefine himself — to embrace a new role as mentor and catalyst, guiding the student in an intelligent application of his knowledge and helping him explore new connective principles.

Technology also puts up for grabs the very concept of school as a building. Transcending time and space, technology frees educational thinking from the impersonality of constrictive brick and mortar structures. Technology does all of this… and more.

What technology does not do, however, is provide the conceptual framework for its employment and the values which inform its use.

Technology can be put to whatever use we want. Rather than being employed to insure greater compliance with mandates from Madison and Pennsylvania Avenues; its services can be employed on behalf of a higher calling.

Why not enlist it on behalf of the regeneration of intimacy and redefinition of community we so sorely miss?

This very same technology which puts us each into our own individual orbit, dividing and setting us apart, which personalizes our buying habits and identifies us as good consumers — also offers the best hope for bringing us together.

We first need, however, to affirm those values loudly and clearly, lest that same technology become yet another set of tools for our enslavement, rather than our liberation.

What is missing most from the Fiorina-Fish vision is an examination of the larger questions which go to the heart of the educational process and the most basic assumptions on which the entire superstructure rests.

  • What social and moral imperatives should guide the learning process? Education for whom; for what; towards what end; for what purpose?
  • How might our own educational history and past efforts at reform inform our current efforts?
  • What role do the larger social, political, economic, and technological forces play in shaping our schools? How do they help or inhibit our efforts to create a more just and humane educational system?
  • What are the alternatives to what presently exists? What are its essential components?

Neither Fiorina nor Fish makes mention of social justice, the meritocratic ethos which dominates to the exclusion of children of color and those who are less advantaged or the failure of our schools to meet their needs.

We’re all for greater exposure to music, literature, art and philosophy — the very subjects identified as victims of the current infatuation with computer learning and the STEM subjects. As for ideas, indeed — but not simply ideas for ideas sake.

This has led to an intellectual bias in the educational process which falls most heavily and discriminates most greatly against children of color and of disadvantaged.

Why don’t they mention how our schools might instead consider identifying and nurturing skills, talents, and mindsets that have more influence on adult success than does IQ? What of creativity and independent thinking? What of emotional and social intelligence? — enhanced self-awareness and self-control, how intellect and emotion might work in tandem, political and social consciousness/conscience, the capacity for working with others and helping them work more effectively?

We believe that the classics, including Plato, can play an important part in the educational process. But not as ends unto themselves, not as interesting relics of sorts, received by students as antiquated pieces of history, divorced from their most basic concerns.

Our job as educators is to make the classics, and the questions they pose, relevant to the times and to the lives of our students.

Creating a relevant curriculum means developing a coherent framework of study which might aid our students in their struggle for identity. It is one that speaks to them directly and to the times in which they live.

Education would then be not apart from the world but a part of it. At its most effective, it would be transformative for both the learner and the society.

I’m not sure that’s what either Carly Fiorina or Stanley Fish had in mind.

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Why I Wrote a Book on Alternative Education and titled it: Dancing on the Contradictions

The stories contained within my book, Dancing on the Contradictions, detail the realities—the struggles and the resilience—of students in alternative educational settings grappling with assuming responsibility for their lives, forging identities, and carving out their autonomy, all within settings founded on democratic principles of free expression and community.

Yet, no matter how elaborate or comprehensive our machinery of governance, it never operated quite as we had hoped. Does this mean we failed or that democracy failed?

Certainly not. It means that there is where the dance begins.

Democracy is itself a contradiction, messy and difficult, beautiful and freeing. As Winston Churchill said, “It is the worst form of government, except for all the others…”  

And so, it is vital that progressive educators of today merge the “why” with the “how”, that they ground alternative education theory with real practice. That was the focus of my life’s work and that is what’s now contained within the pages of my book.

It’s about a dance that early school reformers took up many decades ago, and which I have no doubt modern educators will continue even better than before. If, that is, they understand the history of educational reform in this country and build upon it rather than exhausting their energy by reinventing everything the profession already knows–but has a tendency to forget.

And so we confront not only the contradictions within democracy, but within the educational system, and most importantly–within ourselves. Instead of railing against the system, we rise. We bring our talents and passions to bear in constructive ways to boldly articulate the values that inform the alternatives.

As the great social theorist Paul Goodman once said: “The notion that nothing can be done is completely unsatisfactory to me. Something must be done.”

His words have always hung on a wall in my study and been an ongoing personal challenge.

Even at the age of 85, I haven’t relinquished the call that captured me so many years ago when I stepped into a classroom for the first time as a new teacher.

For me, there is no joy like the joy of teaching. Being an educator is the spirit that animates me and so, for as long as I can take on Paul Goodman’s challenge, I will.

For I must.

And so must you.

But my time in the classroom has come and gone. Your time is now. My hope is that this book helps you along your own journey as you devise alternatives and build new models to help young people realize their potential.

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Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Fudgsicles and Emergency Teaching Certificates: My Inauspicious Beginnings in Alternative Education

I wasn’t always a radical educator, very far from it actually. Creating atmospheres in education conducive to democratic community and choice have never come easy. Not during the Vietnam War and the race riots of the 1960s and 70s when I was an educator, and certainly not today.

I got my start in ice cream.

Popsicles, fudgesicles, and creamsicles to be specific. You name it, I dunked it.

“So for this, we sent you to college?” my mother would routinely ask at dinner time. 

Many of us have seemingly inauspicious beginnings.

And many of us also have “aha” moments, turning points in our lives or careers that marked the beginning of a grand new adventure. Call it fate, destiny, or plain dumb luck.

These are the moments when we saw a sign, in my case a literal sign—“Friendly Teaching Agency.”

Given that I’d just been fired from my aforementioned ice cream job (for a single act of defiance performed out of an unquenchable curiosity. . . a hint of things to come. Read more about it here.), and that I did not wish to hear my mother’s sighs again that evening, I thought, “Why the fuck not?”

I needed a job, and they needed a math teacher. I was a history major, and they weren’t picky.

Our path through life often looks like a series of steps and missteps as we move ever onward and also circle back around.

When did you first know that education was your calling? Do you remember the moment you knew that no matter what happened, you’d be a teacher first and foremost?

For myself, that moment happened my very first day in a classroom.

I fell in love with my students, with their innocence and openness. There was no going back. I wanted to do everything in my power to support their growth and autonomy. It was and always has been for them that I have continuously asked, “But what if?” and “Why not”

In my life I’ve pushed the bounds of traditional schooling methods and ways of thinking. Not because I meant to be a troublemaker by disrupting the status quo and challenging the system, but because there is no other way when you believe deeply in the potential, ability, and diversity of all students.

Alternative educators believe in the transformative power of education, of free expression and choice in a democratic community, of firing up the imagination to find ways to come together on behalf of a future we can all believe in.  

And maybe we believe in ice cream too, if not for its nutritional profile, at least for the joy it brings.

As Don Kardong said, “Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos.”  

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About the Author:

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.