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Ian Morton's picture

subjective ideals

In response to the discussions we had this morning on inquiry-based education, I am interested in discussing the subjective stances from which we are engaging the issues surrounding education. While I recognize the benefits of a classroom that can properly balance the use of inquiry-based learning to promote an active interest in the learning process, I must also recognize that such a classroom, when defined in our terms, is idealistic. While I believe that we should strive to meet these ideals, I also want us to recognize that ideals are often a socio-economic privilege. What I mean by this is that what is easier for me to push for (a classroom that doesn’t teach to standards and benchmarks) may not seem like a realistic option for others. My subjective stance on this issue differs from others, and I believe it is important to recognize that my subjective stance may be leading me to view this ideal as more readily feasible than it really is.

I was glad to have Victoria’s voice heard in the discussion today, as I feel her perspective on this issue is an important one for us to recognize, specifically those who, like me, have not experienced inner city schools first hand on a regular basis. It is easy for me to voice the benefits of inquiry-based education and to denounce the irrelevance and foolishness of teaching to standardized tests, but that is because I don’t have the pressure of an administration, of institutionalized authority, weighing down on me. It’s easy for me to tell Victoria to screw teaching for standardized test numbers, but that’s because my job isn’t on the line. If Victoria did decided to rebel against the system and pursue more open-ended inquiry-based teaching/learning, there is a chance her students’ test scores would suffer, as they may not be learning what the standardized tests are testing for, and if those scores go down, the administration would come down on Victoria.

I want to emphasize the importance of recognizing the different places from which we are all coming. What may seem like the obvious course of action to some may not be a viable or realistic option for others and we should therefore not assume that our position applies to the position of others. Again, while an educational reform seems like the obvious course of action to me, it may not be a realistic option to a teacher teaching in west Philly. Allow me to preface this by saying that this is not an attack on Wil, as I have no doubt that he has only the best interests of education and society at heart. But I ask that we consider what it means for someone in Wil’s position, a professor at Bryn Mawr who attended a “hippie school,” to be telling an inner city public school teacher that he/she has an obligation to preserve an important aspect of human nature (inquiry). What is it for me, a privileged male, who attended a very liberal private school my whole life, who was guaranteed a chance to go to college (guaranteed not because of intelligence, but because of class) to tell someone operating in an inner city space that they should be challenging authority in the best interest for society? What I mean by asking these questions, by asking us to consider the positions from which someone such as Wil or myself are making value judgments, is to push us to recognize that it is a privilege we have to be able to theorize about education and society. And as a privilege, the conclusions at which some of us arrive may not be available to others.

Speaking from a privileged place, one must not allow oneself to believe that someone who doesn’t share in those privileges will necessarily share one’s beliefs. One’s privilege allows one to view life and social issues in a much different light, and one consequently tends to lose track of the realistic problems/pressures facing those who aren’t protected by the privilege bubble. Therefore no one should presume to know what is best for someone else. We must be careful not to speak form an intellectual and or moral high ground. (This is not directed at anyone in particular, but is merely a general comment that reflects my own belief.) While I agree with Wil that a teacher has an obligation to tech students in a manner that can facilitate the development of creative, independent and inquisitive minds, I must also recognize that this teacher has an equal obligation to preserve his/her job and to teach students in a way that will allow them to succeed in today’s system. Let’s be honest, the best chance a child growing up in the inner city has of getting out of that environment is to follow the rules and learn in such a way that they can excel at standardized tests. The students who do this are the ones who make it into a school like Bryn Mawr or Haverford, not the students who are challenging authority, who aren’t afraid to have an independent mind, who don’t strive to excel at standardized tests. And while admissions standards may be changing, this is still predominantly the case with higher institutions. (There are deep social consequences resulting from this, which I am currently writing about for another post that I will make later on.)

So we must ask if the teacher’s obligation is to preserve creative and inquisitive minds, or to offer students their best chance to climb the social ladder. (Again, the problem of education as it relates to social organization/hierarchy is a very involved one, which I hope to contribute further thoughts on later.)

If I have misrepresented anyone’s stance, I apologize. Thank you all for your time at today’s symposium.

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