The ‘congenital optimist’

Dean Michael Feuer (George Washington University photo)
Dean Michael Feuer (George Washington University photo)

Michael Feuer, the dean of George Washington University’s Graduate School of  Education & Human Development, was just inducted as president of the National Academy of Education, an organization made up of 200 elected members  that advances high-quality education research and its use in policy formation and practice.

Here is an abridged version of remarks he made at the Oct. 25 induction ceremony about education and the importance of high-quality research:

I have been thinking about the name of our organization.  Although I was an English major I am not really a big fan of deconstruction; but it is interesting to think about the words in our name, especially in the current policy environment.

The word “national” evokes, for some people, and maybe for more people today than in previous times, an anxiety about the excesses of federal involvement in those sacred rights of states and localities and individuals to keep doing their own thing.  It’s gotten to the point where one wonders, listening to the shrill rhetoric, if anyone was in class on the day when the principles of individual choice and social well-being were taught.  What can we do to remind ourselves that education is essentially a “public good?”

The word “academy” evokes, too, for some people, all kinds of anxieties about intellectuals in general and I would argue, social and behavioral scientists in particular.  Where is Richard Hosfstadter  – the famous historian and political scientist known for, among other works, the classic “Anti-intellectualism in American Life” – when we really need him?

And the word “education” evokes for an increasing number of people, headline writers perhaps most ardently, all that is wrong with our national condition and all that is wrong with what and whom we are teaching (or not).  We live in an era of nearly constant ideological challenge by those who seek to inflame our doubts about whether we are going to ever regain that wonderful No. 1-in-the-world status that we actually never had.  The sad truth is that we are, in fact, en route to achieving top honors in one category – inequality – but I hope that’s not the category that most Americans want us to get the gold medal in.

So we have our challenges.  I recall the reaction to a rather remarkable idea promoted by my dear friend Mike Smith back in 1998, for a “voluntary national test.” As one observer wryly noted at the time, there were only two things wrong with it: half the country hates the word “national” and the other half hates the word “test.”  The National Academy of Education faces similar, even more complicated, rhetorical challenges.

But I am hopeful.  As it has been for close to 50 years, the NAEd is a small organization with a big agenda, a remarkable and unique voice of reason, a resource for credible evidence, an antidote to the cacophony of expertise and acrimony that has always been and always will be a part of our peculiar American system.  If I had more time I’d riff about how nice it is to contemplate the virtues of civil discourse, here, just a few blocks from the Capitol, where politics seems to have become not the art of the possible but rather an impossible art…

Instead, let me just say that I continue to believe that reasoned judgment and disciplined inquiry can and must play an important role in the messy world of politics and policy; and that, in fact, it may just be that when our politicians get into these treacherous zones of intransigence they will have more interest in calm, cool, and dispassionate research – of the sort that the NAEd values and promotes.

I may be a congenital optimist, but for me that is what our Academy is all about:  we are a community of scholars and leaders who, though we come with different intellectual traditions and ideological baggage – (and paraphrasing one of my daughter’s friends, there’s no problem if people have their “baggage” as long as it fits in the overhead bin…)

We share a few basic assumptions:  that education is among the most important things society invests in, that knowledge about education and how to make it better and more accessible requires the best available tools of inquiry, and that research-based knowledge can inform the choices our elected and appointed officials ultimately must make.

…Education is among the most important things society invests in … and knowledge about education and how to make it better and more accessible requires the best available tools of inquiry … to inform the choices our elected and appointed officials ultimately must make.

We face a few perhaps obvious tensions in our work:

First, there is the tension between credibility and timeliness.  For our work to be credible it has to adhere to the highest standards of scientific inquiry.  But that takes time, and if we’re not careful, the people and communities and agencies to whom we most wish to direct our findings might forget what question they posed by the time we show up with our results.

A second and related tension is between the advanced sophistication of our empirical methods and the capacity of the general and policy public to understand what’s “under the hood.”  It’s a variation on the problem of credibility:  science is complex, and as researchers we are not necessarily great public communicators.  But we know that to be heard and considered we had better be clear.

Third, there’s the challenge of interdisciplinarity.  We here all know that education research is fundamentally an interdisciplinary activity, and we like the rhetoric of building bridges between our various intellectual silos.  But we need to keep in mind that if those silos are not sturdy, the bridges between them will sag.  How to sustain strong disciplines and promote a more collective research agenda is another one of those nice problems that doesn’t have a simple solution.

Indeed, I don’t believe that we’ll ever actually “solve” these tensions, but I hope we will keep them in our minds as we strive to improve our craft and make our work ever more relevant and useful.  Working together I believe we can find reasonable and useful ways to bring our knowledge into more practical use, and to have what another former NAEd president, Lee Shulman, referred to as “the wisdom of practice,” influence what we study and how.

A rabbi once told me that the difference between the optimist and the pessimist is that the pessimist just has more data.  I’m not sure I agree.  I’m an “evidence guy,” and data matter a lot to me.  I look at my colleagues here at GW and in the Academy, and I see substantial empirical evidence of commitment and a passion – to the improvement of education and to the role of research – which is the kind of data I need to sustain and increase my sense of optimism.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · November 1, 2013