Mike Rose is a highly respected education scholar at the University of California at Los Angeles who has researched and written about literacy, cognition, language and the struggles of America’s working class. He has taught over several decades — from kindergarten and elementary writing to adult literacy — and has made some important contributions to the education field.
He has written nearly a dozen books, including “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker,” which demonstrated the heavy cognitive demands of blue-collar and service work and what it takes to do such work well, despite the tendency of many to underestimate and undervalue the intelligence involved in such work. The best-selling “Lives on the Boundary” tells the story of the struggles and achievements of unprepared students and how their lack of literacy skills is a result of poor education — not a shortage of intelligence.
Other books he has written include “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education,” “Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America” and “Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”
In the following post, Rose looks at how elite media outlets address education — and who winds up writing the stories. Because Rose writes specifically about the New Yorker magazine, I have included a comment from its editor, David Remnick, at the end.
This appeared on Rose’s blog (and which he gave me permission to publish):
By Mike Rose
There’s a rock in my shoe, a small thing, a really small thing that I started noticing years ago and can’t shake loose, an irritant that has grown in significance.
Over the last 20 years, the New Yorker magazine has published 60 articles under the banner “Annals of Medicine,” and 38 of them — 63 percent — are written by medical doctors. During that same period, the magazine has published 17 articles under the banner “Annals of Education,” and not a single one of them is written by a professional educator, nary a classroom teacher or educational researcher among the authors. To pick two examples of omission, life-long teachers and writers Deborah Meier and Vivian Paley, both recipients of door-opening MacArthur “Genius Grants,” have never graced the New Yorker’s pages.
I told you it was a small thing. I mean, after all, who cares who this tony magazine contracts to write its articles? And let me admit that I’m a subscriber, and I’d happily read Jelani Cobb or Rachel Aviv or the other regulars who produced these education pieces. They are terrific writers.
But this disparity in authorship, this absence of people closest to the remarkable act of educating, has come to represent for me a much bigger issue having to do with the place of education in our society, for the example I offer with the New Yorker is, to some degree, replicated in other elite media outlets.
I realize that with the proliferation of new media and Internet platforms, there are many, many venues for educators — from the primary grade teacher to the college professor to the neighborhood parent activist — to make their voices heard, and in some cases to influence the public conversation about education. The backlash against widespread standardized testing and the recent wave of teacher strikes provide rich examples. I’m focusing here on traditional high- and middle-brow media, for they still have strong influence with government, think tanks, philanthropies, high-profile opinion makers, and other decision-making and gate-keeping entities.
I and others have been writing for some time about the negative effects our nation’s education policy has on the way we think and talk about school, and the central ideas and vocabulary of that policy reach the general public primarily through traditional print and broadcast media.
For a generation, education has been justified primarily for its economic benefit, both for individuals and for the nation, and our major policy debates have involved curriculum standards, testing and assessment, the recruitment and credentialing of teachers, administration and funding, and the like. This economic-managerial focus has elevated a technocratic discourse of schooling and moved out of the frame discussion of the intellectual, social, civic, and moral dimensions of education.
If the dominate language we hear about education is stripped of a broad range of human concerns, then we are susceptible to speaking and thinking about school in narrow ways.
But I believe there’s more than sterile policy talk at play here, and let me admit that though my thoughts are based on a long career in this business, I am speculating about a cultural phenomenon, something that even in the best, most empirically grounded of circumstances is a risky thing to do.
When we survey other monumental spheres of human endeavor — medicine, the law, the physical or life sciences, religion — we find cultural space for the practitioners of these pursuits to not only engage in specialized research in their disciplines, but also to reflect for the rest of us on tending to the ill, or on the place of the law or religion in our lives, or on the breathtaking complexity of human physiology or quantum mechanics.
We rarely see this treatment of education, which seems to have become an extended and engulfing institutional rite of passage, increasingly crowded with assessments and benchmarks.
There is no majesty or mystery here. Publishing houses produce tips for teachers, or guidebooks for students, or recipes for school reform. There is an occasional journalistic account of a colossal policy failure, or of a day, week, or year in a beleaguered inner-city school, or a memoir of a child’s heroic ascent from the ghetto or rural poverty to the Ivy League.
But you’ll be hard pressed to find reflections on the extraordinary human drama that daily unfolds as people, young and not-so-young, ponder and struggle to understand told by those closest to it.
Consider this observation by the eminent American philosopher, John Dewey:
The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks, or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it.
I want to hear from people who have spent a professional lifetime in the presence of such discovery — or discoveries of similar magnitude in the lives of adolescents or adults.
What can they tell us about fostering discovery, reading the blend of cognition and emotion in it, judging when and how to intervene, what to do when discovery falters? What are the beliefs and values that shape their commitment to this work and what is it about the subject they teach — what core ideas or ways of knowing or exemplars — move them to want to teach it? How do they experience the weight of history on their work, the history of the communities in which they teach, the history of the students before them — and how do they engage that history to enhance the growth of those students? And what inspires or vexes them about the human condition after years of participating with people as they come to know something new about themselves, about others, and about the world opening up around them?
I acknowledge that with some exceptions, classroom teachers are not trained or encouraged to do this kind of writing, and that a lot of research in education suffers from the opacity that plagues academic scholarship.
But in my experience, there are also beliefs and biases about education — about the people who do it and those who read about it — that are barriers to the production of first-hand accounts of the everyday wonder that so moved John Dewey.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, responded in an email:
“With respect, we publish a lot on politics, but not by practicing politicians; many things on sports, but not by professional athletes. Also, we actually do publish countless pieces by professors, educators such as Jill Lepore, Louis Menand, Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates, and more---but usually not on education, as such. However, Nicholas Lemann, who teaches at Columbia and was a dean there, has written on education for us. I am hardly against publishing more by educators in the future, but to suggest that there is some sort of guardrail against them is just not the case.”