Last Sunday (11/01/2015) I read an interesting opinion piece in the Daily News, “Worms in the Apple: A observer of the New York City schools sees a system infected, over three decades, with two stubborn problems,” (one, a “retrograde teachers’ contract,” and two, the “dominance of progressive-education ideas in the classroom”) by Sol Stern.
Stern’s piece was adapted from an essay in the Manhattan’s Institute’s City Journal 25th anniversary 2015 issue. Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal.
I didn’t know this biographical piece about Stern until I had finished reading the article. It is almost always a good idea not to know where someone might stand politically and/or philosophically when reading something they pen. This is why, in part, I love that great scene from Dead Poets Society, when John Keating, played by the late Robin Williams, has the students rip the introductions out of their primary text. Keating wants the students to read and form their own opinions before they read what others have to say. I say this to say, had I known before I read the opinion piece that Stern worked for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think–tank, I would have expected and seen, based on my expectations, a certain bent that probably would have prejudiced me. Granted, it’s an opinion piece, and almost everyone has an opinion, conservative or not.
Nonetheless, as I was reading the piece, I was already forming an opinion, not even knowing the author’s political bent. His use of, and the way he used, certain terms, such as “progressive-ed pedagogy,” were clues to his rightward bent.
I would not argue with Stern, that we do in fact have serious problems in our public school system. I would argue though with his thinly veiled attack, at least in my opinion, on multicultural education. People like Stern, especially on subjects such as history, won’t admit that American history has been whitewashed, that there are “little white lies” and outright lies throughout the American narrative, and that most of it has been written from the “conquerors’” point of view, which is only one side of the historical record. For example, Stern’s two sons attended PS 87, an “elite school” on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His then fourth-grader had an assignment – granted, it wasn’t an assignment that should have been assigned for math – “to calculate the exact percentage of Arawak Indians living on the island of Hispaniola who perished because of Christopher Columbus’ depredations. The assignment ended by asking the students to answer: ‘How do you feel about this?’” I agree with Stern that this is not a math assignment, but social studies, taking away the calculation part, but Stern didn’t state whether or not this kind of question had any place in the public school system’s curriculum.
We recently honored Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day. I seriously doubt that any descendants of the Arawak Indians think of Columbus in the same way as Italians. (We choose, and sometimes make, our heroes, despite the historical record.)
Stern takes exception to “balanced literacy” yet, ironically, doesn’t see the “imbalances” in the Eurocentric curriculum and pedagogy that he espouses, which he calls “our civilizational inheritance.” He probably doesn’t’ even know that there is a pedagogy of the oppressed, despite how he concludes his piece: “Progressives continue to betray the disadvantaged children whom they profess to champion.” And conservatives?
There is something rotten in the Big Apple’s public school system, something rotten to the core, but it’s certainly not “progressive-education ideas in the classroom.”