The Challenges of Teaching in a Fractured Republic–Always in Crisis?

“There is an alternative to this perilous mix of over-centralization and hyper-individualism.” Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism 

For a public high school setting, I believe that Levin’s The Fractured Republic can bring us some clarity about unhelpful extremes and unhelpful mixes of “over-centralization and hyper-individualism.” Levin realistically discusses how cultural and historical factors of consolidation, diffusion, and nostalgia contribute to unfruitful conflicts in society at large. With some effort on our part, Levin can help us understand many of our biggest challenges to effectively integrating unity and diversity in public education. 

Trying to integrate the opposing forces of unity and diversity for better teaching in a public high school can make herding cats look easy. Here are two small representative samples of the sort of perennial tensions I have in mind:

  • An Achievement Approach:A guaranteed and viable curriculum is the variable most strongly related to student achievement at the school level. That is, one of the most powerful things a school can do to help enhance student achievement is to guarantee that specific content is taught in specific courses and grade levels.”
  • A Customized Approach:Personalized learning is an educational approach that aims to customize learning for each student’s strengths, needs, skills and interests.”

Individually, each approach looks reasonable and potentially good for directing educational practices. Each view implies different assumptions about the purpose of education, the identity of students, and what progress in learning should mean. These approaches don’t necessarily play nice with each other–or perhaps the conflicts are more about the folks who non-reflectively hold the differing approaches? 

To me, the achievement approach has a sense of what Levin discusses as consolidation. He explains that consolidating and cohesive focus of the first half of the twentieth century:

As our economy industrialized, the government grew more centralized, the culture became more aggregated through mass media, and national identity and unity were frequently valued above personal identity, individuality, and diversity (Kindle Locations 491-493).

In a good consolidating sense, education can give us a sense of belonging, unity, and common core values. However, Levin explains that the second half of the twentieth century was typically about rightly challenging conformity that arose from the consolidation trends–a kind of counter-act of diffusion against bad practices of consolidation in culture and society:

Most of the critics saw this conformity, and the almost blind faith in large, national institutions that they observed in the population, as crushing individual initiative and expression. Some also noted the danger these traits posed to the American tradition of localism and civic action, which had already come under strain in the first half of the century. (Kindle Locations 747-749) 

It’s interesting to see the customization approach to education that I mentioned above as an extension of Levin’s discussion about diffusion versus the previous trend of consolidation. At its best the diffusion trend focused on respecting the value of diverse individuals and small groups.

But when is the customization approach too diffusive–a kind of mere atomized consumerism and a promoter of narcissism? Likewise, when is the consolidation approach too restrictive–a close-minded reductionist tendency for controlling people? Those questions aren’t easy for educators to answer, but we do need to spend more time thoughtfully exploring and discussing them. 

Additionally, Levin diagnoses nostalgia as a detrimental influence on political and cultural conflict. In short, he argues that conservative and liberal thinkers both long for their versions of “the good old days,” when their favored trends of consolidation or diffusion were in full swing. Both groups tend to long for their version of when American was great. 

If not exactly nostalgia, a too-fuzzy and lopsided view of education and its history seems to plague most discussions about improving education. Problems with consolidation are often given much more attention than problems with diffusion. The easy targets for unhealthy consolidation include rigid school schedules, standardized testing and standardized curriculum. Often, these consolidating practices are dismissed as the out-of-date products of the industrial age. Perhaps, but it seems a bit more complex than that–how do we pursue accountability and equity without some degree of uniformity?

We would do well to turn attention to the lesser-challenged view of overly diffuse learning and schooling, which has its fair share of drawbacks. Ironically, many of the critiques of educational consolidation and concentration approaches tend to echo John Dewey’s recommendation for more diffusion from over eighty years ago. Few educators seem to know about Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins’ attempt to counter the diffusive influences like Dewey’s and concentrate schools on the perennial resources of the Great Books of western civilization. (Sometimes, I wonder if the fragmentation is really that new or if it just gets better coverage these days.)

Our twenty-first century society is a complex mix of desires for unity and diversity, fraught with ethical, political, philosophical, economic, and practical challenges. Even during a COVID-19 crisis, we have more resources and options available than the previous generations had. Thinking about better education and better political discourse looks like some sort of extreme AP English synthesis prompt. 

There are more applications to consider from his work, and Levin’s book offers one source for promoting better thinking about the challenges ahead. He certainly helps me check my mood swings from potentially unbridled enthusiasm for change to my hopeless frustration of how fragmented public education is. 

Invitation to Reflect: 

  1. Do you tend to think that public education needs more consolidation and unity or more diffusion and diversity? How so? 
  2. Do you have nostalgic yearnings for a time in the past when there seemed to be a better sense of consolidation or diffusion? 
  3. If those questions are too polarized for you or someone else, how do they need to be nuanced? 
  4. My state’s Colorado Constitution emphasizes that we shall maintain “a thorough and uniform system of free public schools” (Article 9). How does that text relate to our current challenges of working through complex issues of diffusion and consolation?

For Further Reading and Reflection: 

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, by Yuval Levin

When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, by Daniel Willingham [In chapter 2, Willingham shares a thoughtful discussion of how Enlightenment and Romantic meta-beliefs relate to conflicting ways people tend to look at educational strategies. His analysis connects well to Levin’s consolidation versus diffusion theme. Perhaps the tension is older than the twentieth century?]

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future, by Neil Postman [Postman argues that the conflicting Romantic and Rationalist approaches to understanding the world continue to play a role in our present time and will likely play a role in the future. Sounds familiar!]

The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer [Palmer makes a great case for the value of subject-centered learning and teaching as superior to student-centered or teacher-centered ways of focusing education. Palmer’s integrated, authentic, and relational theory of knowing can help us think beyond some of the unhelpfully trendy or entrenched educational claims about the best ways to teach and learn.]

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