Monday, October 22, 2012

Romanticism and Progressive Education

The women in my family were not only romanticists, but progressive thinkers who brought these ideals into their work as educators.  They believed that schools should subscribe to those ideas and practices that aimed to make schools more effective agencies of a democratic society.  They shared the conviction that democracy means active participation by all citizens in social, political and economic decisions that will affect their lives. The education of engaged citizens, according to this perspective, involves two essential elements: (1). Respect for diversity, meaning that each individual should be recognized for his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and cultural identity, and (2). the development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good.

Romantic education is often conflated with Progressive education. John Dewey's progressive education was entirely distinct from Romantic education, but early in the 20th century the two philosophies became thoroughly entangled with one another, so that, for many, the term "progressive education" now calls to mind a set of ideas that is more Romantic than Deweyan.

Romantic educators seek to soften divisions between subject areas and to provide a cohesive, holistic education, whose different topics flow naturally together in the creation of a single, interlinked body of knowledge. If learning is natural, then it needs to take place in holistic form, where multiple domains of skill and knowledge are integrated into thematic units and projects instead of being taught as separate subjects.
Unfortunately, these romantic/progressive principles were not always the predominant philosophy in American education. State systems of public schooling have primarily attempted to achieve cultural uniformity, not diversity, and to educate dutiful, not critical citizens utilizing an assessment system based on standardized testing.  Whereas the former focused on teaching and learning in the classroom, the latter focused on governance and on the structure and purpose of the curriculum.

Contemporary education tends to focus on creativity as a phenomenon that is separate from and independent of such conscious mental processes as memorization and the use of logic. Indeed, it is an almost universally accepted proposition of contemporary pseudoscience that one-half of the human brain is responsible for such conscious processes as the use of logic, while the other half is responsible for “creativity,” as though, when examined, the halves of the brain revealed this information all by themselves, perhaps in the form of bearing little labels respectively marked “Logic Unit, Made in Hong Kong” and “Creativity Unit, Made in Woodstock, New York.” -George Reisman

Today, however, scholars, educators and activists are rediscovering the work of the romantic/progressives and exploring its relevance to a "postmodern" age, an age of global capitalism and cultural change, and an age in which the ecological health of the planet itself is seriously threatened. At the heart of the new wave of contemporary education thinking lies a pedagogy that emphasizes flexibility and critical thinking.

The new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) seek to establish organic relationships with communities through curricula that confronts broad social issues in real-world settings. Success on these standards will require basing instruction on the needs, interests and developmental stage of the child; it will require teaching students the skills they need in order to learn any subject, instead of focusing on transmitting a particular subject; it will require promoting discovery and self-directed learning by the student through active engagement; it will require having students work on projects that express student purposes and that integrate the disciplines around socially relevant themes; and it will require promoting values of community, cooperation, tolerance, justice and democratic equality.

Based on the personal stories of the women I have chronicled in this blog, one can see that their vision for educational reform has been passed down through the generations. Because we were strong enough to challenge traditional beliefs, we were often met with roadblocks to career advancement. Not only were we women, but we were women with strong opinions who were not afraid to make them known. As our story continues, you will see more clearly, the impact of this conflict on both our personal relationships and our careers.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Generations of Romanticists

In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. For Romanticists, the pursuit of the dream is often fraught with suffering and hardship, but they persevere as long as the dream is still alive.

Pioneer women followed their men into the Flint Hills of Kansas in search of the dream.  Often times it was not a dream of riches or wealth, but of a paradise on earth where one could derive sustenance from the land itself. The Flint Hills promised bountiful wildlife and fertile valleys.  If a man had a strong wife and many children, the land would provide the rest.  For most, it was an empty promise.  Families withered and died from starvation or the harshness and unpredictability of the climate.  Those who survived, remain loyal to the land and the dream.  They are rooted to the soil in ways others cannot understand.

Following in the footsteps of these pioneer women, the women in my family were also willing to follow the dream, often at great personal cost.  They were, and are, independent and courageous women who are not afraid to challenge the status quo.  They are educated women who demand to be heard and treated equally with the men in their lives.   For this reason, they tend to choose men who are also dreamers and adventurers, but who rely on the strength these women can provide.  They are romanticists who believe in the creative power of the imagination and passion as the basis for reality.

The main romantic characteristic is a predominance of imagination and creativity over reason, formal rules and realism. The romantic’s view of the world is a reflection of their view of humanity.  For them, the world is filled with color, sound, flavor, and feeling.   There is a preference for intuition or insight:  As Pascal put it, "the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of."  Hence, relationships are formed and decisions are often made by listening to the heart rather than the head. A holistic understanding is more satisfying than logical, analytical, or experimental explanations.  The world is too big for those and has to be embraced rather than picked apart.

The romantics tend to admire the heroic, taking a stand against nature, against the mediocre, against nothingness or meaninglessness.  To some extent, the heroic is closely tied to futility:  It is often Quixotic, or picaresque.  The term “hopeless romantic” is not without merit here. There is an affection for the foolish or unconventional and a tendency to look out for the underdog. Romantic morality is more stoic than epicurean, believing that it is more honorable to stand for principle at the risk of personal gain. Meaning, as expressed by virtue, purpose, and courage, is the highest value, not pleasure or happiness as we usually conceive of them. (Boeree, 1999)

Like the women who came before me, I am a hopeless romantic!  I too, have a need for freedom and a belief in individualism. The emphasis on the individual self and the subjective experience is the essence of Romanticism.  The exploration of the self and the need to express oneself in a subjective manner, away from scientific laws and edicts is something upon which the Romantic thinkers of the past placed a great deal of emphasis.  As romantics we are passionate about our beliefs. We have to be free to take that courageous stand, but along with our love of passion comes an impatience with, even disgust at the mediocre, the weak, the irresponsible, the unpassionate. But freedom means responsibility. Freedom requires that we be truly aware, fully conscious.  It requires that we be fully feeling, that we not deny but experience our passion.  It requires that we be active and involved.

As I reflect on the lives of the men and women who came before me, I am inspired by their imagination, their passion and their courage. They faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles and hardships and yet rose to the challenges and remained true to themselves. Through their example, they have guided succeeding generations through life and provided us with a blueprint for making the important decisions that helped us to find happiness in later life.  They are schoolmarms and cowboys and they have quietly and persistently shaped the path for generations of men and women who follow in their footsteps.