The Education Debates

Sometime in the 1990's I received a long letter from a teacher named Alex Lawson, asking me to consider doing an Ideas series on the state of education.  The letter impressed me by its sincerity, and by the sense of urgency its author clearly felt, but I found the idea somewhat daunting.  The subject inspires such endless controversy, and such passion, that I could immediately picture the brickbats flying by my ears.  I also worried that my views were too remote from the mainstream to allow me to treat the subject fairly.  My three younger children, to that point, had not attended school, and my reading and inclination had made me more interested in de-schooling than in the issues then vexing the school and university systems, which I tended to see as artefacts of obsolete structures. Nevertheless Alex and I kept in touch, and I gradually became able to pictures the pathways such a series might open up.  Thinking of it as a set of "debates" or discussions, without getting too stuck on a tediously pro and con dialectical structure, allowed me to reach out very widely and include the heretics with the believers.  The series was broadcast, in fifteen parts, 1998 and 1999.  I re-listened to it recently, and I think it holds me pretty well.   There are a few anachronisms, but my dominant impression was plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  Alex Lawson, whose ardour and persistence inspired the whole thing, appears in the third programme of the set.  De-schooling gets its day in programmes seven through nine.

This series Inspired a letter I have never forgotten, from a retired military man in rural New Brunswick, who wrote to me afterwards that I had "performed a noble service for our country." I was touched, not only that he saw nobility in what I had done, but that he could see that I had attempted to open up the question of education and provide a curiculum for its study rather than trying to foreclose or settle it.

The series had a large cast of characters whom I have listed below.

Part One, The Demand for Reform: Sarah Martin, Maureen Somers, Jack Granatstein, Andrew Nikiforuk, Heather Jane Robertson

Part Two, A New Curriculum: E.D. Hirsch, Neil Postman

Part Three, Don’t Shoot the Teacher: Alex Lawson, Daniel Ferri, Andy Hargreaves

Part Four, School Reform in the U.S.: Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer

Part Five, Reading in an Electronic Age, Carl Bereiter, Deborrah Howes, Frank Smith, David Solway

Part Six, Schooling and Technology: Bob Davis, Marita Moll, Carl Bereiter

Part Seven, Deschooling Society: Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, John Holt

Part Eight, Deschooling Today: John Holt, Susannah Sheffer, Chris Mercogliano

Part Nine, Dumbing Us Down: Frank Smith, John Taylor Gatto

Part Ten, Virtues or Values: Edward Andrew, Peter Emberley, Iain Benson

Part Eleven, Common Culture, Multi-Culture: Charles Taylor, Bernie Farber, Bob Davis

Part Twelve, The Case for School Choice: Mark Holmes, Adrian Guldemond, Joe Nathan, Andy Hargreaves, Heather Jane Robertson

Part Thirteen, Trials of the University: Jack Granatstein, Paul Axelrod, Michael Higgins, Peter Emberley

Part Fourteen, On Liberal Studies: Clifford Orwin, Leah Bradshaw, Peter Emberley

Part Fifteen, Teaching the Conflicts: Martha Nussbaum, Gerald Graff