The Length of Our Reach

The more powerful our reach, the more important the question.

Since I came to education a while after she made huge headlines in the 1990’s, I didn’t know much about Liz Coleman and the work she had done at Bennigton College.  When the title of her TED Talk came up on my iTunes account today, I didn’t truly understand the history behind the iTunes generated titling “Liz Coleman’s call to reinvent liberal arts education.”  What followed was another one of those serendipitous moments that I hope will begin to shape what I help create over the next few years.


Coleman in the 1990’s was viewed in many ways as Michelle Rhee is now, only at the college level.  When she assumed the post of President of Bennington College, she immediately began the abolition of tenure, elimination of departments, and the firing of many professors.  Her aim was to radically reshape how liberal arts education functions.  As I look at various writings that have come my way, some from enlightened folk like Ryan Bretag, whose statements of belief about curriculum and supervision are so right on the money I want to steal them outright and call them my own, and some from the minds that are greatly influencing the direction that the state of New Jersey is heading in, I hear what Coleman talks about as being equivalent to auditory gold.

There is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians, and spectators.

A while back, I read this Wall Street Journal article by Mark Taylor.  Coupling the ideas within that article about the over-specialization of academic disciplines with the ideas that Coleman has put into practice leads me to one conclusion: I want to design curriculum that is centered around big problems and the search for those solutions.  While I don’t know how that looks yet, in a public high school setting, I see it as being an undercurrent for students to study: a humanities curriculum that allows them to focus on problems within one specific area, but attacked from the perspective of several disciplines.   Solving suburban planning through good design.  The politics of environmental activism.  The science and mathematics of the credit crisis.  The affect of global food production on the economy and the environment.  The language and rhetoric of mass media.

The problem with this, as I see it, is not falling into the trap of seeing how we can do this in the existing model.  I want teachers to begin seeing themselves not as English, history, science, or math teachers, but rather as leaders of thought, of solution, and of growth.  The end result of all of this should be action.  If you have been a reader of this blog in the past, you may know that I value actionable curriculum over that which is static.  Make those that learn with you move to action.  It’s not always a reality, but it is an ideal worth striving for.  A redesign of this magnitude would require that the curriculum ask those within it to be actors in towards the solution of the problem.  LizColeman

Coleman’s last line provides me with more than enough motto to go on.  After I finish typing this, I am going to bust out some really big paper and start sketching this out.  I can’t wait to see where it goes.

You have a mind and you have other people.  Start with those and change the world.


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One thought on “The Length of Our Reach

  1. I am reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection; it is, as you might imagine, long and beautiful and thoughtful. While his characters are complex their behaviors often despicable; he paints humans as human, and Tolstoy draws sympathy (yes, sympathy, not empathy) even for the truly unlikeable.

    The true enemy in the novel is the human concept of institutions: the law, the Church, social castes, etc. The protagonist (who has done some awful things himself) questions how people, good people, are capable of doing awful things to other people while fulfilling their stations in life, without a thought to the harm they cause.

    (We all do this. Look at the tag on your clothes and ponder the fingers of the young woman who touched it before it came to the States.)

    I am nearing its end, and Tolstoy has (as any good writer should) altered my perception of the world a bit.

    When people stop looking at others as anything other than people, with anything other than, well, love (or whatever Russian word Tolstoy used), then we become capable of ignoring the consequences of our actions. Once we become capable of this, we are capable of contributing to the horrible things we all know happen, but fail to see our connection to these events.

    (Good Lord, I’m as long-winded as Leo in this comment. On to my point.)

    “I want teachers to begin seeing themselves not as English, history, science, or math teachers, but rather as leaders of thought, of solution, and of growth.”

    Your comment resonated with me–we wrap ourselves with our assigned curricula, and become Teachers of X, Teachers of Y–we let the subject define our role. To be valuable, we need to be teachers “of growth.”

    I am looking forward to your further thoughts–make sure you show us the results of “sketching this out.”

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