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.
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.