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Amherst Creates.

Reviews | Short Takes


Minding American Education. By Martin Bickman ’67. Williston, Vt.: Teachers College Press, 2003. 192 pp. $22.95 paperback.

The stereotypical traditional approach to education is based on the “empty cup” model, in which the teacher fills the empty vessels (the students) with knowledge. It generally is identified with rows of desks, a teacher talking, students listening and tests to see if the students got the required information. The stereotypical progressive approach expects students to construct or discover their own knowledge; the teacher is there to serve as an assistant in that process. The hallmarks of the progressive approach involve offering free choices of activities to students, using student initiatives to shape curriculum, and building learning around cooperative group work rather than lectures. Every year, America’s educators are bombarded with a cacophony of pedagogical prescriptions that are variations on these two models. One year we are told to teach this way, the next year we are told to teach that way. The (correct) advice of the more experienced teachers around me is to pick and choose from this smorgasbord, to take what works for me and my students and build my own classroom from that—to walk the middle path between traditional and progressive. 

In this book, Martin Bickman attempts to locate this mysterious “middle” with a deep excavation of the history of active learning in American educational theory. He asserts that students learn not only by listening, but also by doing, and that the role of the teacher is not only to guide and instruct, but also to participate as a learner. He makes clear that although most of the great educational theorists believed in this balance, their ideas have likely been hijacked by one side or the other in the conservative/liberal debate.

In his book In Suspect Terrain, John McPhee explains the profile of the Manhattan skyline by telling the story of how it sits partially on the terminal moraine of the last continental ice-sheet (low rises and Central Park) and partially on bedrock (uptown and downtown high-rises). What lies underneath the ground determines what is above. Similarly, Bickman uses the ideas of the historical figures who laid the foundation of our modern educational system to explain current theory and practice. He puts the great educational thinkers in direct conversation with each other through aptly chosen and cleverly juxtaposed quotes.

At times, this layering of comments—from Plato, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, John Dewey, Nietzsche, Freud, Herman  Melville and countless others—feels as cacophonous as my programmatic smorgasbord. However, this chaos is different from the chaos of professional prescriptions that echoes around the halls of public education. This is because Bickman ties it together with an underlying question:  How do we learn?

The most successful example of this is the chapter on Dewey, in which the quotes from Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hegelian theorists and others put Dewey’s work in a coherent, rich context. Perhaps this is a success because Dewey’s work is such a crossroads of American educational theory. In his famous Laboratory School in Chicago and in his writing, Dewey struck a true balance between freedom and discipline, between student-initiated inquiry and core curriculum.

Bickman says that one reason teacher-education institutions have blunted and thwarted Dewey’s ideas is because his ideas were adopted piecemeal. “Ironically,” Bickman says, “another reason that Dewey’s ideas have never been fully adopted is that they may be too democratic and egalitarian for American society. Dewey’s emphasis, for example, on cooperative learning and measuring knowledge through action rather than paper and pencil tests is of little use in a system whose main social function is to sift students.” Dewey continues to be a hero of American education, invoked by all, but the balance he struck is usually lost in his legacy. Without Dewey at the wheel, Democracy and Education crosses over into the other lanes.

By the time the reader reaches the Dewey chapter it is clear both how hard it is to walk the middle path and how necessary. But why do we teachers have to re-make that path every year in our classrooms? It is hard not to blame those mysterious “educational extremists” buffeting us from all sides. Bickman addresses this inspiringly in his last chapter: It is, he says, the essence of active learning to be reinvented every time, with the teacher as much an active learner as the students. He describes his own team of professors using active learning as “the first Montessori teachers at a university level.” 

There were some moments early in the book when chaos reigned for me as a reader, notably Chapter 5, which treats the philosophy of language and semantics. Although the entire first half of the book is philosophical, the discussion here digressed to a point that was too far away from my own experience as a classroom teacher to be helpful in Bickman’s stated goal of drawing theory closer to practice. I just could not see how such a detailed discussion of the text of Moby Dick related to active learning.

The antidotes to Bickman’s forays into the heavily theoretical realm are the firsthand accounts of these various theorists’ own experiences with classroom teaching. Some of the examples are funny, like Carolyn Pratt’s description of the imaginative play that occurred at her Country and City School in New York. Some are sad, like Bickman’s report that his Harvard classmates averaged only three years of teaching before leaving the field. But all the stories bear witness to the passion these people felt about learning while they taught. 

Some of the best classroom illustrations of active learning come from the chapter about poetry, featuring two poets who were also teachers and two modernist teachers who featured art heavily in their curriculum. In this chapter is an account of Robert Frost’s teaching experience, including his years at Amherst. While at the college, Frost left the confines of the classroom upon his students’ urging and held his nontraditional classes in the evenings, at a student residence. These classes were largely led by the students and were a source of inspiration to him. Bickman writes, “Frost sensed what all good teachers discover, that just as in making love one has to give pleasure to get it, so in teaching one has to learn oneself in the process for the students to do so.”  

 —Matthew Behnke ’93

The author is an award-winning special-education teacher at
the Lambert-Lavoie Memorial Elementary School in Chicopee, Mass.


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