Negative and Positive Freedom

I’m reading James McPherson’s book The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Mattersand it presents interesting context that connects to our explorations of The Federalist Papers.

McPherson notes in the first chapter that the word “liberty” has assumed multiple meanings throughout American history, and that the Civil War marked a paradigm shift from one dominant meaning to another. “The tragic irony of the Civil War is that both sides professed to fight for the heritage of liberty bequeathed to them by the Founding Fathers.”

To help us understand this divide in the American definition of liberty, McPherson turns to “famous twentieth British philosopher Isiah Berlin in an essay titled ‘Two Concepts of Liberty.'” In this essay, Berlin delineates the concepts of positive liberty and negative liberty.

Negative liberty is freedom from. As defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints.” McPherson states that “Traditionally in American ideology . . . power was the enemy of liberty. . . ‘There is a tendency in all Governments to an augmentation of power at the expense of liberty,’ wrote James Madison. . . . Madison also drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution as a Bill of Rights that limited the powers of the national government in the name of liberty. Nearly all of these amendments apply some form of the phrase ‘shall not’ to the federal government.”

This concept of liberty remains alive, even resurgent, today. As McPherson notes, “In recent years, with the rise of small-government or antigovernment movements in our politics, there has been a revival of negative liberty.”

But the Civil War marked a transition from a primarily negative conception of liberty to that of a positive one.

Positive liberty is freedom to. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that “positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.”

McPherson notes that “The change from all those ‘shall nots’ in the first ten amendments to the Constitution to the phrase ‘Congress shall have the power to enforce’ this provision in most post-Civil War amendments is indicative of this shift—especially the Thirteenth Amendment, which liberated four million slaves, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth, which guaranteed them equal civil and political rights.”

McPherson also notes another interesting shift in language and ideology during the Civil War—the transition from a description of the United States as a union to that of a nation. “In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 ‘United States’ was a plural noun . . . Since 1865 ‘United States’ is a singular noun. . . This transformation can be traced in Lincoln’s most important wartime addresses.”

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War was critical to forging the conception of a unitary nation. If the primary goal of the Civil War was to preserve the union, the secondary one became the abolition of slavery, and those two goals symbiotically evolved during the war to become one and the same. McPherson articulates, later in Chapter 8, Lincoln’s critical role in defining this new nation in terms of a positive freedom. He uses James Oakes’s study The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, to compare Lincoln with Frederick Douglass in terms of their impact on our nation’s definition of liberty and freedom.

The difference between the two men was one of position and tactics, not conviction. Douglass was a radical reformer whose mission was to proclaim principles and to demand that the people and their leaders live up to those principles. Lincoln was a politician, a practitioner of the art of the possible, a pragmatist who subscribed to the same principles but recognized that they could only be achieved in gradual step-by-step fashion through compromise and negotiation, in pace with progressive changes in public opinion and political realities.

In other words, Lincoln and Douglass both served a critical and complementary purpose in carrying our democracy forward.

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, through McPherson’s retelling, stands up well to the critical eye of history. Though Lincoln was necessarily a man of his time, he also seemed to possess a foresight that enabled him to understand the ultimate purpose of the Civil War, and to strategically steer a divided union through the devastatingly disruptive shifts that it took to forge one nation (did you know that 750,000 soldiers died during this war?!). Lincoln was playing the long game. He told Congress in the winter of 1861 that “this struggle to preserve the Union ‘is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.'”

The tension between a positive and negative conception of liberty continues as a source of faction in our nation today. I think we would do well to remember the Civil War, and heed the lessons learned from the great sacrifice that was made to create a more sophisticated nation in which liberty meant equality for all, rather than the mere autonomy from tyranny that first created our nation.

The Civil War taught us that establishing a meaningful definition of national liberty means sacrificing some individuality for the betterment of a collective good. This is a sacrifice that many of us today seem unwilling to make. And it makes one wonder—what will be the next divisive battle that we will need to fight to transform our democratic republic into a nation that will be worthy of our grandchildren?

Majority vs. Minority Rule, B.S. vs. Passion

United States Capitol

United States Capitol (Photo credit: Jack’s LOST FILM)

Let’s move on to Federalist #22, again by Alexander Hamilton. While I sometimes find Hamilton tedious, as I mentioned earlier, he can also display a ferocious command of logic, political acuity, historical example, and rhetoric. These passages serve as a demonstration of this. Here he discusses how the Constitution addresses majority vs. minority power of the states, as opposed the idea of equality amongst the states, which had been an operating principle of the Articles of Confederation. At that time, the approval of all nine states was required in order to approve a bill, treaty, or other legislation:

The right of equal suffrage among the States is another exceptionable part of the Confederation. Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Delaware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail. Sophistry may reply, that sovereigns are equal, and that a majority of the votes of the States will be a majority of confederated America. But this kind of logical legerdemain will never counteract the plain suggestions of justice and common-sense. . .

Great rhetoric there, while also demonstrating the frequent insertion of breathy commas–a grammatical oddity throughout the Papers and a reflection, no doubt, of the stylistic conventions of the time.

It may be objected to this, that not seven but nine States, or two thirds of the whole number, must consent to the most important resolutions; and it may be thence inferred that nine States would always comprehend a majority of the Union. But this does not obviate the impropriety of an equal vote between States of the most unequal dimensions and populousness; nor is the inference accurate in point of fact; for we can enumerate nine States which contain less than a majority of the people; and it is constitutionally possible that these nine may give the vote. Besides, there are matters of considerable moment determinable by a bare majority; and there are others, concerning which doubts have been entertained, which, if interpreted in favor of the sufficiency of a vote of seven States, would extend its operation to interests of the first magnitude. In addition to this, it is to be observed that there is a probability of an increase in the number of States, and no provision for a proportional augmentation of the ratio of votes.

But this is not all: what at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. . .

Again, great use of rhetoric and logic. He furthermore demonstrates political acuity in acknowledging that the republic would not be static, and was likely to expand. The principle of a majority rule is so commonplace in governance dynamics that we now seem to take it for granted. “Majority rules”: a flippant phrase we throw off while electing which movie to see. Yet at this time, the young states, newly independent, were protective of their rights and demanded equality. As Hamilton notes, though this seems like a just principle, in reality, it provides obstruction to even routine governance processes.

Now these next few passages get interesting, when you read it through the lens of our current perspective. All we see our government doing now is obstruct, delay, and filibuster:

This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. . .

The mistake has proceeded from not attending with due care to the mischiefs that may be occasioned by obstructing the progress of government at certain critical seasons. When the concurrence of a large number is required by the Constitution to the doing of any national act, we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe, because nothing improper will be likely TO BE DONE, but we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods. . .

What could better describe the overuse of filibuster we witness today, and the consistent impasse that arises now at what should be navigable issues of governance?

Evils of this description ought not to be regarded as imaginary. One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption. . .

No, Alexander, we most definitely now know them not to be imaginary. They have become our political reality. Does this suggest that we need to further reduce the minority party’s “negative upon the majority,” as Hamilton put it?

What’s interesting about that last line above is how we can spin the meaning of “foreign corruption.” Hamilton meant it in the literal sense, but today, we could read it in the sense of any entity operating outside of the government, such as corporations, lobbyist groups, and other special interests, which have an out-sized influence on the operations of our government.

In an article in The New Yorker, there’s a bit more on viewing this as a screed against the filibuster, as well as some interesting caution against viewing The Federalist Papers as “secular scripture.” To quote:

The Federalist Papers—so often quoted to rationalize governmental stasis and congressional gridlock—are almost always treated as secular scripture. They’re not. They’re newspaper op-ed pieces, written in haste to sell a particular set of compromises, some of which their authors had adamantly opposed and accepted only with the greatest reluctance.

This is interesting, and it may explain in part why I’ve found some of Hamilton’s contributions to the papers tedious: he really may be bullshitting when he sounds like he’s bullshitting. The passages above, however, reflect real passion, and this stood out as I read them.

Hamilton and Taxation

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing with my review of The Federalist Papers, I’m going to move to a couple of short excerpts from #21 from Alexander Hamilton (did you know his political career was nearly capsized by a sex scandal?). I love this first line:

The wealth of nations depends upon an infinite variety of causes. Situation, soil, climate, the nature of the productions, the nature of the government, the genius of the citizens, the degree of information they possess, the state of commerce, of arts, of industry, these circumstances and many more, too complex, minute, or adventitious to admit of a particular specification, occasion differences hardly conceivable in the relative opulence and riches of different countries. The consequence clearly is that there can be no common measure of national wealth, and, of course, no general or stationary rule by which the ability of a state to pay taxes can be determined. . .

This is an interesting declaration that I will admit I don’t fully understand. His argument seems to be essentially that there are too many intangibles in determining the true wealth of a nation, which lesson he then turns and applies to the impracticability of imposing a just tax on states. This quick dismissal of any attempt to quantify national wealth seems suspect to me, which is why I think I don’t fully understand this. It may be possible that there are political obstacles to a state tax which Hamilton doesn’t want to address here. He then goes on to examine taxation more carefully:

Imposts, excises, and, in general, all duties upon articles of consumption, may be compared to a fluid, which will, in time, find its level with the means of paying them. The amount to be contributed by each citizen will in a degree be at his own option, and can be regulated by an attention to his resources. The rich may be extravagant, the poor can be frugal; and private oppression may always be avoided by a judicious selection of objects proper for such impositions. If inequalities should arise in some States from duties on particular objects, these will, in all probability, be counterbalanced by proportional inequalities in other States, from the duties on other objects. . .

I also found this interesting. This sounds like an awful lot like a description of the ideals of a free market–that imbalances will organically be corrected, without requiring the constricting oversight of regulation. I suppose this philosophical underpinning in capitalism is unsurprising–Hamilton did become the Secretary of the Treasury, after all. However, my understanding is that Hamilton’s running of said office resulted in more central planning than otherwise.

The Federalist Papers: The Role of Faction

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...

The first quotation in The Federalist Papers that stood out to me was Madison’s explicit acknowledgment of the reality and role of faction in a more democratic society in paper #10:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

So we can see evidence here of Madison’s pragmatism, as well as his political acumen. He astutely observes that to seek to avoid or suppress a diversity of interests would compromise liberty. He is also explicit in acknowledging that class plays a major role in the creation of faction, particularly with respect to the ownership of property. He therefore outlines one of the major purposes of government: to ensure that a diversity of interests are able to coexist, with their respective rights protected by regulatory oversight.

From a modern lens, it’s perhaps unavoidable to critique Madison’s presentation of governmental protection of the “various and unequal distribution of property” as biased towards moneyed, landowning interests. For example, Madison states that “those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” What are the protections for “those who are without property?” And how will those interests be effective participants in the larger economy? By stating that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” does this excuse the unequal distribution of wealth?

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, makes the compelling argument that the world’s poor should be provided with land ownership in order to gain access to global markets and thus be provided with greater opportunities. Without property, he notes, they are forced into extralegal markets, rather than contributing to the greater economy.

I would also like to note a critique of Madison’s point that one of the unacceptable methods of removing faction would be “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” While this point is well-taken, as we can see what effect Soviet rule and other dictatorships have had, however, I question whether this avoids one of the principle functions of the culture formed by a healthy civil society, which will be established either with federal or state direction or without it.

What I mean is that we generally avoid any sort of governmental intervention in respect to culture: the very existence of a national public radio station or a public library system in our society, for example, is somewhat remarkable. Our national character is largely dictated, instead, by Hollywood, with questionable effects. Not to put too fine a point on it, but observers of the United States may note that our overriding culture is one of violence, distrust, superficiality, antagonism, and greed.

One of the functions of public education, then, in this sense, should be the establishment of a shared sense of civic culture. I’m not talking about Naziism, propaganda, or dogmatism, but rather that we should come to some general agreement about what historical knowledge, literature, music and folklore, and other cultural artifacts and understandings we wish to pass onto our children that would impart some sense of civic engagement, with an eye towards the idea that we wish our democracy to be functional, as opposed to constantly stymied by extremism.

Therefore, I would inquire of Madison: what is the use of liberty when the populace is uneducated and unengaged in the exercise and application of that liberty, and when, in practice, their participation in the economy is restricted to unthinking individual consumption, rather than the distributed cultivation and accumulation of national wealth?

The Federalist Papers: A Review and an Introduction

In December, I began reading The Federalist Papers. I read them because in the course of researching and designing a unit of curriculum for my 7th-8th grade students, on what I ended up calling “The Art of Persuasion,” I had traced the history of formal rhetoric and debate and its relation to governance, coming up from Athens, the Sophists, Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos; to the pamphleteers debating religious, moral, and political issues during the 1500s to 1800s, such as Voltaire, Swift, and Martin Luther; finally arriving at revolutionary America, with Thomas Paine’s influential Common Sense, and the debates leading to the ratification of the US constitution, with The Federalist Papers cited as seminal to that process. Understanding this arc of rhetoric and persuasion and how it relates to democracy enabled me to better appreciate our current forms of pamphleteering: blogs. It also made me want to read more of these seminal documents firsthand. The Federalist Papers seemed like a good place to start, given their place in our nation’s history.

I picked away at them from December through March, reading them on the bus to and from work on my ereader. I found Jay’s and Madison’s commentary to be the most insightful, perhaps due to the clarity of their thought and language. Hamilton, on the other hand, I often found unnecessarily wordy and tedious. This is unfortunate, because he is the one who wrote the majority of the papers! This isn’t to say that he doesn’t provide insight, but his dense language and tendency to be a bit scrappier than the others makes it difficult.

Their language in general is interesting–I noticed in particular the recurrent overuse of the word “impracticable,” for instance. There were many other words they use that we don’t use much today. (I recommend using to practice such words, by the way; many of the words on that site came up in these papers!) It’s interesting to consider just how dense and formal their language was, and that this was the sort of language commonly employed in public discourse. Sure makes literate Americans of today seem rather uneducated in comparison.

Overall, I found them amazingly relevant to the debates that we continue to have today in the US, and the political science behind their arguments enlightening. I think every American should read these papers in order to better understand the reasoning behind the constitution that operates our system of governance.

It was also refreshing to consider and witness that something that we take so much for granted had been something so incredibly divisive at the time. It made me better appreciate the benefits of our system and the foresight of the founding fathers, as well as to be positioned to make more informed critiques of their decisions and the Constitution, as I can better understand why they made some of those choices and the context they were made within. For many Americans today, the US Constitution is something either inviolate or taken for granted. This is why I feel like every American should read them–it allows us to understand the Constitution as part of a living history that we can continue to partake in through our dialogue and debates of today.

In light of this, I marked a number of passages that I found particularly interesting that I’d like to begin exploring in a series of short blog posts here. I won’t guarantee that I will work through all of them, as I have some other projects ongoing this summer, but I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, so I hope I can. Thanks for reading.


An Introduction and Discursive Rambling On Why I’m Writing This

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long while, ever since the EWA conference where I met some great fellow educators and education reporters. At dinner after the conference, I was speaking with David Ginsburg, Samuel Reed, and Michael Hicks about the concept of equity and a level playing field in schools and how this critical need so often gets shoveled under the rug in current public discussions of education, and I brought up one of the concepts I’d come up with after my first year of teaching, which is the idea of what I called an “invisible curriculum.” Michael Hicks informed me that this concept has been around for a while and was entitled the “hidden curriculum.”

This was a critical concept to me, so at the behest of Mr. Hicks, I did some “research” (Google questing) and found that the Wikipedia article (BTW, why do people always debunk Wikipedia as a viable source of information? There’s some really well written articles on that sucker!) provides some fairly good background on the subject, tracing the concept of “presumptive teaching” back to Dewey, up through Philip Jackson, Benson Snyder, Paulo Friere, and more recently to John Taylor Gatto. Now that I had a trail, I was determined to do some deeper investigation.

Not to make excuses, but I don’t have allocated time for research, and I’ve thus far been stymied by the craziness of a public school right before state testing, writing graduate school papers, creating IEPs, wedding planning, and other assorted tasks that keep pushing this research aside. I’m currently reading Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (good stuff—he doesn’t even hesitate to discuss love in pedagogy!), but that’s about as far as any of my own research has progressed.

Rather than wait an indeterminate amount of time to gain deeper theoretical background knowledge on the subject, I am electing to post what my thoughts are so far on the subject, and I will elaborate on it further as I learn more.

Curriculum and Equity

There’s a few strands which I will be pulling together around the concept of a curriculum. The first strand I will examine is the concept of a hidden curriculum. The second strand is the concept of a unified core curriculum. The third strand, which I have explored somewhat already, is the concept of open source curriculum development.

These strands are unified under the idea that if we are truly committed to the concept of equity in public education— or the concept of education as a civil rights issue—then we had better take curriculum seriously. What we choose to leave out of our curriculum are often the most critical pieces of knowledge that our students require to succeed in an extremely polarized and socially and economically sick nation.

Hidden Curriculum

There are a couple of ways of interpreting the notion of a hidden curriculum. One is from the perspective of class or cultural oppression, as in the biases of a dominant culture are propagated through unwritten but clearly expressed social rules, thus perpetuating inequity. Another is from the perspective of socialization, in which there is an assumption of implicit understanding, as in the “unwritten social rules and behavior that we all seem to know, but were never taught.” In the first interpretation, the deficit lies in the oppressor, who enforces their dominant perspectives either blindly or coercively. In the second, the deficit lies in the student, who fails to recognize implicit social or behavioral rules.

I think there is a middle ground to be found between these two interpretations of hidden curriculum, in that in either case, it is the responsibility and duty of the educator to render explicit what is assumed implicitly. Teaching is all about making tangible what is abstract, dredging up the invisible conceptual and procedural foundations that underly knowledge. If we are going to instill values from a selective standpoint, then we should give voice to those values and make them readily apparent, thus allowing parents and families a choice as to whether they feel that is the right kind of school for their child. If we are going to be addressing social skill or behavioral deficits with our students, then we should be clear about what social norms are and how healthy relationships are fostered and sustained.

We fail our children when we don’t acknowledge the hidden values and rules of our society’s social behaviors. We also fail our children when we pretend that there isn’t much more to succeeding in our society than academic success and intelligence, and ignore the critical need for the development of character. In a recent article in American Educator, The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education, James Heckman makes the case for the dire need for recognition of character development in education.

While important, cognitive abilities alone are not as powerful as a package of cognitive skills and social skills . . . Cognition and personality drive education and life success, with character (personality) development being an important and neglected factor.

I believe that children and families in disadvantaged communities desperately want to understand these rules. They want to become empowered through knowledge. We oppress them when we pretend they already understand or that they should implicitly understand class rules and values. And all of the terrible behavior that you will witness in inner city schools–the fighting, the cursing, the bullying—are calls for understanding. Students need to be taught what these unwritten class expectations and rules are. They already understand the rules of poverty, of the street. They already know how to speak that language. Some educators throw up their hands and say, “But they don’t want to learn! They aren’t motivated! They don’t value education!” That’s not true. It’s just that we aren’t being clear enough about what that learning will do for them. We assume that they understand the implicit value in formal education. We assume that they know how to sit in a chair and behave appropriately in a formal setting and respect formal authority figures. We need to stop making these assumptions. We need to assume, rather, that when a child enters our schools they need to be taught everything about how to succeed in a democratic and capitalistic society. And I mean that just as much for the child in the wealthy suburban enclave as the child in the ghetto. The child who sits in a wealthy classroom is just as much in need of understanding implicit societal rules and values, such that they don’t take their luxury and status for granted, and live a sheltered life unexamined. Inequality is perpetuated most fundamentally by ignorance, not by willful avarice.

Business leaders are telling leaders in education that they are looking for employees with social skills and interpersonal capabilities. Research tells us that self-control is far more important in predicting future success than IQ. Educators keep telling the world that they have kids that don’t know how to sit still for more than one minute, don’t know how to organize their supplies, and don’t know how to interact with each other in a positive way. Is anybody listening? Schools need to do much more than teach academic content. They need to teach—as many educators have been saying over and over again—the whole child.

Core Curriculum

Not only does our society fail to acknowledge the hidden curriculum, but we furthermore fail to acknowledge the foundations of any curriculum. We have politicized content, such that it has become an issue of nationalizing required content, as opposed to rationalizing the foundations of learning. Anyone who has been a teacher—most especially anyone who has been a teacher of children with exceptional learning needs—knows that all academic concepts have underlying foundations that must be clearly and explicitly taught for students to master the content. Let’s take one mathematical skill as an example: rounding. Rounding is easy, right? All you have to do is round a number up, or round a number down, and bingo! Right?

Wrong. If you think that’s true, then you’ve never tried teaching it. My students struggle with mathematical concepts, especially with procedures that require multiple steps, and most especially with concepts that require any level of abstraction. Let’s break rounding down into the steps required to perform it: 1) You have to decide what place value you are rounding to; 2) starting at that place value, you then must look at the number to the right; 3) you must ask yourself “do I round that number up or down?; 4) you must remember the rounding rule, perhaps taught to you via a rhyme such as “5 or more, let it soar; 4 or less, let it rest”; and 5) finally, you must move back to the original place value you are attempting to round to, then alter it accordingly (add one, or let it remain the same, and change the remaining place values to the right of it to zero).

Those are the steps, which we could easily add more to, as it could be argued that I condensed some mental steps into one. Now think about the foundational concepts needed to perform this operation. First, you must understand your place value and be able to locate the given place value of any number. If you don’t, you can forget about rounding, because you are lacking in the necessary understanding to simply begin the operation independently. Next, you must understand the rather abstract concept that when you round that place value, all the remaining place values after that are changed to zero. Also, they must understand and be clear about the idea that when you rounding “down,” you are not subtracting one from that number, you are simply “letting it rest.”

Try explaining that to a child who struggles with basic numeracy. Suddenly, what was such an easy concept, implicitly, has become an extremely complicated concept when you attempt to render it explicit.

But the point is here that there are concrete steps that can be developed, and we can pinpoint and target exactly where a student is struggling based on the evidence or discussion of their work. Different teachers will have different ways of addressing that struggling student’s needs, but the foundations are there.

Why would we pretend that the foundations underlying concepts don’t exist? Why would we leave it up to the independent exploratory process of a student, a teacher, a school district, or a state to determine these foundations? Why wouldn’t we pool together all of our evidence, from teachers, researchers, and content experts, to create a sequenced map of the foundations to learning?

I recently (randomly) learned about the concept of “learning progressions,” which I found in an article from a publication from the Teacher’s College educational policy program. This concept has been around for several years, and apparently had some influence on the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I’m surprised, frankly, that the concept isn’t wider known and more fully explored.

Another concept aligned with these ideas which has been around literally for decades is E.D. Hirsch‘s notion of cultural literacy. I remember buying Hirsch’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy when I was a kid! I was fascinated by the idea of having a tome that would teach me the secrets to my society. It turned out to be kind of boring, but I thought some of the quotes in it were interesting. I still have the book, and now as a newer teacher, I have discovered that Hirsch’s concepts were developed into a Core Knowledge Sequence, which is available for download.

I can understand the criticism of Hirsch’s concept as an attempt to simply indoctrinate all students with the dominant culture, and the concern that having a unified curriculum would be an impediment to true learning. I share the criticism of the Core Knowledge Sequence from the perspective of it being fixed, in the same way that I would criticize any set of fixed standards by grade level. I teach students with disabilities, and I am angered by how they are made to feel stupid because they are 2-4 years behind grade specific benchmarks. Benchmarks should be based on individual student capability, not by this antiquated concept of grade level (/end diatribe).

When I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence to the teachers at my school at a faculty staff meeting as a tool to guide their curriculum mapping, I expected to hear some of the critiques I just offered above. But on the contrary, teachers were overwhelmingly thrilled by the sequence and gratified to have a copy of it to refer to. Aides and preparatory teachers were snapping the copies up like candy, such that we ran out of copies for core content area teachers! Teachers, just like students, are desperate for guidance.

At some point, we have to come to an agreement about what knowledge is important to the content that we elect to teach. And at some point, we have to come to an agreement about the benchmarks that students must reach to acquire knowledge at the level that will best enable them success in an academic or career setting, whether we elect to do so by grade level or other tracking method. In terms of indoctrinating students with the dominant culture, I will refer you back to the concept of the “hidden curriculum.” It’s not about protecting students from the dominant culture. It’s about handing the keys to that kingdom over to them. And that requires not only academic content knowledge, as I argued earlier, but knowledge of social skills and the self-knowledge that comes from self-control.

And I think that simply because content is “fixed” to some degree does not necessitate that it is dead. No teacher comes into a classroom (at least, not in a self-contained classroom; I would welcome someone who thinks they can fly by the seat of their pants coming into my classroom every day and trying to perform free jazz pedagogy; in a classroom, you have to be able to perform jazz on top of a classical foundation) and begins to conjure the content they are to teach out of thin air. What a good teacher does is to conjure critical thinking and dialogue around the essential content of a subject. The content may be given, but not how we approach it and develop it as a class, with students and teacher exploring the concepts together to recreate them anew. Curriculum must be able to adapt to these explorations and to the creation of new knowledge, but that does not mean that we should not come to a consensus as to what content should be taught. In other words, a unified curriculum does not necessarily mean a dead one, and I think we have move beyond such polarizing notions; I will explore this idea more in the next section on open source curriculum development.

Currently, there is a movement, spearheaded by the Shanker Institute, to reintroduce the idea of a core curriculum of content, which has been cosigned by many different leaders in the education field. Of course, this is making people who are politically right leaning shiver in their boots, because the idea of anything being nationalized gives them nightmares of socialism. But this is a perfect example of how the political grandstanding and petty oversimplication of adults operates to the detriment to children. Knowledge cannot be nationalized—but the underlying concepts necessary to achieve mastery can be outlined and unified.

The process of establishing any sort of national consensus on matters of education, such as through the current establishment of the Common Core Standards, is ridiculously contentious (read Diane Ravitch’s The Life and Death of the Great American School System for more history on the political machinations behind the standards movement) . But that should not stop us from having those conversations. Adopting a voluntary, common set of national standards was a great first step. But in comparison to the actual content, standards are relatively clean of contentious items and specifically applicable items for classroom use. The only item where standards provide direction on the actual content to be learned is in the math standards, as they are fairly clear about what content will be focused upon within each grade. In ELA, social studies, and science, however, the standards are intentionally vague, as these are the areas that can swiftly become politically contentious.

We need to stop being cowards and hold the essential public discussion over core content. Our children are sitting in classrooms that are all too often simply boot camp preps for a lifetime of imprisonment, with none of the essential knowledge that will enable them to succeed in this society. Our teachers are spending hours alone planning their lessons, attempting to dissect concepts in order to teach them effectively to their students. Why are we throwing our children and our teachers’ knowledge and ability to the wolves?

Open Source Curriculum

Reflect for a minute on the last image I just concluded the prior section with: a teacher sitting alone at their desk, planning lessons for their students. It’s after a long day of teaching. That teacher may or may not be a content expert in the lesson that they are crafting, given that most teachers are treated like widgets (as described well in the policy paper, “The Widget Effect”) and are thrown into different grades and different subject areas every year. Why is that teacher alone? Why does that teacher not have the guidance of other experts in that content area to guide their task analysis? Why is that teacher not sitting with other teachers during a scheduled, paid time of their day?

That image is of a dedicated teacher, a teacher who knows that they must reflect and ponder the underlying foundations of content in order to teach effectively. Other teachers are downloading lesson plans of questionable value from the internet, or simply turning to the next lesson in the curriculum that is provided by their district, which was purchased from a contractor who makes a lot of money supplying flashy, colorful textbooks to schools. Meanwhile, people are arguing against providing these teachers with any sort of direction or guidance on content whatsoever. Are you kidding me? When I began teaching, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content I was supposed to be teaching my students ( I would have loved a sequenced guide to the underlying foundations of the concepts I was expected to teach and that my students were expected to learn.

Now wouldn’t it be better if that teacher was sitting at a table with colleagues, discussing the content of the lesson, performing task analysis through the process of dialogue with other knowledgeable experts of pedagogy and content? In some schools, this sort of collaborative lesson planning does occur. In all too many, however, it doesn’t. In either case, imagine extending that table to include teachers from all sorts of different settings, with all sorts of different students. They can discuss how they alter the delivery of the content to challenge their gifted students, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students with exceptional learning needs, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students learning English.

This is what we can do with technology. Why wait for one of the big curriculum companies to develop our curriculum for us? In fact, this is the very problem: how we’ve been developing anything in public education, whether policy or content: everything is developed from the top down, then handed to the teacher. But we need to stop this never-ending cycle of dissociation. A unified core curriculum incorporating social skills and character development should not be developed by some group of distant “experts” and think tanks.

I’ve been thinking about this concept ever since I learned more about open source software development. One of my friends is involved in the open source software industry (yes, people other than Microsoft are making money by developing open source software! Who woulda thunk?), and in conversations with him, I began to think about how the process could be applied to education. He recommended a book for me to read to learn more about the history of open source and how it works, and the more I learned, the more I grew excited about the potential for transferring the fundamental concept of open sourcing into curriculum development.

The revolutionary transformation of open source in software development in the computing industry was that it turned the concept of intellectual property on its head. Intellectual property, under the GNU license, shifted from the right of exclusion to the right of distribution. This allowed software code to be developed outside of a proprietary license and outside of hierarchical business models not always conducive to creativity and collaboration.

This is what the development of curriculum requires. Curriculum development is creative and challenging work, and teachers shouldn’t be doing it by themselves. We should be doing it together, via collaborative networks, not via conventional, hierarchical pathways remote from our classroom work.

I’ve started the process in my school by first creating a file structure within our school Google Docs to store and share our curriculum mapping. Then, I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence, as described earlier, as a resource to be used in the mapping process. Next, I created a unit plan template, based on a format provided by ASCD, within Google Docs to guide and standardize the development of unit plans across grade levels. Finally, I will create a spreadsheet to synthesize all the unit plans as they develop school-wide, so that different grade levels can examine each other’s work.

My next plan is to open this process to teachers on a national level. I’ve created a wiki for this purpose, but swiftly realized that I had to create an underlying structure to guide the process. So this summer I will be working on building an underlying structure based on those effective in software development.

It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be challenging. But I firmly believe that teachers can create a viable and unified curriculum that will be far superior to anything that will be published by giant textbook corporations. And the best thing about doing it via the open source method will be that it can be a living, breathing curriculum that will adapt to new input and feedback by teachers.

A Summation and Wrap Up of the 3 Strands of Curriculum

In creating a curriculum that can target inequity and enable disadvantaged students to gain access to the middle and upper class tiers of our society, we must address these factors:

  • Curriculum must explicitly address the non-academic skills proven necessary by research for life and career success, such as social skills, self-control, perseverance, and character
  • Curriculum must be unified to clearly delineate the underlying foundations of content
  • Curriculum must be an adaptable, living creation developed collaboratively by actual teachers and content experts via networks operated under a GPL style license

If you believe in any of these precepts, then I encourage you to follow some of these steps:

  1. Go to and sign to support the concept of a core curriculum
  2. Notify your local representative about the necessity for a core curriculum that incorporates the concept of character development or write a letter to your newspaper
  3. Go to my website and keep up to date about my progress in developing an open source project for curriculum development, or start your own and let me know!

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

I meant to post this yesterday, in order to show my EDUSolidarity, but WordPress was having some issues and I couldn’t log on to finish it. Well, better late then never.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, when I first entered the field of education, I was skeptical of unions, but was coming to appreciate the protection from short-sighted policy and budgetary broadsides that a union affords. One of the benefits of the events in Wisconsin is that it has served as a clarifying point to many people like me who may have been on the fence or uncertain about their support for unions. It forced me to examine whether I really supported the collective bargaining rights of a union, as well as to consider more broadly whether I felt the field of education might even be better with the power of unions subverted. As I considered these issues, I realized that the tactic which Republicans and businessmen were calling for was not surprising, given the values of management and capitalists in general, but that it brought to the forefront a major issue with untrammeled access of private interests in public education. Education in our country is based on the ideals of a working democracy, and if we can’t handle the messy debates and political process that such democracy entails via a system of checks and balances, then we will be cutting out the legs from under the efforts of education reform, even as it might momentarily appear that we would be gaining greater efficiency.

Simply because our economy is suffering due to misguided policies that benefit the wealthy few does not mean that we should begin slicing away at the very foundations of our democracy. The Economist is heralding the demise of unions, and they sound so eminently reasonable, don’t they? Problem is, they’ve forgotten that they are discussing real human lives in their equations.

Unfortunately, our society likes to pay lip service to our soldiers, our teachers, our firemen, our policemen, etc. But if the issue is ever broached that we would have to raise taxes to pay for those essential services, everybody clams up. And they hide away in their protective ideologies and behind their pacifying Fox news blather and tantalizing talk show hate radio. I don’t care what the situation with the economy is. We should NEVER cut essential services such as education or social services in our budgets. Because those services are the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, and when we cut those services, we cut into the lives of those members of our society who need them the most. We can talk about accountability, sure! I’m all for it. I’ve seen too many of those federal and state dollars go to waste sitting in a closet. We need to invest that money smarter and track the effects of contracted programs in districts. Definitely! But should we be laying off teachers, subverting the roles of unions, and eliminating some of the few incentives and protections that teachers have in a highly challenging role that produces a product (competent students and citizens) that is of utmost value?

We need unions to protect the interests not only of teachers, but of the children who are raised in poverty. When we cut services or diminish rights in the interest of efficiency or economic duress, we cut directly into those children’s lives. Unions serve to balance the power of government and private interests. That doesn’t mean unions are saints or that I agree with all their policies or organizational structure. It means that I believe unions are a necessary counterbalance to bring the interests of various stakeholders to the bargaining table.