More Questions

After listening to the panelists, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any substance to the union’s side of the conflict. The story that was told that night at the Brooklyn Historical Society was eye-opening, but, there was a glaring omission. No one mentioned the issue of teacher professionalism as a source of conflict.

For my father, and others like him, this was probably the single strongest motivating factor in supporting the strike. The attitude and actions taken in Ocean Hill-Brownsville exhibited a blatant disregard for the professionalism of teachers, in three ways: by having the community dictate curriculum, by hiring uncertified, inexperienced replacements, and by dismissing teachers without due process. All of that would have felt like a personal insult to someone like my dad.

Dad, Barry Brody, got his B.A. from Brooklyn College, then did two years in the Air Force. He went into teaching, earning his master’s in education from Columbia Teacher’s College. He went on to get a master’s in economics from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (coincidentally Al Shanker’s alma mater). He spent most summers furthering his education. He would apply for grants to study. He spent a summer at Wharton, another at Weslyean, then Clark University in Worcester, MA, three summers in Illinois and one at the University of Colorado. Our family joined him, this was how we vacationed (which is another story). He was always a voracious reader. If there was a new biography of Lincoln or Jefferson, he would read it – and critique it. He read widely, though history was his passion.

He took pride in his scholarship and his teaching. If there was one overriding lesson he imparted to his three children, though there were many, it was to do your job to the best of your ability, no matter what it was. If you were a busboy or a secretary, take pride in your work. You show up on time, put your nose to the grindstone, without excuses. He modeled that behavior. There was dignity and pride in a job well done. My brothers and I took that lesson to heart and it served us well.

I believe the issues raised by the decentralization experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville struck at the heart of my dad’s sense of himself as a teacher and his pride as a professional. The fact that the changes being wrought were accompanied by so much anger, and in some quarters, hate, made it impossible to bridge the divide. Both sides were convinced of their righteousness.

The idea that parents would dictate curriculum, and I think Dad’s perception was that the plan gave parents that authority, would be an anathema to him. The notion that laypersons would make decisions about what material to include in global studies or American history likely struck him as absurd.

Today we are much more aware of the importance of incorporating the contributions of people of color and women so that a more complete and accurate picture of American and world history is provided (I’m not suggesting that the work is done). Some of that change came about precisely because of the pressure brought to bear by communities of color. Some of it has come about as more women and people of color become historians themselves.

But, today community input is still fraught. What about when a community objects to teaching evolution? Or sex education? Or, inclusion of LGBTQ literature? The list can, and does, go on and on, and I think it always will. The process of incorporating public opinion needs to be robust enough to withstand pressure from extremes, but flexible enough to evolve as new knowledge is gained. But what does that look like?

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Banned books – illustration by Jane Mount

One of the reasons I believe so strongly in public education is that a cross-section of children, representing different parts of society, learn together. And, hopefully, across communities there is a common body of knowledge imparted. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same, but if you grow up in Harlem or a rural town in central New York, I believe you should share a common understanding of science, history, math, etc. There can and should be differences that reflect the needs of the children, but a great deal of the fundamentals should be shared.

I think the panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society lost an opportunity to engage in a more balanced way. To discuss community control without acknowledging the legitimate concerns of teachers took away from the credibility of the program.

I am still left with the question: What should the role of the community be in curriculum? If folks reading this have opinions about it, please comment! I’d love to hear.

8 thoughts on “More Questions

  1. You hit upon the problem in our country today. We have a president who doesn’t believe in science or at least talks to appease his base. Subjects can’t be taught based on a community’s beliefs or we will get into more discord than we already have. History, science, and other subjects should not be used for politics. There should be community involvement in education but that doesn’t mean control.

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      1. I do remember the strike and the hard feelings of the times. It felt like a race war could start at any time. Your father was such a strong believer in what he was doing. We had many discussions and he was very convincing. Then again he was very convincing on any topic he believed in. I don’t think I ever met a smarter and more intellectual individual. You and your brothers should be very proud to have the parents that raised you.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Here are my thoughts on community driving public school curriculum.

    First off to have an effective community run curriculum the community must have a wide opened and unfiltered views on issues. If they don’t the students of this community will have a narrower view on such issues.

    If you are a believer that all children regardless of class, ethnicity, or religion have the “right” not the “privilege” of an unbiased public education then local community education boards should not exist. Public education needs to be managed at a higher level, if not Federal then State managed.

    I say this because anything less than State managed would have a high risk of being biased and uneven across a state. Look at the list of banned books that are presented in this blog. My guess is that they are banned at local levels. If education is managed at State or Federal levels the chances of having a much broader acceptance of views and opinions are greater than if managed at local community levels. If curriculum is derived and supported at this higher level then children can learn and have a common understanding of all educational disciplines regardless of where they live.

    However, if Federal or State are driving the educational curriculum you are now running into the Big Government versus community control issues. This is one of the few cases where I support Big Government. Many people, especially in today’s volatile political & social environment, would not accept these thoughts. This is a mistake. Yes there are communities within the United States that would run a curriculum fair and unbiased but there would be and are too many other communities that fall way short of this. For the benefit of the nation as a whole, curriculum needs to be developed and managed at this higher level.

    So who runs the curriculum? These must be fair minded and well learned men and women that represent a cross section of the American populace. These folks can come from universities, business or public sectors. They can be either appointed to their position or voted on by the public.

    For those parents that do not agree with public curriculum they can opt to send their children to private or religious schooling as they do today. Charter schools can be another option but not at the expense of the public school system. This is another discussion for another day.

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  3. This is admittedly tangential at best to the central point of your blog post, but I am going to say it anyway. We live in a world in which people typically do not hold themselves to the same standard that they hold others to. One could look at the tragic example of clergy who have let their flock down again and again but there are so many examples in all walks of life.
    Your father, on the other hand, held himself to a higher standard than the also tough standard that he held others to. He did more and bragged less. He was the real deal and he set a wonderful example for his children of whom he was so very proud.
    That example still serves as a role model to his grandchildren and beyond. That is why he was so respected, admired and beloved.
    thank you for this outstanding blog post and apologies for the off topic comment.

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