Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

2014 CCCC Chair's Address: The Loss of the Public

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

2014 CCCC Chair's Address: The Loss of the Public

Article excerpt

Editor's note: This is a written version of the address that Howard Tinberg gave at the CCCC Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Thursday, March 20, 2014.

I. Two Tales of Indiana

Let me begin by sharing two stories set in Indiana. The first focuses on the work of Caleb Mills, a New Englander by birth but a man who would come to be known as the Father of the Indiana public schools system. Mills came to Indiana after having been appointed as the first faculty member at Wabash College. When he arrived in the state, Mills found the condition of education there to be deplorable. In a series of written declarations begun in 1846 titled "One of the People" and submitted to the Indiana state legislature, Mills painted a dire picture of the state: every district looked out for itself, a fact that proved devastating to the so-called common schools. One of Mills's biographers notes,

While other institutions were becoming well organized and efficient, the schools, under the domination of the ruinous idea of self-government, were struggling hopelessly with unequal lengths of terms, incapable teachers, dishonest trustees, diversity of textbooks, lax enforcement of school laws and school discipline, neighborhood quarrels over school sites, narrow views of education, and lack of wise leadership. (Worley 6-7)

But, for Mills, most unacceptable of all were the rates of illiteracy in the state: one in every seven adults over twenty was unable to read and write, a figure in stark contrast with the rates in other so-called free states-most conspicuously, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts-which set the standard of literacy for the time (Worley 26).

Given this state of affairs, Mills observes:

There is but one way to secure good schools, and that is to pay for them. . . . Awaken the public mind and consecrate it on the question, "Am I not interested in the proper education of all that are socially and politically connected to me?" (Mills, qtd. in Worley 29)

Mills seems so sure of the answer to that question, although it should be stated that he was swimming against the current here, as very few states at the time paid for their schools with public money (Worley 19). Still, I'm struck with the apparent certainty of his belief in a connectedness among citizens and that an imperative exists to care for the educational needs of all. From the perspective of our own time, the notion has acquired, for me at least, a degree of poignancy and an indication of what has been lost.

Here's a case in point: We flash forward to this headline offered on the blog of Diane Ravitch, whom you may know as a principle architect of George W. Bush's "No Child LeftBehind," but who has since turned into one of its most caustic critics: "Indianapolis: Farewell to Public Education" (Ravitch). "What is happening in Indianapolis is terrifying," she writes, "if you believe that public education belongs to the public, not to private corporations." Deemed, through standardized testing, a low-performing school and allegedly plagued by financial problems, the Project School, a community-based, progressive charter school in Indianapolis, was closed in August 2012, despite fierce resistance from parents and members of the community. Eagerly waiting in the wings to transform the school and the system as a whole are non-public entities dedicated to producing twenty-first century online learning centers (Martin).

While Ravitch sees a conspiracy or corporate "takeover" of the public schools-here and elsewhere-I wonder whether the lesson from this "Tale of Indiana" and the other that preceded it is much more nuanced and more difficult : I wonder if the answer to Mills's question has changed and if the very connectedness among citizens assumed by Mills can no longer be counted upon. Indeed, we might well question the construct of the public in the first place, echoing John Dewey's observations made so long ago: "[T]he public is so bewildered that it cannot find itself " (Dewey). …

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