Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Chattanooga's Paideia Schools: A Single Track for All-And It's Working

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Chattanooga's Paideia Schools: A Single Track for All-And It's Working

Article excerpt

One of the first reports on public education appearing in the 1980s was The Paideia Proposal, a slim volume written by Mortimer Adler (1982) representing 22 educators and academics called The Paideia Group. Unlike many of the more utilitarian reports later released under the aegis of official commissions, The Paideia Proposal was a statement of philosophy, at once a vision of human beings as destined for learning and an explication of how public schools in a democratic society ought to help all citizens realize this vision.

In his essay, Adler laid out The Paideia Group's view of education for citizenship, work, and lifelong learning in a democracy. Arguing that democracy requires not simply the same quantity but the same quality of schooling for all, he outlined three "columns of learning" or ways of acquiring knowledge, developing skills, and deepening understanding of ideas and values: didactic instruction, individualized coaching, and Socratic discussion. He further maintained that teachers should do more than simply purvey facts, but should engage students' minds by "inviting and entertaining questions, by encouraging and sustaining inquiry, by supervising helpfully a wide variety of exercises and drills, by leading discussions, by giving examinations that arouse constructive responses, not just the making of check marks on printed forms" (p. 50). Adler contended that educators must be learners themselves, for "the teacher who has stopped learning is a deadening influence rather than a help to students being initiated into the ways of learning" (p. 59). Likewise, the principal must be first and foremost the head teacher, an educational leader rather than solely an administrator.

The Paieia Proposal was nothing if not controversial. At the annual conference of the Midwest Philosophy of Education Society (1983) and in the pages of the Harvard Educational Review, academics and practitioners heatedly critiqued the proposal's merits and shortcomings. Some (Cahn, 1983; McAninch, 1983; Ravitch, 1983; Smith, 1983) accepted, even cheered, Paideia, albeit with reservations. These and others (Berry, 1983; Smith & Traver, 1983) viewed the proposal as a welcome attempt, however imperfect, to reconcile the tension between values of equity and excellence in education.

Many, however, expressed strong disagreement with Adler based on views that Paideia was elitist, narrow, or impractical. Perhaps the most serious charges came out of interpretations of the proposal as advocating a rarefied education that reinforced the status quo and had little relevance to underrepresented groups. Stickel (1983) and Burns (1983), for example, argued that Adler's ideas represented the imposition of an outmoded methodology on a pluralistic world and would not foster students' thinking about what their lives might be beyond what had already been determined for them. As Stickel specifically warned, "Sexism, prejudice, and ethnocentricity are easily perpetuated in a fixed curriculum" (p. 29). McKenzie (1983) forcefully challenged Adler's contention that the education provided the most eager students should be provided to all, asserting, "This belief, that what is best for the best is best for all, is a dangerously elitist tenet which may destroy the potential of countless young minds" (p. 391). Carnoy (1983) noted that the failure to include ordinary citizens in formulating Paideia was seriously at odds with the stated commitment of the writers to democracy. As he chided, "Appeals that ask [citizens] to regard their education as an end in itself can only be made by those who sit in ivory towers and are paid well to do so" (p. 402).

Closely allied with these critics were others who viewed the course of study suggested by Adler as simply too narrow for the modern world and too inflexible for the diversity of students in public schools. For example, Swartz (1983) argued that the three columns of learning represented a standardization and uniformity of learning that would impede human growth and development. …

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