Getting Ourselves Together

By Cohen, Monroe | Childhood Education, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Getting Ourselves Together

Cohen, Monroe, Childhood Education

"The more things change, the more they remain the same" (Sarason, 1996). Long-term perspective can enlarge our vision of current problems. After 50 years as a dedicated reader of Childhood Education, I am grateful to find therein recurrent attention to vital issues facing all the world's children. Cases in point are two articles that appeared in the 2004 Annual Theme Issue, which focused on the Culture of Teaching: "Authentic Learning: Intercultural, International, and Intergenerational Experiences in Elementary Education" (Mbugua, Wadas, Casey, & Finnerty) and "Learning To Teach in Urban Settings" (Duarte & Reed). The latter article struck a special chord with me and encouraged the sharing that follows.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, in a speech made shortly before his death, said the following: "Each of us must cling to what is close to him, to what he knows, to what he can do, to his friends and his traditions and his love, lest he be dissolved in a universal confusion and know nothing and love nothing." In other words, "We need to get ourselves together." Out of the near-universal confusion that plagues many U.S. cities today, getting oneself together, seeking one's identity and dignity, appears to be a spreading battle cry.

Recently, when reviewing old files, I found an unpublished draft of remarks I had prepared a number of years ago on how experiences as an overseas consultant can be relevant to working in U.S. urban schools. The occasion was a panel discussion on "Ferment in the Professional Education of Teachers," held at a 1969 conference of the Association for Student Teaching in Chicago, Illinois.

In 1968-1969, I was deeply involved in ferment and urban crisis as director of an M.A.T. internship program that the Antioch-Putney Graduate School of Education set up in Baltimore to prepare social studies teachers for inner-city schools. Reflecting on my previous two years as an education officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in Brazil, I found a number of striking parallels to what I was now experiencing on the streets of Baltimore. How does service as an overseas educational consultant relate to concerns about preparing teachers to work in inner-city ghetto schools? I would like to sketch quickly five valuable lessons.

Cross-Cultural Fertilization

The first lesson is learning to communicate and commune with another culture. This requires much more than learning another spoken or written language, for much of this cultural understanding is nonverbal. Indeed, a required text in orientation programs for both AID and Peace Corps personnel long has been a little book by Edward T. Hall (1980) called The Silent Language, which stresses the importance of this nonverbal communication.

"To know your own culture well," argues Leonard Kenworthy (1965), who has done so much to further the world understanding of American teachers, "seek to know intimately at least two other cultures." When my family and I headed off to Brazil, we learned better to understand what was close to us, what we knew, and what we could do as we entered more and more into communication with Brazilian friends and sought to share our worlds with each other.

Later, in Baltimore, Antioch-Putney interns, half of them Peace Corps veterans, lived in or near the majority-black ghettos where they were learning to teach. In many ways, they reached out to know the black culture so that they might know the people they taught. They sought to understand nonstandard dialect not as inferior speech, but rather as another language with a syntax and logic and vitality all its own.

Broadened Bases

A second valued lesson from abroad is seeing educational problems in a broadened social context. A central concern of my assignment in Brazil was to work with a joint team of Brazilian and American educators in analyzing the critical problems of grade repetition and dropouts, which plagued the primary schools of Brazil, as well as those of many other developing countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. …

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