*An Activist Classroom book review.
I have a big stack of books next to my bed – like most bookworm types, I’d wager. It never grows smaller; in fact, I think it’s inhabited by book-replicating trolls. Or perhaps it’s simply that I’m slow to move through each title, falling asleep as I read most nights.
(This image comes from shiyali.blogspot.ca.)
For the past few months, one of the titles on top of the pile has been Martin Bickman‘s 2003 volume, Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (New York: Teacher’s College Press). I finished reading it, at last, on the night before our first day back to class last week, and I’m eager to share my delight in it.
Minding American Education is a rich tapestry, though it’s woven from two quite different strands of thread. I’m tempted, even, to say that there are two different books here, addressed to two different kinds of audiences: scholars of American literature on one hand, and teachers of elementary, middle, and high school students on the other. Nevertheless, the two strands of Bickman’s discussion move together like warp and weft, producing a broad-ranging discussion of the longstanding, powerful, and imaginative tradition of active learning in American pedagogical theory and practice.
Bickman is a literary scholar as well as a teacher of teachers, and through the chunky middle of Minding American Education he is concerned primarily with American transcendentalism (the works of Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, the Thoreaus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example) and especially with the ways in which the transcendentalists reimagined education as an enterprise in knowledge-creation rather than rote learning or linear dissemination. Bickman notes carefully the rarity of this kind of reading of the transcendentalists: while we appreciate, as a rule, the literary and philosophical merits of these authors’ works, much less common is our appreciation for how these pioneering American thinkers were rebelling against ways of teaching and raising children that encouraged teachers to replicate themselves in their students, and through that process to replicate dominant culture tropes and ideologies.
(A trio of transcendentalists: H.D. Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller)
As Bickman moves, in the latter half of the book, into the modern period and eventually into his own, contemporary experiences teaching literature at the University of Colorado, the writing becomes less philosophically dense and gains what for many teachers may be more familiar ground. Nevertheless, I want to recommend not skipping the early chapters that bring transcendental theory into collision with education praxis; as a scholar with absolutely no knowledge of the transcendentalist tradition, I was both fascinated and moved by Bickman’s account – not least because it offers a very different picture (active; activist; exploratory; non-hegemonic) of American education history than most non-Americans are likely to expect.
Bickman makes a strong and – today more than ever, as Donald Trump lumbers toward the 2016 Republican presidential nomination – valuable case for why and how exploratory learning enables the development of creative and nuanced minds, and along the way he rescues a number of now-outré education scholars (John Dewey!) from the dustbin, mining their writing and their practice for important tools and insights. This is my favourite thing about Minding American Education, in fact: it has no time for educational faddism. Although it is committed to a practice of active learning, to tracing the history of that practice in American thought and to advocating for its futurity at the heart of a robust American democracy, it does not regard active learning as a fad, and it does not treat student-centred learning as anything but a methodology with a long, rich lineage. At bottom, it is 165 pages of evidence that active learning is not a fad – it is an ethics, it is education for democracy, and it has been around for a very, very long time.
For all this historical insight, however, my favourite chapter in Minding American Education, and the one I recommend EVERYONE read, is the last one: “Enacting the Active Mind: Teaching English, Teaching Teaching.” Here, Bickman relates his experience teaching two particular courses at the University of Colorado, one of which was actually two courses in one: a graduate class on the theory and practice of teaching literature, organised around the team-teaching of an undergraduate class in which the graduate students acted as teaching assistants, active teaching participants, laboratory experimenters, and careful observers. (I first learned about Bickman’s work from my lodger, who himself took this course as a graduate student and raved to me about the experience.) Bickman’s discussion of this course is profound for its honesty: he explains the many stumbles he and his TA teams experienced along the way, and he explores carefully the ways they arrived at fixes, some of which worked better than others. This chunk of the chapter is a window on an exceptional, committed, activist teacher discovering new insights into his own teaching practice on one hand, and into the ways in which undergraduates learn, engage with, and inhabit literary texts on the other. It is both riveting and humbling to read.
In this final chapter Bickman is frank about the limited power of lecturing (“I blush to say it, but I was never tired or bored by my own lectures. And yet I know I cannot keep my mind from wandering after about a half hour of someone else’s lecture, no matter how good it is” ); about the value of reader response theory as a tool for empowering students (although, as he notes, that theory is often let down by its abstractions, imagining “the ideal reader” rather than trying to encounter real ones ); and about the value of writing before and during class time as key to students’ learning processes (“As we push our vague, fuzzy thoughts to precision, we find the very act of writing makes us articulate things we didn’t know we knew” ). In effect, he ends the book by mobilising his earlier, transcendental history, whose purpose now comes fully into view: what the transcendentalists have given him, and might by his example give us, is a firm sense of how to enact theory, test and experiment, learn and change as our students do, knowing that it is not our job to impose theory on them, but rather to build it with them.
This afternoon I had a snowy walk with a good friend who is teaching a contemporary critical theory course (a staple of all English Literature programs in North America) for the first time this year. He lamented that he’s found few resources online to help him troubleshoot common problems with teaching high theory to inexperienced undergraduates, and he concluded that it seems the scholars most likely to teach theory are those who tend to be least interested in pedagogy. While I’ve no doubt this is true often enough, Minding American Education suggests that it need not be – that in fact good theory and good teaching make exceptional fellow-travelers.
Check out a preview of the book here.