On Common Ground: Learning to Pull Together

by Thomas R. Whitaker


The essays and images in this number of On Common Ground put an emphasis on the strength that can be found in the historical ancestry and the present variety of the partnership movement. The Editorial Board last year was firm in its desire that an early number should place our present efforts in historical perspective. And at its latest meeting, the Editorial Board spent a good deal of time viewing possible images for this and future numbers, and coming to a consensus about the most appropriate uses of images to accompany the essays. A few words, then, about each subject.

The Essays: Some Connections

Too often, in recent decades at least, educational proposals have been made and programs have been launched without sufficient attention to what can be learned from those who have gone before us. Too often those proposals and programs have themselves then proved to be of short duration. Indeed, the most usual pattern of funding collaborative projects in this country, through short-term initial grants rather than sustained institutional support, has only accentuated the weakness of our collective memory. The "collaborative movement" of the past fifteen years has often been ahistorical in its orientation and rhetoric. The lead essay by Vito Perrone therefore reaches back to inform or remind us of earlier collaborations in Michigan, North Dakota, Illinois, Maryland, and elsewhere, and then points toward a considerable variety of present efforts on local, state, and national levels. It is a history from which we can take heart, and one that ought to inspire us to find yet more useful ways of sustaining what Perrone calls "a collaboration over time that is empowering for teachers and students alike."

We also print responses to Perrone's essay from two members of the Editorial Board:

Manuel Gómez focuses on the similarities between Perrone's historical examples and the work done by Project STEP in California, and on "the changes in educational institutions that are essential to sustaining and expanding the collaborative movement and realizing its benefits." Among those necessary changes, he argues, is the invention of "a new permanent structure within colleges and universities" that can provide sustained motivation for ongoing cooperative programs. (The current effort of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute to create a permanent endowment to support its activities as a recognized unit of the University is one such change now in process.) Gómez also calls for some important revisions in the values and incentives of our institutions of higher education, in order that they may respond more adequately to the problems of our society.

Charles S. Serns probes the reasons behind the relative absence of collaboration on the education scene. Among his points is one that Ernest Boyer develops: elementary schools have been left out in the cold in most of the collaborative dialogue between universities and schools. (We might point again to the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute as one attempt to overcome this problem. Beginning with a focus on high schools, and soon incorporating middle schools, the Institute has been regularly including elementary school teachers since 1990.) Serns also notes that the best elementary school classrooms offer an integrative model of collaboration that deserves attention from all parts of the educational community.

Ernest L. Boyer's piece also looks to both past and present collaborative efforts in order to find clues to the major tasks for the decade ahead. Above all, he says, we must ensure on a national level that "all children will be ready for formal schooling." He also urges that school-college partnerships focus on primary education, and that they return to the central issue of "what we teach."

Lauro F. Cavazos, responding in part to the essay by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley in our inaugural issue, urges that the federal government make it clear that teacher preparation is an important priority. He is especially concerned about the small number of minority teachers now in school systems, and he argues that we must overcome the inadequacy of current training to prepare young teachers to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of inner- city schools.

On this occasion Fred M. Hechinger's regular column also stresses teacher preparation. He urges an expansion of collaboratively- sponsored internships as a replacement for the "student teaching component" of teacher training.

As we were preparing this number of On Common Ground, we learned of the death of Edward J. Meade, Jr., a long-time advocate of teachers, and friend of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. At the Ford Foundation, Ed Meade directed its efforts to improve the professional abilities of teachers. He was head of the urban poverty program from 1977 to 1989. He possessed great regard for individuals who sought his advice and support, admonishing us not to be diverted from our own true purposes. His belief in the power of teaching in public schools lives on, in part, in an endowed Institute in New Haven for which he is responsible, in a significant way. On a memorial page, we include some excerpts from his lecture of 1985 on the task ahead. His comments on needed reforms in teacher preparation, and needed reforms in the schools themselves, in order to make them more stimulating places of learning for both students and teachers, have lost none of their urgency.

Other pieces in this number focus more specifically on current programs and challenges. On the federal level, Therese K. Dozier, herself a former teacher in the schools, reports on the meeting of teachers from across the nation that she convened in Washington to provide advice to the Department of Education. Among other points, she stresses the need for teachers' participation in collaborative planning, for adequate time during the day to allow them to be professional educators, and for the overhauling of teacher preparation programs and staff development.

From the world of business, Thomas Furtado lays out the need for some frank talk among educators and businessmen about what can be done to enable more fruitful and long-term collaboration. Furtado has been especially concerned with the difficulties encountered when businesses and schools seek to go beyond an ad hoc gift of computers and shop equipment. This is a subject about which we'd like to hear more in the future.

And from the university, Antonio Lasaga comments on the opportunities and challenges that are provided by the "information superhighway" and related developments in computer technology. Much has been done in the last few years, but much more remains to be done. Here as elsewhere, our technological capabilities seem to outrun our readiness to make the most effective educational use of them.

The Images: Some Perspectives

The Editorial Board has come to a number of conclusions about the images in this publication. We want them to complement the essays, to be of intrinsic artistic interest, and to suggest further possibilities for incorporating the visual arts into the curriculum. We therefore believe that the images should be thematic, and not narrowly illustrative. We want them to express an array of vantage- points on our topics­historically and stylistically. We think they should represent, over the longe run, the cultural diversity of our nation and our world­and the possibility of building a community from that diversity.

And yet we do not ask of a given image that it conform entirely to our editorial point of view. After all, among the virtues of works of art is their ability to provide vivid testimony to what an artist can see, feel, and think from within a historical or cultural situation. They invite our appreciation­and our interpretation, even criticism. We incorporate them into our lives and our educational projects by noting what they say, and what they don't say, and something of why that should be the case.

That should be evident from Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip, which accompanies Vito Perrone's essay. It provides an eloquent image drawn from the history of American education. It depicts a youthful and, as John Dewey would surely appreciate, playful collaborative endeavor by various talents on a common ground. Learning to pull together, even while sometimes appearing to pull apart, is the task we inherit. And yet a probing look at that image may well leave us unsatisfied with its vision of our task. Though it "celebrates connectedness," in Jules Prown's phrase, it also recognizes and may well accept division and insularity. The "watching girls" that Prown observes are clearly out of the game. What preparation for social roles may be suggested by this separation of passive females from active males? Not one that we would endorse today. And what about racial and ethnic inclusiveness? Homer's painting reflects the narrowness, and the limiting social assumptions, of a New England rural community in 1872. Only through that distorting lens does it offer what Jules Prown calls Homer's vision of "the natural condition of childhood." Here as everywhere, the "natural" is socially conditioned, and we need to recognize that fact without depriving ourselves of a rich heritage of resources.

For just that reason, we find it appropriate to complement Homer's vision of 1872 with Jacob Lawrence's vision of 1978. Lawrence's Library, which accompanies Fred Hechinger's column, also limits itself to a single moment, a single race, a single activity. But it too reaches out to capture something of the energy, diversity, and co- operative spirit of the educational scene. The flatness of this design, with its rather schematic figures, is charged with an extraordinary vitality. Books are all over the place, at all angles. Old and young are finding sustenance. And Lawrence, whose works often pay tribute to manual labor and craftsmanship, has here placed in the foreground, at a compelling angle, those capable hands that bring everything into focus. Something of the breadth of our task will come to mind only as we think of Homer and Lawrence together.

And yet more will come to mind as we think of our two other images, neither of which portrays a human figure. The page from Celia Alvarez Muqoz's Which Came First: Enlightenment #4, which accompanies the essay by Cavazos, combines a photograph of five eggs, a printed statement about childhood difficulties in learning, and a child's handwritten sentence. The larger design is apparently simple; but, thanks in part to that proverbial riddle about the chicken and the egg, it alludes to problems that have to do with the reciprocity of language and learning­and to the role that art may play in their solution. But this is only the first panel in a brief book that tells a more complex and humorous story. Each panel portrays the eggs, continues a printed narrative, and offers another handwritten sentence struggling with the verbs "lie" and "lay." The narrative recalls the childish question, "How does a chicken lie a egg?" "I was always corrected and told, 'A chicken lays an egg through its mouth." The last panel reveals that the previous photographs have given us a "lying" accuracy: when the eggs are lined up before us, they are obviously of different sizes. Early in her career, Celia Muqoz worked for seven years in the El Paso public schools, teaching most of the regular subjectswith a relation to art; and she has produced many of her recent works in collaboration with students.

Peter Halley's acrylic composition, Total Recall, which accompanies the article by Lasaga, is a "simpler" though no less sophisticated design that points toward a technologically complex process of communication: electronic computing. Here an impression of the structure of a computer chip becomes a quiet icon of the circulating and recirculating connections that we associate with the "information society."

We would like to acknowledge with gratitude several people who have assisted the Board in the selection of artwork for this and future issues: Robin J. Frank, Kenneth Haltman, James Weiss, Bryan J. Wolf, and Jules D. Prown. And we would also like to acknowledge that our format in certain respects derives from that of the Carnegie Quarterly. The Editorial Board had reviewed various newsletters and bulletins, and was particularly taken by the attractiveness of the Winter 1993 issue of that Quarterly. More recently, we have received very helpful advice on matters of typography and format from Roland Hoover.

We would also like to acknowledge our very great indebtedness to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, whose support makes this periodical possible.

We should also note that, though the text of On Common Ground is not copyrighted, we cannot make that statement about the images in each issue. The artwork may not be reproduced without permission from the owners cited in "Credits" on page 3.

Join the Conversation!

If you have thoughts about the essays, the images, or the topics more generally, we encourage your responses­either as letters to the editor or as brief statements for submission. We are very much interested in hearing from teachers who have found ways to incorporate our images into their work in the classroom. If you have suggestions for topics to be considered, or artwork to be included, we would welcome them. You may easily reach us by E-mail. Our next few numbers are plotted out very roughly, but we are open to ideas we haven't entertained.

Looking Forward

At its most recent meeting the Editorial Board sharpened and elaborated its plan for the next five numbers of On Common Ground. The major questions to be addressed are these: What contributions can university school partnerships make to teaching and learning about cultural diversity? What changes need to take place in schools and colleges in order to support partnerships, and to enable all teachers to become full partners? How can university-school partnerships proceed in the arts? Can they assist in the task of integrating subject-matters and creating communities? What contributions can such partnerships make to the preparation of students for the world of work? And what contributions can they make, perhaps with the help of business, in the areas of science and technology?

Back to Table of Contents of the Summer 1994 Issue of On Common Ground

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