Standards in American education are the current driving force of policy discourse. Standards based education, data driven practice, research driven pedagogy and the like all spill out of the same well of mediocrity. While mediocre results are certainly not intended by those that foster standards as a solution to perceived failures in American public schools, the results of institutionalizing rather good ideas has the result of lowering the bar of expectation and forcing teaching into a routinized rut of compliance with external ideals that accompany standards, often in the form of performance rubrics.
I believe there are lessons to be learned from the work of Bakhtin and Levinas as the idea of standards are (re)examined as No Child Left Behind legislation is reviewed in Congress. While I am not optomistic that political solutions provide important insights into professional problems, I am hopeful that discussions about educational practice and an honest political discourse may have some influence on decision making.
Bakhtin (1993) argued that as an independent self, I am answerable to the other for my actions. Answerability is similar to the idea of responsibility for the other (Levinas, 1969; 1987; 1991; 1997). The difference between Bakhtin and Levinas turns on the to and the for where the to is a guilt driven obligation to act responsibly where the for is a pre-existing obligation to respond, to be response-able when the other is in need. The former is a more-or-less self-centered obligation where the latter is more-or-less self-less in its orientation. The fact, however, is that the distinction does not blur the ethical responsibility of the self to/for the other.
In terms of classroom practice this translates into an obligation of the teacher in the classroom to create authentic and engaging lessons, lessons not driven by theoretical constructs or outside/imposed criteria. To be authentic the classroom approach must have three essential components:
- The lesson must have value to the student beyond the four walls of the classroom.
- The lesson must be academically rigorous so as to challenge but not frustrate the student.
- The product of student work must have an audience beyond the teacher (Newmann, Byrk & Nagoaka, 2001).
By developing authentic lessons, teachers will create engaging classrooms, ones in which rigorous engagement is not replaced by the application of irrelevant standards and obscure theory. The engaged classroom is one that is alive and ethical and one in which there is no alibi (Derrida, 2002). It is only “without guarantees [that] one must directly engage with others and expose oneself to perspectives and feelings different from one’s own” (Morison, 2007).
As standards are currently applied, students are responsible to teachers who are, in turn, responsible to administrators who are, in turn, responsible to school boards who are, in turn, responsible to political agencies or legislative bodies or both who, in the end, are theoretically responsible to those that elect them to office or, through taxes, pay their salaries or both. In the final analysis, there is nobody that takes on the responsibility, in a Levinasian sense, for the students, the ultimate learner. Standards are imposed upon the system of public education from the top as they filter downward toward the ultimate consumer. By the time standards reach the classroom they have undergone an ethical change in the sense that they are now mandates rather than a part of an ethical conversation. Standards in the classroom become dogma not ideas to be subject to critical analysis. I agree with the concept urged by Applebee (1996), that standards guide curriculum only as far as they become conversation starters. Once they become absolute dogma they lose the ability to guide an inspired and engaged classroom practice.
Applebee, A. N. (1996). Curriculum as conversation: Transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1993). Toward a philosophy of the act (V. Liapunov, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Derrida, J. (2002). Without alibi (P. Kamuf, Trans.). Stanford,CA: Stanford University Press.
Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and Infinity: An essay on exteriority (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. (1987). Time and the Other (R. A. Cohen, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. (1991). Wholly otherwise. In R. Bernasconi & S. Critchley (Eds.), Re-readingLevinas (pp. 3-10). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Levinas, E. (1997). Otherwise than being or beyond essence (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Morson, G. S. (2007). Bakhtin and the teaching of literature. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 350-357.
Newmann, F. M., Byrk, A. S., & Nagaoka, J. K. (2001). Authentic intellectual work and standardized tests: Conflict or coexistence (Special Report Series). Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.