Our Continuing Imperative:
Education for Peace and Social Justice
By Vito Perrone
Remarks from Fourth Annual
Dr. Vito Perrone was introduced by Deborah Meier, educational innovator and author of The Power of Their Ideas.
I've known Vito Perrone for more than 25 years. I met him when I was "just" a kindergarten teacher in a Harlem school. We met at a time when the brave and bold work being done by early childhood educators across the country, led by giants such as Vito and Lillian Weber, were confronting another reform movement heading in the opposite direction. This second movement was bent on a return to precisely the bad practices that had caused us to launch the progressive reforms of the '60s. The counter-attack came to us under auspices of the need for more accountability — a very different concept of accountability than Vito and Lillian were championing.
In short, we were being challenged by proponents of standardized testing of five- and six-year-olds as the only fair measure of our work. Sound familiar? Fortunately, the attack was blunted by the outcry from parents in Head Start. But it made its mark. It didn't go away. I've just spent the day watching eleven-year-olds prepare for a test designed to fail most of them — the exam to get into the city's prestigious exam high schools. They're as bad, or perhaps worse, than ever, precisely because they make it harder, not easier, to be accountable to our own communities — the children, their families, and our fellow citizens.
Vito pioneered accountability in the best sense — giving an account of one's work to those whom one served. For the 20 years that I've been at this full-time, my friends and I have been fighting to embed a different picture of the learning human being than the narrow mechanistic picture at the heart of standardization. This different picture rests on acknowledging that our best learning takes place when it is most embedded in meaningful, satisfying, and joyous work where the extraordinary efficiency of the human mind to learn is not ignored, where ignorance is seen as a provocation to learn, not a hole to be filled.
We learn by the company we keep, including the books we read, the authors we are in conversation with. We learn from those we can imagine being with and wanting to be — and in such a setting we are remarkable learners.
It turns out then that it's far more critical to encourage youngsters to enjoy reading than the hard-nosed realists and inventors of rigor have acknowledged. They've often bullied us into shying away from the word "joy" — as though it were a fatal weakness, a romantic fallacy. Joy, they argue, isn't measurable.
We wearily accommodate to the latest fads at our peril. We can hold out only if there are heroes in our midst, like Vito. Vito has some kind of radar for staying the course, for ignoring fads, for sticking to old-fashioned language, for remembering our common history. He reminds me that our ideas are actually based on old verities, and the ones we're so alarmed about are actually the latest version of an old game — the effort to do away with the orneriness of our fellow humans. But our orneriness is our glory. It makes us, in the end, hard to brainwash, hard to permanently subdue. It makes us ultimately human.
This current fascination with trying to make every schoolhouse like every other — replicable reform — will soon pass. Vito's generous confidence in our ability to grow, our openness to change over time, and our toughness in the face of adversity makes it easier to go the course, to dig in for the long haul when necessary. That's how one feels when one leaves his presence — ready to take on tough tasks. That's what has made him such a staunch ally, and someone that I've turned to over and over and over.
Vito was, as tonight's award reminds us, never "just" an American hero, or just a leader of educational reform. He was a leader in many other causes. He was a spokesperson on issues of justice and peace. He saw that a peaceable community could only survive if we learned to cherish each other's strengths and each other's differences. The very qualities of respect for others that make him so special as an educator make him special as a global citizen, as a man of all places and all times.
Vito leads quietly. On occasion one might not notice how firmly he sets the course and how demanding that course is. I'm told that Vito was a wrestler in his youth. At first I found it surprising and then I decided it's where he learned how to fight strategically, sometimes even sneakily; he disarms with his quiet and patience. He diverts our attention as he leads us down a better path.
While there are aspects of Vito that remain private and hidden, the friend and mentor I know is, I suspect, all of a piece, consistent in his demands on us all and on himself. Vito's life itself represents a standard of excellence, a standard by which so many of us in this room measure ourselves.
Our Continuing Imperative: Education for Peace and Social Justice
I come before you as an educator and historian of education concerned about children and young people, their families and teachers, their communities and schools.
At the end of the last century, the newspapers and journals were full of accounts of progress, especially in relation to industry, technology, and commerce. The twentieth century was previewed as a time of peace and social justice. The new century obviously brought accelerated growth in various technologies and industrial output, but in so many of the things that truly mattered, issues of life and death and matters of the human spirit, the twentieth century has been on the other side of what was predicted. The ravages of war and human displacement, of great hunger and human suffering, have been of overwhelmingly unimagined proportions.
While the large and powerful nations have avoided in the past half-century a full-scale military encounter, the surrogate conflagrations and struggles with new nationalisms have been every bit as devastating as the earlier wars and a peaceful world seems far removed from the peoples of Kosovo, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Liberia, the Congo, Losotho, and the Middle East, and I have hardly covered the globe.
Additionally, the social and economic gaps are enlarging: hunger and inadequate medical resources remain a genuine threat for many millions of people, educational opportunity is far away for large numbers, and religious and political freedom and human dignity are not sufficiently the rule. Even in countries like ours, the economic disparities are growing, poverty is a way of life for too many, educational opportunities are far from equal, homelessness is all around us, and hatreds remain potent.
Our need in the years ahead, certainly in the coming century, is to make a break with those habits of mind, beliefs, and actions that have permitted such conditions to exist, that have left us as individuals and societies so impoverished morally, lacking the will and capacity it seems to imagine other, more equitable, more powerful, more generous possibilities.
Nobel Prize recipient and last year's Global Citizen honoree, Oscar Arias, made clear in this particular venue, as well as an earlier Harvard commencement address, that a willingness to take risks is always a prerequisite for change because the conventions, the constancies, are so deeply ingrained. He encouraged us in this regard: "Don't ever fear the risks you will have to take to build a different world ... [because] accomodation with the old world where you see violence and injustice, poverty and submission, offers no reward." I accept this premise for the world as well as for our educational institutions.
How might those of us who care about education, who still believe that we can educate for a more democratic and humane future, think about this? Let's put ourselves in the 1840s in the United States and hear again the evangelizers of the common schools describe these emerging institutions as settings in which "all of America's children could meet, democratic life could be nurtured, strong character built and economic and cultural growth guaranteed."
Listen to Horace Mann: "If we do not prepare children to become good citizens . . . imbue their hearts with the love of truth and duty, and a reverence for all things sacred and holy, then our republic must go down to destruction." We would do well to recapture some of that language, to consider our schools as democratic centers, with students and teachers aiming to make their communities and the world better places in which to live.
I believe with Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican writer and diplomat, when "we say justice, we say development, we say democracy; words won't bring them, but without the words, they will never exist." We need the words more than ever.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries at the turn of the century, John Dewey understood that the Industrial Age was producing changes that demanded an education of greater power, that had embedded in it a stronger moral tone, a more extended sense of citizenship, and greater community consciousness. How, he asked,would the growing excesses of individualism be moderated? How would the dignity of the human person be maintained in an economic system that fostered anonymity, alienation and materialism? We should be asking such questions today. Conditions are not so different.
In Dewey's terms, we need to see education as a critical path to imagination — that distinctively human capacity to envision a world of greater potential. Because the world has been so violent doesn't mean that we can't imagine a world that is at peace, in which nations, like individual families, find ways to reach out to others in need, who see their well-being resting more fully on the well-being of others. We don't have to live all the zero-sum formulations. Moreover, because inequities have existed for so long doesn't mean they can't be moderated, even eliminated. To speak of imagination in these terms is to bring forward Erich Heller's often quoted admonition: "Be careful how you describe the world, it is like that."
I wish also to acknowledge Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, who has provided considerable intellectual inspiration for the work of the Center. As a contemporary of John Dewey, he expressed similarly provocative ideas. As he understood it, schools need to be places that nurture creativity, happiness, cooperation, a oneness of spirit, connected more fully to the world, to "real life activities." Makiguchi noted in relation to these aims: "I have to admit to myself that the results of this line of thinking may not be realized in my lifetime. Nonetheless, I have come to burn more and more with a fever to do something, and the sooner the better." That sense of burning for the better should be within all of us.
He wrote his first transnational, pacifist tract at the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. He was at it again as the militarist government began to mobilize in the 1930s. Faced with a requirement for silence about the dangers of militarist rule and demands for an education supportive of military expansion, Makiguchi chose to resist. His story, which culminated in death in prison in 1944, is inspiring, a symbol of moral courage. We know, by the way, large numbers of names of those who have directed various campaigns of war; we know far fewer of those, such as Makiguchi, who have given over the years voice to peace, to non-violence, to the resolution of conflict. An education for global citizenship and global responsibility should change that circumstance, making the peacemakers at least as important, as recognizable, as the warmakers. That, too, should be one of our imperatives.
The United States is often described as a "microcosm of the world." Mr. Ikeda, by the way, speaks of the U.S. as the "miniature of the world." Early in the next century, the majority of school-age students will come from Hispanic, Asian, African, and African American families. We should be celebrating the rich possibilities of this diversity, relishing our place as the crossroad of the world, where people of many nations are converging. The potential for learning would seem to be enormous. Our task is to make this American house work to the fullest for all who choose to live here. That could be, by the way, our greatest contribution to what is defined as global citizenship.
There are pressures to separate students by perceptions of ability, talent, or gift. Such separations, often called tracking, are a means of perpetuating inequities, pitting students against each other, mostly by race and class — which are the primary determinants of academic groupings in the schools. They also lead us to accept the message of test scores rather than to go beyond them.
What if our children and young people learn to read and write but don't like to and don't? What if they don't read the newspapers and magazines, or can't find beauty in a poem or love story? What if they don't go as adults to artistic events, don't listen to a broad range of music, aren't optimistic about the world and their place in it, don't notice the trees and the sunset, are indifferent to older citizens, don't participate in politics or community life, and are physically and psychologically abusive to themselves? And what if they leave us intolerant, lacking in respect for others who come from different racial and social backgrounds, speak another language, have different ideas or aspirations? Should any of this worry us?
If we focused attention here, much might change. Schools might become places that ensure that children and young people possess the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that will enable them to change the world, to construct on their terms new paths. What if we asked in regard to everything done in our educational institutions, how will this help our students be in a position to change some aspect of the world? Such a focus would raise the stakes greatly. But we don't tend to ask those kinds of questions.
I ask often: Are our children being provided a basis for active participation in the life of their communities? Are they learning the meaning of social responsibility, of citizenship in the broadest sense? Are they gaining ongoing experience in helping make their communities better places to live? Are they adding something important, something lasting to their communities? Are they helping create a genuine commonwealth? When we don't keep such questions firmly in mind, making them a part of the ongoing discourse, schools tend to lose their potential for becoming the centers for inquiry, authority, and change they need to be.
When I think of schools and citizenship, I often go back to the work of Leonard Covello and his Benjamin Franklin Community School in the early part of this century. This New York City public school committed itself to preparing students to be in the world, seeing themselves as genuine stewards, as real citizens. It is not surprising that students at Benjamin Franklin were involved in citizenship training programs, established community libraries, designed and constructed neighborhood parks, worked on housing drives and land use studies, and conducted health surveys. Why isn't that the norm in our current schools?
As we move toward the twenty-first century, I wish we were in a better place socially and educationally. The democratic society we need and desire is not yet with us. There is still too much silence about matters of race and class. The languages and actions of fear and hatred, of self-consciousness and guilt, of privilege and discrimination remain with us, still needing to be better understood, spoken about, moved away from.
Our needs today, as they were at the beginning of the century, continue to rest around matters of equity and more supportive social and economic environments for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientatoin, language, or culture. The democratic society we need and desire is not yet with us. Education is not the whole of our future and the many imperatives that face us, but it is a central element.
What is the likelihood of schools actually serving students, families, and communities at more powerful levels? It is hard not to have a genuine sense of possibility kept alive when faced each day by the students that I am privileged to work with, whose intellectual and moral commitments are so large. When I add to that the many thoughtful teachers I see in our schools, and the parents I meet everywhere who are so devoted to an education filled with power and decency, and the young people I observe in the schools who are so caring and so responsible and crave a genuine education, even as they receive little support from adult society, my optimism soars.
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue