Winston, Education Leader, US
Winston in an Education Leader working at the intersection of education, philosophy, and social justice. He was interviewed for our Education Leaders series by our Co-Founder, Nicole. He is a new father to a 4.5-month old son, Elliot.
Well, the first question we start out with is this: If you could think about a child that you care about a lot, and just tell me a little bit about that child and what makes them special.
So, Elliot is my 4.5-month-old son, and he’s special for all of the reasons that I think a child is special to his parent. But he’s also especially special to me as I’ve gotten to know him over the course of these last few months. His personality has really kind of caught me off guard for being such a young child and being so fully himself at such a young age, in my mind, seems like such a young age. It’s really caused me to--it’s brought me up short almost. Every morning with him, every evening with him is a surprise because I just get to understand him more and learn more about him. I consider it a real honor to be one of his parents, in his case the only father that he has. And I take that really seriously.
That’s beautiful. And it’s crazy how at 4.5 months you can start to see a personality. Can you tell me a little bit more about what kind of personality you’re starting to see?
There’s a real curiosity in him, which is likely the case for many children. There are moments where I catch myself, or rather him, in what seems to be a cognitive state. It’s possible that I’m reading into him characteristics and traits that I appreciate in myself and in others, but it seems obviously true to me that there are moments in which he is looking around a room, looking from person to person, right? Which is a thing that really caught me off guard—the degree to which he can focus on persons and seems to be evaluating, weighing, considering, trying to understand what’s going on, the dynamics of the room. So, the first thing that I’ll say is that he’s a curious child.
And then I should also say he’s also a very joyful child. He is, again, at 4.5 months, just so sweet and social in meeting strangers. All someone has to do is make eye contact with him, or even not make eye contact with him because sometimes I have him strapped on my chest and he’s just peering out trying to make eye contact with people, but the moment someone makes eye contact with him he makes this smile—this kind of bashful smile. And then he looks away, and then looks back again. So, there’s a real desire to be social and to engage. That coupled with his curiosity results, in my mind, in a present sense of joy in the experience of being among others.
I love that. When you think about Elliot, let’s say he’s in his 30s and into his adult life. Which, maybe not since some of us are still students at 30 and not into their adult life (laughs). So, when he is into his adult life, what is it that you hope for him? What would make it a good life?
There are a couple of different ways that I would answer that: externally and internally. I think, you know, given the political circumstances there are a lot of things that are front and foremost in my mind. I certainly want him to live in a community of people that care about one another, and evidence that they care through pro-social policies and practices, interactions that constitute what I would consider “neighborliness” or good citizenship. So, that’s kind of the backdrop of the kind of world I would want him to live in: A world that cares about the very least advantaged and attempts to act positively to bringing about a more socially just future. I think it’s unrealistic for me to want him to live in a full-on, socially just utopia in 30 years, but I do want him to live in a world that’s trying to create some version of that in ways that I perhaps can’t even anticipate now. If I think 30 years ago, there are ways that my parents could not have anticipated the sorts of social justice concerns that I would be taken with. I hope the same would be for him, such that he would exist in a world that’s pushing those boundaries in good ways.
Internally, I would desire for him to be committed to first, moral and ethical action. I take that as perhaps the foundation of what I would want for him in his interactions with the world and with himself. As a characteristic, I’d want him to be a person who takes seriously his obligations to others and to himself. I would also like him to be person who finds a sense of fulfillment in the activities that he’s committed himself to. Now, I say fulfillment there because although I certainly want him to be happy, I think that happiness could be in some cases too low of a standard. I think happiness is a thing that people experience in moments, often times. But being fulfilled—fulfillment in the type of activities he’s committed himself to—more fully captures what I want for him. That he’s participating in the world in a way that he can really endorse.
Do you think that what you want from him in his adult life is different than what you would want for him in his childhood?
I think it’s probably different in a matter of degree and sort of role in that process. So, I mentioned about his existence in a society that seems to be iterating towards greater social justice. I think as a younger person, I certainly want him to participate in that, and I want him to have the space to make mistakes in that process. I don’t have an expectation that in a year from now, two years from now, that he will be fully formed as a person who marches towards progress with a single-minded vision of what that looks like.
I want his childhood to be exploratory, I want him to have the space to make mistakes and to feel—and this may seem off to some people—but to feel the pain in making mistakes. The pain that he might feel in making mistakes, relative to how he treats people or how he thinks things ought to unfold, I think that pain is productive, not a bad thing for him. So, I want him to experience that pain as a child more than I want him to experience that pain as an adult because as an adult, the pain of failure in interacting with one’s fellow citizens is a different kind of thing. It can be instrumentally useful for moving us towards a better account of what we want from one another in regards of what we want out our interactions with one another. But, I would hope that he experiences more of that necessary pain as a child and that the pain becomes productive for him to being a more generous and empathetic adult.
Is there anything that you worry about, getting in the way of him achieving that good life? Anything that keeps you up at night?
Yeah, definitely. Again, I’ll just mention the current political climate and just say that I’m worried after the 2016 election results. Right now, in our conversation, this is still very fresh—about a week ago. I’m worried about what sorts of ideas and values might be swirling around above the surface. I think that these ideas swirling around at the moment existed below the surface to a certain extent, but it seems now that folks might be emboldened by the recent election to be a little more visible in the promotion of certain types of values that I would object to strongly. I’m worried about how I can protect him from the effects of some of this—so, Elliot is a child of color, he is a multi-racial child, he is a child who was born abroad, he has dual citizenship, he is going to grow up in a multi-lingual household. So, there are all sorts of things that might mark him as “other” or different to some of the folks that he might be around as a child. My hope is that he doesn’t find the experiences of being marked “other” in those ways as potentially harmful and destructive—and this is beyond the pedagogically painful that I mentioned before—in the ways that it seems that this nation may be gearing up to treat persons marked as “other.”
I would add to that as well. To the degree that I know things about him now: There are also many things that I don’t know as well. I don’t know what his gender identity will be, I don’t know his sexual orientation, you know there are all sorts of ways that I could imagine that he would be marked as “other” in addition to the ways I just mentioned. So, there’s a large bucket of worries and concerns that exist for me when I think about his future as a child in this country.
Now, when you think about what you said a good life would be: you mentioned socially just community, a commitment to moral and ethical action, fulfillment, no fear of failure. In the ideal world, what role do you think schooling should play in achieving that good life?
Yeah, so that’s a big question. I think of it often, and my answer changes regularly. But, I’ll just start with the last thing I said about failure: I think that schools, to my mind, don’t do a very good job with teaching people how to fail well. Now, the schools I’m most familiar with—now there might be some schools that do this with a degree of intentionality that I have overlooked or haven’t been exposed to—but for the most part, I think that schools don’t do a good job of teaching people that failure is a necessary part of life. There are things that you try and do, and fail, and that’s ok. Failure can be constrictive and the pain of that failure can be instrumentally valuable. And so, in an ideally just society or in the ideal version of school, it would be a school that teach people how to fail as a valuable, internal characteristic or skill.
I think the ideal school would do a better job of teaching people about the features of social life that catch h many folks off guard in this society. So, thinking now about gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, etc. Some schools are doing a better job of this than some others in making this an explicitly part of their curricular focus, but by and large, most schools see themselves as being to some degree apolitical. And as a result, think that they are providing a neutral account of the world and leaving space for children and their families to fill in some of the gaps about which there are some controversy, perhaps. But, I don’t think that’s the ideal approach. I think that controversy should be courted. It should be present in the curriculum to the extent there is real controversy about the topics. And perhaps we might find that there's actually less controversy than we think there is.
There are a lot of good reasons to think that schools should focus on a lot of these features of social life—they just to my mind, don’t. Speaking to a little bit more about what I said about painful experiences, I think schools would do well to not only prepare kids to deal with failure but also things like death, right? Death is a factor of the world and I’m often surprised with the degree to which schools, and adults relative to children, try to guard children, try to hide the fact of death. I just use that as an example of the sorts of things that are often off the table when interacting with children that I think children are far more resilient than we take them to be, often times, and would do well integrating with ideas that may seem dangerous, controversial, painful, etc. without being destroyed by those ideas or losing some innate innocence, purity, or goodness that we imagine they might possess.
When you spoke about a “socially just community,” what do you think the role of school is in creating this type of community?
Yeah, so this is something I’ve been thinking about a bit. On the one hand, I could imagine that there are many folks that think that endorse the account I just gave: When I said that many people think schools should be a neutral ground where people can just learn facts about the world, and just pursue whatever values they might have—comprehensive values that motivate the person in a way that they might not expect everyone in the society to agree with. I think that it’s actually the case that, to the degree that we agree with one another, that there are certain traits that we want our children to possess relative to study. So, when we’re in a school setting we think that we want our children to be good critical thinkers, to be able to read a text and figure out what its saying, hear statistics that point to one direction, and even challenge those statistics and figure out the truth about the matter so they’re not deceived about whatever was most recently presented to them as fact.
So, in my mind, if those are traits that we generally agree with as the traits we want to encourage in a good schooling environments, then we might have good reason to teach those traits not only in reference to the material learned in school, but also in reference to the ways that we are expecting young people—and then adults, or citizens—to interact with one another. Being open to new ideas: it’s a thing that we think is valuable when you’re studying a text, so you’re not entering the new course thinking that you know anything. You’re receptive to new ideas. Well, I think that people should be receptive to new ideas that challenge their own values or beliefs. That’s a way in which these “scholarly virtues” in the act of study are also good virtues we would want people to have when interacting with their fellow citizens. An unwillingness to be dogmatic, to think that we’ve settled upon the “right” reason, forever and always, right? We don’t want students to do that. We want students to be considering new information, assessing it, taking it seriously. And I think that if we encourage students to do that in their interactions with others, it’s almost inevitable that we will find ourselves iterating towards that more just society. And I don’t think that turns the school into some sort of ideological, institution of indoctrination; rather, it gives students the ability to see the course material well, but also to see one another well. And I think that moves us forward towards that vision of social justice that I laid out earlier.
That’s what I like to think too. You put it into beautiful words, but that’s what I like to think as well. We started get into this, but do you think that schools will play the role you think they should for Elliot?
I’m not sure. This is a thing my spouse and I have been talking about for a while now. So, I think that it’s possible that we have the resources—financial, cultural, intellectual—such that we could place Elliot in schooling environments that would do a much better job of this than some other schooling environments. But, I think that we also have a social outlook that makes us very uncomfortable with the idea of prioritizing certain ways of instructing our child, recognizing that other children might not be receiving that. And so, there’s a sense in which out desires to pursue what’s best for Elliot may make us complacent in a larger system that I would define as morally problematic, and so again, he’s 4.5 months old, so some of these decisions are a little way off. But I think that these are some of the questions that we are wrestling with.
If, for instance, there is a private school that we think does a really good job of some of these issues I’ve mentioned, how comfortable would we be placing Elliot in that private school, knowing that by so doing, the public school might continue to be under-resourced in certain ways. We’re contributing to a certain type of selection process that leaves public schools by the wayside and then also has a deleterious effect on the students, the young people and their parents who don’t have the resources to move to other locations. And then I also think about how pursuing certain types of schooling settings for Elliot might inflate him from the very types of experiences that I want him to have with people who might not be very much like himself relative to the certain social advantages he might have.
So, the question is a very difficult one for me to answer. It’s possible that some schools might allow him to have some of the experiences that I’m envisioning. But I think that we also have good reason to place him in schools that might not do a very good job of that because of some of these larger social concerns.
Why do you think schools aren’t currently doing this?
I think there are historical and economic reasons. Historical reasons, just looking at the history of education in this country the story of education in this country has been a story of shifts in access. So, education is for people of privilege on the one hand, but it’s also meant to be for us all on the other hand. There’s a tension between these two commitments that result in differences in the quality of education that certain people receive and the way in which those differences get justified, which speaks to issues of power and privileges. So, I think public schools are under-resourced and that most of the folks that are in positions to address that fact find that there are many systems in place that encourage them to exert their efforts and their energies to perpetuate the system, rather than fix the problem in those instances.
Have you read David Labaree’s book?
Oh yeah, sure.
I was going to say, this sounds familiar!
That’s right, yeah!
So, when you think about the three levels of questions that I asked: What a good life is, the role of school, and why schools may not be currently doing this—Do you think that people agree with you on each of these levels?
I think upon reflection, most people would agree on the shape of the account of the good life that I put forward; although, I think many people would assert other pieces of that story. Like, I didn’t say I want Elliot to be economically well-off. That could be important, but I don’t think that’s necessary. And so, I think we exist in a culture with the perception of scarcity, so that many people, in thinking about children that they care about, are in a reactive mode. So, they think, “Ok, I need to make sure that they have enough. They might not have enough, but I have to make sure that they have more than someone else.” And I think that perpetuates a dangerous cycle of thinking that can result in conclusions that they might not have wished otherwise wished to endorse.
On the other level about school, I think that many people would disagree with me about the role schools ought to play in preparing children for life lived with others, being comfortable with failing, having this fearlessness about engaging with new ideas and new people, etc. People, again given this culture with the perception of scarcity, see schools as a place for providing economic benefits. This is mirrored in the language that is often invoked when people are speaking about education in political contexts in the national stage. You know, it’s about the market and the way that education is going to play into the market, preparing people for jobs, etc. I think that there’s a tendency among some to look towards the past in this country and to suggest that there used to be a more pro-social and pro-civic aspect of schooling: Schools were about preparing people for life lived amongst others. And there’s a large degree of truth there, but I would also add that at the time this was the popular publicly-spoken reason for educating people, the limits of who could participate in politics, who we really thought of as being “fellow citizens” was more narrow. So, I would argue that even back at that time, schools were perceived as being about maintaining a certain type of advantage relative to others. Then it was a bit more implicit, and now it’s more explicit. Although, in the explicit articulation its presented for being “good for us all.” If we’re all sort of selfish in the right kind of ways, everyone’s life will improve, the tide raises all boats. That’s how many people in this country perceive education.
So, on the last question about why schools don’t do a better job of realizing that vision, many people would then critique the school only in so far as the school does or does not result in economic gain. The school becomes this motor, or engine, of the economy such that it’s an easy scapegoat for many people. We can point fingers at the schools or the teachers and say: “They’ve done a poor job. And we know that they’ve done a poor job because we don’t have the workers that we need, or our economy is not performing the ways we expect it to. Or we predict that it won’t because we’re seeing these or those scores on standardized tests.” In my mind, that misses the more human elements of the good of schools and of education more broadly.
Yes, if we were face-to-face you would see me furiously nodding in agreement. You hit what we’re doing right on the head. So, now to back it up and zoom out from the individual of talking about Elliot…can you tell me why you think we have schools as a society?
So, if I understand your question correctly, I think we have schools as a society for a couple different reasons. One, we think there is too much in the world that a person should learn that could not just happen incidentally. You know, maybe if the world were simpler or if there were less to take in, we would expect a child shadowing their parents would pick it all up in the course of a few years. But it seems that we take the information out there and the certain dispositions and skills to operate as a productive—and I don’t mean economically, but productive in the sense of moving towards some goal—in order to be productive in that activity we may need to organization information, or lessons, etc. So, that’s the educational reason for the institution.
Then there’s also, of course, some economic reasons for the institution. Children can go to the school, and then their parents can be workers during the schooling hours—they’re unencumbered in some sense because their children are elsewhere. So, I think that’s a bit of the reasons we have education take place in schools rather than taking place in some less-focused, geographically-focused institution.
Now, I’d like to talk a little about your connection—the work that you’re doing and how that connects to the conversation that we’ve been having. So, given your understanding of the purpose or problem of school, how is your organization working to solve these problems?
So, the work that I’m doing is really trying to get a handle on what the obligations of education might be. We certainly have language that allows us to understand the different obligations we have. There are folks that do quite good work that has resulted in the public understanding of their legal obligations. We understand medical ethics, bioethics, etc.; so, there are all sorts of categories that people use to make sense of their obligations. But to my mind, when we end up talking about education, we talk about political obligations that we might have and we sort of tack educational issues onto those political projects. And, I think it’s important to note the role that education plays in those political projects, but I also want to think about the way we might have educational obligations that don’t emanate from our political obligations.
As I mentioned before, we might have an obligation to resist the dogmatic acceptance of a previously-accepted truth, right? That might be a pedagogical or educational obligation: To be changed and transformed by the object of our study. And that may actually not be something we have as a political obligation, but the educational obligation may give us a new dimension as to our political engagement with one another as an educational experience. And that, to my mind, might support certain types of political projects but it might not do so on the grounds that we have them as political obligations. Doing that work allows us to look at some of those questions we’ve been talking about this morning: The role of education, what education is all about. And then seeing how that plays out in schools, because schools are one institution of education but it’s not the case that all or even most education takes place in schools. Education is something that permeates the lives that we live, in multiple arenas. And so, my hope in the work that I’m doing and the scholarship that I’m conducting, that I can put forward a set of ideas and concepts that allow us to have richer discussions about the very nature of education and how those rich concepts might give us a fuller sense of what schools do or might wish to do.
But then, in my teaching, I teach primarily students who wish to be or are currently educators. My hope in my teaching is that I can bring my students into a deeper understanding to the complexity and moral subtly in the act of education. It’s not an exaggeration to say that many of my students see education as a straight-forward process, right? You go to the school, you teach the curriculum, you go home and grade some homework, then you rinse and repeat. My hope is that in my teaching I can encourage them to see a richness, depth of that work that might help them see the value of what they’re doing and expand the limits that they expect to exist on those activities.
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