Reading Edmundson and Dintersmith: Tradition vs. Innovation in Education

I recently read two books about education, one right after the other. The books are Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education, by Mark Edmundson (2013), and What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America, by Ted Dintersmith (2018).

Why Teach? is contemplative and personal, while What School Could Be is outwardly-focused with a national scope. There is plenty I can agree with in both books — and a fair amount I am skeptical of — but what struck me the most was how at odds these two authors’ perspectives are. Edmundson and Dintersmith have profoundly differing interpretations of what ails American education, and their visions of what constitutes fulfilling, successful education are diametrically opposed. In the end, I think there’s plenty to learn and reflect on from both books, which just goes to show that when it comes to education, well-meaning and well-informed people can still come to drastically different conclusions.

Edmundson is a professor at the University of Virginia, while Dintersmith is a businessman who also lives in Virginia. (I genuinely wonder if the two men have ever crossed paths.) Edmundson is an ideological liberal with a rather conservative or traditionalist view of effective teaching practice and education’s transformative power. Dintersmith, meanwhile, appears to be a pragmatist on the political center-left who advocates for radical changes across the board to America’s education system. It made me literally laugh out loud while reading as soon as I realized how much the authors would despise each other. At least, I can’t imagine one of the men could sit listening to the other give a book talk without his temper rising.

I’ll start with Edmundson, since I read his book first: Why Teach? is a collection of essays with thoughts on what makes an ideal education, how teachers can foster it, and what some of the barriers are that colleges face in providing it. In essence, Edmundson’s thesis is that American universities have drifted too far from their true purpose of inspiring students and broadening their minds. Colleges have corporatized in competition for funding and students, decision-making power has been drained away from faculty, and the liberal arts have weakened as students increasingly see college as a ticket to financial success, rather than an opportunity to truly reflect on great ideas.

When he discusses teaching, Edmundson emphasizes the role of the teacher as an agent of inspiration, provocation, and change — someone who should resist the pressures to entertain students or give them an easy way out of tough challenges, all to get good ratings on course evaluations. He disdains the nationwide drive to apply technology to everything, observing that it distracts students and prevents them from slowing down to enjoy the challenge of reading a great book and considering the powerful questions it poses. To Edmundson, great teachers are knowledgeable and patient, continuously confronting students with big ideas that will push them to seriously consider their own beliefs and what they will do with their lives.

What School Could Be is quite a different sort of book. Dintersmith traveled the entire United States in the course of one school year, with the primary goal of hearing teachers’ ideas and putting those ideas at the forefront of proposals to change America’s education system. Dintersmith’s essential premise is that for the most part, American schools are stuck in a 19th-century factory model and in need of innovation: He starts the book by describing a conventionally successful high school, where students focus on playing the “game” of school, jumping through the hoops to pass tests, get good grades, and get to a good college without learning meaningful skills that will help them later in life.

Against this context, he begins to highlight all the various innovations he found in hundreds of schools across the country. Many of the ideas, methods, and programs are based on using technology, or transcend traditional conceptions of courses based on academic disciplines or “sage on the stage” expertise-based instruction. To Dintersmith, great teachers are always seeking to create learning environments with “PEAK” (purpose, essentials, agency, and knowledge). Among other things, they do this by making school more relevant to future careers and life after school, they give more power to students in the classroom, and they minimize the pernicious impact of standardized tests on school culture.

There’s one passage in particular from What School Could Be where Dintersmith seems to level a direct challenge to Edmundson’s pedagogy:

If a goal of education is to get students excited about literature’s great works, an essential question is how to spark such passion. Should we require students to read classics and expect fervor to erupt? Make teenagers read King Lear and expect them to love a piece of Shakespeare intended for audiences to see, not read? Or, do we seek to foster a love for language through whatever hook works for a child — Harry Potter, slam poetry, Emily Brontë, or rap? … Far too often, our well-intentioned efforts backfire, and assignments actually turn kids off to the greatness of nature and human accomplishment.

I think Edmunson would push back by noting that children and young adults often don’t know what types of learning might excite them, and it’s often up to teachers to introduce those new ideas, authors, or books—whatever it might be. In one of his Why Teach? essays, Edmundson describes his experience learning from a young, quirky teacher—fresh out of an Ivy League school—who was totally out of place among the rest of the staff at his high school. The teacher had a tough time engaging his students at first, and Edmundson was pretty reluctant to engage with him, but eventually the new thinking the teacher introduced would open up entirely different paths in Edmundson’s life that he may have never found otherwise.

And while Edmundson does think that students can be required to read great works and find spontaneous inspiration, he also wants to foster love of language however possible. In fact, he writes specifically about his appreciation of rap lyrics. Dintersmith admirably places a great deal of emphasis on students having agency in their educations, but there also has to be a role for teachers to introduce students to worlds that they wouldn’t choose for themselves, simply because they don’t know they’re there.

To my mind, the most critical difference between Edmundson and Dintersmith is the wide gap between what they see as the real purpose of the American education system. For Edmundson, education is about edification and intellectual exploration. High schools and colleges fail when they don’t challenge students to learn deeply and authentically, questioning who they are, what they believe, and the meaning of life. Moves toward career preparation in school cheapen academic pursuits and detract from that goal. For Dintersmith, career preparation is exactly what’s lacking in many schools — especially preparation that anticipates what the careers of the future will look like. Schools’ essential problem is that students aren’t being prepared for the future — either their future lives or our technologically-transformed future society.

With such different ideas about the entire purpose of education, it might seem like a difficult task to reconcile anything in these men’s messages. Nevertheless, there are numerous issues where Edmundson and Dintersmith (and I!) can find complete agreement, such as in opposing America’s overreliance on standardized testing. They also both oppose the current state of high-pressure, high-stakes college application culture, and would seem to support more of a holistic portfolio-based application approach. They both implicitly and explicitly question the current STEM fad in education: STEM careers will not shape our nation’s future alone, and students need and deserve the skills and perspectives that the liberal arts provide.

Both authors also strongly question the reasons that so many young Americans are attending college today, although they have very different hopes for change in that regard: Edmundson would rather have all those students still attend college, but with a different attitude and purpose in mind — holistic education, rather than career attainment. Dintersmith, meanwhile, would recommend that fewer students should pursue degrees in the first place, and those degrees should be based in real-world applications rather than traditional academic disciplines.

In spite of all their differences, we should be able to synthesize these two men’s differing visions for education, especially when it comes to primary and secondary schools. (I don’t teach at the university level and it won’t be my focus here.) I think it starts with the proposition that all students are entitled to experience a variety of pedagogical approaches in their K-12 educations that expose them to a broad array of both vocational and academic perspectives. If we all agree (as Edmundson and Dintersmith do) that not everyone in society needs to attend university, then hopefully we should be able to agree that all students should experience some thought-provoking liberal arts courses before they graduate high school.

That liberal arts education doesn’t have to fit into traditional subjects like literature or history; it could easily feature in interdisciplinary or problem-based courses. As much as Edmundson seems to be a traditionalist, I don’t think he would object to this approach: His own career as a professor of English who focuses on works of philosophy and psychology makes him an obvious interdisciplinarian.

Just as the K-12 school system shouldn’t be an assembly line producing college applicants, it also shouldn’t be producing employees for specific career paths. Dintersmith argues convincingly that our education system has a very poor record of being able to change quickly with the times, and schools have no way of anticipating what the careers of the future might be. By the time schools get around to offering coding classes on a widespread basis, for example, the demand for coders will have likely dried up. As a result, educators need to be skill-focused, not career-focused, and every student should be encouraged to develop an array of abilities so they can adapt and find success throughout their lives.

Ultimately, we all want our students to be thoughtful, well-rounded human beings who can survive, thrive, and change the world for the better throughout their lives. I think the only possible way to achieve that is for young people to learn from as wide a variety of teachers and perspectives as possible. We need to innovate, as Dintersmith urges, because students deserve to benefit from great new ideas, and we won’t be able to adapt without them. But we also need to value our past, as Edmundson tells us, because students need to know about great old ideas, and we would be lost without them. I firmly believe that there is great strength in diversity, and the pedagogical approaches we use to help students should build on tried and true traditions as well as unprecented innovations. There can’t be any other way.

Teacher and Academic Decathlon coach from Ketchikan, Alaska—writes about history, language, travel, and education. Lingít sh tuxhaltóow. Twitter: @peterstanton

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