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Cowan Center For Education

Newsletter Summer 2013 • Volume II, Issue III

From the Cowan Center Director Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Inside the book: Bad Teaching Send in the Clouds “Sitting Thoughtful in His Own Room”: Mr. Gradgrind as Belated Teacher Stepan and Schoolteacher: Too Much and Too Little Timeless Paradigms Prometheus: the First Teacher The Teacher as Mentor: the Storied Life The Mwindo Epic: Educating Heroes Teaching the Teacher: Three Dantean Moments The Teacher “Active Love”: Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov Ishmael’s Sabbatical Faulkner’s Sam Fathers: Teaching the Skills, Revealing the Archetypes The Sage The Tempest and the Prospect of Education

Pre-Order Your Copy: These pre-ordered books will be available at the Education Forum, September 6-7, 2013. We thank Kathy King for the many photos she has taken for the Dallas Institute.

A few months ago, after an extended study of Dr. Donald Cowan’s educational philosophy, a public school administrator told me that for the first time he saw clearly the difference between Dr. Cowan’s theory and the “reforms” that rage across the nation. “These are truths that will endure,” he said, stabbing at the chapter we were discussing, “while we in the system know, in general, that the changes that revolvingdoor administrators seek to implement are really nothing more than agendas.” I’ve heard countless educators voice similar concerns, and my own experience as a teacher and administrator bears out this conviction. We always want to concentrate on the work that the Cowan Center does, but I find that in spite of the successes of the programs, we continue to struggle to do the work in the face of considerable opposition. I’m reminded of this every time I hear a teacher say that her supervisors have told her that her intellectual development is of no interest to them (something I heard last week). It is compounded by the insult done to principals and superintendents in a system that not only does not honor them for thinking philosophically about their work as leaders but that actually discourages them from doing so. I’m reminded now of lines from Marvell’s “Coy Mistress” poem—”But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot drawing near.” Given the achievements of 30 years of programming that has left thousands of professional educators, like me, utterly transformed, and in light of “Time’s winged chariot drawing near,” it’s time to proclaim what we at the Dallas Institute have

and know about education and to speak out about it. To get us started in this issue, the feature article is one written by Dr. Donald Cowan in the early 1990s. It is not too much to say that things would be different in education across the country if his voice had been heeded. July 8 begins our 30th Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers! School teachers from all levels and disciplines will gather with faculty to study Tragedy and Comedy through the lens of Dr. Louise Cowan’s literary genre theory. On September 6-7, our Education Forum will provide the opportunity for educators and citizens to explore the question “What is a teacher?” Book contributors will be featured speakers and the new book will be introduced. Teachers are the “soul” of education and we must remember together their purpose and their true work. Join us! In closing, and in profound gratitude as we draw near this landmark Summer Institute, I want to extend a special thank you to some of our supporters whose continued generosity has made possible the ongoing work of the Dallas Institute and its Cowan Center programs: Kim Hiett Jordan, Deedie and Rusty Rose, Joanne Stroud, Margaret McDermott, Nancy Cain Marcus, Betty and Gerry Regard, Gail and Bob Thomas, Betty and Russell Bellamy, Kim and Brian Williams, the Sapphire Foundation (Kate and Dana Juett), Emy Lou and Jerry Baldridge, Joy and Ron Mankoff, Laura Baldwin, and the Dallas Shakespeare Club. And with thanks to all who are with us in this work, Claudia Allums

To read the Cowan Center Newsletter online, go to the Cowan Center page under “Programs” on the Dallas Institute website:

Did you know?

Enduring Truths for Education Spotlight on Dr. Donald Cowan

Texans have a wonderful capacity for having big ideas, and Dallasites are among the best in this regard. Dallas’ epic spirit, as Dr. Louise Cowan has described it, makes this the city to try bold new things. However, not every idea is a good one, even if well-intentioned. Among the “bold” ideas in Dallas in the 1980s were business-model educational reforms that were developed in response to A Nation At Risk, the document that proclaimed the deterioration of the quality of the nation’s public schools. In the 1990s, a Dallas-based Commission expanded these ideas by codifiying “high-stakes” testing and the accountability system that is required to support it. In effect, then, the national standardized testing and accountability movement as we know them were born in Dallas. All of this has come full circle, as Dallas Morning News reporter Jeffrey Weiss explained in his article on June 16, 2013: “For almost 30 years, the Texas Legislature had been the point of the spear in a national movement linking increasingly high-stakes tests to school accountability. This past session, the spear thrust in a dramatically different direction.” The “different direction” reduced the number of required standardized tests and formally registered general concern about the efficacy of the entire accountability movement. The Dallas Institute spoke out against these reforms from the beginning. In the early 1990s, Dallas Institute founders and directors—Drs. Louise and Donald Cowan, Dr. Dona Gower, Dr. Dan Russ, and Dr. Gail Thomas—met with key constituents of this Commission and urged “extreme caution” about implementation. In the document below, Donald Cowan articulates his concerns and the concerns of his colleagues at the Dallas Institute. Educators today will be haunted by his prescience, for having correctly assessed the impact of these reforms, however extreme his 2

cautions appeared to their proponents back then. It is not too strong to say—and perhaps now it finally needs to be insisted—that things would be different in education if these reformers had heeded Donald Cowan. It’s not too late, if we will only hear him now.

From Dr. Donald Cowan: “The imminence of the report of the Commission on Excellence in Education stirs us to set forth some reasons why we at the Dallas Institute consider the plan as we understand it to be not only ineffective but damaging. We would prefer to wait for the release of the full report so that our response could be moderated if warranted or at least appear

The Dallas Institute spoke out against these reforms from the beginning. more judicious if not. But it seems likely now that the release of the report will be accompanied with so much momentum that injudicious commitments might hastily be made. Our qualifications to comment may be well known but are worth a brief review. Not only have several of us at the Dallas Institute spent a lifetime in various levels of education, but the Dallas Institute, since its inception, has worked directly with public schools. For the past eight years, several hundred teachers have participated in intensive monthlong, all-day seminars at the Dallas Institute. Last summer [1990], twothirds of all the DISD principals had a like experience with us of two weeks duration. To our admitted surprise, we found them to be intelligent, competent, and highly responsive. In two weeks of exhaustive study of difficult works together, a mutual admiration grew up between us. What we have seen of principals and

teachers belies the widespread notion that our system is shot through with ‘poor principals and poor teachers,’ as our journalists inform us. Whatever the failure of our schools may be, the fault lies elsewhere. Some teachers may teach poorly because of rigid regulations, restrictions, or moraleshattering circumstance; or even because their own powers have not been fully awakened. But inherently poor teachers? We have not seen them. This admiration we have discovered for principals and teachers, however, is not the basis for our alarm at what is rumored to be the thrust of the forthcoming report of the Commission. It is more fundamental. Each of the three tenets on which the plan rests—incentives, accountability, site-basedmanagement—are based on misconceptions of the educational enterprise: 1) Incentives are based on the supposition that teachers could do a better job of instruction now if they would try harder; further, that they would try harder if by doing so they could win a monetary prize. Neither count is valid, as recent studies have indicated and a little reflection would tell us. Teaching is a calling more than it is a profession; not only duty, then, but desire urges teachers to perform to the best of their abilities. True, a teacher enjoys an honor, as any one does, but the glow fades quickly. The only reward that lasts is the awareness that a student has learned something important because of the efforts of the teacher. It is an easy supposition to make that this awareness occurs only in superior teachers. But the experience at the Dallas Institute with hundreds of teachers indicates that it is a general characteristic of the profession. The Commission's plan apparently would avoid the common fault of pitting one teacher against another by not awarding individual honors but only a collective one to the faculty as a whole, with the spoils distributed among the members. But even so, district-wide there would be many more losers than winners and therefore much more blame to distribute than glory. The idea of incentives is demeaning professionally, and faculty members are sharp enough to discern the insult. The Commission should quickly abandon the idea

and seek to find more effective ways of improving faculty morale. 2) Accountability is much more the villain of the piece than it is the hero that will rescue the fair damsel. State-wide and district-wide testing has badly skewed teaching methods and curricula; the result has been a lowering of scores rather than an elevation. The few principals who have discreetly instructed their faculties to ignore preparation designed toward tests (except for a brief explanation of mechanics) have seen dramatic rises in student scores. The misuse of a measuring device, of course, does not itself void its legitimacy. Testing is an important instructional component. But the very concept of ‘accountability’ is so complex that it deserves a searching exploration before being employed for any substantive use. The question of accountability is directed to whom?—and for what? The more profound question concerns the purposes of schooling and must be answered before accountability is considered. The purpose of schooling generally is the preparation of citizens for a future good society. Toward that end, the school is responsible for preparing a curriculum that will advance these future citizens in understanding, segment by segment, the web of imagination that interconnects phenomena and ideas. The enabling skills and information are subsidiary to this understanding. This responsibility devolves to the classroom where a teacher is responsible for so organizing material that each student's imagination is laid open by an internal act of understanding. The habit of life-long learning is thereby practiced and elevated to higher levels of consciousness, class by class. These responsibilities of teachers and principal are clearly assigned and freely accepted. Responsibility drives the enterprise and guides it. Because the situation of instruction is always different, student by student, class by class, year by year, a teacher is in a constant process of evaluation, in the light of the accepted responsibility. Is this class as far along as it should be at this stage? This student? What misconceptions are present and how did they come about? How can I clarify them? Am I missing something in teaching this

class? This sort of introspective selfanalysis is so habitual to teachers that it largely goes unnoticed. Yet it lies at the center of the responsibility they have accepted. The validity of any test is judged by how closely it corresponds to the evaluations already made in a non-measurable fashion. The same relation holds not only for teachers but for the public at large. We know something is wrong with education; if tests showed otherwise, we would devise new tests. But if we know something is wrong, all the tests in the world will not fix it. In manufacturing, if a part consistently fails inspection, we do not bash the machinist—nor hire stricter inspectors. We fix the wobbly lathe. More pertinently, with technology we reconceive the apparatus according to its use. Accountability is after the operation; purpose is before. And the op-

Accountability is much more the villain of the piece than it is the hero that will rescue the fair damsel. erating directive is responsibility.

Accountability should never affect purpose or guide operation; evaluation does. Basic to the concept of accountability as it is currently understood is the conviction that teachers are not competent to make evaluative judgments, and that principals are not competent to recognize this incompetence of their teachers—and, further, that this multiple incompetence is the general condition in schools of the district. Therefore, some ‘objective’ outside measure is needed. The public and journalists blandly

the purpose of schooling is the determination of who should go to college, then a certain sort of test is called for—but the colleges do that (or use the SAT/ACT). If the purpose is certification of skills for the economic world, then a different test applies, but the responsibility lies with the personnel officer of a business. Accountability does not enter in either case. If the purpose is the formation of good citizens, then the school board is indeed accountable to the public—through the ballot box. It would seem absurd for the board to accept the superintendent's ‘Trust me,’ for the superintendent to accept the principals' ‘Trust me,’ and for the principals to accept the teachers' ‘Trust me.’ Yet, on just such an absurdity the system works. Where trust is absent, the system flounders. Let us admit that the innate curiosity we all have demands an annual test. But not in the remotest sense should it guide operations. There are better ways of evaluating than accountability. 3) Site-based-management has the advantage of guaranteeing independence of the individual school. But, in its radical sense, it also has the disadvantages of small entrepreneurship—notably short-lived in the economic world. It is freedom within the system, not from the system that is desirable. The system isolates the school from politics, solves the fiscal problems, and is capable of great support without undue interference. If the term is so used in the forthcoming report, then it is highly warranted. If not, it could lead to chaos and should be reconsidered. It may well be that the report of the Commission on Excellence in Education has anticipated all the evils here outlined and has successfully avoided them. It seems unlikely. Therefore extreme caution is needed in implementing proposals. The report should be studied for its good features and referred back to the same committee for revision.” Dr. Cowan was a physicist, President of the University of Dallas, and Founding Fellow of the Dallas Institute. His Unbinding Prometheus: Education for the Coming Age outlines an educational philosophy that many believe to be the foundation for a viable educational system. 3

The Summer Institutes Come Full Circle On June 17-21, 2013, an event anticipated by school teachers for almost thirty years occurred. Twentyseven alumni of the Tragedy/ Comedy and Epic Tradition Sue Rose Summer Institutes for Teachers— including one teacher from the very first classes of 1984-85—gathered at the Dallas Institute to pilot a program in which we completed the circle of poetic “kinds.” For those unfamiliar with it, Dr. Louise Cowan’s “genre wheel” has guided and enlarged the intellectual journeys of thousands of Pre-K-12 school teachers, principals and campus administrators, and superintendents at the Dallas Institute for thirty years. The diagram pictured below is not so the reader can read it (a pos-

theory, the “memory implied within the lyric contains the seeds of all poetic kinds,” that is, lyric is the origin of language and human expression. For their generous support that helped make this program possible, we thank Deborah and Gary Bieritz, Kathryne and Gene Bishop, Kate Beutel, Danielle and Gus Gonzalez, Leslie Kreis, and Nancy Perot.

Here is what participants said: “This week has awakened me, broadened me, prepared me. I’m better equipped and more eager to get back into the classroom.” Senior English Teacher “The recitations had the full range of human experience, and I felt for a moment that we—as a group in that space alone outside of time— penetrated a realm higher than ourselves. I want to say thank you for having the courage to guide us on the lyric journey. More than any other summer, this has resonated deep within me.” HS History/Geography Teacher “There is no place so sacred where love of what is good for its own sake is shared, honored, loved, fostered.” High School English Teacher

sibility in the digital format of this Newsletter), but in order to communicate the shape of Dr. Cowan’s literary theory that makes it appropriate to say “completed the circle” and mean it, literally and figuratively. The Lyric Tradition I class—the fourth and final program of the Sue Rose Summer Institutes for Teachers—met for the first time this year, the 30th anniversary of the summer seminar that seeded a Center for Education. This two-summer class will convene each June for alumni of both of the other two Summer Institutes. In these classes, we will survey the features of the major movements of lyric poetry from ancient times to contemporary verse. Once again, Dr. Cowan’s literary theory provided a sturdy frame on which to scale the complexities and fullness of human language and experience. According to Dr. Cowan’s 4

“This week has been exhilarating and exhausting. Studying lyric poetry at this level is totally new for me, and yet the challenge of it all keeps me learning!” Pre-Kindergarten Teacher “As always, being a part of a Summer Institute elevates a teacher to a higher place. I felt nurtured—I felt like a true professional—and I was able to enjoy the works piece by piece, slowly, as a ‘spacious place.’” 9-11 ESL Teacher “The Summer Institute communities restore my faith in the dedication and genius in the teaching professionals in the Dallas area. This is a gathering place for people who believe, with all their hearts, that their jobs are vital to civilization.” High School English Teacher

Cowan Center Newsletter - Volume II, Issue III  

This issue of the Cowan Center Newsletter features an article written by Dr. Donald Cowan in the 1990's to speak out against education refor...

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