Areas of current concern
Some reflections (September 2009-January 2010)
I am a life-long academic and intellectual, who has been intensely studying the things that interest me since I was a freshman in college, now to my shock, more than fifty years ago. The university is my home, specifically Columbia. I identify with it first, and secondarily with Teachers College, as the part of Columbia where I work.
Like Columbia, whose name identifies it with "the City of New York," my identity is embedded in this city. If someone asks me what I am, expecting a nationality in reply, I usually respond "a New Yorker," for here I was born and grew up and have lived, excepting a few months or a year or two here and there. When not in New York, I've usually been traveling in Western Europe, which I know better than the rest of the United States. In my Steinberg cartoon, the Hudson is very, very wide and the Atlantic a little creek. This interest in Europe deeply affects the things I know and study.
Throughout, I have been interested in processes of formative education as these operate through institutions and all the rest of life. What I think about education was stated well in an essay I wrote long ago — "Towards a Place for Study in a World of Instruction". Outwardly I fear my career may appear to have meandered, veering from critical scholarship on Western educational and political theory to a practical engagement with the educational uses of digital technologies and then back to critical scholarship again. But one cannot deal with the educational uses of digital technologies without thinking hard about how the theory and practice of education interrelates with politics. Starting in the 1980s, I've written a lot about these possibilities, most fully in two online books, Power and Pedagogy (1992) and The Educators Manifest (1999). To me digital technologies and their uses in the public sphere are simply different aspects of that urge to preserve a place for study in a world of instruction.
Currently, I must confess to some confusion about what I am and should be doing. I don't feel my age and it seems plausible to anticipate one or two decades, perhaps more, of productive activity ahead of me, but I am not at all sure what to do with that remaining energy. I've run the full forty years of the academic career-course and received perhaps more than my due recognition. We are in an era when the fortunate are outliving their career patterns and I feel myself in that situation. I have much that I still want to write and some that I want to teach and many places I want to travel and endless things I still want to read. The perplexity is not that there is nothing to do, but rather there are so many possibilities and I find it puzzling how to put the best of them together into a conclusive program of work for the coming years.
Throughout my career, I have been critical of the way education is usually defined and practiced. We rely too heavily on formal programs of education, exaggerating their causal efficacy while underestimating the constructive role each student plays in his or her own education, both in schools and throughout life. In an essay drafted in 2003, "Thoughts on Graduate Study," I reflected on key effects of formal instruction, K through college, that graduate students may need to unlearn. Then in a short book, I criticized the way universities and schools of education support the advanced study of education — Homeless in the House of Intellect: Formative Justice and Education as an Academic Study (New York: Laboratory for Liberal Learning, 2005). Since then, I have been looking more specifically at problems I see in the way historians of education have directed their research and teaching through two overlapping essays — "On (Not) Defining Education: Reflections on Historical Life and What Educates Therein" and "On (Not) Defining Education: Questions about Historical Life and What Educates Therein."
These essays have been — more or less — in recognizable academic forms. Increasingly, I find those forms troublesome and inadequate. Academic promotion and tenure procedures have pernicious influence on what scholars write, leading to the separation of academia from public life, which possibly connects to the abysmal state of public discourse in our time. Be that as it may, I believe that scholars in my situation can and should experiment with new forms. For me, StudyPlace is the vehicle for my experiments, which currently involve two overlapping, long-term projects — Utopic Studies and Emilia, or, The City as Educator. These can speak for themselves, and I hope others will join in developing them.