"A good teacher helps students to understand that controversy is the lifeblood of democracy, to learn how to inquire into past and current controversial issues that are meaningful to them, and to participate in public life." ― Alan Shapiro
Alan Shapiro was a teacher, poet, education activist – and cofounder of Morningside Center's TeachableMoment website. Alan was also the quintessential educator for social responsibility. After a lifetime of teaching, learning, writing and action, he spent the last ten years of his life, until his death in January 2011, producing hundreds of in-depth, inquiry-oriented lessons on current issues to share with educators through TeachableMoment.
In this area of TeachableMoment, we offer a glimpse of Alan’s bracing vision of education, which we aim to keep alive through our work.
Alan's Key Essays & Teaching Ideas
Alan Shapiro's vision of education
by Tom Roderick
Alan joined with a small group of educators back in 1982 to found ESR Metro – now called Morningside Center. At that time the U.S. and Soviet Union were engaged in what came to be known as a nuclear arms race – an absurd competition to see which country could build the most effective weapons for ending life on earth. The aims of ESR Metro were to mobilize educators to protest this arms race and to educate a new generation of young people to become informed and active citizens.
As a founding board member – in fact, president of the board – Alan did all the things you do when you start an organization: make dozens of phone calls, collect membership dues, put out a newsletter, and attend meetings, meetings, meetings. But Alan did much more than this: Alan articulated and embodied the spirit, the soul of the organization. He was one of several people who created the vision of education that would shape not only ESR Metro but the national organization based in Cambridge, MA, which during the 1980s had 90 chapters around the country.
Tom Roderick and Laura McClure were honored to join Alan in creating Morningside Center’s TeachableMoment website, which was born in the wake of 9/11. TeachableMoment gave Alan a platform for sharing his vision of education and his passion for democratic-with-a-small-d politics to wide audiences – now a million visitors a year. The growing traffic to TeachableMoment shows that there are many educators out there hungry for high-quality, inquiry-based curricula on the big questions of the day.
Alan was the quintessential educator for social responsibility. By his example and through his writing, he shows us what it means to educate for a just, peaceful, and truly democratic society. The best tribute we can give to Alan, the best way to honor his life and work, is the help his vision live and do all we can to share it with others.
What is Alan’s vision of education? What is his legacy? What are the ideas we want to continue to nurture and develop as a living tribute to Alan and his work?
The first principle of Alan’s vision is to acknowledge that:
Education is Politics
At the beginning of his career as a teacher, Alan dutifully taught the standard curricula in history and English. Gradually he realized that the texts and lesson plans promoted a political agenda he didn’t agree with. Realizing the political nature of education, Alan asked himself, Whose interests will I serve? His answer was clear: He would serve the interests of the learners and their education. And that meant helping students think critically and imagine an alternative politics. He liked to tell the story of one of his first high school assembly experiences:
“One of my first school assembly experiences featured an electrifying performance by Pete Seeger, who had 900 students clapping, chanting, stamping feet, and singing South African freedom songs. A day later the principal discovered who Pete Seeger was and ordered every record, printed song, and scrap of paper with his name on it confiscated.”
Gradually he came to see that his “teaching about the Indians accepted tacitly what, in another context, Edward Said calls ‘the politics of dispossession’; that my teaching about correct English accepted tacitly the politics of social class; that the principal’s behavior reflected the know-nothing repressive politics of the fear-ridden ‘50s and accepted tacitly the politics of racism."
“It took me far too long to understand something of the political character of the school and my role in supporting it, far too long to realize that daily I was a political actor but had some choices about what kinds of politics I wanted to do and whose interests I preferred to serve.”
Realizing the political nature of education, Alan was faced with the question, Whose interests will I serve? His answer was clear: Those of the learners and their education.
That led right to a second principle:
If text books present bland and regressive politics – and they usually do – students need to learn to examine them critically and imagine an alternative politics. This begins with taking care with language. Alan quoted a great essay by George Orwell, Politics and the English Language. Orwell wrote, “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties from Conservatives to Anarchist – is designed to make lies sound beautiful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this with a movement, but on can at least change one’s own habits.”
That leads to Alan’s third key principle:
Alan thought that being a citizen begins with informing ourselves and seeking truth through a thoughtful process of inquiry – but, he cautioned, being open-minded does not mean being empty-headed; nor should it induce paralysis. It prepares us to make decisions and take action. Alan was a teacher, an intellectual, a poet – and an activist. Throughout his life he took action – from his teacher union activities to his founding the alternative high school program in New Rochelle High School, to the founding of ESR Metro, to his years of work with TeachableMoment.