We live in sexy times. Just ask Ke$ha. She sings:
Hot and dangerous
If you’re one of us, then roll with us
‘Cause we make the hipsters fall in love
When we’ve got our hotpants on enough…
Got that glitter on my eyes
Stockings ripped all up the side
Looking sick and sexy-fied
So let’s go-oh-oh, let’s go!
These sexy times aren’t just happening on the dance floor. They are happening in government policy and in large-scale charitable acts. We want to build new things. We want to study science and technology. We want to race to the top. And then we want to put our names on our achievements.
Do you know what’s not very sexy? Stewardship.
According to Wikipedia,
“Historically, stewardship was the responsibility given to household servants to bring food and drinks to a castle dining hall. The term was then expanded to indicate a household employee’s responsibility for managing household or domestic affairs. . . . The term continues to be used in these specific ways, but it is also used in a more general way to refer to a responsibility to take care of something owned by someone else.”
I am a child of the 1970’s, a time which I romantically (not sexily) think of as a time of stewardship. My ideas about public service are much shaped by those times. My parents and I watched the nightly news every night, and I learned right from wrong as I sat with my father who cursed Richard Nixon (tricky Dick), and cried over fallen soldiers in Viet Nam. I was reminded that John F. Kennedy had asked us to ‘ask not what my country could do for me, but ask what I could do for my country.’ My parents made it clear to me that I had talents that were to be used to enhance the world in which we lived; not to get richer, but to make the world a richer place.
The rural Public schools that I attended had money for art and music. All children played together at recess, and a bookmobile came once a week to ensure that I had access to library books, whether I could get to the nearest city or not. It was clear to me that these were the basic rights of all children, not just the ones whose parents had been to college, or lived in a nice house, or would fight for their right to them.
Teaching as Stewardship
Any work in education is basically an act of stewardship. Teachers dedicate themselves to taking care of something, in this case the children, of someone else. You might do this because you enjoy the company of children. You might do this because you believe that our world is bound to be a better place if children get a safe and healthy start in this world. You might do this because the intellectual challenge of understanding human growth and performance is interesting to you. There might be many reasons to choose as one’s life work the care and keeping of other people’s children.
I began my own work in education as a teacher after my brother dropped out of high school. It was from a desire to be a steward — to take better care of other people’s children, than the system had been able to take care of my brother. I wanted to help create schools where everyone could learn and everyone could be valued. I learned by doing it that teaching is an intellectual endeavor of such complexity that a person might be challenged by the work for a lifetime. Teaching has suited me, ethically and intellectually.
But teaching is difficult, and lonely. Who sustains those who work to take care of things owned by others, or by all of us?
Stewardship as a Cooperative Effort
Environmentalists have extended the definition of stewardship beyond the work of an individual on an individual system. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada,
Stewardship is an ethic that embodies cooperative planning and management of environmental resources with organizations, communities and others to actively engage in the prevention of loss of habitat and facilitate its recovery in the interest of long-term sustainability (Fisheries and Oceans Canada – ‘Stewardship in Action’ program)
What is an equivalent effort in education? Where can we see an ethic that embraces cooperative planning and management of resources with organizations, communities and others to actively engage in the prevention of loss and to facilitate recovery in the interest of long-term sustainability of schools? I would argue that this has been the work of the National Writing Project for the last 36 years. The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge of educators, knowledge gained through scholarship and experience, on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.
The NWP is a nationwide network of 70,000 teachers who, through 200 university-based Writing Project sites, provide local leadership for innovation and deliver localized, high-quality professional development to other educators across the country in all states, across subjects and grades. In the last year alone, these leaders provided services to over 3,000 school districts to raise student achievement in writing.
For the last 20 years, congress has provided bipartisan support for the stewardship of this network that so effectively marshalls resources for educational research and reform. No senator’s name or party has owned the writing project. No one has directed a giant scale-up in his or her favorite district. Rather, everyone has done their part to build a national infrastructure that improves the teaching of writing for all children, regardless of where they live– be they urban or rural, red or blue — no matter how many votes they have in the electoral college or how they feel about charter schools. Not very sexy, but, I would argue, a rather romantic vision of the role that government might play in the lives of its people.
The End of Stewardship.
But the era of stewardship, apparently, has come to a grinding halt. In an effort to balance a national budget that has run out of control, congress and the president have decided to let people keep and manage their own resources (by not raising taxes), help the United States protect itself and its resources (by refusing to consider cuts to military spending), and to discontinue their history of stewardship (by cutting programs such as NWP and RIF that have provided a national infrastructure of care for others).
In these sexy times we want to hold onto what we have. We want to show it off — whether its by ripping up our stockings and glittering our eyes, or by making mammoth investments in new efforts under exciting names like Race to the Top. We show little interest in preserving what came before, even if it has done good, solid work over time.
Today, as I look around at all the glittery people and glittery education reform, and watch as national infrastructures of stewardship are abandoned, I can’t help think about what a dance floor must look like after the party is over. I can’t help but wonder who is going to be around to clean up this mess.