On the Community of School and University

By Richard H. Brodhead

The New Haven Teachers Institute might be described as a program in which two groups having a great deal in common­the faculties of Yale University and of New Haven's public high and middle schools­come together to discover and build on their common interests. Whether they teach older or younger students, in public or private institutions, such a description might continue, all of the participants of the Institute are members of one profession; and whether they teach at the most advanced or the most elementary levels, they all work in the same disciplines, and so inevitably share assumptions and commitments. What could be more natural than for them to pool their thinking?

Alternatively, the New Haven Teachers Institute might be described as a program in which two groups having next to nothing in common conspire to invent interests that they might be said to share. The work these groups do, this account would emphasize, might go by the same name, but in fact the terms on which they practice their profession put deep gulfs between them. One is used to teaching the extremely privileged, the other, commonly, the extremely unprivileged; one assumes students already highly prepared, the other students who need to be prepared; one associates its discipline with recent elaborations of specialized knowledge, the other with traditional and basic skills; and of course a host of other differences follow from these. When these groups come together, this account would conclude, it is less likely to be because they feel united in their labors than because they are troubled by the lack of such a unity. And if they assume in advance that they have large areas of common ground, they are likely to be unpleasantly surprised.

The anomaly of the Teachers Institute­but also, I think, the reason why it works­is that both of these contradictory descriptions fit it equally well. Half of the paradox of the Institute is that when its participants approach each other expecting to find a community of experience, they find, instead, how different their work-lives are. In my own case, while I certainly knew in a general way that the classes the teachers in my seminar taught were quite unlike my own, I was still constantly surprised by the particulars of their educational situations, and by the reminders they offered that our everyday worlds were worlds apart. Most of my teachers, I learned, locked their classrooms while teaching: where I teach, of course, control of students' physical behavior is so perfected as to be invisible. I sometimes find college freshmen immature in their literary responses; looking at one teacher's photos of his sixth graders reminded me that his audience was immature in a much more fundamental sense. I am sure I am not the only Institute instructor who found that the more I learned about who and what and where and how my teachers taught, the more out of place I felt. What did I, of all people, know about the situations these teachers faced day after day? And what possible application could what I did with my students have in scenes so utterly remote?

Anxieties of this sort are built into the role of an instructor in the Institute; and no doubt our teacher-students have their own corresponding versions of these anxieties. What helps alleviate them is that the other half of the Institute's paradox is also true: namely that when its participants approach each other expecting to be irrevocably divided, they are always discovering that there is, after all, real community between them­that their professions (in the sense of both what they do and what they believe in) are in fact not unrelate; and that the other's work might strengthen his own.

The Institute builds on the simultaneous oneness and difference of its constituent halves in the way it organizes their work together. The faculty leader of the seminar makes no pretense to know how, exactly, the students at the far end of the process ought to be taught; but he does pretend to know, and in an especially expert way, something that might enrich and enliven the educational program that is offered to them. In the seminar he invites his teacher-students into some portion of his expertise, then asks them to figure out how they can adapt what they learn there to the needs and uses of their classes.

To say this is to suggest that the role of the faculty in the Teachers Institute is a peculiar one. On the one hand, he must be the instructor of his seminar. To bring its members to the point where they can think their subjects and protocols through in a genuinely new way, he must be willing really to teach them: to lead them to new materials, and above all to open out new frames of understanding for them. But on the other hand, he must also not be the instructor in any usual sense. His goal here, is less to teach his students than to enable their teaching of their students. They are not in his seminar to learn his subject, but to remake it into their subject. In this sense his real function is not that of expert or authority but that of co-collaborator, working, with his high- and middle-school counterparts, to reinvent the terms on which their shared field can be communicated to others.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

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