A Leap of Faith: The Promise of Partnership

By Manuel N. Gómez

Throughout its relatively short history, the partnership movement has made rustling noises in the backwoods of education, lacking not enthusiasm, but a solid philosophical grounding to guide and nourish its efforts. The only philosophy, if it can be called that, associated with partnership has been reform. Unfortunately, reform is not a philosophy, but rather a convenient battle cry for those who blame the education system for societal problems. An implicit understanding that education and democracy are inextricably linked has been substituted for philosophical engagement with the complex dynamics of educational partnerships. Within our best intentions have been planted the seeds of our failure to produce educational change on a large scale. And in the process, we are beginning to lose our faith.

It is all too tempting to lose faith in education right now. It is all too tempting to take the low road, the path of least resistance, or the well-worn path and euphemistically "opt out" of the whole business. As it stands, the South is still facing questions of desegregation that should have been settled forty years ago; California is facing the end of the educational gold rush with the passage of Proposition 187 and the imminent vote on the California Civil Rights initiative; affirmative action has been disavowed in the Hopwood decision and the 1995 vote of the University of California Regents; and the nation wonders what to do with all the broken promises for equality‹I. O. U.'s which litter the American conscience. It is a difficult time to keep the faith.

We have seen many cogent and incisive critiques of American education, and yet we still lack the descriptive vocabulary and the conceptual framework in which to promote change effectively, efficiently, and consistently. Terms like equity, excellence, empowerment, shared governance, and even partnership have been slowly emptied out of value through their conspicuous consumption by the "education market." Before we can expect substantive and desirable change, we must reinvest the vocabulary of collaborative work with concrete meaning, a project which requires rigor and sophistication on both theoretical and practical levels. Further, we must understand that our work coalesces with some of the most vexing questions that underlie the interdependence of education and the democratic process.

The rumblings in California against affirmative action policies are now resonating nationally. Democracy, diversity, and education mingle within debates over affirmative action policies and the tension between individual and group interests. The "concept" of diversity has been linked with questions of merit and "common values," in short with the question of how America can maintain a common national identity with the cultural heterogeneity of its demos. Educators who have maintained a prominent role in the assimilative machinery of American bureaucracy, struggle to raise academic standards, diversify educational opportunities, and increase student achievement against a growing chorus of voices which elide merit and ethnicity. As Christopher Lasch puts it, "meritocracy is a parody of democracy" (41). Individuals considered meritorious are often those who have access to more cultural and financial capital, which still largely distributes itself along racial, class, and gender lines.

The increased stratification of American society and the backlash against legislative intervention on behalf of diversity have compounded feelings of isolation and alienation between educational sectors. Accusations that K-12 does not adequately prepare students, that higher education is elitist and out of touch with reality, and that community colleges abandon students in transition have made us both weary and wary of pursuing collaborative projects. And in the meantime, students who most need the educational opportunities created through institutional collaboration have to overcome more and more obstacles to upward academic mobility.

When they work, educational partnerships between higher education and schools create a continuum of educational experience that supports and protects the autonomy of the individual without a sacrifice of communal coherence. Effective partnerships seek to model the democratic promise of diversity within a community of individuals linked through shared opportunities and experience. In America, democracy, diversity, and education are intrinsically linked: ensuring the efficacy of representative democracy requires a progressive education system, and the progression of democracy depends on sustaining a diverse culture. Within this matrix, it seems as if educational partnerships would naturally evolve in the construction of a democratic national community. Yet we know that this is not the case. Institutions have often jealously protected their autonomy over and against egalitarian collaboration. Higher education has relied on outreach programs which are often laden with paternalistic good will. On the K-12 level, questions relating to academic standards and curriculum reform have often been driven by a desire to strike a balance between the cultivation of cultural diversity and the assurance of cultural mainstreaming. We know that the homogenization of values and ideas results in societal stagnation and political narrowness. Yet many argue that increased diversity threatens the coherence of national identity and the ability to reach political consensus.

Educators have struggled to find the balance between exclusiveness and inclusiveness, autonomy and community, diversity and homogeneity. Schools have been influenced by the demands of a Cold War mentality that confused educational strength and military invulnerability. Economic hardships and inequalities have emboldened the architects of vocational education, and linguistic and cultural diversity has tested the limits of equal access and opportunity. Even higher education, which has struggled to mainta in its commitment to intellectual inquiry and the free circulation of ideas, has become increasingly narrow through what Lasch characterizes as "the university's assimilation into the corporate order" (193). It seems that we have forgotten John Dewey's insight that "democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience" (87).

To some extent, the "greatest good for all" of American democracy has become the "greatest good for some" of utilitarianism. The reservation system and Indian schools for Native Americans represent the dark side of educational socialization; segregation still exists, both formally and informally, between whites and African Americans; Asian Americans suffer backlash for superior academic performance and commitment to collective achievement; and Latinos endure tracking and must continue to defend their status as legitimate Americans. While we may have achieved cultural diversity, we still do not quite believe that diversity is intrinsic to the survival of a democratic society.

Although the forces which push and pull at the fabric of American public education are varied and complex, they engage one another on the question of diversity, both racial and cultural. As Sarason argues, "It is a cliché to say that we are a nation of immigrants, but it is not a cliché to say that few people realize how the pluralism of our society has made schools frequent scenes of ideological battle" (24). Despite the national rhetoric of multi-culturalism, there remains a deeply-rooted suspicion in America that identity ultimately devolves to an irreducible category like race or gender. However, such reasoning ignores the arguments of many historians, including Theodore Allen and Ronald Takaki, who argue that race, like culture, is socially constructed, not intrinsic and transcendental. If this is true, then identity is much more fluid and flexible, and differences can be seen as circumstantial rather than essential.

One of the stumbling blocks to the acceptance of our actual diversity is a misconception that diversity is an external rather than internal phenomenon. It is, in fact, both. In a society that vigilantly protects individual autonomy, we often forget that building community requires the recognition that boundaries are arbitrary and fluid. Diversity, in addition to differences between individuals and groups, is about recognizing within ourselves that our identities are not fixed in a binary opposition: black-white, native-foreign, ourselves-other. Rather, we exist within a complex matrix of shifting identities, both within and between ourselves. While difficult, this recognition is essential to the construction of communities which can successfully negotiate individual and group interests. Too often, we create our identities within fragilely constructed oppositions that flimsily disguise the fears of inadequacy and failure that nag at us. We shift between polar extremes, certain that to choose any point on the continuum requires sacrifice and loss of identity. The anticipation of loss confounds attempts we make to accept our diversity. Until we understand that our similarities do not disempower us, but rather create a profound synergy, we will not be able to acknowledge difference in a compassionate way.

My experience bears out this wisdom. At the beginning of my career in education, I started my work in the Oakland public schools primarily out of a commitment to the Chicano movement, and my loyalties lay within this community of scholars and activists. As I moved through the labyrinthine world of education, however, I realized that my identity as a Chicano was only one facet of myself, and my perspective began to extend beyond the narrow categories of race. Over the years, I have become more and more aware of the ways in which we all belong to several communities at once, and these multiple memberships often reflect corresponding interests and goals. Consequently, I have found that focusing on the common interests of communities in order to form coalitions dedicated to cooperative action offers the best strategy for social and political change. It is, in fact, on this basis that American democracy is preserved and renewed.

In terms of education, partnership is the means by which we can renew a national commitment to the health of American democracy. As bell hooks has said, "The classroom is the most radical space of possibility in the academy" (12). Extending this promise into K-12 classrooms requires committed collaborative projects on a national scale. The creation of a community in which intellectual freedom and rigor can take place without sacrificing egalitarianism is essential if education is to evolve closer to the promise of participatory democracy. We must realize that to teach only traditionally canonical works does not represent a rigorous intellectual curriculum, and we must simultaneously realize that programs to increase representation of underrepresented groups can lead to a similar isolation and intellectual narrowness. In short, we must understand the ethical imperative of partnership as one which seeks a balance between assimilation and separatism.

Essential to the fulfillment of this promise is a reinvigoration of intellectual development at all levels of education. Above raising academic standards, beyond the recent attempts to fortify critical reading, thinking, and writing skills among students , intellectual development requires a liberal arts emphasis which values the liberatory consequences of intellectual inquiry. Richard Hofstadter has distinguished intellect from intelligence­what is most often cultivated in education‹saying,

...intelligence is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range....Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines. Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole. (25)
For Hofstadter, intellect is associated primarily with "human dignity" and with the kind of thinking that reaches the essential or fundamental levels of understanding. Suspected for its role in subverting the status quo and mistakenly associated with performance on IQ and standardized tests, intellect has been gingerly handled by Americans. Often seen as the exclusive property of higher education (mistakenly and often derisively), and assumed to be uninteresting to or beyond the grasp of students who do not fit into the educational mainstream, intellect has slowly seeped out of contemporary pedagogy. Critical thinking has been touted as a return to intellectualized education; yet how well can a system driven by the ideological mandates of social functionalism, life adjustment, and civic duty accommodate the kind of inquiry that will bring these very principles into question? The assimilative function of education is antithetical to this level of debate.

Intellectual education and an intellectual demos are essential to the changing faces of American cultural identity and questions of how cultural identity intersects with national identity. While the "practical quality" of intelligence (Hofstadter, 41) is certainly important to cultivate, it has not allowed us to move away from the corporatization and professionalization of education. Consequently, the superficial markers of difference­race, gender, ethnicity, culture, socio-economic class­seem more natural than they really are. Intellect, on the other hand, goes further towards establishing a common ground for debate and negotiation through its emphasis on fundamental questions related to the nature of knowledge and understanding. Through intellectual engagement, individuals are connected in a common commitment to inquiry. The continual process of negotiation that ensues does not contradict the possibility of consensus or of truth; in fact, it more precisely reflects the dynamics of participatory democracy. For too long we have imagined that the construction of a stable democratic community depends on inculcating ideology that passes for truth, rather than on a collective search for truth. Education has capitulated to this myth by limiting instruction to subjects and categories of "truth" which often reflect subjective cultural values in the guise of objectivity.

As Jacques Barzun argues, "intellect is community property." It is "the capitalized and communal form of live intelligence," transcending without nullifying intelligence (4). Intellect is not elitist nor selective in its distribution. Rather, it enables communication and understanding across fields of difference and distrust. Intellect is one of the most democratic of civic virtues, ennobling the American mind. Yet without educational partnerships between institutions, the intellectual development of our students will continue to atrophy, as the "educational market" grows and nourishes itself on the carcass of a weakened educational infrastructure.

We must acknowledge and embrace the interdependence of educational institutions at all levels and enhance the "live intelligence" on which the stability of a democratic community depends. If educators cannot model the ideal of a collaborative, egalitarian community, how can we expect our students to participate actively in the democratic process? How can we criticize efforts to incorporate education for capitalizing on our failure to intellectually engage students in the educational process? Although things seem bleak, we should not be too quick to signal our defeat. In fact, the abrupt political changes now underway may ironically serve to strengthen the interests of educational collaboration. Nothing short of a leap of faith will renew the promise of partnership.


Allen, T. (1994). The Invention of the White Race. New York: Verso.

Barzun, J. (1959). The House of Intellect. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Dewey, J. (1916/1966). Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press.

Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Lasch, C. (1995). The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Ravitch,D. (1983). The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Sarason, S. B. (1982). The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change. (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Sirotnik, K., & Goodlad, J. (Eds.). (1988). School-University Partnerships in Action: Concepts, Cases, and Concerns. New York: Teachers College Press.

Takaki, R. T. (1993). A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. (1st ed.). Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

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