Critical Lessons & Educational Change

Two Siblings

Deborah Capri

December 16, 2009


My older brother, Matt, is one of the most important people in my life, and always has been.  One of my mother’s favorite bragging points is that Matt and I used to enjoy playing together so much as children that when the neighborhood kids came around to ask us to play with them, we would usually decline saying that we were already having a good time with each other.   During my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Scotland.  When I had a month’s vacation time, Matt put his life on hold to fly out to me so that we could celebrate my 21st birthday together by backpacking through all of western and Eastern Europe for several weeks.  The golden memories of this trip are emblazoned in my mind and heart as we chipped off pieces of the Berlin Wall as it crumbled down, were locked in a spooky cemetery at night in Paris as we stood in awe of Jim Morrison’s grave, and camped on the rocky coast of the awesome walled in city of Dubrovnik which has now been decimated by war.  Our friendship, since childhood, has been simple, comfortable, and sincere.

Although many of my fondest and most meaningful memories are of my brother, I feel a divide between us when it comes to our professional experiences and perspectives.  Dr. Matt Smith is a professor at the University of Massachusetts who has dedicated his life to studying American History, particularly how it has impacted our nation’s educational system.  Our shared passion is for all children to have access to an educational system and a just society that affords them a quality and equal education, regardless of race, class, religion, gender, or spoken language; where we diverge is on our paths to see this goal to fruition.

The Letter

Dearest Matt:

Do you remember when we traveled to Auschwitz on our amazing trip throughout Europe?  One thing that happened that day stays with me more than most; it symbolizes to me a significant difference between you and I.  Prior to our visit, I was the one who belonged to a temple, attended regular services, and took pride in our Jewish heritage.  You, on the other hand, identified with a more areligious, philosophical perspective.  Yet on that day, when we came upon the stairs down into the human “ovens” at Auschwitz, you were the one who took those steps to face the reality of our shared history.  I recall that with tears in my eyes, I refused to enter that horrid place.

You criticized me for my decision, for my lack of strength to see a harsh reality.  At the time, I was upset with you for those words.  I thought to myself, “I am the one who has lived a Jewish life; how dare you criticize my commitment to my people when you have not actively lived as a member of that community?”  Now as an adult, hopefully wiser, I realize that that experience wasn’t about who was wrong or right; it just exemplified the two ways we have approached our lives; it helped me to see each of our strengths, and maybe even our limitations (if I can say so without hurting either one of our egos or feelings! J).

Matt, your gift is to dream, to believe, and to know from a theoretical, and sometimes utopian, perspective how to move towards making visions a reality.   I am grounded in practical experience, and sometimes tainted by guarded pessimism.  I can relate our situation to the varying perspectives on the issue of culturally minded justice in our current school system.  Sarat (2008) discusses the difference between hard multiculturalists and soft multiculturalists.  In this analogy, I view you as the passionate hard ideologist who strives for social transformation above all else.   Based on historical contexts and research-based proposals, the academic and activist in you generate intellectual theories for policy and practice; your lens is from the outside in.  I admit that I am more of a soft multiculturalist in this example.  I strive as a practitioner to correct the incredible flaws in our schools from the inside out.  I somewhat accept the limitations and boundaries placed upon us in public schools.  Even if I like your vision of schools better, I am forced to deal with the daily reality of state assessments, homogenous student populations, demanding parents, and often undertrained staff.

Lindkvist (2008) provides a palpable example.  The principal at Lewiston High School had to deal with some real world issues in terms of dress codes, behavior/discipline standards, and navigating difficult issues with parents and children who stood in front of him expecting him to guide them through these challenging situations.  This principal had to weigh what was “just” in terms of making cultural accommodations while still upholding a code of conduct which “ensures proper behavior and an atmosphere that enhances the learning experience of all students (p.181, Lendkvist).”  In my job as a building principal, the line between right and wrong is often blurred when I’m in the trenches.  When making decisions that impact hundreds of students’ lives it is not always easy to implement what theory might suggest.  Perhaps this is a cop out; I don’t think so though.  I think it is just one kind of reality.

Meier (2002) reminds me that striving for justice in our schools in the field might not always be neat, or even well-done, when she asks “could we accept the fact that mistakes themselves could- as in the study of science- be educational for kids and teachers if we dared to use them that way?”  She continues to state that “there’s more danger in avoiding sensitive subjects than in occasionally making blunders (p. 84).”  My mantra is that you always have to at least try.  The quote in my e-mail signature echoes Dewey’s words that “Education is not preparation for life; it is life itself.”  I think this is equally true for educators and their students.  It is the journey that counts; some steps will be forward, some backward; in the end, we hope as educators, we have helped our students and schools make positive forward gains.

I think that as I progress farther along into my own doctoral work, I am coming to have a different respect and understanding for the disconnect between research and practice in education.  My coursework and research have helped me to appreciate the great value in such efforts as yours.  If we are to strive for continuous improvement, there has to be a vast body of research pointing us in the appropriate direction and reminding us what is true and good.

Our educational system also needs practitioners that will get up each morning re-energized to face the challenges of the school day with a clear mind and a bag of tricks to teach those children sitting in front of them, despite the financial and social blockades that impede both instructional and learning progress.  The study of education is a living construct; it must be based upon historical and academic ideologies and theory; yet these theories would be worthless without those who try to make it happen and implement their fellow educators’ words of wisdom.  It never comes out perfectly as outlined in the journal article or dissertation, but it is often an effort in the right direction.

I admit that the professional drawback to working full-time in a school is that you can become disconnected from what is possible and even become jaded.  Matt, the work you do is so valuable.  You look at our history and outline a plan for the future.  In my work, I live in the present and often can’t see past today.  You and your passion serve as the beacon or guide to ensure that I don’t lose sight of the forest among the trees… or my faith and its stairwell to history.

Looking back to our experience in Auschwitz, I have come to realize that you were right; that we were both right.  You went down those stairs because you needed to stand up against an abhorrent injustice that took place so long ago.  I, on the other hand, had found peace with a current Jewish identity and couldn’t look back at such savagery.  Your passion lies in how history can mold the future; mine in taking care of the present.  I have come to recognize that both perspectives are needed if we, as individual educators or as a society as a whole, are going to have any chance of correcting the many injustices of our current educational system.  In the end, it is our differences that make us such a great and formidable partnership.  The more I learn each day through my work and my doctoral program, the higher my esteem grows for both of our efforts.

I love ya’ bro !

Forever your “YOUNGER” sister,



Lendkvist, H.  (2008).  The Reach and Limits of Cultural Accomodation: Public Schools and Somali Immigrants in Maine. In  M. Minow, R.A. Shweder & H.R. Markus (Eds.). Minow, M., Shweder, R. A. &  Markus, H. R. (2008). Just schools: Pursuing equality in societies of difference (164-204). Russell Sage.

Meier, D. (2002). In schools we trust: Creating communities of learning in an era of testing and standardization. Boston: Beacon.

Sarat, A.  (2008).  Contested terrain: Visions of multiculturalism in an American town.  In  M. Minow, R.A. Shweder & H.R. Markus (Eds.). Minow, M., Shweder, R. A. &  Markus, H. R. (2008). Just schools: Pursuing equality in societies of difference (227-254). Russell Sage.