The Lives of Children: Revisiting A Neglected Canon
“Authority must reside in the community.”
“What we can give to all children,” according to Dennison, in his amazing and forgotten masterpiece of educational writing, “The Lives of Children: The Story of the First Street School,” [is] …attention, forbearance, patience, care, and above all justice. [because] the business of a school, is not, or should not be, mere instruction, but the life of the child.” Compare those words to one of his spiritual progressive ancestors Caroline Pratt, doing a similar kind of work, 50 years earlier, (1913), with kids in settlement houses, “If the whole plan of nature is purposeful, than each child is here for a purpose. …How shall we ever find this out and be able to give him that help…which ought to be ours to give–wisdom—if we always dictate to him instead of allowing him to talk to us?”
If I were to compose a piece of music to accompany this book it would be Eric Dolphy’s “God Bless the Child.” both, though composed in different idioms, one music and the other the written word, bear witness with the passion, poignancy and a soulfulness that deeply understands the sanctity and wellness of all children.
This is a book that needs to be read today.
It is a lyrical testimony to progressive ideals in the service of all children. As a book, it belongs on the same shelf that includes Jules Henry, James Herndon, next to Goodman’s “Growing up Absurd,” Kohl’s “36 Children,” Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s “Young Geographers,” and Warner’s “Teacher.”
The beauty of “The Lives of Children” is that it is data free. There are no charts or colored heat maps. No jargon. No fetishized vocabulary. Written with an elevated moral urgency, it is seen through the critical and sentient eyes of George Dennison, founder and teacher at First Street. It traces one year in the short life of a start up storefront school, in 1965 New York City. Half the book is an existential and ethnographic journal, comprised of anecdotes and observations of a progressive pedagogue, (stylistically and philosophically unlike any of the kind of educational writing done today). The other half, is a critique of the Harvard cognitive scientist, Jerome Bruner as well as Dennison’s musings on his deep connection to John Dewey. To read Dennison in 2016 is to be transported to alphabet city, the lower east side of Manhattan, pre-gentrification, when it was all housing projects, tenements, and streets filled with coquito stands and abuelas bargaining over aguaucates sold from the back of vans.
The context is 1965, a tumultuously agitated time of social and cultural mobilization in urban America with the civil rights, anti war, and women’s movements converging at the same time with the force of history. In progressive education there was a pack of iconoclasts, educational entrepreneurs and experimenters who chose to ‘opt out.’ All progressive and progenies of Dewey. Amongst them is George Dennison, Paul Goodman, James Herndon, Herb Kohl, Jonathan Kozal, and Ned O’Gorman. Each, reject public schools and create community based ones: one room pop ups—urban school houses in storefronts and community centers wedged between bodegas and barber shops in urban neighborhoods. They would become schools full of experimentation and driven by an unwavering commitment to social justice, existing in symbiosis with their immediate surroundings “where the vital breath of education flows.”
All of these schools (with the exception of Ned O’Gorman’s Children’s Storefront, now a charter network), lasted for less than a few years. But despite their short lived existence, they matter, as experiments and embodiments of the spirit of progressive education and the initiatives that they have left for us to rediscover.
This book is one of them. So is Herndon’s “The Way it’s Supposed to Be” and Kohl’s “36 Children,” and Kozal’s “The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home.”
But what they all collectively teach us is this critical message: that no matter the theory or framework, the key to children learning and evolving as human citizens, rests on the social and emotional connection between people, and schools, and if they are ultimately to be successful, with their communities.
“Authority must reside in the community,” concludes Dennison as does Dewey.
The heart and soul of this book, is what the Greeks referred to as agape, that form of love manifest through care and concern for others. It is what makes the work and the man so singular and inspirational. “My purpose, “Dennison reminds us in the closing of “The Lives of Children,” “is not to castigate bureaucrats, but to recall for teachers and parents… an awareness of one crucial truth… that in humane affairs—and education is a humane pursuit, one truth should be the gut-wisdom of everyone: that in education there is no such thing as competence without love.” This is what Seth Godin calls the emotional labor of being a teacher for whom passion and devotion are crucial.
Even though George Dennison’s name is rarely uttered or appears on the syllabus of educational leadership courses, this is a work that every student of education, teaching fellow, in service pre service teacher, administrator, policy maker, and regent should read. It’s worthy because of its uncompromising insistence on educating children as a moral commitment. “The business of a school, is not, or should not be, mere instruction, but the life of the child.” [So] “The real question is not, what shall we do about classes? It is, what shall we do about our relationships with the young? …How shall we broaden the area of mutual experience?” This is the kind of conversation that should be happening in all teacher education programs. Less myopic focus on classroom management. And teaching ‘critical thinking, and personalized learning, and more authentic dialogues of what is required for teachers to become sentient, caring and culturally responsive human beings.
Every word and sentence in this masterpiece is relevant and prescient of the reign of the @2 pencil that continues to demonize and demoralize children. It matters because the life of the child, circa 2016, in charter and public mass schools is still a disaster: kids dying from boredom and labels in test taking and compliance factories. It matters more than ever because 52 years later the poor are still burdened with the demons of poverty and a system riddled with impoverished ideas and practices. Only the names have changed. Not the labels nor the stereotypes. Nor the unforgiving environments that are still resistant to working with kids or their families. These could be my kids in the charter school I ran, whose lives are wounded with fear, rage, futility and sadness, stuck in schools ill prepared to educate them.
If there is one essential kernel of wisdom to pull from his exquisite work, it is this: that education is primarily a community enterprise. Its not a service to be provided but rather “the life concerns of those who live in the community … [And] the closer we come to the homes and neighborhoods of the children, the truer, the more correct, becomes the motivation of those who work with the young. In schools like First Street, the premise was more Dewian than DOE. None of the taboos of parent involvement or presence was apparent. Instead, there was a constant flow of parents, neighborhood people who brought food, care and passion and a sense of devotedness. No bold lettered signs on the front door saying: Parents not allowed past this point after drop off, were to be found.
Read “The Lives of Children” because it matters. Because the story of resistance and of innovation; of risk taking and taking a stand is critically important. Its an ode to failing and an ode to hope. And ultimately, to what can happen to children and their learning where the natural ecology of human relationships of adults with children, and the school with the community is allowed to prevail. Before there was social and emotional intelligence, there were places like the First Street School.
“The Lives of Children,” is ultimately a work of hope. The power to tell the story of educational change forms part of the arc of a pedagogy of Hope and is deeply ingrained in the progressive historical project. And we need to read it now, for the same reasons that John Holt gave in his introduction 52 years ago (another key member of that progressive tribe of iconoclasts, writers and social activists who convened on both coasts ) because: “if millions of us read this book, believe in it, and attempt to dramatically integrate its not too complex lessons into practice, that— we may [yet] save ourselves.”