Transcript of the episode “Challenging credentialism: An alternative vision of education”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:17] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Arlene Goldbard, whose most recent book, “In the Camp of Angels of Freedom: What does it mean to be educated?” was just published in January. Arlene is a writer, visual artist, speaker, social activist, and consultant. Welcome, Arlene!

[00:00:35] Arlene G: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here. 

[00:00:38] Amy H-L: Would you tell us what your new book is about? 

[00:00:41] Arlene G: Amy, it’s about a few different things. I’ll just mention how it came into being and I think that will will give a flavor. I’m a writer. Well, Jon listed all these words. I wish there was one name for what I do, because no one can remember all that. But a writer and a visual artist, a painter. And I returned to painting a few years ago after a long hiatus. I was painting portraits, so people were sitting six feet from me in my studio, breathing the same air. And when the pandemic came down, I couldn’t paint from life anymore. And I had been thinking for some time about a painting project portraying people who had been teachers to me, people whose work had guided and inspired me, and essentially formed my own self-education because I’m in that category of autodidact. I did graduate from high school, but that was the last time I was involved in formal education. And once I picked those 11 people that I portrayed and who were in the book, I needed to write an essay about each one saying how I encountered that individual’s work and the impact it had on me and what was going on in my life at the time, and how I integrated that learning. And then after I wrote those essays, I realized, okay, this book needs a Part Two, and, and I really have a pretty strong agenda in Part Two, which is to call for respect for multiple forms of knowledge, including lived knowledge, and to ask the institutions who valorize credentialed expertise over all other form of forms of knowledge to think about that, back off, and stop. And I say a lot more. I talk about my adventures in higher ed because I’ve spoken at a lot of colleges and stuff like that. I talk about my own actual K through 12 education, which is your bailiwick, I know. So it’s about a few different things. And it uses visual representation, memoir, and essay. Altogether, those make a book. 

[00:02:41] Jon M: You mentioned, in terms of being an autodidact, having graduated from high school but not going on to college. Are there other characteristics that you’d use in telling people what you mean by autodidactic?

[00:02:54] Arlene G: No, I mean, I would say self-educated and I think in this country you could start earlier than I did. But I think in this country, becoming an educated person without any kinds of credentials, any kind of formal curriculum that’s required of you and et cetera, is how I would describe an autodidact. And of course there’s lots of them and they have lots of different characteristics. I’m probably at least a little bit in the curmudgeon category, people who know a million proverbs because that’s what they used to say a few thousand years ago about how we became educated by memorizing what we now call memes, people who are very well-read in what you might consider even a classical education, but have been guided by their own interest and curiosity in that direction and haven’t necessarily covered other parts of what are considered the normative curriculum in public schools. But self-educated, that’s all I really mean by it.

[00:03:55] Amy H-L: Would you say that project-based education in K-12 comes closer to being auto-didactic because it is self-guided?

[00:04:07] Arlene G: And by project-based education, would it be fair to say learning by doing as opposed to learning by reading about or hearing about or whatever?

[00:04:15] Amy H-L: Learning by doing and also learning by choice. So students determining where they want to delve deep. 

[00:04:25] Arlene G: For sure. If there’s a continuum, then to the extent that someone can be guided by their own curiosity and nurtured in that curiosity and be given the means to pursue it, that’s way closer to self-education than sitting all day at your computer answering multiple choice questions.

[00:04:48] Jon M: We’ll talk a little bit more about this at the end because we do this at the end of each episode, but we’ve just participated in putting out a video in conjunction with Meira Levinson, who’s at Harvard, called What Would YOU Do?, which is a series of videos about ethical issues that arise in schools. And the one that’s been posted so far is about action civics, which is where a teacher is doing action civics, where students go out and pick things that they want to do in the world and do them and then come back and report on them. And as you may know, there’s a lot of pushback against this from the right wing. And so it sort of looks at what happens in a school when a teacher wants to do this and some people in the community object.

Josh Shapiro, the new governor of Pennsylvania, just removed the requirement of a bachelor’s degree for the vast majority of state jobs, and Montana and Utah had made similar changes last year. What do you think some of the effects of this will be? 

[00:05:54] Arlene G: I think it’s wonderful. I don’t know if the New York Times is going to publish the article, I mean, the letter to the editor I just sent them about it, but I thought it was fantastic and I wanted to write. I think the impact is going to be that a larger number of people who have the skill and who have the will and potential engagement to do a good job in some form of public sector service are to get that opportunity where they were just eliminated by an arbitrary thing before. I think that’s going to be the big impact. I’m hoping that it will spread, the pebble dropped in a pond thing, because I think if these few states experiment with that and document the results, I imagine that it will be of interest to other states as well and localities. It’s a great thing. 

As I wrote this book, there’s a lot of convergence, not so much other books, although a few, but lots of articles that I’m reading and seeing, like the one about Josh Shapiro, where somebody’s questioning the orthodoxy that says the only way to cultivate knowledge, the only way to cultivate wisdom, is to give yourself over to a curriculum that that has been prepared for you. And that’s so not true. So I’m really glad people are finding out. 

[00:07:12] Amy H-L: You argue that we put too much emphasis on going to college and obtaining credentials. Would you advise high school students to think about other options when they’re thinking about life after graduation? 

[00:07:27] Arlene G: Well, I think they should think about all the options. I have no way of knowing if that would actually change the numbers that make certain choices, but I know now, especially for kids who are seen as having academic potential and so forth, it’s not presented as a choice. It’s presented as a necessity, and often it’s presented as a necessity in really dire terms. Like if you don’t do this, you’re going to be living under a bridge in five years. I heard someone’s mother said that to them. So that, and this is so not true. I mean, one of the things I looked at in the book were some of the statistics about who completes a four year academic degree, and the impediments to doing that for people who are in certain demographic groups, economic groups and and so forth. It’s not as widespread as people tend to think. There’s sort of this default idea that everyone went to college who I know who’s going to be in one of these professions or one of these circles that touch somehow on my life. But actually more than a majority of Americans don’t have a degree from a four year college. Yeah. 

[00:08:41] Jon M: I think the statistic that I have seen several times is that 38% of people have a four year degree. I’m not sure of if that’s people over age 25 or what the specific definition is, but it really is about 38%. So that means that 62% don’t. 

[00:09:03] Amy H-L: Do you see a value in a liberal arts education in itself beyond the value it gives you in the job market? 

[00:09:13] Arlene G: Isn’t that completely up to the student? A university is a place that has tremendous resources. If you can go there and avail yourself of those resources and you have learned to cultivate your curiosity and you have some modicum of social imagination that you can bring to the task so it’s not just a personal project, then I’m sure it’s an incredible repository of wisdom and skill and learning of all sorts.

Jared Kushner’s parents donated $250 million to pave his way into Harvard, and we’ve all seen the result. Do you think he benefited from a liberal arts education? The [inaudible] is about athletes, right? That there are people who go for four years and drink beer and go to parties. That’s not necessarily true. It’s a stereotype. It’s true for some, but the fact is when, when I’ve been on campuses, I see young students, undergraduates and graduates, who clearly have not yet learned to think for themselves and others who embrace the process of thinking and learning. So it’s like anything, the only value that anything has is if people take advantage of it. And if they don’t, for personal or social reasons, then the value is negligible. 

[00:10:34] Jon M: For students who can’t or don’t want to go to college or whose college experience is very vocationally focused, you’re going to college because it’s going to help you get this job. What are some things that you might recommend of as ways for people to think about opportunities to expand their horizons and their ways of reflecting that a liberal arts education was traditionally supposed to provide? 

[00:10:57] Arlene G: Yeah, that’s a good question, Jon. I want to think about it for a second. I feel like I’m giving you an unsatisfying answer cause I’m kind of going to repeat myself again. I think it’s a tremendous foundation if you make it a tremendous foundation even if you’re not studying to be an engineer or a doctor or an attorney, something that needs a credential and needs that kind of certification and authorization, you can get that there. 

Two things, pop right to mind. One you mentioned before in the videos that you’re doing with Meira Levinson, ethics. In the book I talk about the experience I’ve had going to different colleges and universities, mostly art schools, to teach a course in the ethics of participatory or community-based arts work, cultural work somehow. People who devise plays with community members, they make a mural, stuff like that. And without exception, this two hour workshop that I’ve offered at probably 20 different institutions is the first time that the students sitting in the class have been introduced to the real ethical challenges of the work that they do. And one of the things that inevitably happens, because of the way I’ve structured the workshop. The beginning part is to offer people some principles, some ideas, some ways of looking at ethics as they intersect with the work that they want to do in the world as community-based artists. And there’s a very clear lesson there that everybody needs to learn, which is that when you work with human beings, ethical challenges inevitably arise, and it’s a good idea to change your view of that from looking at it as oh no, I made a mistake, maybe if I don’t pay attention, it will go away, to here’s a learning opportunity.

In the second part of the workshop, the participants describe situations that they’ve been in in which an ethical challenge was presented. And we use a format that I’ve suggested to them to deconstruct that. And one of the things that happens is that in the first step, people kind of discharge their knee jerk opinions, whom I liked, whom I didn’t like, that kind of thing. If it’s a conflict between two forces, everyone has some sort of automatic preference. And as we go on, I ask people in the workshop to inhabit the characters of other stakeholders. So let’s say it was a mural being censored at a school. Then some people would be the principal, some people would be a teacher, some people would be some of the parents, some would be the folks who live in the neighborhood. And I asked them to express their perspective on what’s happening in the first person, and to do it such that the person that they’re depicting would not feel ridiculed by it. And so an hour, an hour and a half into the thing, people are understanding that there’s more than one way to look at it and that everybody has their reasons, and that while you may have the ones that you attach to most strongly, that doesn’t make them right for everybody in all situations. And that’s often a powerful learning for people.

Over the years, as a consultant, I’ve worked with a lot of organizations that are dealing with some kind of internal conflict. And one of the things that inspired me to do this was noticing that when you ask people, speaking of their antagonist, why do you think he did that, why do you think she said that, that you usually have to go through four or five layers of I have no idea. And when I kept asking them to interrogate their experience to see if they could pull anything from it about the other person’s motives, the resistance to that made me realize that they felt like they needed to objectify the other person to shore up their sense of righteousness, on their own side of the argument.

So that’s the thing that I would say to students is as you take part in classes and readings and writing and so forth, you’re going to hear the presentation of certain ideas or certain perspectives delivered very forcefully by somebody who really believes them. And it’s very tempting to just go, oh yeah, that sounds right, I’m going to adopt that position. But I would say always interrogate your own assumption. Always look for the points of view that are missing from the story as you’re told it. Always look, quoting the Talmud, turn it and turn it and turn it because everything is in it. 

I think if they understand that mistakes are inevitable. and that complications, challenges are inevitable. They need to cultivate awareness of that. And if they understand that there are many ways to look at any situation, those will be tools, emotional and logical tools, that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their life. And I don’t think they’re always taught in school, whether we’re talking about higher ed or K through 12.

[00:15:58] Jon M: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m thinking, especially in terms of what you were just talking about where you’re talking about, say, workshops that are where you’re talking to students who are in, say, a college, but are not being encouraged to expand their horizons. For the students who aren’t going on to college, given all of the societal pressures, well, you should be going on to college and this is where one goes to learn, what are some of the things you’ve thought about in terms of ways that young people who want to keep expanding their horizons, but not through a college environment? What are some of the things you think that people might be able

[00:16:43] Arlene G: Yeah. Well in the fields that I have the most knowledge of, like various forms of arts work, many disciplines, many modes. There are all these studies about training. People at some foundation or something want to know, what was most valuable to you, how did you become who you are in this work? Apprenticeship or some form of shadowing, being side by side with an accomplished person, is inevitably the absolute highest scorer on all those charts. So that would be my first go-to. Find someone whose work you admire, whose way of being seems of interest to you, and how can you help that person, and how can you learn by helping that person.

And one thing that I’ve seen over the years as someone who’s been an activist most of my life and worked with low budget organizations, nonprofit, community-based and so forth, is that there’s been a trend in the culture at large for young people to feel that they should be making a lot of income instantly after they get out of school. Most of the ones I’ve talked to lately made far more at age 21 or something than I make old enough, well old enough to be their grandmother. But when I learned, that’s what I did. I volunteered. I didn’t have money, by the way, that’s not the background I came from, but I got by. I volunteered. I contributed, I asked people if they would learn with me, help me learn. And I did that for free until I got good at something and then people started asking me to work with them to do it, and they offered to pay me and I took what they offered me, and after a while I realized I could ask for more and so on and so on. But it’s an apprenticeship of sorts, even if it’s not just with one master or mistress. It could be a serial apprenticeship with a number of different people who have something to offer. My husband is a sculptor and he has an MFA. So he went to an undergraduate program, and then he went to a graduate school. When he popped into graduate school, it turned out that while he thought he would study with all these fantastic people who were listed on the syllabi and so forth, they wanted him to be a teaching assistant and do their work for them, because that’s the way those schools were structured. But he got so disillusioned with the system that he decided he wasn’t going to make art anymore. He was down in Southern California. He decided he would move to Northern California, and when he got there, by happenstance, he met a sculptor who was extremely accomplished and that guy happened to need something crated. And Rick knew how to build things like that. So he went to the person’s studio and helped him get ready for a show by crating up his artwork. And right after that, the person said, “I like the way you work. Will you work with me?” and that started a 20 year collaboration in which Rick had his own practice, but the person that he worked with continued his practice as well, and they learned from each other. So I’m just telling one story that’s very close to my life and my heart, but there’s a zillion stories like that. The other thing that I would say is if you’re in a formal education program, then the reading that’s offered you tends to be fairly narrow in whatever the specialty is that’s being discussed in the course. And I think it’s really important if people want to guide themselves, like you were asking, Jon, to read outside your immediate areas of interest, to study things that just catch your interest. You don’t have to go deeply into every subject that crosses your path, but I think wide knowledge serves you better as an autodidact then narrow specialization. And I think that’s true for a lot of people who’ve gone through graduate programs as well. 

[00:20:42] Amy H-L: Your book is about post-secondary education, but it seems to me that a lot of what you’re saying is applicable to K-12 as well. Could you talk about that? 

[00:20:54] Arlene G: I wrote a lot in the book about my experiences in school, which were K-12, so that’s in there, too. But you’re right that a lot of my critique is reserved for post-secondary education, and it’s because of the economics of it, perhaps more than anything else, the way that it’s been converted from a social good to a profit center and the extremely high economic bar that exists around elite institutions and the competition that they foster.

But going back and saying, how do these things apply to to K through 12? Gee, I really think everything does because I think the attitudes that are inculcated. That leads to what we read about, high school students being in utter panic their last two years in school around admission stuff, around test scores, around having been convinced that my life will be ruined if I don’t get into Harvard or Yale or whatever elite school I’m looking for. Well, all of the ideas that underpin that terrible process are offered to them in school starting from the earliest stages. So it’s a hard thing, Amy, because it’s a core values question. What are the core values that schools are inculcating or at least cultivating?

In the book I talk about something that isn’t directly related to school, but I think it’s germane, which is in the seventies, the national Chamber of Commerce, the people who led that were very alarmed at the existence of Earth Day and a number of things that they felt were happening in the zeitgeist that undermined the marketplace, that undermined business as a core institution of US culture, and they proposed a number of things to do, which included forming curriculum, publishing textbooks, educating teachers who have that orientation and so forth. Now when I was in school at a zillion years ago, it was definitely that. It was right after the witch hunts, the era, and capitalism was clearly taught as the best possible system in the world. The harm that capitalism did was never discussed. I hope this is different now, okay. But this is what it was like then, and for example, I didn’t learn about McCarthy in school. I learned about McCarthy outside of school. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. I lived a few miles from Tanforan, now a racetrack, then a Japanese internment camp. And I never heard that it existed through the 12th grade. I had to find that out from somebody else, on my own. So it’s a core values question. And as you know, and I don’t have to tell you guys, that this is what’s contested now in Ron DeSantis at all having the anti-critical race theory crusade, which has nothing to do with critical race theory, but what those people are doing is propagandizing, using terms that most voters aren’t familiar with, propagandizing around the idea that students in K through 12 education are being trained. Their critique is that white students are made to feel bad if you teach the history of slavery. You guys know it totally and I’m sure your your listeners do. So if there would be one thing that I could have an influence on or change, that would be it. Because it seems to me that the core values that ought to completely infuse K through 12 education are justice, inclusion, love, honor, dignity, equity, equality. And you know, I could go on. 

It’s sad that we’re in a time in which so many people in positions of power have turned their back on those values. How that happens, I mean, I think it happens by what you guys were saying about the video series you’re doing, creating tools that offer to students and teachers and parents, an opportunity to question what exactly are we teaching here that we may not even be fully aware of, what ideas are infusing the curriculum even in subterranean ways and doing damage that we haven’t actually reckoned with. But that’s such an idealistic answer. 

[00:25:28] Jon M: Speaking of that, two of your angels who are very much focused on education are Paul Goodman and Paolo Friere. Could you talk a little bit about why they’re so important to you? 

[00:25:39] Arlene G: Absolutely. Well, Paolo Frere is like my patron saint even though he wasn’t religious and I’m not Catholic. When I first became acquainted with the concept of internalization of the oppressor, how we take into ourselves the insistent messages that we hear from the dominant culture, from people who have an interest in keeping us passive and compliant, until they become so familiar that it’s as if our own voice were speaking to us and they become guides in our lives. When I first heard that, it just blew my mind. It was so deeply true to my experience and everything I saw around me, and I realized I was lucky because I became acquainted with Friere at the time when people started reading him in the US, when “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” was translated into English via several other languages it appears, because it’s a very dense book, but it’s really worth reading. So I was lucky because I knew a lot of people who were doing experiments in K through 12 education at that time, and who were informed by those ideas and were trying to put them into practice. But it’s been a lifelong thing. I see it every single day. Reading the newspaper is a lesson in internalization of the oppressor, even to the level that the journalists and the headline writers don’t understand that they’re repeating falsehoods or implying falsehoods that they haven’t actually considered and vetted in their own minds because those are the dominant attitudes and they’ve become normalized. They’ve become what everybody knows to such an extent that people can just repeat them without really understanding what they’re doing. So that’s Friere. I recommend him to everybody in the world. 

Paul Goodman. You read in my book that he had a few personally obnoxious habits, but that’s the breaks. Not everybody who’s brilliant and generative can also conduct themselves in a way that you or I might think is perfect. But I called him the angel of the uncolonized mind. Somebody asked me the other day why I didn’t say decolonized, which is more the usage now. But decolonized to me means ridding oneself of colonial attitudes, which tend to be imperialist, racist, and so forth. The uncolonized mind is one that questions everything, not just certain political values or ways of understanding larger world events. That was who he was. 

[00:28:15] Jon M: Sadly, I think a lot of our listeners may not even know who Paul Goodman was, so if you could give a background, that would be great. 

[00:28:21] Arlene G: I will, I will. Well, Paul Goodman, he was a polymath. He wrote a book about Gestalt therapy. He wrote a book about, I think with his brother, about city planning. He wrote novels. He wrote plays. He was the best known public intellectual, probably, of his time. Around the time that he published the book, “Growing Up Absurd,” which was his critique of education as it as it was practiced in high schools in America, and also grade schools. He debated William Buckley on television. You can still see those things on YouTube. And he was fearless in the way he talked about things. He didn’t try to adapt what he had to say to what he thought people already agreed with or would easily receive. So I, I greatly admired his freedom of thought and then various ways he expressed it. 

But there’s one particular sidelight of his, which really commends him to me still, which is his letters to the . There are a couple of books of his in which he basically collects short essays that he wrote about lots of different subjects and also letters that he wrote, either to publications or to the head of General Motors, the President of the United States, whoever he had read about or heard about doing something that he thought was unacceptable. He just told it like it is. One of the collections is called “The Society I Live In is Mine,” which basically summed up his attitude that he felt as a citizen, not in the sense of papers and passports and so forth, legal sense, but as a citizen of the world, cultural citizenship. It’s not a concept he used, but it’s one that I make use of a lot. He felt he was entitled to exercise his thinking, his feeling, his judgment, his expression, in any way that he wanted to have a say in the course of events that surrounded him. And there’s a bit that he wrote, I think it was in that same book that I just mentioned, where about 1960, he used the word slavish, which is a complicated word to use right now. But he was already talking about the pliant way that journalists at press conferences and so forth made things easy on the person that they were interviewing by dialing back any criticism they have, by dialing back the vocabulary that they used or the emotional sense that was carried by their questions, so that they didn’t really offend anybody. And the result, he said, was this feeling of I’m going to leave talking about this to the betters, you know, the ones who really know. I don’t really have a say here, or I’m sure they’re doing the best they can. What do I know? That attitude is so pervasive now, and we’re talking about 63 years ago that he wrote about it.

[00:31:18] Jon M: You just mentioned cultural citizenship. Could you talk a little bit more about what that is and why it’s so important to you? 

[00:31:26] Arlene G: The word citizenship is vexed now. A lot of people don’t want to use it because of the way it’s been used as a club to beat immigrants. So I’ll, I’ll say that disclaimer on the front end, because this concept of cultural citizenship really predates the current anti-immigrant crackdown, if not the prior ones. Cultural citizenship requires no papers, no borders, no legalities. It’s the sense of everyone’s entitlement to a certain kind of belonging, to feel at home in the community in which you live, to be curious about your neighbors, to be the object of other people’s curiosity, and to welcome those interchanges, to have a say in policies and actions that affect you in any way whatsoever. 

In a condition of full cultural citizenship, everybody belongs. And because everybody belongs, we all feel comfortable raising our voices when we need to, and we all feel comfortable asking questions when we need to, and we all feel comfortable getting to know each other instead of objectifying each other. That’s a description of cultural citizenship as a complete project. Clearly it is not complete anywhere on the planet, but some of us are moving in that direction. It’s very powerful. 

[00:32:50] Jon M: Thank you, Arlene Goldbard, Arlene’s new book is ‘In the Camp of Angels of Freedom: What does it mean to be educated?” 

[00:32:58] Arlene G: Thank you Jon, and thank you, Amy, for having me. It’s always a fun conversation with you. I really appreciate being invited.

[00:33:06] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. Check out our new video series, What Would You Do?, a collaboration with Dr. Meira Levinson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click Video. In the first case study, a teacher using action civics faces pushback from a parent. The goal of the series is not to provide right answers, but to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints. 

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