Herbert Kohl, Teaching the “Unteachable.”

I knew of Herbert Kohl from his 1995 book Should We Burn Babar? I’d bought it in the mid-90s, solely because the title provoked me. I am loyal to Jean de Brunhoff and his elephant king, not least because I read the whole series to my daughter when she was young, developing accents, voices, and verbal tics for each character. Kohl promised a critique of racism and sexism in children’s literature. His was not a road I badly wanted to travel. But, I thought, the text might come in handy when assigning students critical readings around Edward Said’s Orientalism. Alas, I never found a way to shoehorn one of Kohl’s essays comfortably into the syllabus. So most of the book went unread.

Thirty years before declaring war on King Babar and Queen Celeste, Kohl – then a teacher in the New York City school district – battled the city’s rigid and unresponsive educational system through speeches, manifestos, and essays. In 1967, the New York Review of Books published an extended version of one such essay in a little saddle-stapled pamphlet titled Teaching the “Unteachable.

 I found it last week at Angel City Books, two blocks from the beach in Venice. It had been sharing space with discarded zines and other miscellany, sitting in a corrugated cardboard box nestled between two other corrugated cardboard boxes along one shelf of a wall devoted to used poetry and plays.

The pamphlet, published in 1967, has just reached its 50th birthday. I will soon turn 60, so I eyed it with considerable sympathy. I did not want this discard to mark such a significant milestone in a corrugated cardboard box amid the literary riffraff. In 1967, I would have paid $1 to buy it. Since it’s 2017, I paid $6.

Kohl’s essay, as the title hints, targets teachers and schools that, in his view, have given up on their students. Early in his career, he had tried to impose New York’s alienating and ineffective curriculum in his classrooms without success. Rather than blame the students or their parents, Kohl tossed aside the rulebook and began asking his students genuine questions. Once his 5th and 6th grade students recognized that Kohl really did  value their answers – and would never humiliate them for grammatical errors or censor the raw honesty of their work – they wrote.

The writing got them thinking about words. “Where do words come from,” they asked Kohl. And that led, over time, to talking about stories and where they come from. In rejecting New York’s curriculum, Kohl wasn’t declaring his independence from the canon. Instead, he was was allowing students to lead themselves to the classics. He argues that kids have to want to understand the ancients, and that to feel their own intellectual hunger, they must first develop a capacity for putting themselves into the old stories.

Kohl’s pamphlet arrived at a difficult but opportune moment. In the late 60s, New York’s political bedrock shook as intersecting fault lines ground wrenchingly against one another. Just a year after Teaching the “Unteachable” appeared, a long-rumbling conflict pitting teachers, community activists and city officials against one another exploded in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, bringing to the surface long-unresolved issues of union work rules, civil rights, community control, racial and ethnic identity, and chronic poverty. It was one of those moments when previously unassailable institutions become vulnerable, and radical change becomes – if only for a moment – imaginable.

Appended to Kohl’s cri de coeur is the “Manifesto of the Huntting Conference of Teachers and Writers,” among the most uncompromising statements of progressive education I’ve ever read. Written at a June 1966 conference held at Huntting Inn in East Hampton, it called for an end to graded written work (for elementary students, at least), and promised classrooms that freed students to use and revel in language. It concludes:

Now we are impatient!

This impatience embodies the urgency of the situation and the need to honor the short life of the child.

Right now the teachers and writers are sitting down together, but if the association is to hold and grow, the proposals made must now be implemented… It would be a sad comment if the capital of this concern were wasted.

The energy generated at Huntting Inn was not wasted. Over the coming decades, teachers and writers trained college students as writing teachers: an early progressive version of Teach for America. The list of the program’s writers is impressive: Kenneth Koch, Grace Paley, Ron Padgett, Muriel Rukeyser, Anne Sexton. Their work continues in the Teachers and Writers Collaborative  and in the many “poets in the schools” programs across the country.

Against that success, though, is the larger educational scene painted over the years by Jonathan Kozol, Michael Lewis, Paul Cummins, and Herbert Kohl himself. It’s worth noting that the Huntting Inn conference was sponsored by the Hampton Day School. As in so many other parts of the country, New York’s most innovative educational ideas took root not in large public school districts, but in private schools. Whether from the Right or Left, educational experimentation is just that: experimentation, tried here and there, its results debated, its lifetime short, its impact uncertain.

The United States is not Finland, South Korea, or Singapore. Despite the quadrennial hullaballoo around the Department of Education, real decisions are made in the states and, more importantly, in over 13,000 school districts. It is difficult to see how the tide will turn.

I’m pretty sure Kohl would waste little time refuting my pessimism. He’s still active and, publically at least, refuses to abandon his impatience or his faith.

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