Herbert Kohl

Herbert Kohl

Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: Education

Competition: US & Canada

Some thoughts on my education and my work


I attended PS 82, PS 104, Macombs Junior High School, and the Bronx High School of Science, all in the Bronx. My kindergarten teacher was wonderful. She was a member of our working-class Jewish, Italian, and Irish community and knew all of our parents. She also cared about us and her classroom was comfortable and I assume that we learned what was expected in kindergarten in 1942. I had a few problems in the first grade, as I didn’t understand why I should have to learn to read. My teachers called my father in one morning—meaning he had to miss some work—and she asked me to read for him. I said Jane for Dick and Dick for Spot. I didn’t even look at the page when I read. My father was embarrassed and said that when I returned to school the next day there was no question but that I would be attentive to learning to read. At home he told me that I had to cut out the occurrences of the word "the" on the front page of the New York Times and I would do it every day until my teacher told him I was caught up. He wasn’t kidding, I got the message, and from then on academics were never a problem to me. Until high school it was simply a matter of what was expected of me within the family and it wasn’t hard at all. In elementary school I had very nice teachers, a number of whom were trained in progressive education methods. Though I hated competing with other students and often suffered from asthma, school seemed pleasant enough. In the third through the fifth grade I especially loved walking almost a mile to school with my cousin Marilyn and my friends Ronny and Bobby, or wandering aimlessly to school by myself, looking in store windows, or stopping at the candy store and perusing the comic books. During my elementary school days I rather enjoyed school and liked my classmates, though I was a bit of a loner. Public school was and still is a very comfortable place for me. The sixth grade was sometimes unsettling because there were gang troubles around the school and walking home could be perilous.

Junior High School was another thing altogether. Many of the teachers were old school Irish disciplinarians who didn’t particularly like Jewish kids. One of them, the school disciplinarian and social studies teacher, was a chronic drunk. I was in a Special Progress class and we did the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades in two years. So far as I’m concerned, except for print shop and English, I could have skipped all three years. My homeroom teacher was one of the few Jewish teachers at the school but she left in the middle of my first year, to be replaced by a young teacher who, for some reason, didn’t treat us with respect. With the support of our parents, who felt she might be anti-Semitic, we drove her to quit. In retrospect, I think it was a matter of social class. She simply didn’t understand or respect working-class pride and treated us with condescension, which we found insulting.

In junior high I grew about five inches and became more sociable, liked to play basketball and softball, and had my first girlfriends. I don’t remember learning much but did encounter a book in the school library that transformed my life (see my essay "The Tattooed Man"). I also pretended to be part of a gang until I had a few unpleasant encounters with actual gang members and decided it wasn’t for me. I still don’t like to fight even though, growing up, I learned how to defend myself.

Bronx Science was a new, exciting, and very important experience for me. I entered Science in 1951, during the time of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities red hunt. My family and many of the families of my friends had members who were socialists or communists, and we all knew card-carrying members of the Communist Party. The teachers at Science were, in my experience, wonderful. They knew and loved their subjects on the highest professional level, and many did work in mathematics and the sciences independent of their teaching. Others, like Eleanor Burstein, my English teacher, helped students like me encounter poetry and literature for the first time. There were no books in my home. It was from her teaching that poetry, fiction, philosophy, and almost anything that came in book form became a necessary part of my life. To this day I love and collect books.

Nor was there any exposure to painting, sculpture, classical music, or jazz at home. My parents did take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art once or twice, rushing me by all of the nude paintings and those that represented Jesus. This presumably was to prevent me being corrupted by sex and Christianity.

At Science music and the arts also contributed profoundly to my growth. I remember my friend Ralph Lehman and I encountering a poster announcing that Paul Badura Skoda was playing the Mozart Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall. We were just wandering around 57th Street on a Saturday and ended up buying standing-room-only tickets. I remember thinking that we were really lucky that Mozart was being played in New York that year. I had just encountered his music in class at Science and had no idea that there was a thriving classical music culture in New York.

Through my friends I discovered Birdland and the Village Vanguard, and became a jazz aficionado. It seemed to me that through what I was given at high school I had moved from planet Grand Avenue in the Bronx to planet Earth. It was very exciting, and in all of my educational work I have wanted all of my students to have similar gifts of discovery and encounter challenging and exciting worlds they would not have encountered but for good teachers and schools.

I also discovered and became a participant in political and social activism at Science. Many of our teachers were called before the McCarthy Committee and HUAC, and as students we were active in defending them. One of the most beloved teachers at the school, Julius Hlavaty, the Chairman of the Mathematics Department, took the Fifth Amendment and refused to rat on anybody. As a consequence he was fired. We were all enraged and devastated. This taste of demagogy and fascism, added to our experience of the Holocaust and Hitler’s repression of us Jews, colored my entire youth. We were embattled and struggles for justice were a matter of life and death. I became a socialist through my grandfather and an activist though my experiences at the Bronx High School of Science.

In addition to national politics, I was directly involved in student government politics in New York City. At Science I became active in the student organization, being secretary, vice-president, and eventually president of the student body. I also was the school’s representative to the New York City Inter-city Student Council, which represented all eighty-six high schools in the city. In my senior year I became president of the Council and along with the vice-president, Robert Maynard (who became the only African American owner of a major daily newspaper in the U.S., the Oakland Tribune), became involved in issues of racism, police brutality, and student power. We even held a school strike over the New York Daily News running a series of articles demonizing high schools in New York. Along with the articles the paper printed pictures of kids with knives (those were the days before guns), of students making out in school stairwells, and of other students menacing teachers. We discovered that all of the pictures were posed by professional models and exposed this and ended up in conversations with the Mayor’s office, the Police Department, the Superintendent of schools, and members of the media. This was unfortunately a short-lived action as the leaders (myself included) all graduated and our successors showed no taste for struggle.

My experience as an undergraduate at Harvard was different than my high-school experience. First of all, I was away from the Bronx and loved it. I wanted independence and got it. Much to the chagrin of my parents I chose to major in philosophy and minor in mathematics. And much to the chagrin of my philosophy professors, who encouraged me to pursue a career in academic philosophy, I took classes in modern theater, fourteenth-century Italian painting, seventeenth-century English poetry, the twentieth-century novel, advanced mathematics, and the social sciences. I went where the great teachers were, and have never regretted it. Douglass Bush teaching John Donne and Ben Jonson was inspiring. Lynn Loomis’ classes on modern algebra and functional analysis introduced to me pedagogical strategies that have been part of my teaching repertoire throughout my educational career. And there was so much more. My lifelong interest in theater and my work creating plays with children was profoundly influenced by Chapman’s modern theater course. My tutor, Marshall Cohen, on a personal level guided me in reading philosophy and integrating the arts into my thinking about the world. I am aficionado of excellent teachers and have been privileged to know many throughout my life. One thing I learned at Science and Harvard was that first-rate teaching comes in many forms, shapes, and colors and knowing this has helped me build coherent educational programs with very diverse groups of people.

However, all was not smooth at Harvard. It was a social nightmare for me, one that, during times of stress, was punctuated by attacks of asthma. I was literally out of my class and felt awkward. There were times when I wasn’t sure I belonged; others when I tried to belong too much and took on airs and attitudes, in imitation, I thought, of what a "good Harvard man" is like. Of course people knew I was a sham.

The hardest thing at Harvard was my encounter with anti-Semitism. It didn’t change my complex feeling of being a Jew from a somewhat mixed, secular, and anti-Zionist family but did enrage me. There were a few times when I exploded but for the most part my rage was tempered. I had too much to gain from what I was learning to blow it on the kind of prejudice I knew I would spend my life encountering and fighting.

My dream after Harvard was to return to the streets, to go home to the kind of rough-and-tumble neighborhood I grew up in, and to teach in a public elementary school. Then, as now, I thought that the two things I wanted to do and had to do with my life were write and teach.

After a year at Oxford and Paris, and another at Columbia in the graduate school of philosophy, I finally followed my inner voices, my daemon, and became an elementary school teacher and a writer. Of course I learned from my students, but I’ve written a lot about that and won’t go into it here. I also learned from the parents of my students and from the community activists, like David X Spencer and Jose Gonzales, who put their lives and careers on the line for justice, and who became lifelong friends.

There is one other extended learning experience I had that deepened my understanding of pedagogy, and showed me, in a more profound way than I could have imagined, the centrality of education to the struggle for social and economic justice. That was my and my family’s twelve-year friendship with Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Center. It lasted from1977 to his death. Myles’ presence infused me with energy and love, and his storytelling and actions—for example, we traveled together to Belfast in the midst of The Troubles, and to the coal mines in the Rhonda Valley of Wales during the coal miners’ strike in 1984. My wife, Judy, and I spent time with Myles at Highlander and at our home in Point Arena, and our daughter Erica worked with him and Highlander while she was in college. The result of this was Myles’ autobiography, The Long Haul. It would take me a book to talk about what I learned from Myles but I think it would be best for people to read the book and learn from Myles themselves.

I have been blessed by being given the gift of learning from superb educators both within formal settings and informally. I love schools and love learning on the fly. I love learning from reading, from conversation, and from confrontation; from looking and listening; and from living within a racially diverse and cross-cultural family and community.

I don’t consider the education I advocate and practice as alternative to anything. I think of it as good education. My development as an educator emerged from my practice in the classroom informed by a vision of a decent world where resources were shared, creativity encouraged, and individual growth was accompanied by social responsibility and a commitment to social justice.

My earliest teaching experience was in a fifth-grade class of students who had rejected schooling. I began trying to lecture to the class, use copying from the chalkboard, textbooks, and threats to try to compel learning. It simply didn’t work, and since I refused to blame the students for my failures as a teacher, I struggled to develop other ways to get them to value what they were learning and enjoy being together as a community of learners. I quickly learned a few things. Giving students choices instead of trying to force them to do only one thing calmed them down, got them thinking, and taught me what they cared to learn and how they liked to go about learning. Mixing group, individual, and full-class learning during the course of the day allowed for flexibility and comfort. Providing the students with rich materials that had compelling content seduced students into engagement with complex ideas. Crossing disciplinary boundaries and introducing theater, the visual arts, technology, storytelling, reading, and research as part of a whole led to personal and group enrichment. Drawing on the student’s own experience and getting to know parents and becoming familiar with the community created trust and made it possible for, not just the students, but the community to feel that I provided a useful service that was valuable. In sum, over the first few years of teaching I learned to become connected, as a teacher and a learner myself, to my students and to begin to understand their skills, talents, dreams, and ideas.

From the very first day I began teaching my work was driven by a refusal to accept any limitation on what my students could learn, and therefore to reject any prior stigmatization that had been imposed upon them in their school histories. I worked very hard at becoming a good teacher and loved it. Being with children and contributing to their growth has always been a joy and blessing to me. However, as I began to observe my students open up, I began to see how unhappy and badly treated other students at the school were. I saw overt racism and brutality, as well as more subtle though equally damaging institutionalized or rationalized racism and often got in trouble for confronting it directly.

I had learned from my grandfather and other socialists and labor activists that the only way to change something was to confront it—intelligently and strategically, but nevertheless without fear of losing a job or being criticized or ostracized. Over the course of my teaching I have been involuntarily transferred out of a school where I was successful; been engaged on the side of the community in battles over the control of schools; confronted both administrators and other teachers and the union over issues of racism; and at the same time advocated for excellence in public education. It is in the public domain—not home schooling, private schooling, or alternative schooling—where I have located my work. And I have achieved successes beyond my dreams, seen sad and discouraged children emerge as powerful, caring, thoughtful, and skilled adults. I also experienced communities coming together over educational issues and, through attempting to help children, learn to organize and advocate to help themselves as well. I have also been honored to play a modest role in the Civil Rights movement, a number of anti-war movements, been a fellow traveler of movements for social and economic justice wherever they emerge. And perhaps my writing over the past forty years has contributed to developing richer, more effective, and socially responsible education. I hope I have done my grandfather proud.

Finally, I have always advocated that all students should have every opportunity to acquire the basic skills of reading with intelligence and sensitivity; calculating and understanding the role of numbers in your life; engaging in the arts and tutoring the social and personal imagination; learning your own history and developing a critical and analytic knowledge of history and economics; learning the scientific method and understanding the role of experimentation and verification in life as well as in the lab; and becoming part of social action for community development. The consequence of good education, for me, has been the development of the habit of lifelong learning and, on the part of my students, the feeling that they can continue to learn and have something to teach their own and other people’s children as well.

I am now seventy-two and living in Point Arena, California. I am teaching a seminar on essay writing. The half-dozen members of the class have made personal commitments to writing, and the experience has allowed me to focus, once again, on improving my own work while helping others develop. I’m also working on a number of other projects. One, in conjunction with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, consists of developing, along with actors and educators, a book that advocates funding for the arts in public schools, and proposes ways to consider the arts as basic skills. Hopefully the book will appear in the context of a campaign to promote public advocacy for arts in the schools. This is a way of reminding people of the importance of nurturing the personal and social imagination during a time when schooling is becoming increasingly sterile.

Another project I’m working on is developing a toolbox for progressive educators. It would gather together specific resources for teaching social, economic, and human rights; civic participation and community development; ecological thinking; geopolitical understanding; change, innovation, and invention; communication and media (including propaganda analysis); planning and design; and finally conflict resolution. This is a very ambitious task, involving bringing together specific published resources, games, original documents, teacher created and locally published curriculum material, and visual- and computer-based materials that deal with subjects not usually included in the curriculum. These subjects have been chosen to help teachers create progressive and critical understanding in their classrooms or small schools. They specifically and unambiguously are meant to help teachers introduce sensitive issues into their work no matter how restricted their latitudes of freedom are becoming with the current obsession with high-stakes tests and "teacher-proof" materials. They will also involve soliciting and creating new materials. If I ever get this done the toolbox will be what might be called chicken soup for subversive teachers.

I have also been thinking about developing a project that engages teachers, educators, community organizers, academics, and parent advocates in developing the skills of writing for the public. The goal is to create a public voice that advocates for children and teachers who have a democratic vision of teaching and learning. For me its means advocating for progressive educational ideas (a definition of what this means in the context of 21st-century education would entail a book, which at times I have thought of writing). Mike Rose and others have been thinking along the same lines. This is still in the talking stage.

There are a few books I have been working on or planning. I’m working on a book, along with Kevin Truitt, former principal of Mission High School in San Francisco, on what we call edutherapy, that is, support for school leaders that is more like dramaturgy than training or evaluation. I have also been thinking about doing a book about basketball in my life, and maybe writing a mystery novel.

The most complex and difficult project I imagine undertaking is a philosophic and pedagogical work on learning which would bring together my experience, thoughts, and understanding of how people learn and how teaching fits into all of the different ways of learning that human beings utilize.

All of this is keeping me busy, though I continue to be troubled about how much work needs to be done to create greater justice and equity throughout the world. And what’s going on in public education enrages me—in particular the foolish move to privatizing public education and the continued torturing of young people in order to support the testing and textbook industry. I am particularly disturbed by the way in which the Obama administration has intensified, at least in the area of education, all of the Bush’s disdain for the lives of the young. My commitment to social and economic justice is stronger than ever and I hope to continue to be of use over the coming years.

National Book, Childrens Books, 1978
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