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Pedagogy 4.3 (2004) 475-483
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Can Transcendentalist Romanticism Save Education?
In Search of an Active Learning Countertradition
[Works Cited for Roundtable]
Martin Bickman's Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning is not what I expected or really hoped for in a book claiming to reclaim a tradition, and I expect that I am not alone in this. I had hoped for a book that would chart the origins and developments of what I consider active learning pedagogies, a history that would confirm my beliefs and my classroom practices by locating me within a meaningfully large movement, that would enrich my thinking, and that would give my teaching direction by showing me past successes and failures, just the sort of histories that, say, the late Robert Connors (1997, 2003) wrote for my discipline of rhetoric and composition. It is not as if Minding American Education does not do some of that—or something sort of like that, and I do not want to be unfair here. Reading Martin Bickman's history is not wholly without value, but much more is going on in this book than reclaiming a certain history.
Superficially, the book looks like what I expected. In fact, it looks almost too traditional. It is divided into nine chapters with a short introduction and appears to follow a chronological order, with each chapter seemingly dedicated to a major figure or figures (Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace Mann; James Marsh and Bronson Alcott; Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau; John Dewey) or different time periods ("Pedagogy and the Arts in Early Modernism"; "The 1960s and 1970s"), with an early chapter on "Romantic Wholism" thrown in for theoretical background and a final chapter claiming to show how the author's own teaching embodies the features of active learning discussed in the earlier chapters.
On the surface, then, Minding American Education would appear to be a traditional history, but there is a confusion of cross-purposes at work here. In his introduction, Bickman promises to "reconstruct a counter-tradition that is the antidote to" the failure of American education to integrate teaching and learning—that is, an examination of "a current in American thought the very goal of which is to relate the abstract to the concrete, contemplation to action" (2). But Bickman also warns us that "this will not be a thorough and detailed exposition of the history of American education [End Page 475] as much as a reconceptualizing of it" (2). It is almost as if the author knew what I wanted as an active learning enthusiast, but that there was an alternate agenda that he had in mind and an alternate constituency that he needed to satisfy. And he does—much later—explicitly state his alternate agenda: to show "how what prose writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Herman Melville do in literature can be transferred to the classroom, how the energies of art can unstiffen our teaching" (75). Readers enthusiastic about active learning pedagogies and theory will most likely be disappointed with this book, while scholars and teachers of American literature with only a passing interest in active learning may find the book mildly interesting, since Bickman offers the study of literature and creative writing as antidotes to the ills of contemporary education.
Part of the problem I have with Minding American Education no doubt has to do with a difference in definition. Bickman never explicitly defines active learning, which is not to say we cannot infer a definition. Active learning for him is any attempt to forge a synthesis between the abstract and the concrete, contemplation and experience (2). Later (most notably in chapter 3, when he discusses Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Aids to Reflection), Bickman offers reflexivity (the willingness of the teacher to be self-reflective) as another defining feature of active learning. But we need to ask ourselves, is it active learning that Bickman is really defining or just learning...