Silent lunches: how do we get to educational reform in the US?

“As you well know, there is a lot of inequality in American schools and schooling…  and a whole emphasis on standardised tests, especially in schools of the kids of the poor.”

Lynda Stone
28 February 2017

Lynda Stone spoke at the “John Dewey’s “Democracy and Education” 100 Years On” conference at the University of Cambridge, 2016. This is transcribed from her 15-minute talk.

“I don’t want to be the hopeless one. I want to talk about the process in the context of the US today. But I would say there is no toxicity around Dewey in the US today because there is no Dewey, nor much discourse or practise of democracy – such an irony in this wonderful conference…

“This is set in a very complex current culture in the US in which there are many challenges of insecurities, including racism – the month of July was just horrible at home and the election, with neither political party talking about education at all, because both are assuming the status quo with states competing for ‘race for the top money’ in a climate of standardised testing. Our politicians pay no attention to educators, to educational research or theory. In the US this has a lot to do with the hierarchy of the academy, the schools and colleges of education whose arts and sciences departments who traditionally rule the roost, and Heaven Forbid! that  they would want to talk to educators about educational philosophy for example.

“The general view is that all we do in schools of education is train teachers and that there is no valuable scholarship going on unless it has to do with measurement, like the place of standardized test scores. So I’m going to talk about school practices, because I think there are some things going on there that I would like to change. I’m going to talk about the research community, teacher education and critical theory – Dewey falls on deaf ears even among my colleagues because we are talking about knowledge and achievement with such emphasis that we have forgotten about ethics and ethos and the kinds of things that we ought to have in schools.  I will conclude in telling you something about my own work in ‘small democracies’. I am not without hope, but we may have to look outside schools to think about the kinds of operations that we could then bring into the school to do things, for instance like change professional learning communities…

“As you well know, there is a lot of inequality in American schools and schooling. There’s a wide range in terms of resources, the whole problem of inner city schools – wait until I talk about ‘silent lunches’ and ‘hand signals’ – and there is a whole emphasis on standardised tests especially in schools of the kids of the poor; the traditional curriculum’s sole emphasis on ‘college readiness’ and a whole range of strict discipline. One of the things I am writing about is mass incarceration and what we call the school-to-prison-pipeline, begun, for example,  in the name of the ‘drug culture’ in the 90’s that put all kinds of young people, but especially minority males, in prisons, so that we have the highest incarceration rate  anywhere in the world. We have huge privatisation of prisons and the building of prisons, and in my state of North Carolina, they are just building them everywhere. Once they get into prison, these young people are literally disenfranchised for the rest of their lives.

Let me talk about some of my favourite school practices – silent lunch, with tables set for eight, a teacher and students. In some schools you get ten minutes of ‘silent lunch’: in others the entire lunch period is silent. Can you imagine engendering a feeling of community and democracy when kids can’t even talk to one another? It’s just disgusting.

Then there is school suspension. A kid arrives late to class in the morning and instead of letting the kid come in, the in- school-suspension punishment takes place in libraries – what does that say about libraries?  And kids get locked into schools in the United States – locked in. Can you imagine? Some other ideas that have been proposed include the possibility of teachers carrying guns into school. Can you think of anything more preposterous?

“ There is virtually no democracy. Teachers have very little control over what they do. It is not that they are not resisting. But, they basically don’t have a whole lot of say about what our curriculum is.  That comes from the state, from the top – and with competition for money to be able to have resources.

“I’m all for social justice, but what it does to my and other colleges of education is that it completely shuts out other discourses. For example, I’m all for minority achievement – but no other discourse gets allowed. This is what I say to the Freireans. Nobody criticises Freire in the US – heaven forbid that there should be a critical literature! But that’s ridiculous. We are going to have to take multiple routes to reform and we are going to have to learn to talk together even if we disagree. Dewey recognised conflict but not very much. He really did think, as you can see in ‘The Great Community’, that we were all going to be able to come together in some kind of consensual discourse and practise and I think that is probably outdated today.”


“So there is no discussion of democracy. Back to social justice – everything is talked about in terms of structures, ‘positionalities’ and identities and identity politics. And there is no discussion about how you get to school reform, to do something about social justice. How do you get there? It’s just, “we are going to change the structures, change the inequality, maybe we are going to have revolution.” Bernie Sanders to the contrary, there is no pragmatic sense about how we are going to get there.

“I wrote a paper on ‘Association and Dewey’ for the 100th year celebrations. We need to think about local communities, where at least with the ones I know, there is a lot of diversity already. What I want us to do is to have small little ways to join together and solve everyday problems that get beneath the political radar. At the national level, we have a divided culture where nobody can talk to one another. We won’t change from this national culture quickly. But we need to find spaces where we can take our differences into account, the kind that Chantal Mouffe talks about…

“ About twenty years ago, many of Chicago’s public schools disbanded and handed over the control of their schools to local communities. They formed their own schools boards, and oftentimes the leader of that school board was a single mother of kids in that school. They developed processes by which people could contribute in a variety of ways. It’s an interesting model.

“ You know, twenty five per cent of American kids go to school hungry. There is a whole bunch of problems in terms of jobs and public transportation, and if we solved those problems, mixed housing and so forth… we wouldn’t have problems in our public schools. Even in big institutions like the Chicago Public Schools, things could happen if we gave them the resources."

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