As Americans (and many others in the world), we are increasingly interested in deconstructing pretty much everything. We point out the internal inconsistencies. We surface bias, prejudice, and bigotry. We minimize the claimed significance of ideas and people. We are skilled at undermining the structure of the world around us. Not that we necessarily do this with any neutrality (we’ve long since deconstructed the idea of neutrality along the way), but this act of deconstructing is something that people value, even celebrate.
I find it hard to deny the benefit of deconstructing. It gives us a reality check on some historical figures. Where we once celebrated certain figures as bastions of character, we now often come to surface their far more complex and conflicted traits. We learn that they are indeed people who accomplished certain things that we deem noble while also making mistakes, struggling with inner demons, and embracing less noble thoughts and practices as well. The act of deconstructing, in that case, becomes a reality check.
Like many others, I’ve read Derrida and many others influences by his ideas. Of course, most of what we call deconstructing is not informed by his ideas and work. For most, it has just turned into a critique of tradition, a skepticism of existing systems and structures, and a recognition that there is almost always more to the story. I do not need to agree with everything that Derrida taught or wrote to see that a discerning and critical eye in society has value. Deconstructing is part of modern life and society.
This is true in education as well. In fact, some might argue that my analysis of the affordances and limitations of various practices and innovations in education is a form of deconstruction. I challenge the value of the letter grade system. I argue that the credentialing monopoly of higher education includes a dark side worthy of our reconsideration. I contend that an education done to people instead of with people might not achieve our goals of nurturing an engaged and more democratic approach to society. I critique some traditional teaching practices as enabling students, preventing some from developing a growing sense of agency. I challenge Utopian visions of the big data revolution (while also recognizing some of the promise). I am one the more outspoken critics of how we approach education policy. For those who read my blog and books, or listen to my podcast, you could probably add another dozen items to this list.
Deconstructing has a good and important. However, I am increasingly convinced that deconstruction itself has plenty of limitations. I will focus on one. When I was a kid, I loved to take things apart and see how they work. I took apart old record players, remote control cars, walkie talkies, a shotgun, a lawnmower or two, a weed eater, electric drills and saws, a couple of old computers or peripherals, a small pinball machine, and many more such items. I thoroughly enjoyed taking these things apart. It was the discovery of what was beneath the surface and sometimes figuring out how things worked. I think that I also just enjoyed destroying things sometimes. Only many of those items never came back together. Or, when I needed one or wanted to use it, I did not get it back together with the same care as its original construction. Sometimes these were broken in the first place, so I had nothing to lose, but other times I managed to turn a functioning item into a pile of parts. That is my concern. When we focus exclusively on deconstructing, we can soon find ourselves living in a pile of parts.
This is why it is important to resist the temptation to stop at deconstructing. In fact, when it comes to education, it may well be irresponsible or even unethical to stop at deconstructing. At minimum, it is often unhelpful. Instead, deconstructing in education brings with it a responsibility. If we are going to take something apart, we need to be willing to do more. If we take it apart to point out problems, sometimes we are wise to make sure that we can put it back together until there is something better. In other cases, it is our task and call to explore viable and better alternatives, and to help make those a reality. Not only that, many aspects of education are intertwined. As such, when we take apart one thing, it leaves other parts impaired or non-functioning. We must take care to consider these repercussions.
If the goal is just to tear things apart and turn the education system into a scrapyard, then perhaps there is no need to worry about such things. Only, that is not my goal, nor is it the goal of most with whom I speak. As such, I offer a simple proposition for those of us involved in education reform. If we deconstruct something, we must be willing to help with constructing something equal or better in its place.
Only those of us who find joy or justification in deconstructing are not always willing to join in the constructing. It is hard work. We also stick our necks out, making us vulnerable to some of the deconstructing attacks that we used on others and other ideas. James Bryant Conant, a former President of Harvard, once said “Behold the turtle. He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out.” If we are interested in progress, improvement, well-being, justice, or some other preferred state, then tearing things apart is not enough. We have to stick our necks and help move things forward.