Debate over Gist: What do we value?


To the Editor:

Deborah Gist has become a lightning rod for the electricity surrounding the Department of Education’s school reform measures.

While many politicians and business leaders extol the commissioner’s virtues, this is often counter-balanced by teachers, parents and students who claim that her policies hurt many kids. Back and forth we go.

Sometimes I think that we lose sight of the fact that these arguments go much deeper than a debate over Deborah Gist’s performance. What is really being discussed here is philosophy.

The philosophical issues on the table go back to the days of Socrates and Plato. What is just? Who should lead? What should we teach our kids? Socrates went to his death asking these questions. In fact, he was accused of corrupting the youth with his ideas. In addition, Plato’s Republic had much to say about leaders and education. He also got the jump on the Matrix with his Allegory of the Cave. Yes, this stuff goes way back.

Our current debate oftentimes pits those presently in power (business leaders and many politicians) versus those who might be harmed by power’s misuse. Also at odds here are many moral questions. Who wins and who loses?  What responsibility do we have to our weak and disadvantaged? As all of this plays out some blame the commissioner. As all of this plays out others blame teachers and unresponsive kids. While we get caught up in terms like Republican, Democrat, conservative, progressive, etc., we forget things like fairness, compassion and the best for all.

Most folks know the word “philosophy” means the love of wisdom. What better goal could our Department of Education have than to cultivate a love for wisdom and knowledge in Rhode Island’s young learners? It certainly seems that under the present terms of excessive mandates, threats and an over-reliance on standardized testing there is little love going on.

Philosophy as a discipline promotes inquiry and analysis. Philosophy when used to explain one’s mindset speaks to the values we choose to live by. The strategies presently being espoused as reform point to conformity. We often debate issues pertaining to freedom of speech while freedom of thought is being eroded on a daily basis.

The Department of Education’s rush to test for English and math often has us overlook other important disciplines. Perhaps philosophy is one of them. Maybe we should be teaching kids about ethics, leadership, critical thinking, citizenship, purpose and meaning. Then again, as we witnessed from the PSU Group, maybe they could be teaching us.

Deborah Gist is a bright woman. In her world she is extremely accomplished. Knocking any of that is silly. She presents well and seems to handle opposing views in a professional manner. However, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that despite all of this her leadership has taken us in a direction that is unfair to some kids and hurts them as well. It has placed us back inside of Plato’s cave. What really needs to be looked at in this entire school reform debate is ‘What do we value?’ The commissioner represents one world view. Is that the one you want?

Robert Houghtaling

East Greenwich


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