Alumni Profile of Maxine McClintock, PhD – Author of Letters of Recommendation (Philosophy and Education, 1986) ☆
By Tim Ignaffo
Why did you choose to study philosophy of education?
If philosophy starts in wonder then for as long as I can remember I have wondered about the disconnect between getting schooled and achieving an education. I first experienced this fissure as an elementary school pupil. I couldn’t understand why school was so boring. I knew learning wasn’t supposed to be that way and when I was going places with my family or playing with friends it wasn’t. Even when I was reading by myself, learning was exciting. By the time I was a high school student, I had developed a coping strategy to deal with this disconnect. I’d get my A’s so parents and teachers would leave me alone and then I’d wait for Saturday for my real education to begin. That was when my friends and I would catch a bus to the Port Authority terminal and set out to explore NYC. We’d walk around, go to the Strand, maybe catch a movie or go to a museum. It was in their company, with the city as catalyst, that I began to think and talk about subjects for true importance. Ever since then, I’ve been exploring the often-contentious relationship between getting schooled and achieving an education. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve attempted to create a measure of reciprocity between the two.
What was teaching at Trinity like?
Fortuna smiled at me the day I went for my interview. I had been invited to give a talk at Trinity shortly after graduating, and questions from the members of the history department mostly concerned my recently finished dissertation on Robert Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities. Only the department chair was familiar with Musil’s work. The next day I found out I had the job.
After teaching for nearly two decades in Trinity’s history department I learned, I learned that fundamental to the ethos of the department was the belief that teaching is an art. The Department Chair used to say, “Just hire the best people you can find and stay out of their way,” but of course, it’s not so simple. Respecting teacher agency and autonomy depends on establishing trust based on a mutual respect of one’s experience, imagination, and judgment.
Over the years I noticed how he accomplished this and, in doing so, created the most fulfilling and collaborative setting in which I had the privilege to teach. First, my department chair actively sought out ideas when decisions had to be made, and he wasn’t simply giving lip service to placate the faculty – his requests were an honest inquiry motivated by a sincere appreciation for collaborative problem solving. Second, he understood that perfecting the art of teaching requires risk-taking and making mistakes. Often he would discuss his own classes during informal chats and air the good, the bad, and the ugly. My chair recognized that teaching a lesson that tanked was part of the pedagogical learning curve for teachers serious about taking risks to perfect their art. Rather than perceiving a bad class as a personal failure, it became an opportunity for the department to explore the countless variables that determine whether a lesson sinks or swims. Third, my chair trusted his colleagues and gave them the space to set their daily priorities. In other words, my chair saw his job as a school administrator to create the environment that makes good teaching possible.
What motivated you to write Letters of Recommendation?
There are four reasons. First, most students and teachers experience the start of the school year with a combination of hope and foreboding. This is especially true for High School Seniors and their teachers, as that’s the time when they have to confront the elephant in the classroom – the college admissions process. For teachers of seniors, the college admissions process means agreeing to write, on average, between fifteen to twenty letters of recommendation, the bulk of which needs to be mailed by November 1…I wrote Letters as a personal reaction to the frenzy that the college admissions sweepstakes elicits within a school. I wanted to write a letter of recommendation about letters of recommendation. Instead of recommending a student to a college, my subversive letter of recommendation would recommend a set of distinctions that students might keep in mind as they undergo the college admissions process: education/schooling, success/fulfillment, privilege/entitlement, excellence/perfectionism.
Second, to make the case that a high school education is an end in and of itself, and shouldn’t be reduced to a means for landing a higher paying job or acceptance to college. In my opinion, what the high school student gives birth to is nothing less than his or her moral imagination, which I’d argue is the basis for forming a public self.
Third, I wanted to battle against the uniquely American proclivity to view high school teachers and students in Manichean terms. Teachers are either perceived as either secularized saints (buying needed supplies out of their own anemic paychecks, or spending every waking hour preparing a disadvantaged group of students to take an AP exam) or perceived as predators corrupting innocence for their own sordid ends. I can’t think of another profession that regards self-sacrifice as indicative of exemplary practice. High school students are also viewed through a similar frame. They are either self-serving careerists or slackers…Rarely are teachers perceived as professionals who use their intellects, pedagogic arts, and experiences to create open-ended dialogues that invite students to think about what matters. Rarely are high school aged students seen as persons searching for this type of dialogue so that they can begin to appropriate the art of making sound judgments in the face of the complexities, uncertainties, and contradictions of their adolescent experience.
Finally, I wrote Letters of Recommendation as an answer to a personal question. I wanted to find out what’s the difference between an elite private school education and the one I had — an education in a public high school. Early on, I realized that that difference had little to do with the usual suspects – class size, curriculum, and the quality of instruction. Rather it was defined by something more ineffable – a sense of trust that enables teachers and students in certain schools to engage in an informal curriculum (those encounters that occur in the interstices of the school day). Both, trust and the informal curriculum were lacking in my high school experience… Whether in the hallways between classes, before and after school, in the cafeteria during lunch or just hanging out during free periods, these times offer private school students and teachers a chance to experience one another as persons rather than individuals defined by their roles. These encounters are important because they offer a student the opportunity to discover what she has in common with another person, thereby making it possible for her to develop an attitude of reciprocity. I’d suggest that reciprocity is essential for cultivating the moral imagination.
For information about Letters of Recommendations intended audiences and its themes please visit: www.maxinemcclintock.com