Kushner extrudes from these engagements a universal taxonomy of educational activity: a system for talking about what the act of "teaching" means, when it is meaningful. This system could serve American public school teachers and students willing to grapple with distinguishing between the useful and the misleading in their curricula. Kushner posits a universal framework for describing the authentic elements of a curriculum worth teaching, which he terms RHPE, or "Representations of Human Participation in Environments."
For a contextualization of this interview, read Arthur’s Preface.
Moreinis: How do you think public school teachers should regard their role?
Kushner: I would like to see teachers able to locate themselves within the academic and cultural environment which their subject emerges from, to vouch for its authenticity. They should be able to say: "Here is my authority: I learned this material from these people in this place, who study, refine and apply it in their lives in these ways".
Moreinis: I’m not sure students care about authenticity. In my experience, most fifth graders are convinced that whatever is told them by teachers is true, and they would rather not have to question it. That yearning for simple answers doesn’t stop at 9th grade, either.
Kushner: Perhaps, but I believe nurturing a hunger for authentic sources is one of the highest goals a school can aspire to. A taste for context is not something teachers can force (or support, given the state of schooling now); but "teachable moments" that awaken this quest can be hoped for, and even built up to. Good science teachers wait until a student has a question before giving the answer – and organize their classrooms around stimulating questions. These more general questions, "Where does this information come from? How do I know it is true? Of what use is it to me?" may be challenging to an authoritarian environment, but do any of us really want an America where no one asks them?
Moreinis: In the current political climate, where clouds of propaganda are drenching us in Orwellian newspeak, it often amazes me how many people seem to buy the company line wholesale. I can’t see our state and federal governments making a big push for students to turn their "critical thinking" skills back upon the curriculum itself. But I don’t think you’re advocating for some kind of institution-based change here.
Kushner: Not in the short term, anyway. My argument is an idealist one, and I am an outsider to public education – I speak only from my study and experiene of different cultures and contexts, including the American project as defined by the Constitution.
Moreinis: I understand why we want our future citizens to have functioning "crap detectors", but I know you are up to much more than that in your system. Why don’t we leave the familiar context of classrooms and explore the conceptual framework you are proposing?
Kushner: OK, but I suggest our readers take a deep breath before we approach the definition of terms and relationships in RHPE. I’m going to have to shift into philosophical talk, building a vocabulary and a syntax that will be unfamiliar and difficult at first.
Moreinis: Why can’t you share your ideas be shared in plain English?
Kusher: It’s a matter of focus. When you look closely at the things many people say about education, they don’t hang together well – like a painting of dots that can only be apprehended from far away. I am crafting a high-resolution lens that can be applied universally to any educational transaction. My tools – the words I use and the way I use them – need to be as precise as the resulting image they will create.
Moreinis: If this interview gets printed, we can assume that Brian agrees that it is appropriate to expect thoughtful readers to be willing to grapple with new vocabularies once in a while. So, Arthur, please describe yoursystem!
Kushner: "Representations of Human Participation in Environment" diagram the essential transaction of educational activity. I have been advocating that the formula of RHPE describes the necessary functions of a unity of educational transaction. That’s very abstract. An important topic within this is that in a historically unique way in America, the required mode of somebody defining themselves in the social and physical environment is not clearly delineated by the government in power. This is a relatively unique situation on such a large scale.
Moreinis: People’s ethnicities are allowed to remain distinct?
Kushner: "Allowed" is probably the right term. A confederation of states, or sects – the essential covenant, the Constitution, guarantees and states in the First Ammendment that Congress will not specify with whom you shall associate or by what terms you shall define your particular choices in the pursuit of happiness. In the setting of public trust and public activity, it is difficult and perhaps inappropriate for an educator to excessively advocate any mode of personal expression of identity for a young person; and yet, that is the critical necessity for the young person’s development. SO, the educator, acting in the public trust, is in a quandary.
Moreinis: Why is it inappropriate?
Kushner: Because teachers are not acting as representatives of a particular chosen path of identity. Under the constraints of the constitution, students should not be compulsorily cast into a particular cultural stream under public education. An educator acting in that public trust knows young people need to define their identity, but may not overly advocate for that pursuit. In that situation, there is a tendency for this matter to fall to the default setting of either "current political correctness and administrative policy" or "marketplace corporate advocacy." It behooves public policy to advocate that young students be in pursuit of a private identity as well as a public one, and (and this is already a delicate area) those who attend directly to the needs of students should have tools for at least monitoring the developing expression of that private identity.
Moreinis: There are various theories about souls – some say we’re born with them (the essentialists) and some say we make them (the existentialists). Do you propose that children could actually find, within themselves, authentic private identities, or can such things only be developed in relation to public spheres and environments?
Kushner: I would really prefer the expand the definition of the private realm in the way that the United States Constitution does, to everything that is not specifically defined and prescribed by Congress. In effect, it is more a symptom of a totalitarian empire that the private is defined only as some realm buried below the level of observation beneath the skin. I hope that way the First Amendment defines the private realm as the association of community, of culture, and communication – a network that extends throughout the community they choose to embrace – can be viewed as the private realm of discourse in an individual.
Without trying to come to a final position on the mystery of how much a person brings with them into this world, let’s consider the environment and family and language and culture into which a person is born as highly symptomatic of any impetus a person might have possessed on arrival, and certainly symptomatic of the essential early development of a person, which is hardly separable from anything we discover essential in a person at any time in life.
Moreinis: Okay, so you have defined the formative influences on individual identity as family, community, culture, and communication networks, and the physical environment and circumstances of early development. Such things are not "pure" – families increasingly assign the living room to the domain of the television set, communities dissipate into various storefronts through which people enter and leave on their errands of consumption, culture in a melting pot also fades, and the geography of strip malls evades unique characterization. Where in this entropy may identity be found or constructed by young people struggling to find happiness, or at least some ground to stand on?
Kushner: Among the ways that communities and families bridge difficult times when perhaps both the cultural structure and the environmental structure has been seriously degraded and may in fact lack obvious structures that can be responded to in a human way is to access the representations of human participation in environments that have been access by humanity that has shared at least some shred of language and culture of those in current circumstances. These representations of prior human experience may also be guides to locating or reconstructing adequate environments on which to build identity.
However, it is symptomatic of community struggling in a degraded environment and an attenuated line of transmission of culture that their representations of human participation in environment may be fragmentary. That is why I am advocating for a formula educators can use to recognize moments when students are expressing their identities in an intact way, and to encourage further opportunities to pursue that expression in a more complete way. With such an agenda, teacher can provide ropes for young people to grasp onto.
Moreinis: Ropes…I remember of your set of fortuitous acronyms which form a tool set to refer to various moves and transactions between learners and these cultural and environmental structures. Could you remind me of a few of your favorites?
Kushner: It may be premature to spill this hilarious tumble of goofy terms in the context of a short interview. These scraps of curriculum will not show their value to readers in a chance encounter – they are only tools, to be appreciated when actually used to construct an architecture of Representations of Human Participation in Environments (RHPE). However, since you asked, they include:
RHPE, pronounced rope: an authentic unit of cultural transmission and education. Contrasted to the inevitable variations variously pronounced as:
RHP, pronounced rip or rip off: representations facilitating no access to participation in an available environment. Students are familiar with them – compulsory studies they have no personal entrance into.
RPE, pronounced rape: representations inviting participation at the expense of human identity, providing no exit or return to the student’s experience. Commercials convincing students to buy products, presented as solutions to problems of identity, but actually only further alienating them from available paths.
RP, pronounced rep or reputation, an individual’s most frequently accessed or repeated self representation.
There are many other building blocks which develop playfully and may come in handy: Reap, the report from single instance of participation; Ripe, developed over a duration of involvement; Rup, or interrupt, flack or noise possibly disguised as information; Rap, real time representation concurrent with participation; Rupee, a negotiable or marketable intellectual property; Reef, an assorted accumulation of information in one location; Ref, or referrer or referee; a selective mediation of access to references; Riff, an exploratory elaboration, something like the reader is being exposed to at this moment.