Realism vs. Idealism in Education

Idealism gives way to realism in the classroom.
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In Bel Kaufman's "Up the Down Staircase," the teacher/protagonist remembers her educator preparation class, "Nature of the Adolescent," and comments, "I have met the adolescent; obviously [my professor] had not." Kaufman demonstrates the huge gap that has always existed between idealism in educators and the realism of the actual classroom.

1 Idealism Hits NCLB and Crashes

Realism vs. Idealism occurs in most professions where experience drives the stars out of a novice's eyes, but education is rife with it. No Child Left Behind, which began 10 years ago, is the ruinous Congressional Act that has decimated school districts nationwide. It was created with the best intentions, to force accountability and end the phenomenon of individual children "falling through the cracks" -- it has instead done the opposite, increasing inequality and instituting a punishment hierarchy that continues to crush the educational system. NCLB epitomizes optimism vs. educational reality.

2 Teachers Lose Idealism Quickly

Teachers under the current system lose their idealism quickly. Their attrition rate stands at a 17 percent turnover every three to five years, and departing professionals cite NCLB, lack of administrative support and under-funding as reasons. Teachers who remain in class note a reduced status as professionals, and the tendency of administration and parents to undervalue their contributions to the system while emphasizing their all-inclusive responsibility for student success. The formula destroys idealism and induces burned-out reality; nobody values teachers and if the child fails, it's the teacher's fault.

3 Where's the Difference in Philosophies?

The dichotomy behind all this may lie in the philosophical natures of both idealism and realism in educators. Idealism believes that the aim of education is to discover and develop an individual's capabilities and moral sense; it presupposes that individuals want this development. Realism emphasizes the systematic presentation of educational curricula, with the proviso that individuals will resist material that creates cognitive dissonance, the pain of new learning. The idealist believes the student wants to learn; the realist will hammer learning into the student.

4 Idealism Can Be Kept Alive

There is probably no answer to the loss of idealism in favor of realism in education, although many educators rise above their realistic constraints and keep their idealism alive. The loss of an idealistic vision is, after all, part of the common experience; it's grownups growing up, and a teacher's ability to keep or modify idealism in the face of reality rests with his or her individual character, fortitude and resilience.

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.