When he was in third grade, George Stranahan stood on his desk when asked a question by his teacher and bellowed, “Me no know, and me no care.”
He was sent to the principal’s office for that insurrection. But his challenge to the status quo in education has continued in the decades since.
Stranahan shares that anecdote in his new book, “A Predicament of Innocents: Might the Schools Help?” The book, published by Stranahan’s own People’s Press, draws upon his time as a teacher, which began in the U.S. Army at Fort Monmouth, N.J., in 1955 and continued as a professor of physics. He later became a leader in the alternative schools movement of the 1970s, when he helped found and was principal of the Aspen Community School in Woody Creek.
Stranahan, 82, distills his classroom experiences with exhaustive research on best practices, along with input from scholars and teachers, and his vision for a school system that would better serve kids.
The Roaring Fork Valley knows Stranahan as a man of many passions, ranging from science to brewing, and philanthropy to ranching, but education has been his lifelong pursuit, fueled in part by raising six children.
The book includes 120 photos by Stranahan, portraits mostly of students at the Aspen Community School spanning 30 years.
“I had the photos, I had the essays, and I didn’t want to pass away without sharing my thoughts about education,” Stranahan explained.
Stranahan organized the essays and photos over the last three years into a cogent narrative. This isn’t a wonky education policy book — it’s an irreverent polemic and a fact-filled plea for us to do better.
It’s interspersed with short quotations from a wide array of sources, ranging from the Gospel of Matthew and the Federalist Papers to Mary McCarthy and Chang-Tzu, but it is also informed by analysis from educational studies and journals.
The black-and-white photographs in this volume, shot in standard class-picture format, showcase Stranahan’s ability to extract personality and emotions with a camera. His photos have been shown in galleries in Boston, New York and Colorado (and currently in an exhibit at the Wyly Community Art Center in Basalt).
The portraits personalize his arguments about ineffective schooling.
“They’re looking right at you,” he said of his photo subjects. “They’re saying, ‘This is me. This is who you’re doing this to. How could you?’”
It is Stranahan’s second book. His first, “Phlogs: Journey to the Heart of the Human Predicament,” was also published by People’s Press and won the 2010 Colorado Book Award in the pictorial category.
He’s celebrating the publication of “A Predicament of Innocents” with a signing at the Woody Creek Community Center on Thursday, from 5 to 7 p.m.
The book explores the art of teaching and how American educational policy can stifle children. For example, Stranahan picks apart and debunks the idea that standardized tests can judge schools and students.
“It’s not that simple,” he said. “It needs to be a judgment, not a number.”
In the book, he notes that England has an agency called Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education, which goes from school to school and performs personalized evaluations. In America, instead, we have standardized tests like the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP).
“We have no idea what a standardized test says about an individual,” he said.
As he was preparing the book, Stranahan got a current copy of the CSAP test. He said he was “aghast” to find it would be illegal, under copyright law, to publish it and show people how we’re evaluating student and school achievement.
Under the current national law, parents can opt out of having their kids take standardized tests for the state. But, if 5 percent of students opt out, the school’s ratings are adversely affected and it can lose its accreditation. Stranahan is calling on parents to all opt out of the test and break down that system.
“I’m trying to stir parents up to say, ‘We don’t care about tests or accreditation,’” he said, “‘We care about our kids and we don’t want them to take the test.’”
He spoke with education experts, principals, teachers and students as he wrote the book, and he still regularly attends RE-1 school district meetings. In his research he looked at school district mission statements that talked about nurturing kids holistically, but found their policies to be simply teaching to the test.
The current education system, he writes, “makes growing up a matter of receiving huge amounts of instruction in academics, followed by extensive testing on the subject matter. Just like us in our time, children today forget it soon after the final exam. The education system has evolved, unguided, in the most unimaginative way possible: to make the kids grow up to be just like us.”