How Two Scholars Wrote “Tinkering toward Utopia”*

Since leaving Arlington (VA) superintendency in 1981, I spent two decades at Stanford University thinking, teaching, and writing about school reform. I had the precious time to pursue policy and practice questions that I could not as a high school teacher and superintendent.

Why, for example, did the high school classrooms in which I sat in the late-1940s seem so similar to the ones I observed in the 1980s as a superintendent? Why do some reforms stick and others disappear like bird-tracks in sand? Why so much drama about getting new technologies in classrooms and so few teachers using devices? Why is it so hard to fundamentally change schools with large numbers of poor children? Why do schools focus on test scores rather than other, larger civic and social goals? These, and many more policy-driven questions, often requiring me to examine the past, were anchored in decades of classroom and administrative experiences.

In returning to Stanford after being superintendent, I easily resumed the connection I had forged with David Tyack when I was a student a decade earlier. Then it was an advisor/advisee relationship, but after my return to Stanford, it blossomed into an enduring collegiality and strong friendship.

We worked well together on both the personal and professional levels. He delved into the history of past policies designed to alter institutions and worked through their anticipated and unanticipated consequences. See here, here, and here. While I pursued a similar strategy, I was also keenly interested in tracing the varied histories of contemporary policies aimed at influencing classroom practice. So our intellectual interests converged when we taught a course on the history of school reform. It was also in that course in which we taught for a decade that ideas in Tinkering toward Utopia were developed, tried out on graduate students, refined, and eventually became a book.

The intellectual give-and-take between two historians of education who are excited about a subject, teach it together, and eventually collaborate on a book is a fascinating process. Here is what I remember of our working together on the book between 1989-1993.

Shortly after we developed the graduate course, we received a Spencer Foundation grant to do a history of school reform. By 1991, we had prepared a rough outline of the book and had divided up the chapters according to the research we had done and wanted to do on this book.

During this time Tyack and I met weekly for bike rides. We would drive to the base of Kings Mountain Road, park the car, and bike up 5.5 miles to Skyline Drive. Usually, it would take us an hour and a half, including water breaks, to do the climbing and about a half-hour for the descent to the parking lot and car.

During those 90-odd minutes of climbing Kings Mountain we talked through particular chapters, mentioning sources to use, and noting the perspectives of other historians of education. As we climbed to Skyline, there was much heavy breathing, numerous breaks, and other occasions to talk as we pedaled upward. The ride down was fast but we continued to talk as we rode down the mountain with brakes squealing.

On the way home, in the car we would continue the discussions of different points in a chapter, particularly sources that each of us should look into. After I would get home, I would  draft a memo of the key ideas we had discussed, what views we had expressed, sources we mentioned, and any interpretations that had molded the give-and-take during the bike ride. I sent the memo to Tyack and within a day, he would amend, add, and occasionally delete points in the memo and then I would type up the final copy of the memo on a chapter that would become a guide to each of us working on the chapters that we had agreed to do. We mapped out the entire book in this manner on those bike rides. Harvard University Press published Tinkering toward Utopia in 1995.

Collaborating with David Tyack on this book made research and teaching come together seamlessly for two scholars while forging even more closely a friendship that we have enjoyed for nearly forty years.


*For many readers unfamiliar with Tinkering toward Utopia the following reviews may help in getting a sense of the book. See here, here, and here.


1 Comment

Filed under Reforming schools

One response to “How Two Scholars Wrote “Tinkering toward Utopia”*

  1. Thanks for this enlightening vignette. As a practitioner (and a reader of Tyack and Cuban books) I often wonder how the work of independent scholars comes together into published form. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your work.

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