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Policy formation postulates typical recipients of proposed actions. Through Emilia, we form concepts, not policies. With the character, Emilia, we create a non-factual, intellectual construct: someone capable of fully absorbing the educative possibilities of the world she inhabits. We want to see how she does it. We intend thereby to disclose educational potentials by thinking out the reactions by Emilia, Jacqueline, Sophie, John, and others. They will try to criticize what lacks pedagogical significance and to comprehend why other things have pedagogic value. We perceive through them, not what is practical, but what is possible.
We believe that the common obsession with what works and does not work under real conditions of practice in schooling is not wrong, but incomplete, inadequate. Each student and each teacher deserves to strive for the improbable, the unexpected, the astonishing achievement. To do that, each student and each teacher needs to attend to how educational possibilities at their best unfold and work. A huge establishment of education research and administrative policy tends, not to possibilities, but to practicalities. Most of what is now written about education concerns schools: what schools and teachers in them should do; who should run them, how, and with what sort of support; how communities should staff their schools; what laws should govern them; and what they should teach. The great issues of our time, when they enter discussion of schooling at all, enter programmatically — education for diversity, for social responsibility, for national service, for global awareness, and on. We do not suggest that these programs are wrong or inappropriate. They are incomplete. To the degree that they dominate public discussion of education, they obscure matters that are both difficult and important. Through Emilia, we want to balance the dominant concern for educational practicalities with critical attention to the possibilities of formative education.
As educators who have spent substantial careers working with successful students in prestigious, selective schools and universities, we are struck by the range of achievement that well-advantaged students achieve, from embarrassing mediocrity to astonishing excellence. The basic educational commitment should be to the full realization of each person's humane potentialities. Political economy can strive for equity; education and educators must strive for the full employment of human possibilities — if ever reached the two goals will converge, but the paths to each are somewhat different and the imperialism of political economy in contemporary life has been undercutting the quality of educative effort. The problem is not one of educational standards. The lament so often voiced that teachers and schools set standards too low simply dithers further about the typical and the average. In setting and enforcing standards, teachers and schools are not acting as educators, but as agents legitimizing the broad allocation of goods and advantages within the sociopolitical order. What is important educationally, are not "standards," but the formation of self-expectations that control each person's pursuit of her potentialities. This process receives far too little attention, starting with the young themselves, and encompassing their parents, teachers, educational leaders, and the general public.
Education is not primarily a matter of learning what schools and the rest of the adult world teach. It is fundamentally a matter of forming and pursuing a set of self-expectations. Learning what others have to teach is simply a means, and not necessarily the most powerful one, that a person uses to pursue her self-expectations. Each of us knows by introspecting our own educative experience that the results of efforts we have made vary vastly in quality and scope according to the controlling self-expectation we brought to bear on some efforts compared to others. We begin to find what is possible in education by looking at what happens when someone goes all out, pacing herself effectively to bring her full capacities to bear in trying to fulfill a demanding expectation she has of herself. It may be a task set by someone else, but she must make it her own, the controlling goal of what she expects of herself, her measure of her success or failure. What we perceive as the typical or average in education is neither the average nor the mean performance in the pursuit of possibility. Rather it is what routinely happens when large numbers of people suppress that pursuit and go through motions leading to goals that have little to do with their controlling self-expectations.
In addition to education as schooling, as the collective effort at the formal instruction of the young, there is a more fundamental, formative education that aggregates from each person's aspirational efforts throughout their lives. Through Emilia and StudyPlace as a whole, we want to engage in this formative education. We think it comes about as people extend knowledge, direct attention, and inspire effort in ways that might inform the choices that we make as groups and individuals — all of us, many of us, some of us, and each of us. By these choices, by these expectations that we choose for ourselves, we shape our lives and the lives of those on whom we have an influence. This process of determining our self-expectations never stops, for we form and reform them continually. But by and large, we do so in a vacuum.
All of us, especially the young, face a great problem of evaluation, critically ascertaining what is educative and what is miseducative in the constituent elements of our culture. It is not simply providing instruction in language, but also understanding how language is educative and miseducative, how language conditions possible education. It is not simply teaching mathematics or science, but clarifying when, why, and how they are educative and when, why, and how they may be miseducative. It is not simply learning history, or politics, or economics, but also comprehending their uses and abuses, how these deaden and activate fulfilling potentials. All knowledge and culture is not only operational, it is also formative, shaping human possibility. Through Emilia, we seek to expand and improve the formative qualities of our cultural resources.