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Telling the Forgotten Stories of American Education


By Jack Feuer

Published Oct 31, 2012 8:00 AM

Mike Rose merges scholarship and storytelling to focus on the less-visible learners and the promise of second chances.


When your writing is compared to Walt Whitman, and your new book features endorsements by President Bill Clinton and “Dirty Jobs” executive producer Mike Rowe, you are more than an academic—you’re an American original and a potent storyteller. Not surprisingly, Mike Rose M.A. ’70, Ph.D. ‘81, acclaimed professor of education at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS) and author of Possible Lives and The Mind at Work, among others, is also a powerful public speaker.

Rose’s singular take on teaching and learning focuses on the forgotten stories of American education: the blue-collar learners, the vocational school students, the kids struggling in mainstream academic settings, and the misguided and exclusionary conventional definitions of what is and isn’t intelligence. And his writing merges world-class scholarship with detail-rich storytelling.

Both were on display at UCLA’s Moore Hall recently, as Rose gave a reading of his newest book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, the kick-off event in GSE&IS’ new Speaking of Education Lectures series. As was Rose’s gentle sense of humor when he noted that “this speech is 42 minutes long. So at 21 minutes, you know you’re on your way home.”

The readings were linked by Rose’s narrative thread of reflections on writing. He said “to write about education is to write about the human condition.” And the passages from Back to School focused on a recurrent theme in his work, the promise of second chances in America, and the ability to reinvent ourselves, to better our condition, which Rose contends is “when we are at our best as a society.”

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Rose diverged a bit by reading a passage from his bestselling Possible Lives, about his travels throughout the country to visit schools that work. The passage, about a first-grade classroom in Baltimore, displayed his flair for telling detail as he described the school: the “harshly sweet smell of disinfectant in the cafeteria” and the “squeak of stairs.”

Detail was also evident as Rose read on from Back to School, describing his arrival on a Los Angeles community school campus “an hour after sunrise”: an urban landscape populated by “a homeless man with a handwritten sign that reads ‘Vietnam Vet’” amidst a “used car lot” and “boarded- up building.” He watches as students coming “to or from work” stroll across the campus and wonders (he read) “what it is that pulls these students forward. The desire that gets them through the door.”

“The hope and desire,” Rose read, “are almost palpable.”

Rose concluded the event with a passionate defense of these kinds of opportunities for people to experience a “vocationally oriented explosion of mind.”

Learn more about Mike Rose and his work at



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