Della Robbia, prudence, and school reform

Jason Crye

A few weeks ago in Washington, D.C., I saw the National Gallery’s knockout exhibit, Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence. Three generations of one Italian family produced amazing terracotta sculptures that are not as famous as they deserve to be. The above image is one such piece, complete with a glowing white figure on a cobalt blue background surrounded by a kaleidoscope of yellow, orange, and green flowers and fruit. After 530 years, they still wow.

The show kicks off with this challenging and beautiful sculpture—a personification of Prudence, the mother of all virtues according to Christian philosophers, as well as the work’s namesake. The piece strikes a bizarre figure; she has two faces. One is a young woman gazing forward into a mirror. But on the other side, an old man looks back. The hair falling down the woman’s back forms the old man’s beard. The figure holds a snake.

What does it all mean? Think of the name, Prudence. The woman is literally reflecting before she acts. The snake signifies wisdom, recalling Jesus’s words from the Gospel of Matthew, “Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” The old man stands for experience and tradition, which the artist thought should guide all actions.

Reflection, experience, and wisdom. It almost sounds like the motto of a charter school. But what does prudence have to do with education reform?

Many of us reformers wonder how we can cooperate more smoothly with others in the movement. We all want to fix our nations’ education system, but we are divided by diverging political views and different motivations.

Think of the woman reflecting in the mirror: Cooperation requires understanding, and understanding takes time and focus. Sometimes in the reform world we don’t make an effort to absorb others’ views. Do we really grasp each other’s “philosophy of change” and how that will affect the nitty-gritty of life in school? We need look again, more deeply.

Perhaps the della Robbia Prudence shows us an approach to change that would draw in many conservatives. I bet there may even be some progressives who would go for it, too.

We can start with respecting tradition. Every conservative knows the Edmund Burke quote about those not knowing history being destined to repeat it. But Burke also said that one can never plan the future by the past. So look to the past as a guide, but don’t treat it like grandma’s precious china. Use it; don’t be afraid to break it.

Next, we need to reflect. Think before we act. Our ardor for reform can lead us to gallop ahead with bad ideas. How much damage is done by a “great” new reform law that needs two “clean up” bills before it can work? Lame reforms anywhere harm reform efforts everywhere. They also frustrate the families they are supposed to help. 

There’s a lot of good in American education. And the fact that people who disagree on almost everything still agree that we need to educate all our kids well is nothing short of a miracle of bipartisan consensus. Keeping what works and thoughtfully pressing forward with reforms palatable to conservatives and progressives alike can ensure that we continue to improve. Change might be a bit slower, but it will be effective and lasting.  

We need to return to the old virtue of prudence. Take a deep breath and carefully consider the options. At a time when progressives and conservatives are fighting in the streets, education reformers can rise above the fray. We are already ahead of the game the minute we start an honest discussion on how to work together. We will increase our chances of success if we take in the message of that two-faced Italian maiden from so long ago. 

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.