George Joseph Cons was a dreamer. He was a man who said NO to combat during WWI. As you might imagine, that did not go over well and he was sent to prison for awhile, a farm prison where he grew food for the war effort. When it was all over he was not the favorite candidate for a teaching job in many districts but he made his way through the patriotic pettiness and ended up at Goldsmiths College University of London.

Postman As Curriculum

There he went into neighborhood schools where the children of working people were enrolled and brought the immediate community into classrooms. Students met their parents and their neighbors in an entirely heightened light. Suddenly the postman, a dustman, a sewer man or a fireman became the subject for intense and respected study. No one was ashamed to say, “My Mum is a washerwoman.” That mother was standing at the front of the class delivering a lecture and fielding questions on the business of send out laundry.

G.J. Cons and Catherine Fletcher wrote a book about their educational experiment and entitled it, ACTUALITY IN SCHOOL. A favorite section is the Q&A session with Mr. W. the local postman. It went something like this.

Please sir, when you’re going up the street and can’t see the numbers, what do you do? We have a little electric lamp which we switch on when we need to.

There is a man who lives in Palestine, who’s a great friend of my father and my father sends him letters. How would he get them? They would be sorted at the office and put into the “foreign section” of the General Post Office. There, there are sorting boxes for all parts of the world. Your father’s letter is put in the Palestine division.

Not only did this classroom meet with their postman, they also visited the sorting office where he worked. At age 9 and 10 they stayed in that area for over one hour, curious about and interested in all that transpired. On two different Thursday afternoons these youth boarded the city tram and arrived at the G.P.O. St. Martin Lee Grand for a proper look-see. As many of us have experienced as center city teachers, these kids had no idea that the big river running right before their eyes was a tributary known as The Thames. A free tram opened their lives up to an entirely new waterway subject of study which they could share with their impoverished families on a weekend jaunt.

Cons got hold of some documentary films to further expand post office investigations. One of his favorites was entitled “Night Mail”. Porters at Crewe are seen slinging giant mailbags into the train. The train steams through the Midlands, past factories and across the lowlands of Scotland, finally arriving in the misty morning at Edinburgh filled with letters and parcels of all description. Very visual.

But Mr. Cons and Ms. Fletcher were after something much more important than a deep, cognitive understanding of the postal system. As a man who said NO to war, he was a lover of peace, community, prosperity and sympathy. Yes, sympathy or empathy or whatever else one might call it. He wanted the children and their teacher to see that the postman lived a life of drama, holding his breath until a parcel recipient made it to the front door in time for a hand-off. Dashing into the shelter of a building, a tree or a storefront just as a drenching rain broke out. Losing a registered letter full of money and having to solve the mystery of where it went and how to retrieve it. This postman was a man of intelligence and energy and bravery and as a result of this big group inquiry, the world was once again endowed with delight, value and significance.

This is what real teachers do. They use curriculum to develop civic consciousness. They broaden individual worlds so people feel alive and excited in their place of existence. No one sleep walks through life or bounces about in a cocoon, careening off others, believing they are the only ones in the universe. No caste system is erected or maintained in which postmen and trash men and sewer men or washerwoman or lunchroom woman don’t count as citizens or as intellects. What we do matters and other human beings matter and we are the better for it, all thanks to a real teacher.

We do not stand back and watch a monster walk into the White House, claiming it as his own simply because he feels the need for power. We do not permit tyranny to run rampant like a contagious infection through a populace, filling them with fear and frustration. We need smart, active citizenship and this is how George Joseph Cons envisioned it happening in schools.