Remembering Mike Rose: The Book He Completed Days Before His Death Has Now Been Published

The Beacon Press has just published, posthumously, a book which UCLA educator and education writer, Mike Rose, finished writing only days before his sudden and untimely death in August, 2022.

Rose demonstrates that for many students, what matters is the person-to-person connection with a teacher or another mentor—and the care those adults demonstrate as they listen, observe, and respond. In the new book, When the Light Goes On: The Life-Changing Wonder of Learning in an Age of Metrics, Screens, and Diminished Human Connection, Rose explores a favorite theme running through his long career as an educator in books like Lives on the Boundary (1989), Back to School (2012), and Why School? (2009): “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like… I’m interested here in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind… (I)t is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.” (Why School?,  pp. 14-34) — emphasis in the original)

In 2022, Rose completed When the Light Goes On—the product of five years of interviews with teachers and adults whose educational lives had been turned around—thanks in most cases to a teacher who believed in them. Rose begins the preface of his final book: “Education is human work with human beings. Therein lies its power and its beauty and most everything we are at risk of losing. We have been converting education into a vast assessment, scoring, and ranking enterprise; a laboratory for magic-bullet reforms; a platform for high-tech utopians and entrepreneurs, and a fiercely competitive arena of advantage and status that grinds the poor and propels the middle class into debt and frenzy. The justifications behind some of these developments have merit in the abstract—accountability, rigor, innovation—but as so often happens in our time, the technology or procedure we establish to attain a worthwhile goal becomes an end in itself…. Education’s vibrant human core fades from policy and public discussion, diminishing the imagination of our school boards and the joy in our classrooms… I take us in close to the lives of a wide range of Americans, exploring with them those times when education broadened what they knew about the world and about themselves, in some cases changing their lives.” (When the Light Goes On, p. xi)

Over a five year period, Rose conducted interviews with 100 people, age 17-75. The group was 45 percent white and 50 percent people of color, split among males and females.  Some, he writes were middle class, but the group “skewed toward people from working- and lower-middle-class households.” (p. 229) Rose spoke in person with seventy of these people, all of whom lived in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Thirty of his interviews were by phone with people he had selected from farther away.  In his report on the methodology, Rose describes how he confirmed the accuracy of the substance of what his interviewees remembered.

Rose interviewed teachers as well as former students, and he also met regularly with Jack McFarland, the high school English teacher who, decades ago, turned on the light for Mike Rose himself. They reviewed together the readings they had explored decades ago in McFarland’s class, looked at the papers Rose wrote for the class, and examined McFarland’s written comments on those papers.  Until he enrolled in McFarland’s class, Rose describes himself as a disconnected and indifferent high school student from a working class family, living in a crowded house where his father was chronically ill.  His mother supported the family by waiting tables.

While Rose emphasizes the essential importance of the teacher, he was not naive about the policy questions, and he believed our society’s education policy is on the wrong track. “The perennial challenge facing our schools is funding… inequality in resources locked into the system by a history of discriminatory education, housing, and taxation policy and practice—and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, inequality is worsening…. (B)udgets matter. Funding for facilities, instructional materials and special programs, for the recruitment of seasoned teachers and to reduce class size creates more opportunities for students to be seen and heard and to become engaged with school.” (p. 213) “By way of comparison, children growing up in resource-rich environments—well-funded schools, an abundance of academic materials in the home, social networks thrumming with educational advantage—are already living in potential-creating environments.  If we want to establish a ‘level playing field’ for all youngsters… then we must begin to face the facts of what growing inequality means for the educational future of a large number of our children.” (p. 218)

Rose does not write about public school policy from the point of view of privilege; he was an adult whose public schools were the ladder by which he climbed out of poverty. There is a memoir quality to some of this book as Rose explores how poverty and privilege affect a young person’s education: “The light doesn’t go on in a vacuum but depends on the programs that make a difference in the lives of people like myself and the many others we meet. My old community and the many low-income communities that run through the center of the Los Angeles Basin provide a vivid setting to explore the social and economic conditions that help or hinder an educational awakening.” (p. 10) “Whenever I return to my old neighborhood or neighborhoods like it, I think about what our society makes possible for the people who live there. Who has teachers like those we’ve been meeting? What academic and enrichment programs are available? Is there a library close by…. What are the legacies of discrimination that impede young people trying to find their way in school? And since educational opportunity is embedded in economic opportunity—parental income is the most potent indicator of educational achievement—we need also to consider the stability of the surrounding economy, housing and food security, transportation, the safety of the streets. All this affects education…. The light doesn’t go on in a vacuum.” (p. 143)

Seven of the people Rose interviews about their elementary, middle school and high school years lived in South Central Los Angeles, and Rose interviews them while they walk together or drive through their neighborhoods and visit their schools.  We listen as these former students—now adults—analyze the economic trajectories of their neighborhoods today, and as they remember friends, teachers, and sometimes scary turf war violence on the way to and from school. On the most basic level, for example, his public school introduced Roberto (a pseudonym) to basic community institutions and resources he had no idea existed: “Roberto was fifteen when he came to the United States from a small town in El Salvador… The town he came from had a population of four to five hundred people; his high school, one of the largest in California, held five thousand… Roberto talks about his soccer coach and the park where he practiced.  And a boy who was picking lemons in a neighbor’s yard and was mistakenly targeted in a drive-by shooting.  And exceptional events at school, such as the time his English teacher walked the entire class through the city to visit the renovated Central Library in downtown Los Angles… Roberto was awestruck, for he had never been in a building that size, and he ‘was fascinated to see so many books in one place.’… So Roberto lands in Los Angeles, in a high school with ten times the population of his hometown, in a city overwhelming orders of magnitude larger than anything he knew… Soccer saved Roberto from anonymity, then his academic achievement distinguished him to his teachers.” (pp. 166-169) A university professor with a mentoring program provides promising students at his high school essential information about applying for college, and Roberto is selected by teachers to be referred to this program. “Roberto was ranked third in his class, but he ‘didn’t know much about college at all.'”

What about today’s methodology for defining and measuring achievement? “The most common way we talk about learning in school is in terms of test scores: an individual student’s scores, or the cumulative scores of a school or district, or comparative scores—one district compared to another, one state to another, one nation to another… We certainly can apply such criteria to the people in this book. Once the light goes on for them, their test scores do go up, and their grades improve. They earn certificates and degrees, credentials that have a measurable effect on their economic lives and social mobility. What also comes through in their stories… is the experience of learning and the effects learning has on the quality of their lives…. how learning is lived.” (p. 191)

What does Rose think about today’s propensity to understand education as workforce development—primarily as job preparation? “Education is typically connected to economic mobility, and the people I met improved their occupational prospects, at times considerably, as a result of their engagement with school… (Y)et their economic advancement is interconnected with the anticipation of mental stimulation and in some cases participation in a desired social setting. They are thinking about the place of work in their lives and what it might make possible for them and their families. As economics is lived, it is not sealed off from psychological and social issues, from philosophy, from politics, yet you will be hard-pressed to find in policy documents dealing with occupational preparation mention of any curricular content beyond the specifics of the occupation itself.” (p. 194)

Rose’s deepest interest in his conversations with former students and in his reflection on his ongoing research is on the teachers who awaken students to the power of learning and help them develop rigorous skills that will help the students in innumerable ways: “I’ve come to expect the unexpected, the surprise…. I interviewed people who lived through years of disruptive chaos or debilitating anguish—and then began to find their way out, find purpose and meaning that had long eluded them. They discover or develop—with painstaking effort—abilities that had not been revealed before. They begin to understand their past in new ways… and redirect it.” (p. 137) Rose reflects on students who demonstrate an expansive meaning of “potential”: “What is possible for us is by no means limitless, but when the time and conditions are right, more is possible than we think. Put another way, though our ability is limited by endowment, we can’t know exactly what those limits are…. Thus, there is always the possibility for surprise—and why we should regard ability with wonder and humility… The way we define ability and potential has a powerful effect on our policies for expanding educational opportunity….” (p. 217)

During the interviews adults describe feeling lost and disconnected but being inspired by particular teachers to make a greater effort, to connect with books, or learn to weld as part of a community college program, or figure out an academic path that had been unknown or seemingly unattainable. Teachers who make the light come on “possess a fortunate blend of beliefs about ability and an alertness to signs of that ability, signs that can be faint, possibly distorted by school routines, societal biases, or a cloud of anger or defense generated by students themselves.” (p. 61) Rose concludes the book with 12 principles “for teachers, counselors, parents, and, yes, students themselves” to help the light go on :

  • Assume intelligence.    Assume people think and derive satisfaction from thinking…
  • Assume a desire for meaning.   Assume that people want to find meaningful pursuits, to lead a meaningful life, to matter…
  • Be alert to barriers to intelligence and meaning.   In the school itself, in the curriculum, in its routines and protocols, in the school’s ‘culture’—its shared beliefs and attitudes…
  • Be vigilant for what people can do and precise in what they cannot do…  What skill, knowledge, finesse, or instinct do these people have that could be nurtured for itself, but also provide a pathway into school?…
  • Knowledge is emotional and social as well as cognitive.   Acquiring and using knowledge… can be vibrant with feeling: discovery, competence, pleasure, excitement…
  • There are many ways to care…   Nel Noddings has elaborated a comprehensive philosophy of care in education that emphasizes understanding and responding to students’ needs in ways that advance their welfare…
  • Educating the whole child means educating the whole child.   We are astoundingly complex creatures…
  • Think of your school as a human system…   For an hour, for a day, let buildings, hallways, yards, and landscape recede and foreground the movement, clustering, and gestures of human beings…
  • Words matter.   It doesn’t take much to spark or shut down engagement…
  • Listen…   It is uncommon to have someone listen, to have someone try to hear us…
  • Be receptive to surprise…   (E)specially during times of development… we see or hear or read something that reaches deep within us, or another human being helps us rethink who we are and what is possible for us….
  • No effort at decency is wasted.   You might… be met with silence, sullenness, and even rebuffed. Still, your decency matters and might be remembered….” (pp. 219-222)

In this last book, Mike Rose left us a reflection that culminates his life’s work.  If he were alive today, Rose would be dismayed by the widespread, ideological attempts across the states to ban teachers’ right to affirm students’ heritage by honestly teaching about our nation’s complex history and by suggesting books that would affirm students’ identity.


5 thoughts on “Remembering Mike Rose: The Book He Completed Days Before His Death Has Now Been Published

  1. Jan,

    Hope this finds you well.

    Today’s piece is a great tribute to a visionary thinker. I’m reminded of the Ackoff quote about the difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. I think that Rose lived trying to explore the definition of the “right thing”. Your piece is a wonderful tribute to that search.

    Be well


    Rich Ten Eyck 609.661.9320

    We both may be victimized by the worst AutoCorrect system on the Planet Hopefully the corrections that I miss are more humorous than troubling. Disclaimer #2: I realize that I may be one of the worst proofreaders on the planet. I can’t bring myself to continue to impose on my wife to wade through my email ramblings. So, as with the joys of auto-correct, I hope my errors are more humorous than confusing.


  2. I love this: “‘What also comes through in their stories… is the experience of learning and the effects learning has on the quality of their lives…. how learning is lived.’ (p. 191)”

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