Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Last on the ship

Note: I had hoped, prayed, and even believed that I would be done with the character sketches. It's a nasty business, even if "Difficile est satiram non scribere" (Juvenal, Satire I, 30). However, they come to me: I do not go in search of them.

"He that complies against his will,
Is of his own opinion still." -- Samuel Butler, Hudibras

There are professional disciplines that have gotten into the habit of experiencing revolutions. "Revolution" and "habit" should be antonyms, but, for some, the cycle of revolution is roughly the same as the cycle of rank-and-tenure committee appointments. I am not talking about the tiresome, petty, pettifogging tedium of "theory" of any sort, either.

Harold Bloom is the saint, in a way, and the visionary of the perpetual revolution. I do not mean to suggest that the phenomenon waited for The Anxiety of Influence or the egoism of "strong readings" to begin, but he is the Ann Coulter of avid sniping in academics. As you will recall, Bloom suggested that each poet despises the previous generation's greatest poets. He related this to a sort of Oedipal struggle: each generation of poets has to kill its daddy to have its mommy, although I never did figure out what consummation was devoutly wished in Bloom's scheme. Without the prospect of having the desired mother, it's not really an Oedipal struggle: it's homicide. However, the book stated a widely observed truth in new lingerie, so it worked for him:
"Envy's a sharper spur than pay.
No author ever spar'd a brother;
Wits are game-cocks to one another. -- John Gay, Fables

The point is that some professions have to have new ideas, because new ideas, not the application of old ideas, are easier to recognize and make greater headlines. Of all of the fields riven by perpetual tumult, the most astonishing to me is Education. I recall being told, authoritatively, that the traditional classroom is a disease, an act of aggression, an offense against liberty, equality, and sensibility, that it is, additionally, a method by which no one may learn. (This sentiment, by the way, is commonplace. It may be surprising to anyone not taught "pedagogy," but consensus is universal that the one thing that can never work is the method of Aristotle's Academy.) I thought it was an astonishing thing to hear, and I suspected that the person telling it to me could not possibly believe it, as he had himself been the product of the traditional classroom. Was he telling me that, in fact, he was uneducated?

This is a widely held belief, as I said, and I'm not going to defend the "stand and deliver" lecture or the "sage on a stage" or the other commercial jingles that get sung. I don't much care. If there is some superior method, I want it. I'm sure most teachers approach their goals with as much vigor as possible, strive as diligently as they are able, and devote as much of their lives to educating as the world will afford them, and I doubt the good will of no teacher. I cannot say the same, however, of a field that achieves its revolutions solely by questioning the motives, methods, and intelligence of every previous practitioner of the trade.
"It is tiresome to hear education discussed, tiresome to educate, and tiresome to be educated." -- Attrib. William Lamb

What I find particular and noisome about the recent revolutions in Education is that they all begin with the premise that each and every colleague is a fool, at best, or a dupe of the Empire. This is a horrid thing to think, and it is fated to produce intolerant individuals and either low morale or low individuality. A person whose starting point is the conclusion that all other individuals are knowing or unknowing villains is going to see himself or herself as a hero who must achieve by defeating the rest. It is a philosophy that does not demand tyrants and bullies but which is a welcome fit for them.

The other factor in recent Education that makes for discomfort, for me and for many, is the external pressure of what No Child Left Behind means. It is very, very hard to find a defense of NCLB. It is a mooncalf. The only defenses I have seen were, in fact, defenses of selected portions, vague aims and goals of the thing. It is otherwise universally dispraised, and rightly. That said, even those who most despise the thing seem to have adopted its central message: documentation and statistical evaluation is the only valid method of assessing education.

This is a shocking thought, if you're not trained in Pedagogy.

Reader, think for a moment. Can you prove that you are educated? Can you come out of a meeting and statistically validate the amount of the message you have absorbed? Can you prove not only that you have learned, how much you have learned, but at what pace? What about pointless meetings? If a meeting seems pointless to you, a waste of your time, would you still be able to weigh, measure, describe, and quantify the information you got from it?

This is the same of education. Just as some meetings seem "stupid," so some classes seem that way to students. Is it because the class is stupid, or because it's not applicable? Are all educational processes equally efficacious with all humans at all times? If they are not, is that the fault of the educational method? Is it, in fact, a fault at all? Well, the formalist (it does not deserve to be called "empiricist") rage in Education assumes a "Yes" to all of these questions and, in fact, demands it.

For twenty years or so, state secondary education has moved to more and more "proof" of education, and "proof" is a number. The naive, hopeless belief in numbers is either charming or jaw dropping, depending upon how far away from it one is, but it is everywhere. Whether it comes out of a "CYA" impulse or some genuine belief that "Johnny Can't Read" because Johnny's teachers haven't filed their lesson plans with the District Office on North Avenue in time, it is a legal and institutional imperative now -- an imperative that has folded into the core of educational philosophy and pedagogical pedagogy.

I hope to bore you less, always, and, believe it or not, this really is a character sketch. I needed to establish these features only to explain the environmental conditions necessary to create a particular character (or to foster such a character).So, let's assume that a profession now encourages all of its stars to believe that they are the sole possessors of the truth and that all of their colleagues are hideous affronts. Let us assume a profession that encourages its leaders to look at all other departments as obstacles. Add to this a true believer in quantification. Quantification is not, of course, the philosophy, but it is the background against which all philosophies must emerge. The individual star of Education may believe in peer-centered-education, holistic grading, computer-mediated-communication, the curriculumless classroom, or whatever else, but each and every one will either be predicated on the need for forms or will have as a part of its core the generation of forms and, most importantly, compliance among all practitioners.

It would not be surprising, then, if someone who is drawn to such a field were a bully, common or uncommon. It would not be surprising if a person drawn to it were an expert at passive-aggression or the carefully lodged complaint. This is not because the study of education is in any sense wrong, but only of the dual functions of tenure depending upon revolutionary ideas and the external pressure to ossify education, the verb, into a noun that fits on a spread sheet.

Personally, I have had three Professional Educators (meaning people in charge of setting educational policy) that I have worked near (never with, because one only works for or near such a person), and all three of them have been tyrannical. I do not say this with hyperbole, and I am not particularly anti-authoritarian. I am not given to taking umbrage much, either. However, I do believe that I received education, and I recall both lecture and discussion and group discussion, and I recall that none of those methods mattered a whit, except that each was what the educator felt most inclined toward. I also realize that my education lagged quite a bit behind my classes, that no one, least of all me, could have said what I had learned from any class, that "learning" was something that could only be assessed in recollection.

What I write, above, is not intended as an indictment of this or that person, but, rather, a warning about a social phenomenon that is, at present, either creating or drawing persons who, in the name of Education, forget the goal, forget knowledge, forget freedom, forget talents, and turn to the method, the method first and last, and hope to achieve not enlightenment, but obedience. These are people who will produce data, not information.


Anonymous said...

I promise I have a lot more to say, and I intend to. I just wanted to show that I dropped by as I said I would earlier today. For now, I ask you to expand on why it is a common belief that Aristotle's methods would be ineffective today. Also, how do you feel about the systems in place at more "nontraditional" schools like St. John's College (Annapolis and Santa Fe), specifically the tutorial system that they have in place. I am not as concerned with the controversy surrounding their historical approach to everything or the whole Great Books thing.

Look forward to a much longer comment to follow...

Your Favorite Anonymous

The Geogre said...

Well, there are a couple of things, there.
1. Partly as a result of Marxism, partly as a result of the "relevance" movement, and partly as a result of the idea that immigration and multi-culturalism make students different from their teachers, we have the idea that teaching must not force students to conform to the dominant culture of the "teacher," that the "teacher" must learn how to "enable" and "empower" the student. No doubt many of these goals are admirable, but the consequence of believing that the teacher must be an "enabler" is that there is no core left at all. Education has always had embedded within it a positive ideology. We might or might not like the "hegemony" of the ideology in question, but the truth is that teaching has to have something to teach. Some people see, in the idea of a set of information to be learned, a power play. They think that it is, in a sense, a crime to have "power" over students by having information that one delivers. Aristotle, as opposed to Plato or Socrates, developed the idea of the Academy. While some of it was peripatetic (walking), it was designed to follow an analysis of study. As such, it said, "I have a system, and I will teach it to you." Contemporary educationalists think that's Power. What's lost in their complaint, or one thing that's lost, is that Aristotle's academy was in competition with lots of other academies, and students chose their masters. Perhaps it is true that the solution is in "school choice," but, if we have school choice (or where we have had it), students and parents have flocked towards those with the traditional methods and have shied away from the "empowerment" methods. Obviously, bad lecturing and bad "student centered learning" are bad, and good lectures and good "student centered learning" are good, but, instead of realizing that any method is good if practiced by a deft teacher, they believe that the method can, by itself, result in good or bad learning. To me, that's silly.

2. Tutorial systems have worked in the UK and Germany... and there is a modified version in Scandinavia. It works fine, but it also has a rather merciless side to it. For those students with self-discipline, it's superior. For those who barely care, it's a disaster. It's a much more sink-or-swim method. For we swimmers, it's a dream come true. For the doggy paddlers, it's just plain cruel. I guess it comes back, again, to the fact that, if some students "can't" learn in one method, they should seek another, but, similarly, a brilliantly performed method is going to have a great result. In Europe, some lecturers make good money, because they have not only enrolled students, but fee-paying public.

Great Books, which you're not interested in, is a commitment to a particular culture. If we have no compelling reason to say that X culture is superior to Y, then there is an advantage to Majority Culture and even Hegemonic Culture. Thus, if one cannot argue that Latino culture is superior to Western European culture, then Western European culture would win, because it has the advantage of having the most conversations and most facility with the wider culture. However, that's a big "if." The question is never "why not the great books," but "why suppress the minority voices?" Great Books will lose great, great material.

Being a BritLit guy, I think the Great Books curriculum is necessary, but I also think that all the minority ethnicities and subcultures that created ideas, sensibilities, and literature are just as necessary. I reject the either/or of the GB curriculum, because it says that we can't read Homer and DuBois. I think we need to be reading both. I say, "Both/and," and I end up hating the fact that there is so little time to study it, so little reading that we can assign, so little discussion that we have time for.

Then again, in Eden alone could they have the life of the mind, and we're not allowed back in there anymore.