Teacher Burnout

I only taught at the grade-school level for one year — and that was at a private school in New York. It convinced me that I wanted to teach, but it also convinced me that I wanted to teach at a higher level where I could continue to learn and grow. But I knew right away how hard those who teach the very young work and I knew that I loved teaching.

So did a young woman in South Carolina by the name of Sariah McCall who recently left teaching because she “couldn’t set [her]self on fire to keep someone else warm.” That is to say, she burned out. As an article in Yahoo News recently reported:

McCall says she never saw herself leaving teaching until it was happening. However, when she found that her job became “less about teaching the kids than making sure that mandates were fulfilled,” McCall made the decision that her own well-being needed to take precedence. “You can’t keep killing yourself over it because it’s not helping anybody. I had to prioritize that I had to be more important than my career. And it still sounds really selfish and I still feel guilty about it,” McCall explains.

If you wonder why she felt the need to leave teaching, take a quick look at her daily schedule:

Sariah McCall was in her classroom every morning at 6:45 a.m., taught bell-to-bell classes, attended meetings during her planning period and worked assigned lunch and recess duties with little time to eat or go to the restroom. When the bell rang for the 2:15 p.m. student dismissal, she worked an assigned bus or hall duty, followed by lesson and classroom prep. Sometimes, she left school by 5 p.m. At home, McCall would work on more grading and paper work until 11 p.m. or midnight, then finally sleep — and repeat.

In our self-absorbed age, it is rare to find a person like Ms McCall who was dedicated to others and to helping them grow into intelligent and responsible adults. But South Carolina, in this report, is seeing quite a lot of this of late. In fact, the reports tells us that 7300 teachers left teaching  for one reason or another during or at the end of the 2017-2018 school year! This is not only sad. It is borderline tragic (and I refuse to overuse that word!) We all suffer when those who teach must quit or face ill-health or nervous disorders because of the endless trite nonsense they are required to do outside of teaching. Or because they can’t make a living.

The answer to this dilemma is quite simple — and I have mentioned this once or twice before. We need to pay the teachers what they deserve, as they do in tiny Finland. This will attract more and better teachers to begin with and perhaps restore some semblance of respect to a calling that is currently much maligned. After all, we measure success in dollars in this country and underpaid teachers are not regarded as successful people by and large.

But we also need to cut out all the bullshit that goes along with teaching generated by an overabundance of administrating types who have little to do themselves aside from determining what others should do. We have far too many administrators in the education establishment at all levels. These are people who are paid well and who go to meetings (after meetings, after meetings) and try to reinvent the wheel. If they were once in the classroom they are no longer and because of the distance now between themselves and the teachers they forget the demands that are placed on the teachers who are simply exhausted filling out forms and checking boxes — making sure they are in “compliance.”

And, of course, the parents at home are too busy to raise their children properly so they are sent off to school, spoiled, undisciplined, and unruly where the teachers are supposed to build the character that has been ignored for six years at home while the parents were earning enough money to maintain their “lifestyle.”

Parents and administrators simply demand far too much of the teachers and fail to reward them adequately. It’s that simple. So stories like that of Sariah McCall will become more and more commonplace as our education system continues to slip into the abyss and small countries like Finland show us how it is done while we turn our faces away — not in shame, as we ought, but out of indifference to a serious problem that undermines the basic premiss of a free society.

A democracy simply cannot survive, if survival is still a possibility, without an educated citizenry. And that requires a bureaucracy pared to the bone coupled with good teachers paid a fair wage and supported, not attacked, by the populace at large that currently wants only to save tax dollars and make sure their children are not taught about evolution.

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How Free Are We?

If I am led into a room where there are five baskets on the floor and told that a million dollars is in one of those baskets, but in another there is a live cobra, can I be said to be in a position to make a “free choice”? I answer, No I am not. Freedom means knowing which basket contains the million dollars and which basket contains the snake and choosing accordingly. Knowledge makes me free.

We have forgotten this plain fact because we have misused the term “free” for years and now routinely confuse freedom with the ability to choose which of three dozen cereals we want to buy for breakfast next week. We confuse freedom with blind choice, or, worse yet, with chaos — the absence of all restraints. We think that as long as our hands aren’t tied and we have a variety of things to choose among we are therefore free. We no longer see any real relationship between knowledge and freedom. We have forgotten the adage that “knowledge will set you free.”

The fact that the liberal arts are held in such low esteem these days is the result of many causes. One of those causes, at least, is our ignorance of what freedom means. For many it means “elective courses,” choosing blindly just as we do in the grocery store when we are selecting cereal. But the purpose of the liberal arts was always to help set us free (hence the term “liberal). Free from ignorance, prejudice, peer pressure, and the like. And while our colleges and universities continue to pay lip service to “the liberal arts and sciences” (which in itself shows our ignorance, since the liberal arts include the sciences and always have) they do so with decreasing conviction as they meekly accede to the demands from the students and their parents for more “relevant” courses of study that will guarantee them jobs. And more electives, of course. Unfortunately the rising costs of college educations has made this demand seem reasonable. But in the end it reflects our confusion between training and education. Education has never been about training young people for specific jobs; in principle, if not in fact, it has always been about liberating the young, putting them into possession of their own minds so they can make informed choices. And the irony is that those who can use their minds, who have been liberally educated, will make the best, most productive employees in the end.

We prize our freedom in this country. We see the word everywhere and we insist that our freedom is guaranteed by the United States Constitution which, we are confident, allows us to carry deadly weapons and say what we want whenever we want. But, again, this reflects our confusion about what freedom is. It is not guaranteed by the Constitution. The only guarantee is a good education, which is increasingly rare these days, but more important now than ever before. For one thing, it would make us realize that carrying a deadly weapon is not a right; it is stupid. Like opening the basket with the cobra inside!

 

Critical Thinking

The buzzwords these days in many colleges and universities around the country are “critical thinking.” At our university where I taught for 37 years a mandate came down from on high not long ago that critical thinking would be required of all graduates forthwith. It was a mandate to all state universities and each was allowed to determine just how to accommodate the requirement.  A great idea, no doubt. But the reality was that it was like throwing a handful of feed to a cluster of hungry chickens! Every department realized that such a requirement was a way to get students into the classroom and pretty much every department in the college proposed one or two of their own courses as a way to meet the mandate. In other  words, every department in the university, with few exceptions, insisted that they taught critical thinking in their courses.

Were that it were so. I have always thought that critical thinking can be taught across the curriculum, and have even led workshops in helping other faculty members see how it could be done. I thought, for example, that accounting and economics, not to say chemistry and even engineering were rich sources for the critical thinker to explore. The same can be said for several of the other departments in the university. But not all. Seriously: critical thinking in sports science??

The home of critical thinking is the philosophy department where logic and critical thinking have been housed since time began — or at least since such courses appeared on the scene. Logic, of course, was a part of the original “trivium” that comprised a part of the seven liberal arts that go back to the medieval period, the birth of the modern university in such places as Paris. But the mandate from on high failed to indicate just how the courses in critical thinking were to be implemented and in doing so they opened Pandora’s Box.

It is not the case that critical thinking is in fact taught in all (or nearly all) courses across the board — sad to say. Though, as I mentioned, I think it can be taught across the board. But the course demands that students be taught how to recognize arguments and distinguish them from simple exposition, locate suppressed premises or assumptions, identify conclusions and separate them from the support for those conclusions — how do we determine where the conclusion lies if we do not have “indicator words” like “therefore,” or “it follows that”? Most arguments appear without such indicators and a careful reader must be able to ferret out the point of the argument before she can begin to think about it critically. It has to do with asking the right questions.

And once the conclusion has been located and the support for that conclusion identified, how compelling is that support for that conclusion? Are any fallacies committed, formal or informal? What are the differences between formal and informal fallacies? These are questions that are central to critical thinking and these are questions that few disciplines with which I am familiar focus upon. For many people critical thinking means sitting around shooting the bull and letting the discussion go where it wants. Those same people seem to think that thinking itself just happens. It doesn’t, not careful thinking. It takes work. As Toynbee said, it is as difficult as is walking on two legs is for a monkey.

Thus we have the interesting but confusing situation in which a sensible mandate has come down from on high and has been met with a plethora of courses that all claim to teach critical thinking while, in fact, very few do. How do I know this? Because I have examined LSAT results over the years and the disciplines that stress critical thinking reward their students with excellent LSAT scores and therefore prepare them nicely for law school where critical thinking is essential. The majority of academic disciplines — even some of those traditionally regarded as the best disciplines to prepare students for law school — do not.

Unfortunately, these are the realities with which we must deal on a daily basis in today’s university. Good ideas become fluff. The demand that the student be prepared to think critically, in this case, is replaced by the demand on the part of faculty across the board that they be allowed a piece of the pie (in the form of what are lovingly called F.T.E. or “full-time equivalent”) — students who sit in the classroom and pay the bills. Instead of thinking about the students and their real needs, many in the faculty think only about their own chosen academic discipline and determine to protect their domain at all costs — even at the cost of the education of the young.

It is not the case that I have nothing good to say about todays universities and colleges. There are good people out there doing good things. But there are also these sorts of SNAFUs. My point here is to note a trend. There are always exceptions to trends and to generalizations (that’s something one learns in a good critical thinking course!). That is to say, there are excellent people in the classrooms across the nation doing excellent things. But not all mandates yield excellent results. Especially when those mandates come from administrators who are not themselves very well educated.

STEM And The Liberal Arts

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group in Washington, D.C. that is attempting to hold the feet of colleges and universities to the fire as far as academic core requirements are concerned, recently awarded a prize to the President of Purdue University, Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.  The interesting thing about this is that Purdue is primarily an engineering school — or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, if you will — and it is taking the lead in finding a place for the liberal arts at the heart of its academic program while insisting that young people at that university be guaranteed the right to hear conflicting points of view: none shall be turned away (as is increasingly the fashion today). This is interesting  because the liberal arts around the country are suffering from neglect and in many cases those who are charged with their defense are the most active in their dissolution.

In any event, at Purdue whatever reform or restoration that might take place is happening from the outside since, as Daniels points out, help from the inside, from among those faculty who actually teach the Liberal Arts, is not likely. Growing numbers of them are intent on bringing down the tradition and replacing it with the latest fad popular among those who would refashion Western Civilization to conform to their own idea of what it should be.

Daniels recently addressed a group at the A.C.T.A. and some of what he says is worth quoting because I have said many of the same things, but I am a small voice and many might think it is an isolated voice and also somewhat strained and even frantic in its concern for what I regard as some of the most important factors operating within — and without — the Halls of Ivy. Daniels, for example, reminds us that:

“The concerns most often voiced about the current university scene — conformity of thought, intolerance of dissent and sometimes an authorial tendency to quash it, a rejection of the finest of the Western and Enlightenment traditions in favor of unscholarly revisionism and pseudo-disciplines — these and other problems are not unique to the liberal arts departments, but a host of surveys document that they are most common and most pronounced there.

“A monotonously one-sided view of the world  deprives students of the chance to hear and consider alternatives, and to weigh them for themselves in the process of what we call ‘critical thinking.’ . . .

“Former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy has written, ‘Intellectual homogeneity weakens the academy’; he labelled the ad hominem attacks that homogeneous tribes often directed at dissenters as ‘the death knell of inquiry.’ Perhaps Princeton’s Keith Whittington has stated the point most concisely: ‘Ignorance flourishes where free inquiry is impeded.’ . . . .

“Conformity of thought, enforced by heavy-handed peer pressure and reinforced by self-perpetuating personal practices, has by now achieved come-tragic proportions. At one prestigious eastern university a friend recounts that, when he asked the history department chairman if he had any Republicans on his faculty, the answer was, ‘Have any? We don’t know any.'”

Another recipient of an award from the A.C.T.A., Paul S. Levy, joined Daniels in his concerns over the state of the colleges and universities today. He began by quoting Yeats and then commented as follows:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity. . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “This is what is happening on our campuses today: group think, suppression of speech, knee-jerk conclusions, a disdain for facts and proof, assumptions of guilt rather than innocence.”

What Daniels and Levy are referring to here is the alarming tendency — even among so-called “prestige” universities — to refuse certain speakers to be heard on campus because their political leaning is not in the proper direction coupled with the presence on campus of those within the faculty who refuse to allow conflicting points of view to be heard. Critical thinking is not at the top of the list for those who see as the only worthwhile academic goal the radical transformation of the university, and ultimately contemporary society itself, to fit the mold they hold dear to their hearts — a mold that is not all that clear either to  themselves or those who listen to them rant.

Now I have voiced many of these  concerns over the years in this blog, but I think it important that my readers hear another voice or two — and voices at the forefront of the fight to preserve what is precious and vital to the continued existence of what we call “civilization.” This is not right-wing clap trap. It is a serious situation within the academy that threatens our free society. And while the battles that go on within the walls of the Ivory Towers of academe might seem trivial and unimportant to those without those walls, it is not. As Levy maintains,

“. . .we are living the fact that what happens at American universities and colleges affects our entire society. We are at risk.”

Daniels elaborates:

“The worn out jokes about the stakes being so low in higher education debates do not apply to this one. In the struggle to define what a genuine liberal education should be, the stakes could hardly be greater, because it can be argued that we have never needed effective teaching in the liberal tradition more than today. Even the most gifted young people often emerge from today’s K-12 systems appallingly ignorant of either history or the workings of their own nation’s free institutions. Authoritarians of both Left and Right are eager to take advantage of their ignorance. There was a reason that the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire banned the teaching of literature and history throughout their realms.”

And, indeed, in Huxley’s brave new world literature, philosophy and history are ignored by the citizens as they blindly seek pleasure and follow the lead of those who would establish the latest trend. But that, of course, is fiction.

 

Learning To Learn

When I professed philosophy — back in the Dark Ages — my goal was always to help my students think for themselves. The greatest compliment I ever received came after I retired and I read a review of one of my books on Amazon after a former student bought my book because he had taken several of my classes and always wondered what my views were on key issues. I never gave it away in class, he said. It was my hope that this would happen, that my students would not know exactly where I stood so they could find their own footing. After all, if they knew where I stood that might simply pretend to stand there as well in order to get a good grade! Heaven forbid!

I never saw my chosen field of philosophy as a subject to be taught in and of itself. Not at the undergraduate level anyway. I was never going to have that many majors and there would be hundreds of students passing through my classes who would never even take another philosophy course from or anyone else. But if I could use the subject matter to get them thinking that would be a triumph indeed! That was always my goal –though I dare say my own private thoughts on key subjects must have crept through from time to time! I am an opinionated bastard as you already know if you have been reading my blog.

Another key feature of my goals as a college professor was to hope that after my students left my classes they would continue to learn and grow. In several cases I know about this has in fact happened. College, after all, is not the be-all and end-all of education. Education, properly conceived, takes a lifetime. Students should be taught how to learn. They should be taught how to think, not what to think — as Charles Van Doren wisely said long ago. He also said that we who teach should guard our students from the “thugs” who want only to ensnare their minds and make of them large puppets, mouthing their instructor’s words and adopting their thoughts. I did not want to be thought a thug!

I have said in print that the purpose of education is to put young people in possession of their own minds. This is vitally important, but it is also something that apparently I share with very few of my fellow professors. The stories coming out of the Ivory Tower of late is that faculty are more concerned about indoctrinating than they are about freeing young minds. For growing numbers of them it is vitally important that the current cultural malaise be radically altered, that students be made aware of the ills of Western Civilization, of capitalism, of colonialism, of the rape of our precious earth — all of which they put down to “dead, white European males” who should be set aside and ignored henceforth.

These are all important issues. But if we focus attention on how learning takes place rather than what it is we are teaching we take a step in the right direction, though I would prefer that my students read books that are worth reading. Great books are great teachers.  Whether we agree with them or not, those dead, white European males had important things to say. They should not be read in order to agree with them — after all, they didn’t even agree with one another. They should be read in order to use their thoughts to engender thoughts of our own. Reading what great minds have written down will help students become more aware of the complex issues mentioned above. And it will provide them with the tools they need so work toward solutions of those problems rather than simply getting all worked up about them.

In any event, these things have always seemed important to me and I still think the basic reasoning here is sound. There is a movement afoot in our colleges and universities that has me deeply concerned as many of you are aware. And this is not because there are so many who disagree with me, it is because they are convinced that in this day and age the most important thing is to revolt against the past altogether and adopt new ways of thinking, ways that the professors will lay out for their students — thereby confusing education with indoctrination. Clearly, this is not the right way to go about things. Not if we want them to become thoughtful, engaged citizens of this Republic.

Still Pertinent?

Back in 2001 I wrote an article titled “Intercollegiate Athletics: The Tail That Wags The Dog” which was published in Montana Professor. In the article I analyzed the then current situation in intercollegiate athletics and pointed out what was then (and now) a serious problem; I speak of the corruption in NCAA Division I athletics, especially football and basketball and I recommended that the best possible solution was to eliminate the athletic “scholarships,” pay the athletes who played those sports at the major universities a reasonable salary, and let those few who wanted to receive an education pay for it out of their earnings. I thought it more honest and a worthwhile experiment at the time and I find it fascinating that now a good deal of talk has surfaced about the need to pay the athletes who play because they are being exploited by the schools they represent which are making tons of money from television and gate receipts.

In any event, I started the article with a couple of charges against the universities themselves which have lost their way, forgotten that their objective is to educate the young, not entertain them. With a few comments added for clarification, I simply quote those paragraphs here as I think they are still pertinent — if not impertinent!

Assuming we ever knew where we were going, in America, at least, higher education has lost its way. We are confused about what it is we are supposed to be and what it is we are supposed to do–which is to empower young people, to put them in possession of their own minds. These young people come to us decidedly unfree. For all practical purposes, they cannot read, write, or figure. They therefore cannot think their own thoughts or initiate their own actions, which are the activities that define us as human beings. These students belong to their parents, to television, to the malls, to advertisers, and to a hedonistic youth culture; though they believe themselves to be so, they are not free in any meaningful sense of that term. They are surrounded by options but they are unable to make informed choices; they cannot separate fact from fiction or reasonable opinions from wishful thinking; nor can they foresee consequences or entertain antithetical points of view. Our secondary schools cannot help because they are caught up in methodology, and society places impossible demands on the underpaid teacher’s time. Consequently, as things now stand, the only institutions standing between young people and a lifetime of slavery to whim and to manipulation by others are our colleges and universities, which, for the most part, do not seem to be up to the task. As Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, recently noted in this regard, “students come to us already profoundly miseducated; we simply complete the job.”  It is worth noting in this regard that Princeton University’s law school implemented remedial courses for their students because the college graduates that come to them, in many cases, do not have the reading, writing, and thinking skills required to do the work demanded of them.

Higher education is at present tangled in a web of conflicting ideologies, disputes over territory, and faculty concerns over tenure and job security. We have bought into myths that delude us into thinking education is about providing students with jobs, shoving them into the fast lane on the information highway, or indoctrinating them about cultural diversity in the name of what a zealous handful has determined is social justice. However, “vocational education” is an oxymoron: education should not be confused with job-training, though we would hope that educated persons would be able to find and hold a good job; education does not require the most advanced technical gadgets, because faster does not mean better; and finally, education must not be confused with indoctrination, though we would expect free minds to reject injustice wherever it is found.

Because it is hidden in the dust stirred up by these controversies, we can barely make out one of the most widely ignored obstacles standing between students and their inner freedom, namely, the multi-million dollar business we call “intercollegiate athletics.” In this article I should like to bring that obstacle into sharper focus.

I would only add to this  two items: (1) colleges and universities themselves have become “multi-million dollar businesses,” and (2) I would add “social media” to the above list of the major factors enslaving today’s young while giving them the illusion of freedom. In fact it should be at the top of the list!

If you are interested in reading more of this article, it is online at https://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2001/CurtArt.html

An Oldie But A Goodie!

 

Given what Jerry Stark said in the guest bog I posted recently about the birth of a new morality in this country, our democracy would appear to be in serious difficulty. This is especially true with the president determined to deconstruct the nation and build it anew in his own image. Thus, as I noted in this blog posted many years ago, education remans the key to the survival of this Republic — especially with a vital election on the horizon.

In the 40s of the last century H.G. Wells told us that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Since that time, education has been weighed down in this country by the burden of low regard, and it is not clear, given today’s political climate, that it can win the race.

Victor Scheffer, a marine biologist of international reputation worried about the battle that is going on in public education and suggested that “Education may now be entering a feedback loop in which ill-informed voters are continually creating administrations that blindly deny the value of education.” Indeed. Given the hostility in Wisconsin a few years ago toward the audacious attempt on the part of teachers and other public employees to make a decent living, one suspects that this ship has sailed. And this is just the beginning, as taxpayers in other states seem to be following Wisconsin’s lead in their mania to save a few dollars at any cost. Sad to say, part of the fault for this reaction on the part of the voters must lie with educators themselves. But only part.

I have argued in print for some time now that education has lost its way. It suffers from a lack of a clearly articulated purpose. Instead of concentrating on the essential role of putting young people in possession of their own minds, educators have gotten side-tracked and bought into the myth that education is really about building self-esteem, or, worse yet, training the young to get a job. Further, those who fund education are married to a business paradigm that requires that all “outcomes” be quantified and the bottom line be black, which is absurd. This is part of the explanation of how we could have come to the point where people like Dr. Scheffer rightly worry about the “feed-back loop.” The schools have built an immense bureaucracy that towers over them and dictates educational policy; they are overseen by shortsighted managers who hold teachers to inapplicable standards; and the teachers themselves stumble about in the dark trying to teach out-of-control kids who are ill-prepared for school in the first place. The result is that the schools simply are not turning out the kinds of graduates who can see beyond their own immediate, short-term demands — much less the “common good” that is supposed to be the focus of a democracy.

It was widely understood by our Founders that in order to work a democracy must presuppose educated citizens. This is why, given the uneducated masses, they restricted suffrage well into the Jackson years. And this is why as suffrage was extended the nation opted for universal, public education. As Dr. Scheffer suggests, education is the key. But if so, it is a key that doesn’t seem to be turning in the lock.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley predicted that America would eventually elect an actor to the Presidency. We not only did that, we also elected the village idiot to that highest of offices. Twice. Huxley saw what was coming. But my home state has no room to crow: we elected a former professional wrestler to the governorship. In any event, we should know better: education does seem to be failing to play the key role it must play in a Democracy. And if this is to turn around, parents must spend more time with their children, and those who would teach the young must learn to put their students’ needs first — not their “wants,” but their needs. They must realize that they themselves know what is best for the students in their charge, or there is no reason whatever for those students to be there in the first place. Education must stop being a mirror, as Robert Hutchins said many years ago, reflecting the demands of unknowing, spoiled young people, and become the beacon it was supposed to be in the first place.

If and when educators put their house in order, those who graduate from the schools  and go to the polls must be willing to spend money on education and recognize that education requires more than the measly 2.1 % of the national budget (contrasted with the military’s 42%); they must be willing to allocate sufficient funds at both the state and national levels to pay those who teach a living wage and make teaching an attractive vocation for the best and brightest minds in the country. As Dr. Scheffer said, “I wish that we Americans would respect, value, and compensate our teachers — caretakers of the mind — as we now do our physicians — caretakers of the body.” Until we do, we will continue to lose the race, and while “catastrophe” is a strong word, if Wells’s dichotomy is viable the fact that we are in a “feedback loop” does not bode well for a democratic system that seems to be faltering, led as it is by weak men and women who are subject to corporate pressure and unable to rise above self interest and party politics to envision what is best for the country.

The Canon

The word I have used in my title refers not to the large gun, called a “cannon,” but to a list of sacred works that need to  be protected against the erosion of time. The latter meaning has come to be used to refer to a list of “Great Books” which should be read by all who can read. This list has of late it been called “elitist”  or irrelevant by the multicultural hordes who have taken over the universities and now dictate, in large measure, what the students read — if they read at all.

In 1994 Harold Bloom wrote a large book about the “Western Canon” that included a long list of the books he thought were not necessarily sacred but at any rate ought to be read by anyone who treasures the thoughts of those who have lived before us and who have had important things to say. His book was a best-seller, but has done nothing to quiet those in the academy determined to bring down Western Civilization itself in the name of “justice” and “fairness.”  Those who would defend a list of books written by “dead, white, European males” (as is charged) are a dying breed and students in our colleges and universities now have been turned in the direction of correcting the many wrongs that have occurred in the past, as determined by their professors, and away from the thoughts of great minds. Indeed, the argument is that there are no great minds or, indeed, any such thing as “greatness” itself. We live in a relativistic age in which there is no truth, only opinions or “alternative facts.”

I will print a full disclosure, which will come as no surprise to any who have read more than one or two of my posts: I was educated at a small college in Annapolis, Maryland where we spent four years reading the “hundred Great Books,” as they were then called. We never counted them. We just read them and discussed them in small groups in an attempt to help us think a bit about the most pressing problems exceptional minds worried about in the past and which continue to perplex us today. I am, therefore, a defender of the Canon, I guess, though we never referred to the list of books in that manner. We revered them, of course, but we did not regard them as sacred. We were asked to participate in the “great conversation” with the best minds that had ever set pen to paper.

The multiculturalists who have taken over the colleges and universities intent upon correcting past errors, and who, I strongly suspect, have never read most of the Great Books, insist that those books have brought about the many of the ills that now affect society. They dismiss the books out of hand as simply an attempt by past educators to instill in the minds of the young wrong-headedness, a sort of indoctrination which they will now correct by replacing those wrong ideas with their own. However, as was clear to those of us who read and discussed these books, no two authors in the entire list agreed about much of anything. They were anything but monolithic. Thus reading and discussing the Great Books cannot be viewed as a form of indoctrination because of the sheer variety of the ideas contained in those books. There is no single message. There are thousands of messages and the only way out of the morass is to begin to form ideas of one’s own. One need not be told that the West has a record of injustice if one reads the words of those who have again and again addressed the question: what is justice? One figures it out on one’s own — as one should.

In a word, the Canon should be defended and read in our schools because it contains the best that has been thought and written for thousands of years. It need not contain only the thoughts of those in the Western world who have written; it can be broad enough — indeed it should be broad enough — to include the best that has been thought and written in the East as well. But the selection ought to be carefully made and based on aesthetic criteria and the principle that no single “message” should come through except that what is being read is important and has influenced the minds of those who have gone before us.

Education is not about indoctrination. It is about enabling the young to take possession of their own minds. Education is about freedom, true freedom, and it should not be directed by a handful of instructors who have a not-so-hidden agenda to save the world. It should be directed by the Canon, because the best teachers are the books themselves. And they teach the young how to think — not what to think.

The Death of Mind

Years ago, when I was hired to start a philosophy department and direct a required course titled “Ideas In Flux” at a new state college in Minnesota, I was struck by some of the jargon that passed as a “philosophical” statement of purpose for the college. There was much talk about the “psychic-emotional” complex of the student which was to be the focus of attention for those who taught. There was a great deal of experimentation going on — this was the late 1960s — and the brand-new college was supposed to combine the liberal arts and the technical in new and amazing ways. But the notion of the “psychic-emotional complex” was entirely new to me. And it remains a mystery to this day, since no one could really say what the hell it meant at the time. I came to suppose that the college was expected to focus attention on the “whole student” because that was the jargon that was in the air at the time and which I came to hear much about in later years.

The 1960s were troubled times in the fight of traditional liberal arts programs struggling to survive the attacks of the SDS and other outraged young people who targeted the “establishment” and pretty much all tradition, including history, they regarded as “irrelevant.” The liberal arts were presumed to be “elitist” and rejected by a host of those who were in the process of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Doubtless, there was much about what had been traditionally done in the name of education, and indeed much of what was referred to as the “establishment,” that deserved to be jettisoned. But the process was never really thought out and much damage resulted from what some convinced themselves were needed improvements in the bastion of the Ivory Tower and in society at large.

In a sense, the liberal arts are “elitist,” because they focus attention on the human mind and seek to help young people become as intelligent as possible. Some succeed and some fail. In a world that prized (and still prizes) the commonplace, the ordinary, the average — a society that seeks to leave no student behind– any process that seeks to help one person to rise above others is suspect (except in sports!).  Or so it was to a great many people who preferred instead to focus attention  on the “psychic-emotional complex.” At the time I thought if colleges and universities sought to develop the “whole student” they would fail. It made more sense to me to focus attention on what could be done and done well rather than to try to deal with the entire complex person, seeking not only to develop intelligence but help build moral character as well. I thought then, and I think now, that this cannot be done. Educators might succeed if they narrowed their focus, but if they took a shotgun approach to education they would miss all the targets and simply confuse the young who were supposed to leave college more intelligent than they were when they arrived. Most of the evidence I have seen since that time suggests that the shotgun approach has indeed failed. Students today leave the colleges and universities relatively unchanged by the experience which has been confusing and confused for more than a half-century.

At the time I thought, and said publicly, that the Church and the family were the two institutions that should focus attention on character, the emotional and moral  development of the child seeking to become an adult. Let the schools, said I, focus attention on the mind and on mind alone. That way something important might happen while the student passes through twelve or sixteen years of schooling. But it was not to be. The Church was, and is, too busy trying to repair the roof and keep the pews filled with satisfied customers, and the family has pretty much become dissolved into fragments that tear the young person in several different directions at once, leaving him or her bewildered and disappointed — even a bit frustrated.

In a word, the schools have killed the mind. Intelligence has disappeared behind the charge that any attempt to develop it is “elitist” and therefore not acceptable in an egalitarian society, a democratic society, in which no one is any better (or any worse) than anyone else — or dare not presume to be. This is a sad state of affairs indeed. It marks the end of any notion that intelligence matters and that in some sense we all ought to try to become as smart as we can in those few years we spend in school.

After discussing the problems I have touched on here, Lionel Trilling, in a 1972 essay, bemoans the fact that the professors in our colleges and universities have ignored their duties. As he notes:

“Surely it says much about the status of mind in our society that the profession which is consecrated to its protection and furtherance should stand silent under the assault, as if suddenly deprived of all right to use the powers of mind in its own defense.”

In the end, he worries that

“. . . .  mind at the present time draws back from its own freedom and power, from its own delight in itself.”

Instead, we seek to develop the “whole person,” the “psychic-emotional complex” that which we take to be the whole person. And in the process we become care-givers rather than educators and fail to develop the minds of the young. In doing so we fail the young as whole persons and the society at large. Ironic.

Homework

As a rule I mute television commercials. I can’t stand most of them as they send us all subconscious messages from multinational corporations that seek to entrap the will and bring about the purchase of something we simply do not need. Some are clever and I try to listen to them, just for a laugh. But there is a new Apple iPad commercial that I happened to listen to recently, because I was remote from the remote, and that commercial gets my goat!

The commercial shows a middle school teacher assigning homework to his class, presumably on a Friday, and a voice-over starts intoning the message “Ugh, homework. I hate homework.” The style of the commercial is reminiscent of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story and perhaps that is what they were going for. It shows the kids having fun, playing and larking about, at times with their iPads (presumably suggesting that homework on iPads can be fun? Or perhaps the kids are just checking social media?), while all the time the voice tells us repeatedly how much they all hate homework.

And we wonder why our kids are falling behind the students of nearly all of the other so-called “developed” nations! This sort of anti-intellectualism, which is all-too prevalent in America and has been for many years, determines that those children will never catch up to the rest of the world. We know the public schools are under attack and the data show that we draw those into public school teaching who are in the bottom third  of the students in our colleges. They are paid a pittance and asked to raise the kids in addition to teaching them — or, most recently, arming themselves against possible terrorists. And if we now start to send the message that they should not assign homework — presumably because the kids don’t like to do homework — we simply add fuel to a fire already threatening to go out of control.

Homework, like it or not, helps young people deepen their knowledge of the subject matter after an all-too-short school day — in addition to acquiring the skills of self-discipline and self-denial, which we all dearly need. It also helps them to become independent learners instead of just recipients of the teacher’s bits of knowledge. To be sure none of us wants to do work of any sort — which is why we are paid, I suppose. But work is necessary and homework in the schools is a necessary component of the load the student is asked to bear. And let’s face it, that load is not back-breaking. We seem to be asking our students to do less and less due to the fiction that they are under so much pressure already. And at the same time grade inflation convinces them that the work they are doing is stellar when, in my experience and from what I have read, it is generally sub-par. The result, of course, is our age of entitlement.

Needless to say, this is an issue close to the heart of a retired college professor who has read and thought about education at all levels for many years (and blogged endlessly, some would say). I have even written a book about the current condition of education in this country and it has always been a concern of mine — because it is a problem that can be solved if we simply put our minds to it. If tiny Finland can do it, we certainly can! Initially it would require that we somehow stop the mindless attacks from the political Right against public education and determine to put a much larger share of the annual federal and state budgets into education thereby attracting better teachers and showing them that education matters.

In any event, the attack on homework by a corporation determined to sell more electronic toys to a generation already stupefied by those toys is a compound felony in my view. I have always thought Apple a cut above the rest, but I must now revise my views. At the same time I will continue to worry about the present state of education in this country, convinced as I am that it holds the key to the success or failure of this democracy. And I will continue my practice of muting the commercials.