Delivery Systems

In responding to a comment on a recent blog I noted that in teaching our kids we have become caught up in the methods of teaching and have lost sight of the all-important question of what it is that teachers ought to do — not how they might do it more effectively. I want to expand on that for a bit.

We are talking here about what have been called “delivery systems,” the how of teaching rather than the why of teaching. In my response to the comment mentioned above I referred to them as “gimmicks and tools” — mostly gimmicks that arise from the mistaken notion that teaching is a science when, in fact, it is an art. Teacher evaluations, for example, are focused on the question “how well does your teacher teach?” This reflects the larger societal preoccupation with methods rather than substance.  Science, for example, has become technology. The scientist often is so focused on the question of how to develop the theory he or she is advancing that they fail to stop and reflect on the question of why the theory was advanced in the first place. We demand better widgets forgetting to ask why we need the widgets in the first place. The study of pure science, with no monetary pay-off, is anathema today. Indeed, the study of anything for its own sake, or for the sake of the joy and/or enlightenment it might bring with it, is lost in the question: what’s in it for me? What’s the pay-off?

In teaching, methods courses are the main focus in colleges of education; the issue is how to deliver the goods. And ever since the birth of “progressive” education in this country in the late thirties of the last century the focus has been on the child who is to be taught rather than the subject matter he or she is to be taught. Curriculum development is now predicated on the question: how can we best deliver the goods to disinterested, unruly children? How can we keep their attention long enough to help them actually learn something? How can we make sure “no child is left behind”? Clearly, this is a consequence of the effects the entertainment industry’s had on this country as the teacher has for many years been measured against Mr. Rogers or Big Bird. How entertaining can you be? Can you grab and hold the child’s attention?

In any event, the central purpose of education has been lost in the shuffle. That question ought to be, at all levels, how can we help this young person expand his our her mind and become free in the process, capable of making informed, independent decisions on complex issues? This is why education has always been associated — or should have been — with the democratic system that gave birth to the notion of universal education in the first place. A democracy cannot function without a literate, informed, and thoughtful citizenry. This has been known in this country from the outset. It is why Thomas Jefferson established the University of Virginia. But it has been lost in the cloud of smoke that has expanded of late, the ofttimes incoherent discussion of the delivery systems. How can we do this better? But just what is the THIS? That’s the question we ought to be focused upon.

As I say, this problem is simply a part of a larger social issue where we have become lost in sometimes loud and unruly discussion of the tangential issues that surround us. We seldom ask why it is we are doing what we are doing. We simply ask how we can do it better — get better reviews, bigger pay checks, more “likes,” promotions, profits, approval, or applause.

Recent history, especially, has driven home the obvious point that our democratic system stands or falls with our educational system. To what extent can we honestly say our citizens are not well educated, perhaps, but well enough educated to be able to discriminate between the genuine article and a political fraud? The evidence suggests our political system is failing the test. It also suggests that education’s failure may well be any the center of this problem. Before we can hold on to the realistic hope of reparation of a political system that seems to be broken, we must first repair the education system that is supposed to be turning out citizens capable of choosing wisely. That should be our first priority.

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Peer Pressure

One of my favorite comics is “For Better or For Worse,” which I read daily. It involves a dentist, his working wife, and their two kids. In a recent series Elizabeth, one of the children, wants her ears pierced. She is quite young and her mother does not approve, admonishing her to wait until she’s a bit older. But the child goes to school each day where her friends brag about their own pierced ears and tease her about her lack of piercings. The pressure on the child is immense and, like most children in her situation, she feels like an outsider and is hurt by her classmates and their taunting.

But what is also involved, and which the creator of this comic strip is aware of, is the pressure on the mother. She feels strongly that it is not appropriate for her young daughter to pierce her ears, but she hurts when she sees her daughter crying and knows how important it is to her to be accepted by her peers. This is a situation so many mothers are put into daily in our society where acceptance by peers determines in so many cases a child’s sense of self-worth.

There are a couple of problems here, of course. To begin with, a child’s sense of self-worth should not be determined by what a group of her peers thinks or says. In addition, a mother’s sense of what is appropriate should be the last word. After all, she is older and has the perspective of years of experience; she knows what is best for her daughter — presumably. But this is the “real” world where children tease and bully one another and now, with social media, broadcast around the fact that one of their peers is not “with the program.” In a recent post I mentioned how a young girl felt that she was lost if her friends didn’t “like” her every post on social media. She knew this was wrong somehow, but there it was: her sense of self-worth was wrapped up in what a group of her friends thought and said about her on twitter or Facebook. It’s an absurd situation on its face. But it is a fact of life.

In the best of all possible worlds, the mother in the comic strip would hold the line and simply wait until her daughter got over the crisis of the moment. After all, a child’s entire life seems to be made up of a series of such crises. We fail to consider whether or not that is a bad thing: we simply assume it is. In that world, the mother would try to help her daughter learn that her self-worth was in no way dependent on what her peers think about her, but on the kind of person she is and will become. But children cannot be expected to follow such complex thinking – even if it is correct.  And that’s the core of the problem. As long as we are convinced that children must be able to comprehend the reasons why they are being led to do the right thing — and that the right thing cannot simply be forced upon them — we will continue to give in to their whims.

On a larger scale, this is what is going on in our schools as well. Curriculum is determined in so many cases by what they kids enjoy on the grounds that if they are not having fun they are not learning. This is absurd, of course, since we have all learned a great many things we didn’t enjoy learning and at times the most valuable lessons are the ones we learn reluctantly. But we live in the Sesame Street era of progressive education where we have become convinced that children should be entertained and their feelings are paramount; that they should never fail or be subjected to painful experiences. These are powerful sentiments — as are the tugs of peer pressure.So, in the end, we have to give in to the Elizabeths of the world and let them have their ears pierced, even if we know it is inappropriate.

Hannah Arendt said many years ago that this is an avoidance of responsibility on the part of parents who should do what they know is best for their children — whether they like it or not. She applied the same rule to teachers in the schools. As she notes in her extraordinary book Responsibility and Judgment,

“. . . [among other things] progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change and improve the world?”

With age comes experience and, even at times, wisdom. Children cannot be expected to have this and they must be force-fed at times. It’s what is sometimes called “tough love.” But we have become so afraid of standing firm and trusting our own instincts that we are led by our own kind of peer pressure and out of sympathy with the children let them get their ears pierced even though we know it is not the right thing to do.

Holistic Education

I have written several blogs that refer to the rise of anti-intellectualism in this country. If the attitude, which is now widespread, did not start with the religious enthusiasts in the colonies, then it certainly did with Andrew Jackson and pals like Davy Crockett, the sporadically schooled men of action who regarded intellect as “effeminate” and distrusted experts. But, as I have noted, the movement was more recently given a powerful thrust  forward by Senator Joseph McCarthy whose hearings in the early 1950s centered on artists, poets, writers, college professors. and even the President of the United States as the source of Communism and everything that was evil in this country. Bashing anyone who seemed the lest bit thoughtful became the fashion.

The movement had gone underground briefly during the Progressive era and the days of FDR’s “brain trust,” as it did again, despite the effects of the McCarthy hearings, during the post-Sputnik era in the early 1960s when America in a panic wanted more scientists, and during the brief presidency of John F. Kennedy who loved to have intellectuals around him and in his cabinet. But after Kennedy’s death the movement recovered its strength and gained momentum and is now a powerful force in this country — as attested to by the fact that people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are today taking center stage and being applauded left and right (mostly right). The scum also rises.

Ironically, anti-intellectualism is especially prevalent in the schools where the battle has taken the form of an attack by many teachers themselves against traditional (“aristocratic”) education with its emphasis on developing the mind of young people and a (“democratic”) defense of an education directed at developing the “whole” child. Nowhere was this fight more pronounced than in San Francisco in the early 1960s where a committee was formed to determine how the school system could improve in light of Russia’s apparent superiority in sending a rocket successfully into space. The committee came back with a report that the schools should return to a more traditional approach to education and seek to set higher standards in the classrooms, emphasizing science and mathematics, especially. The reaction to this report by six educational organizations [!] is especially noteworthy: they came together with a printed rebuttal of the report and defended the child-centered, “life adjustment” educational system that was by then taking the country by storm (and which is now firmly entrenched in our schools in the form of the “self-esteem” movement). As  Richard Hofstadter notes in his study of anti-intellectualism in this country:

The groups attacked the San Francisco report for “academic pettiness and snobbery” and for going beyond their competence in limiting the purposes of education to “informing the mind and developing the intelligence,” and reasserted the value of “other goals of education, such as preparation for citizenship, occupational competence, successful family life, self-realization in ethical, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions, and the enjoyment of physical health.”

Now one must wonder why developing the child’s mind does not lead to “preparation for citizenship,” since we would certainly want informed and thoughtful citizens in this democracy. It is certainly what the Founders envisioned. Further, a person who can think will be a much more valuable employee than one who cannot, one would think. Despite the bogus arguments of the advocates of “life adjustment” for the kids during the early part of the last century, numerous psychological studies have shown that liberal learning has a good deal of  “transfer” value: studies of great literature, properly pursued, can pay off in the business world, for example. Job preparation should therefore not be viewed in a narrow focus, but in a focus broad enough to allow that the minds of those who work need also to be developed and nurtured along with specific job skills.  But to take the rest of the goals the group put forward as the proper object of education, one hastens to ask why the schools, specifically, should concern themselves with such things as ethics and morality and the development of “spiritual dimensions”? One would have thought such things were the purview of the family and the church.

Indeed, this has always been one of my main quarrels with progressive education: the concern for the “whole child” and the attack on those (like me) who think the goal of education should be on developing the child’s mind ignore the fact that the schools cannot possibly be expected to do everything at once. It is enough to ask the schools to focus their attention on developing the minds of the children placed in their charge. Developing character and establishing ethical and moral principles in the hearts and souls of the children are extremely important goals, but they should not be part of the objective of the schools. The schools have enough to do if they simply focus on what they are able to do and seek to do it more effectively.

I suspect that a large part of the fact that the schools in this country have fallen behind other developed nations is precisely this — that since the 1930s, at least, we have sought to make the schools responsible for raising the children and not simply educating them. Far too much has been heaped on the plates of this nation’s teachers — and then we add insult to injury by refusing to pay them what they are worth. To be sure, part of this goes back to this nation’s distrust of those who use their minds and the notion that such people are somehow twisted and deformed because the rest of their personality has been undeveloped while their minds have been allowed to take over their lives. But this is a caricature and as such ought to be accorded the ridicule it deserves. The schools should not and indeed they cannot develop the “whole child.” That is the job of families and the churches, in conjunction with the schools — a point that has been too long ignored.

Teaching The Kids

One of my fellow bloggers who calls himself “Mindful Stew” has been involved in a most interesting discussion of academic discipline — teaching the kids the right way. Most of the comments on his blog have come from teachers, or former teachers, and they have some very interesting things to say about how best to teach the young. The hard nut to crack that lies at the center of the discussion is the question of discipline. As I read these comments I admire the teachers who have a very tough row to hoe with little pay and no thanks. But it also occurs to me that there are two sorts of discipline and we don’t always keep them separate.

To begin with there is what we might call “behavioral discipline” which focuses on keeping order in the classroom so that teaching can take place. As parents increasingly shunt their spoiled kids off to the schools, this is becoming an increasingly difficult problem. It is no longer acceptable to use corporal punishment and, in fact, if a teacher so much as lays a hand on the child there will be serious repercussions — as perhaps (allowing for over-reaction on the part of parents and authorities) there should be. One of Stew’s contributors, Chris Corrie, had a lengthy comment on the subject and he is clearly attempting to find a middle ground between harsh, sit up straight and shut your mouth discipline, and fawning, raise their self-esteem entitlement where the child is told that nothing he does could possibly be wrong. Indeed, “wrong” is a word that we simply don’t use any more. In any event, a portion of Chris’ comment is worth pondering:

Key to all this is to understand that, for some kids at a particular point in time, it may be more important to talk to them about their personal problems than to try to force trigonometry into their brain. It is also important to realize that they are subject to news and social interaction 24 X 7. Think back to what you dealt with growing up and how you would deal with the issues these kids face today.

I cannot quarrel with Chris except to point out that we all had problems growing up and it is not clear that today’s youth have any more than we did — especially given the fact that they have so many ways to divert their attention from the serious problems that their parents and elders all face daily. It is not clear, from what I have read and seen first hand, that these kids are deeply troubled about the state of the economy or the future of the planet, for example. We may simply assume that since there are so many problems the kids must be aware of them. This is a highly debatable assumption. But in any event, there is another sort of discipline that gets overlooked in this discussion and I attribute that to the shift in the thirties of the last century from subject-oriented teaching to child-oriented teaching, the birth of “progressive education.” That sort of discipline is mental discipline and I found a very nice statement of just what that is in a Japanese novel (of all places) entitled Naomi by Junicherio Tanizaki. In that novel the hero a 26-year-old man who is attempting to teach a young girl English is having troubles and finally decides it is not worth his time. In reflecting on the problem, he has the following suggestion:

“Why do boys study geometry and algebra in middle school? The objective is not so much to provide them with a practical tool, as it is to cultivate their ability to use their minds with precision.”

Indeed, this is the heart of the situation: in our preoccupation with behavioral discipline we have lost sight of mental discipline which, I would argue, is what education is all about. Education is about putting young people in possession of their own minds, enabling them to use their minds to think and speak coherently, to “use their minds with precision.” But, as Chris and others remind us, we must never forget that these kids are children and bring emotional baggage to school with them and in order to help train their young minds we must first get their attention. There’s the challenge!