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.

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The Life of Reason

The American philosopher, George Santayana, wrote a book with the title of this post. In that book he famously said, among many other things, that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But it is mainly an attempt to trace the development of reason in the human mind from birth to old age. The book is complex and somewhat technical, but it draws on the fact that reasoning in humans is developmental and natural, though certain prompts are required at certain points along the way. This notion was later fostered by the French psychologist Jean Piaget who started the school of “developmental psychology” that stresses the various stages of mental development in children and adults.

In any case, the conclusion of these two men is clearly stated: reason is not something that just “happens,” it develops in stages and requires the right kind of encouragement along the way. And in an alarming number of cases, as is evident in the current race for the presidency, reason remains undeveloped altogether. This thesis has been verified by recent tests that show the development of the left hemisphere of the human brain, which is the “analytical” side, requires that parents read to their very young children and tell them stories — and keep them away from television and electronic games. Now, while analysis is only a part of our reasoning capacity, which also includes synthesis (the ability to make connections) it is critical for the ability to think one’s way through complex issues. Reason must be developed and nurtured along the way and it begins with reading and telling stories, but it goes well beyond that.

Santayana gives us a hint at what might be required in developing reason in young people:

“The child, like the animal, is a colossal egoist, not from want of sensibility, but through a deep transcendental isolation. The mind is naturally its own world and solipsism needs to be broken down by social influence. The child must learn to sympathize intelligently, to be considerate rather than instinctively to love and hate; his imagination must become cognitive and dramatically just, instead of remaining, as it naturally is, sensitively, selfishly fanciful.”

This is an example of the close, compact — and somewhat technical — way Santayana writes. But his point is worth unpacking and taking to heart. He suggests that children are, at the outset, much like other animals. The development not only of reason but also of sensitivity and human sympathy come with socialization. It is the job of the family, the church, and the schools — not to mention the many people whom the child will encounter outside those specialized institutions — who help him or her to develop into a mature human being. Interesting in this regard, is the role that sports might play in the development of the whole person. As Santayana outs it,

“Priceless in this regard is athletic exercise; for here the test of ability is visible, the comparison [with others] is not odious, the need for cooperation clear, and the consciousness of power genuine and therefore ennobling. Socratic dialectic is not a better means of learning to know oneself.”

Thus, in this man’s carefully developed opinion, we seem to be on the wrong track today in rewarding children for little effort and handing out such things as participation trophies. The young need to learn from failure and we must all, in turn, acknowledge the growth that such failure can prosper. The things that young people need to learn, to come out of themselves (“egoists” as we all are as very young people) come with age but especially with nurturing and education. Age comes naturally; development of the mature person comes with guidance and support from family, friends, and institutions such as schools and churches. The tendency to turn on the TV, hand the kids an iPhone or a video game, emphasizes their instinctive, strong sense of living in a fantasy world, fosters further “isolation,” keeps them within themselves and prolongs childhood well into the later years. This is a serious problem not only for the survival of our democratic system (if that horse hasn’t already left the barn) but also for the survival of the planet. We desperately need people who have a sense of duty to the community, a strong sensitivity to the needs of others, and the ability to reason if we are to survive. Santayana was a wise man and his words are well worth careful consideration.

 

Self-Esteem

Let’s start with an obvious truth: high self-esteem must be earned, it cannot be handed to us. This is a truth that has apparently been lost on educators who have embraced the notion that by simply pouring praise into the heads and hearts of their students, no matter whether they deserve it, their self-esteem will rise and they will perform miracles. Or at least, they will pass their tests and make the teachers look good. This is absurd. Its absurdity was augmented in California not long ago when a school board member was confronted by data that showed that heaping praise on students doesn’t improve their performance one whit. His response: “I don’t care what the data show, I know it works.” Methinks the man is brain-dead. Perhaps he didn’t get enough praise as a child. But unwarranted praise doesn’t improve performance. You know it. I know it. Kids know it, too.

Maureen Stout knows it. And she knows whereof she speaks. Indeed, she has written a book that seeks to undermine the self-esteem movement in the schools. She says, in part, “The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually all aspects of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads [in education], and the most dangerous. But . . . it is not essential. In fact, it doesn’t even make much sense.”  The fact that Ms Stout taught in the public schools for years, holds a PhD in education, and now teaches in one of the prestigious California teaching colleges carries no weight with the education establishment. What she said in her book has been widely ignored. The education establishment doesn’t take kindly to criticism from the outside — or the inside, apparently. The self-esteem movement has taken over the schools.

As a result, as Ms Stout points out, “Schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and paying less attention to academics, which is the core of a liberal education. The very essence of public schooling is thus being transformed. We are in danger of producing individuals who are expert at knowing how they feel rather than educated persons who know how to think. This is a radical transformation in the role of schooling.” And it is by no means clear that this transformation is of benefit to the children or society. On the contrary.

Nevertheless, the movement has so much steam that it has passed into the world of the elderly as well — though they worry more about lower self-esteem, which, they are told, is a function of aging. Only by continuing to act young and foolish will they maintain some semblance of their self-esteem. But it’s quite possible, as Wallace Stegner reminds us, that it is society that lowers the self-esteem of the aging, not age in itself. He has a powerful passage in The Spectator Bird that makes the case as only he can. After his narrator receives a questionnaire in the mail he vents as follows:

“Who was ever in doubt that the self-esteem of the elderly declines in this society which indicates in every possible way that it does not value the old in the slightest, finds them an expense and an embarrassment, laughs at their experience, evades their problems, isolates them in hospitals and Sunshine Cities, and generally ignores them except when soliciting their votes or ripping off their handbags and their Social Security checks? And which has a chilling capacity to look straight at them and never see them. The poor old senior citizen has two choices, assuming he is well enough off to have any choices at all. He can retire from that hostile culture to the shore of some shuffleboard court in a balmy climate, or he can shrink in his self-esteem and gradually become the cipher he is constantly reminded he is.”

Hyperbole, perhaps. But it is certainly the case that the elderly don’t get the praise they have earned, while the kids get praise they don’t deserve. Ironic, isn’t it? Maybe by the time today’s kids become elderly their self-esteem will have been boosted so high it can’t be lowered by treating them with disdain. I doubt it. They will feel cheated all over again. Things today, including praise, are simply too easy: nothing costs anything. And we don’t even have to wait until tomorrow to get what we want. This is unhealthy, and it breeds self-contempt, not self-esteem.

Must Reading

A book I highly recommend for all parents and teachers of students at all levels is Jane Healy’s “Endangered Minds.” Healy draws on her many years of experience as a teacher and parent, not to mention the latest in brain research, to explain why our young people have so many problems in school. In a word, the left hemisphere of their brains is seriously impaired by the upbringing that is now prevalent. They watch too much TV and play video games instead of hearing stories and carrying on normal conversations with their elders.  The latest assault on language and intelligence is, of course, texting where even the simplest words are butchered. The language they learn is simplistic, she calls it “primitive,” even on shows like “Sesame Street.” What they need is greater facility with more complex vocabulary and syntax, more reading and listening to adult conversation. Having stories read to them and told to them and reading stories themselves, especially at a young age. This is necessary because we think in words and sentences;  language is essential for discursive thought and thought is essential for success in school and in the “real” world after school.
Many teachers complain that their students have short attention spans (ADD is a growing blight in our culture) and are unable to express themselves except with a few words and many gestures substituting for sentences. They are not stupid, but they are illiterate and as a result the schools have to “dumb down” the curriculum and entertain rather than instruct.
It all starts in the home and at an early age. And it needs to be enforced in our schools with more (not less) reading, and a return to teaching grammar and even, perhaps, a foreign language. This is a terrific book, but not for the squeamish. It can be bought at Amazon and, no, I don’t get a commission.