Revisiting The Teacher As Victim

In giving my book a final read before it is sent off to the publishers, I thought this particular post would not only help me “hype” the book (!) but also be worth a moment’s reflection. It’s not all about self-promotion, you know. It’s more nearly about provoking thought I would hope.

If Richard Hofstadter were writing today as he did in 1962 when he explored the origins of anti-intellectualism in this country, he might be struck by the open attacks on the public school system. But he would not be surprised by the low opinion the general public has of the teacher in the schools. In his book, Anti-Intelectualism in American Life, Hofstadter quotes at length a pamphlet written by a New England farmer, William Manning of North Billerica, Massachusetts in 1798. Manning argues as best he can against “book learning” and defends a pragmatic theory of education in which children are taught their three R’s but little else. As Hofstadter tells us:

At the heart of Manning’s philosophy was a profound suspicion of the learned and property-holding classes. Their education, their free time, and the nature of their vocations made it possible, he saw, for the merchants, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and executive and judicial officers of state to act together in pursuit of their ends, as the laboring man could not.

Now if we dismiss the bit of paranoia at the heart of Manning’s attack on the intelligentsia of his day, he has an interesting point — one that goes a long way toward explaining why so many people have such a low opinion of teachers, whom Manning sees as also belonging to the leisure class. That is to say (as Manning himself put it), they are among “those that live without work.” Please note here that “work” means laboring, sweating, physical engagement in “the real world.” Life in the ivory tower or the classroom is clearly other-worldly, and does not involve real work. I suspect this is an attitude that is shared by many today who see the teachers around them working short hours with long vacations. Folks who struggle to succeed in the work-a-day world don’t regard those who teach as doing real work. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Or, as President Joseph Caldwell of the University of North Carolina said late in the nineteenth century, “To teach school is, in the opinion of many, little else than sitting still and doing nothing.” I suspect that many a teacher would love to see these folks spend a week in front of one of their classes!

But rather than choose sides on this issue (and it is clear which side one who taught for 42 years would come down on!) I would like to draw some lessons from all this. To begin with, the attack on our schools is nothing less that one of the many signs of the anti-intellectualism that pervades this country. The notion that teachers don’t do real work is, I dare say, widely shared — given the misconceptions that are abroad. I know when I taught at the university level there were several studies undertaken in order to fend off the attacks of the critics who hold the purse strings; those studies showed that the average college professor worked 62 hours a week. The public misconceptions arose from the fact that the normal teaching load was 12 hours of classroom teaching a week, even less in larger universities where professors publish or perish. So folks naturally assumed that college professors are lazy and overpaid. Some are, to be sure, but not all. Even more unsettling, however, is the fact that I know a number of high school teachers, of all people, who regard college professors as among those who “live without work.” There’s resentment all around us! But the critics are wrong: teaching is real work, at any level. The notion that a 12 hour class load is not real work ignores the countless hours a college professor spends preparing lectures, advising students, attending (boring) meetings, and grading papers. I am sure elementary and high school teachers, who must not only teach their subject but also try to keep order among unruly kids, spend many hours in and out of their classrooms doing the same sorts of things as well — including, in their cases, meeting with parents. Anyone who thinks this is not real work needs to think again.

But very little thought is involved in this controversy, as we can see by reflecting on what the Massachusetts farmer was saying in the eighteenth century. When one’s frame of reference defines real work as laboring in the fields or spending eight hours a day in a shop, a cubicle, or on the assembly line, the life of the teacher must seem easy and totally lacking in worth. Despite the fact that a solid core of merchants and businessmen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, like Andrew Carnegie, were staunch supporters of education, after the Civil War the antipathy between the average business person and the intellectual became sharper and deeper, and as more and more of the nation’s children needed to be schooled education increasingly became a matter of “life adjustment” or job preparation, and teachers, earning a pittance, continued to be held in low esteem. Increasing numbers of business persons, and others in the work-a-day world, adopted the perspective of the farmer from Massachusetts. And that’s the key here: we are faced by two opposing and conflicting world-views. This is not an issue that can be settled by thoughtful debate. It is an issue of the heart: it’s about feelings, such as resentment and envy based on misconceptions. One can hope to correct those misconceptions, but I doubt that the feelings will be altered by even the most lengthy discussion.

In a word, the anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter so carefully examines has its roots deep in a country that was wrestled away from the wilderness (and the native people) by men and women of little learning but immense courage, practical skill, and determination. It’s easy to see why they and their progeny distrust those who get paid to work with their minds and seem to have it easy. Even today in the popular mind teachers “live without work.” This is nonsense, of course, but it is what a great many people believe and I don’t see it changing in the near future. Unless there is a radical change in cultural perspective, teachers will continue to have it hard and can expect little or no sympathy from those who are convinced they are overpaid and “live without work” — which goes a long way toward explaining why this country’s educational system is in such dire straits.

Advertisements

Tennis Lessons

I was a tennis teaching professional for 35 years giving private lessons — first at a private club just outside of Chicago and then in the Summers while I was teaching full-time in philosophy at the university — running tennis camps, and coaching for 15 years, both men and women. My approach to private lessons was pretty much the same: hit with the pupil for a few minutes to see what his or her strengths and weaknesses were. I didn’t have a formula which I tried to force on every player. I took what they had and tried to work with it, bending the lesson to fit the pupil. I usually saw fairly quickly what they needed to do to improve their game and I would make a few suggestions to them — avoiding criticism and making sure I didn’t say something that might undermine their confidence or make them self-conscious. If what I said failed to work, I tried to say the same thing using different words: everyone is different. Eventually something I said would seem to work and I piled on the praise and relied on repetition to help groove the stroke and make it work better for the pupil.

The year after college I taught arithmetic, history, geography, and science to boys in grades 3 through 7 at a private school. I also coached football and basketball. I learned during that year to apply the same techniques I had used on the tennis court: listen carefully and observe; be patient and full of praise when the students got the message. And I tried to keep my sense of humor throughout — giving private lessons, in the classroom, or while coaching intercollegiate tennis players.

What I learned over the years is that teaching is not a science; it is an art. There are no “methods” that can be taught to every aspiring teacher that will work with all the students — or even the majority of them. This is why I have become so critical of the methods courses taught in education programs across the nation. They rest on the faulty assumption that teaching is a science. The best thing that could be done for our teachers is to encourage them to take an academic major in college — history, English, biology, chemistry, sociology, mathematics, whatever — and then take a year as an apprentice to a veteran teacher. The veteran can give the aspiring teacher tips on what has worked over the years for them — how to reach the quiet or subdued pupils in the class, for example, instead of teaching to the ones that always raise their hands. There are things that can be learned, but not sitting in a classroom in college working through a manual on “methods.”

I have come to believe that this is the best plan. I would note in passing that the teachers at the private school where I taught for that year all had legitimate college degrees and none of them (that’s right, none of them) was “certified” to teach. They were not driven away from teaching like so many bright, young people by having to take tedious and pointless “methods” courses. They learned on the go and, for the most part, were very good at what they did. Granted, the students were bright but the principle is the same. The best way to learn how to teach is to be patient, be aware of what is going on around you, and have adequate communication skills to make your point in a variety of ways in order to reach the largest number of pupils. These are not things that can be learned in a department of education. They must be natural or acquired on the job in a classroom teaching others what you yourself have learned, what excites you.

I realize that I am drawing on my own personal experience to make a general point, and I hasten to note that I do not regard myself as an outstanding teacher. I always taught to the brightest and loved most working with the best athletes. But I have observed over the years countless others who are either good or bad teachers and have tried to understand what made the difference.  And as Director of an Honors Program I saw many a bright, aspiring teacher turn away from teaching because of the boring methods courses they were required to take. To repeat, teaching is an art, not a science. And if we want to start attracting the best and brightest students to the teaching profession we need to admit that we cannot teach others how to teach.

The Blind Leading

I strongly opposed the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She is obviously unqualified since she has no experience whatever with American public education.  (And I hasten to note in passing that I attended public schools for the requisite 12 years.) In any event, my blogging buddy Jill was spot on when she noted in a recent post that the DeVos appointment appears to be a determined effort on the part of this Administration to dumb down America even further.

But, then, I reflected on one basic question: is the American public education system already beyond repair? Can it be saved? And that question took me to some very sad truths (not alternative facts, but actual facts). To begin with is the “Blob.” This is the name one theorist has given to the huge bureaucracy that controls public education in this country. I have first-hand experience with such a bureaucracy on a smaller scale in my years in public higher education in Minnesota. When I started teaching in this state in 1968 there were six state universities and one Chancellor who, with his secretary, oversaw the system from his office in St. Paul. By the time I retired 37 years later his office took an entire city block in St. Paul and was peopled by hundreds of drones who scurried back and forth issuing directives that necessitated more and more administrative positions at the (now seven) universities simply to keep up and issue their countless reports.

In the public schools the same situation can be found. In spades. There are innumerable functionaries at all levels who are paid large salaries out of money that ought to go to the teachers. Their job is to issue directives and determine policy, including curriculum, for the many schools in the various state systems. This is the Blob. The system as it now stands is top-heavy. There are far too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

Moreover, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions, teachers are paid slave-wages and this leads to the fact (as shown by several studies) that our teaching force in the public primary and secondary education system is drawn from the lower 1/3rd or lower 1/4th (depending on which study you refer to) of our college students. The lower salaries make teaching unattractive for many students, as do the “methods courses” prospective teachers are required to take. The pupils have been raised to think that successful people make large salaries and since these people make very little they must all be losers. They tend not to respect their teachers. And given that parents are too busy these days to raise their children, the schools are expected to do so — except that the teachers must discipline their charges with hands tied behind their backs by countless regulations laid down by the bureaucrats mentioned above who worry about possible law suits and not about the pupils or the teachers. Teaching and the pupils are lost in the shuffle.

There are good teachers who have taken the required vow of poverty. No doubt about it. But studies all show that American public education is in a shambles and the question how it can be saved is a profound and perplexing one. It must start at the top, but at the top we find people who control the purse strings and who seem to regard their own positions as sacrosanct. Since they are at the top they are first in line to receive funding. In my state the State University Board takes their portion after the legislative allocation comes down and then doles out what is left to the several universities who are all told that since budgets are tight they will have to make draconian cuts — usually in the humanities and arts faculty. (Never in sports. But that’s another topic.)

The international comparisons with schools in other countries strongly suggest that things seem to have gone from bad to worse. And a new start may not be a terrible thing. I realize that DeVos is not the brightest bulb on the tree and has no credentials whatever (which seems to be a trait among Trump’s appointments), but perhaps she will bring some new ideas to the job. If, for example, she were to eradicate, or even seriously injure, the Blob and dispense with certification requirements (including “methods” courses) while making it possible for young people to attend schools with bright, well-paid teachers this may not be a bad thing. She is known to favor charter schools, for example, which are not in all cases a bad thing. Two of my grandchildren attend a charter school in the Twin Cities that teaches latin and Greek along with logic, mathematics, and science. The curriculum is built around the original seven liberal arts and the kids love the challenge and are getting a very good, free education — complete with homework, can you imagine?

In any event, it will be interesting to see what happens. I am much more worried, I confess, about what this president is doing to the E.P.A. and other regulating agencies than I am with this particular appointment, given the current state of public education. It could turn out to be a good thing if it results in a fundamental shake-up of a system that seems to be tottering and about fall under its own weight.

Want and Need

Because of a very interesting comment on one of my recent posts, my attention was drawn back to a distinction I have noted before but one which we as a culture have lost sight of totally. I refer, of course, to the distinction between “want” and “need.” Now, it might be said that distinctions are of interest only to philosophers — and others of their peculiar type — but in fact they help us to be clear about what it is we are saying. In this case, the distinction goes to the heart of some rather alarming mistakes we are making as a culture. I refer to the mistakes we have made both as parents and teachers.

John Dewey (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

John Dewey
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In education, the movement to “progressive,” child-oriented education under John Dewey and the faculties of  Columbia University Teacher’s College and the University of Chicago Laboratory School that followed after him led directly to the present deterioration of our educational system and also to poor parenting. Dewey thought at the time, in the early thirties, that the schools were too focused on what was being taught and had lost sight of who were being taught — namely, the children. To an extent this was true, but his followers got the bit in their teeth and, contrary to Dewey’s intention, ran with the notion that education should be totally focused on the child and the substance of what was taught really didn’t matter. It took a while and it was not without its critics, but “progressive education” and what we might call “progressive parenting” were born. The most profound comment I have ever read about this mistake was made by the philosopher Hannah Arendt in an article she wrote in 1969. At that time she said:

“. . .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.”

The focus here, not only in education but also in parenting since the 1950s at least, is on the fundamental difference between what children want and what they need. In addition, Arendt draws attention to the fact that parents and teachers are, whether they like it or not, authority figures. And we ought to act like it. But we do not. We ask the children what they want to do or learn and take our cue from them. Thus we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of making those choices for them, despite the fact that we must realize that those children really have no idea what they need and in many cases don’t even know what they want. Like it or not, it is the parents and the teachers who must make the decisions for those too young to be expected to make them themselves.

In any event, gradually teachers and parents ceased to play the role of authority figures and turned the raising and teaching of their children over the what Christopher Lasch called “the helping professions,” the behavioral psychologists and social workers who claimed to know what was best for the children and founded that knowledge on the answers the children gave to the question “what do you want to do (learn)?” By asking the children, or students, what they wanted to do or learn we gradually lost sight of the question of what they needed to know and in doing so (as Arendt so astutely pointed out) absolved ourselves of the responsibility of raising or teaching the children what they need to know and do in order to work their way through the maze that is the modern world. In a word, we took the path of least resistance and in doing so abandoned the children to their whims and fancies. Not a good way to do things.

In the end, the focus on what children and students need got lost in the tizzy to give them what they wanted and thus was born the age of entitlement. And this is the world we live in at present while we struggle to figure out what went wrong. Our kids, especially the so-called “millennialists,” are confused and bewildered and ultimately without direction or purpose. And it is their parents’ and teachers’ fault that these young people are now  a part of the confused generation, wondering what went wrong and which direction will lead them to success, properly understood as well-being and happiness. That road begins and ends with the answer to the question: what do these young people need? And while adults may struggle with the answer to this question, we have a better take on it than do those who are too young to have learned where the blind alleys and dead ends are.

Like It Is

In a most interesting response to an article by a former elementary school teacher and principal who insists that the decline in American education is due almost entirely to the decline of financial support from the states, we read the following reaction from someone who obviously didn’t spend much time in school:

Read this all you teacher haters. The day is coming soon when very few people will be teachers due to lack of pay, the public blaming them for everything, cut benefits, and disrespect. Look at Kansas and Wisconsin. Those cuts and Republican governors with the “screw the teacher” “get by on less” attitude has really worked well. Kansas now allows a HS diploma to be a sub teacher. And these same states decry that teachers “do more to get test scores up.” LOL Sure with HS graduates in the teachers chair. Oh yes, the day is upon us when you big mouths will be out of a teacher to teach your little darlings that do no wrong. Then what?

This response reflects the frustration felt by so many teachers “out there” who must face a disinterested and undisciplined class each day and spend the bulk of his or her time simply on discipline, trying to get the attention of young people brought up on television and video games, resulting in an attention span that is a flicker at best. It’s a losing battle until or unless folks realize that it begins at home with parents who spend time with their children and instill  in them a love of learning by reading and telling stories and listening to what their children have to say to them. Busy parents trying to make ends meet and children who are spoiled and/or ignored altogether are sure to lead to the very situation we now face. The issue of inadequate funding simply points out the obvious problem that only goes part way toward an adequate explanation of what is going wrong, as the following comment suggests:

What nonsense – I worked as a central office high level administrator in a major city for 35 years and money wasn’t the problem, parenting (or lack of parenting) was. Most of the teachers in our district really wanted the kids to be successful – many. most of the parents didn’t care. For all you libs out there who think you know what’s what, go to the nearest central city, find out when parent/teacher conferences are, find out if you can observe in a few classrooms, then go and sit in the back of the room – but bring a book to read because only 10 -20% of the parents will show up, and you’ll be bored.
Money is not the problem, the home is the problem.

One suspects that, in fact, the problem cannot be explained by focusing on a single factor: multiple factors are at work here. But it is clear that the results are an educational system that is failing our kids.

Sad To Say

I recently returned from a trip to Colorado to visit with my wife’s very sick sister and in trying to catch up with my emails and various items on the ‘net, I discovered this rather sad commentary on our sick educational system. It highlights the fact that an increasing number of Republican states are decimating the educational system by cutting off funds and trying to make life as difficult as possible for those who try to teach the kids. In this case Kansas is engaged in a series of cut-backs that are sending teachers to other states in an attempt to earn a living.

In the article, which underlines the fact that there are those in this country who would just as soon get rid of public education entirely, there is mention of the fact that Kansas is hiring unlicensed teachers to fill the spaces left by those who are moving out of state to find employment elsewhere. Strange to say, I tend to agree with this move, despite the fact that it smells of using “scabs” to fill the places of striking union workers. In this case, assuming that the replacement teachers are well educated, they might be an improvement over those with certification. In general, I have a rather low opinion of the entire certification process in this country, as some might recall from previous posts. I have seen a number of students leave the education department at my university because they regarded the required courses as “Mickey Mouse,” too easy and what they regarded as a waste of time. It’s a zero-sum game and for every “methods” course that those kids must take they miss out on the chance to take challenging courses that would make them better and wiser teachers. I had a teacher in the education department tell me at one point that one of my honor students was “too smart” to be a secondary school teacher and that she should find another field of study!

In the first year after I graduated from college I taught at a private secondary school in New York where none of the teachers had certification. The reputation of the school was (and still is) stellar and I found the teachers, without exception, to be excellent and dedicated to their task. They were all college graduates with majors in academic fields such as English, History, Biology, Foreign Language, and the like. They knew their stuff and they imparted it to their students with consummate skill — as far as I could see. In fact, none of the private schools in the East — and elsewhere as far as I know — require certification of their teachers. And yet they have well-earned reputations as excellent places to send the young. Indeed, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the requirement to certify teachers is a bit of a joke and certainly not the guarantee of excellence that it was supposed to be at the outset. And, as we all have discovered, Finland — which has the highest rated school system in the world — does not require that their teachers to be “certified.”

However, while I am sympathetic with the desire to circumvent the certification process, I most assuredly do not have any sympathy for those who would derail the entire public education system that has, until recently, provided this nation with most of its movers and shakers. Perhaps I am biased as I am also a product of the public education system through high school, as were my wife and two sons. There are serious problems in our public education system that have lowered it in comparison with other systems around the world. But the glutting of the schools, the increasing number of attempts to weaken the entire system until it breathes its last, is assuredly not the way to go. I would applaud any effort to eliminate the certification process and the schools of education that pretend that teaching is a science (when we all know it is an art). However, the answer is not to cut funding, but to increase it and attract the best and brightest to the teaching profession. It does appear that legislators like those in Kansas seek to cut off their noses to spite their faces.

 

Conundrum

Given my relentless need to understand the peculiar, it has always struck me as remarkable that ordinary folks who complain about taxes and rail about the cost of living will agree to school referendums that raise those taxes and make it harder to get along in order to build another school, increase the size of the present school building, support the expensive sports programs, or (as recently happened in St. Paul, Minnesota) provide $9 million a year to assure the kiddies the latest electronic toys. Our little town of slightly over 1200 tight-fisted people (which shows no sign of growing) also recently passed a referendum to add on to the practically new school building — including (of course) a third gymnasium. The whole thing defies logic. So I have come up with three possible explanations and will toss them out there and see which one strikes the reader as the most plausible — unless there is a fourth I haven’t thought of yet.

1. Despite the fact that they complain about the failure of the schools, parents don’t really want their kids to learn about their world. They complain when their kids have to do homework.  They think the teachers are under-worked and overpaid and have little or no sympathy for them when they demand higher salaries. They want cheap baby-sitters who will take the kids off their hands for most of the day — as long as possible. Thus, they fight for the sports programs and scream like wounded banshees when anyone talks about cuts in those programs. The sports programs give the parents pride and it also keeps the kids occupied, off their hands, and out of trouble after school. And newer and bigger buildings are something they can point to with pride: they make the parents feel good about themselves, as if they are making some sort of real contribution to education. Or…

2. Parents feel guilty because they see so little of their kids and want to make it up to them by supporting school referendums that build larger and more impressive buildings or the latest teaching fad. They get vicarious pleasure out of the successes of their kids on the playing fields and are convinced that sports teach the kids important “life-lessons” (which they are too busy to teach themselves). It makes them feel good about themselves and convinced that they are supporting the schools. Or…

3. As good, practical Americans, parents believe only in those things they can see and touch — or can be quantified. Sports are highly visible and have scads of figures for them to play with and buildings can be seen and boasted about. “Our town went to State last year and has the newest and largest school with all the latest advances in technical know-how.” Technology rocks — it’s what’s out there and proves to us all that our kids are getting the latest and best available tools to lead them to success — which is to say a high-paying job after they graduate. “Everyone knows that electronics are the newest and latest thing and must therefore be an invaluable educational tool. But teachers? Give me a break. They work short hours and are already paid way too much for the easy jobs they have. Don’t talk to me about raising their salaries.” For the practical, down-to-earth parents teaching is way too ephemeral and they simply don’t understand why paying teachers a living wage would draw better people into teaching and raise the educational level of the schools far faster than the biggest school building or the latest electronic toy. But successful sports programs are highly visible, as are the shiny new buildings and playgrounds. It’s all about the tangible.

Needless to say, I prefer the third explanation. What do you think? It is truly a puzzler. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three explanations?

Socrates and New “Delivery Systems”

I have always been skeptical about the claims of the technophiles regarding the educational value of computers and other electronic devices. It seems to me that these devices are terrific for gathering information but unless people could assimilate, coordinate, evaluate and assort the information, separating the relevant from the irrelevant, they might prove useless. But as states cut programs such as music in order to fund the computers and the Federal government under people like Bill Clinton and George Bush determined to spend millions of dollars to put these toys in the classrooms, I have waited to see what the results might prove to be. It turns out it has been a terrible waste of money and some states have reneged on their initial decisions to allocate funds for this purpose. A number of studies now show beyond doubt that computers do not increase real learning one whit. On the contrary. As one study done in 2007 by the National Center for Education Evaluation concluded: “Test scores were not significantly higher in classrooms using selected reading and mathematics software products.” But more telling yet was a study done in Munich in 2004 that concluded: “. . . computer availability at home shows a strong statistically negative relationship to math and reading performance, and computer availability at school is unrelated to performance.” (Note that computers at home have a negative effect on math and reading.) Other studies show that computer usage reduces vocabulary — when computer users are contrasted with young people who read — in an already verbally impoverished cohort. A number of other such studies bear out these disappointing findings in spite of the agonized screams from the technophiles that these tests simply do not measure the intelligence gained from the use of these toys. But these screams are really signs of hysteria and they beg the question, since there seems to be no hard evidence whatever that electronic devices do much more than improve a person’s manual dexterity and sense of spatial relations. It would appear that users can collect information rather quickly but they have no idea what to do with it once they have it. Small payoff for a huge expenditure of time and money.

In any event, the on-line colleges and universities which rely completely on computers continue to prosper because they make outrageous claims and they are cheaper and readily available at a time when folks are busy and strapped for extra cash. But I continue to have my doubts about the entire endeavor, as I said in a blog two years ago and which I have reworked and re-post below given its continued relevance to the ongoing discussion. I should add that my doubts have increased since reading in Mark Bauerlein’s provocative book The Dumbest Generation that the Nielsen Norman Group which studies the way users actually interact with the computer concluded that:

“Web reading and Web learning on average are far less creative, complex, literate, and inquisitive than techno-enthusiasts claim. People seek out what they already hope to find, and they want it fast and free, with a minimum of effort. . . .In general, the content encountered and habits practiced online foster one kind of literacy, the kind that accelerates communication, homogenizes diction and style and answers set questions with information bits. It does not favor the acquisition of knowledge, distinctive speech and prose, or the capacity to reason to long sequential units.”

In short, beyond the mere disgorging of information, it is no longer clear that computers aid the intellectual skills that have always been associated with teaching and learning. Be that as it may, in an article posted on LinkedIn not long ago, the University of Phoenix was touting new educational “delivery systems” on the internet that will soon displace traditional learning “systems,” driving many marginal colleges and universities out of business. The only thing standing in the way, according to the article, are the accrediting agencies, which have of late come under fire as being a bit too political.  Students want credits that will transfer from one institution to another and most on-line courses do not, at present, transfer. But on-line colleges will soon find a way around the snag, the article promises — and the University of Phoenix, for one, now boasts several accredited courses available on-line.

One of the professors featured in the article is a tenured professor at Stanford who has given up his teaching position at that University to offer classes full-time on the internet. According to the article, “Sebastian Thrun, who retains a role at Stanford as a research professor, said he had been motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. ‘Professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,’ Thrun said in a presentation at digital conference in Munich, Germany.”

I have a couple of problems with this contention, though I do feel there is considerable truth in it as more and more “non-traditional” students will opt for the internet as an easier (and cheaper) way to earn college credits, despite the internet’s many shortcomings. The traditional students will continue to go to college for fun, as they do now, as long as their parents can afford to send them. But, I wonder, is any of this really about education? I honestly do not see that the new way is better — unless we collapse the distinction between information and education completely. If we mean by education simply “information,” then the internet is a great tool. But if the student is seriously interested in getting an education rather than simply collecting college credits, the best way may indeed be “the same way they taught a thousand years ago.” I cannot imagine a better way to engage young minds and stretch them to new dimensions than sitting around a table with a small group of enthusiastic students  with diverse interests and perspectives and a teacher who knows how to ask questions. Does anyone really think they can improve on the Socratic method of learning? Get serious.

As I have said many times, the purpose of education is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to make them free. As young people they are confined to their narrow worlds, filled with prejudices and misconceptions, and bullied by peer pressure. And this condition worsens as kids become more and more dependent on the small world of electronic devices, which are used almost exclusively for social networking with like-minded friends — not learning. Information alone cannot free them, though it is a first step. There must be an active engagement with that information that results in real thought: one must not simply collect information, one must also learn how to process the information, become aware of inconsistencies and contradictions, learn how to reason coherently and cogently. The computer cannot teach that even if it is connected with an instructor at the other end.

As it happens, however, many in our colleges paying through their teeth for a “quality education” aren’t getting one either as the colleges increasingly try to give the students what they want rather than what they need. None the less, there is always the hope that at some point the colleges and universities will wake up to their real purpose — which is not to provide students with “the best years of their lives” (as advertised), but to engage their minds and help them achieve true freedom so they can become thoughtful consumers and, more importantly, seriously committed citizens of this democracy  — and, oh yes, also successful professionals who both want to do well and to do good.

It’s not all about collecting credits. And accreditation is not the only thing standing in the way of on-line colleges. There’s also the matter of serious dialogue among diverse minds seeking answers to perplexing questions. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are those that cannot be answered. Computers don’t know what those questions are. Good teachers do. And that’s where education really starts.

The Dalai Lama On Education

I have the highest regard for the Dalai Lama who must be considered one of the few truly great men of the present century. He leads by example and precept with kindness and compassion and his teachings are worthy of serious consideration by all of us who are struggling to make sense of a mad world. But even the wisest of men sometimes take a wrong turn and make statements that cannot stand up to criticism. Even the Dalai Lama.

In one of his recent tweets about education we are told that:

Education is the way to achieve far-reaching results, it is the proper way to promote compassion and tolerance in society.

This claim must be considered along with the Socratic claim that knowledge is virtue. Neither claim, unfortunately, is true. History has shown us countless examples from Torquemada to Eichmann of men who were well informed and well educated but who totally lacked compassion and virtue — regardless of how the latter are defined. Socrates equated virtue with knowledge (or at least Plato did, it’s never easy to distinguish the two from one another) because he was convinced that if a person knows what is the right thing to do, they will do it. Aristotle made short shrift of this claim in his Ethics and he was right: virtue is not a matter of knowledge and education in the usual sense of those terms. Virtue is a disposition, as the ancients would have called it, a matter of character, which is the result of early training and habits. We can try to teach ethics to a 30 year-old thief, but if he is inclined by habit to steal he will continue to steal. And how on earth would one begin to teach compassion? Knowledge and education can make it possible for people to think more clearly about right and wrong, but it will not lead them to do the right thing if their character is already formed and they are disposed to do the wrong thing.

In this vein, the Dalai Lala contends that education will make people more compassionate and tolerant, but these are things that can only be instilled in young people by their parents and teachers by example when the children are very young. Clearly they are qualities that we would all like to see  more in evidence, but we cannot expect our schools to teach these kinds of things along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. The focus of education must be on training the mind. We can only hope that good character, qualities like compassion and tolerance, are already present — at least in raw form — before the child ever enters school. Once in school these qualities can be reinforced by exemplary teachers, but the teachers’ training and focus must be on the minds of their students: that’s what education is all about.

La Cucaracha by Alcaraz

La Cucaracha by Alcaraz

We make a huge mistake when we simply turn our kids over to the schools and expect our overworked and underpaid teachers to teach the kids to be virtuous along with helping them learn the mental skills they will require to succeed in a complex world. Virtue must be taught at home and it is a matter of character which is formed early, we are told — perhaps as early as five or six years of age. It must not be piled on the backs of overworked teachers who are paid a pittance and already have too much to do and too little time to do it.

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!