Monday, July 28, 2008

Some Musings on Great Divides

Great divide number 1 is between students and teachers. I was overjoyed to find this quotation by novelist Zadie Smith whom I have never read.
When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second - put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year of more is ideal - but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can't tell you how many times I've sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go on stage and read from them. It's an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it's published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.
I try to tell my high school students to write a draft of their essay, walk away from the draft for a day or two, and then revise. I'm lucky if they let it sit for a minute or two because they usually begin writing the essay a couple of hours before it's due. I am, of course, supposed to reward all such efforts with an "A" because ....well, I've never heard an answer that I could agree with, but I know students think I'm supposed to.

Clicking through links to find the origin of Smith's quotation and innate curiosity lead me to this post about innumeracy, and this post requesting comments from humanities academicians, and then this post which offers another take on the divide between the humanities and the hard sciences/math.

Most high school students seem to consider math/science more important and more difficult than literature or the social sciences. High schools seem to privilege science and math. The smart kids are funnelled into math and science classes. No one is really funneled into a literature or humanities class. Wendell Berry offers my sentiments more eloquently than I can.
Now, according to those institutions of the “cutting edge,” the purpose of education is unabashedly utilitarian. Their interest is almost exclusively centered in the technical courses called, with typical ostentation of corporate jargon, STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.
After reading the posts and skimming comments, it seems that both sides are a bit defensive. Also, it seems that both sides of this divide are hampered by an anti-intellectual or anti-education bias. I don't have any scientific poll to back me up, but I'd be willing to bet that teachers and college professors are held in lower esteem than nearly any other profession.

On a more substantive level, it seems that high schools are doing a lot wrong. First, we don't really teach students to love any any discipline. We buy into the utilitarian logic that Berry decries. That logic seemingly is counterproductive because math and science types are encountering and decrying innumeracy and scientific illiteracy.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Some Basic Thoughts about Education

This is the third or fourth or fifth effort to try to blog regularly. Let's see how it goes.

Thought #1: I agree with Charles Murray (mostly), at least this time.

Last spring, I read a Charles Murray article about the philosphy that he described as educational romaniticism. A version is here. Murray makes at least three trenchant points and one mistake.

Trenchent point #1

"Many laws are too optimistic, but the No Child Left Behind Act transcended optimism. It set a goal that was devoid of any contact with reality."

To quote the great philosopher Stan Lee, "Nuff said."

Trenchent point #2

"To sum up, a massive body of evidence says . . .that we do not know how to change intellectual ability after children reach school. . . ."

Once again, "Nuff said."

Trenchent point #3

"In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion. Try to think of the last time you encountered a news story that mentioned low intellectual ability as the reason why some students do not perform at grade level. I doubt if you can. Whether analyzed by the news media, school superintendents, or politicians, the problems facing low-performing students are always that they have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, or have gone to bad schools, or grown up in peer cultures that do not value educational achievement. The problem is never that they just aren't smart enough." (Italics mine)

This is tricky ground. No one wants to claim that disadvantaged students are inherently less intelligent than middle-class or upper-class students. I am certain that a smart student who comes from a disadvantaged background has more hurdles to overcome than a smart student with wealthy student. Even with that caveat, a smart student from any background will usually be more successful in school than a less intelligent student, and Murray is correct to assert that schools ignore that fact. (I'll put off the success in school does not equal later success discussion for another day.)

The mistake (and I think it's a whopper)

"The good news is that educational romanticism is surely teetering on the edge of collapse."

I wish and I pray, but unfortunately, Lake Woebegone is here to stay. I don't think there's a teacher in the system that I work in that could keep her job is she uttered the phrase, "I don't think your child has the intellectual capacity to earn an A in my class." Further, I doubt that there are more than a handful of teachers who believe its OK to utter that phrase, even though they may think it quietly. Finally, I haven't seen any young teachers who have been taught that they should even think it.

Thought #2: On-line grading programs suck.

Change the brand names, but the problems this post outlines reflect my experience.

Thought #3: I wish I had the answer to this problem

Dennis O'Neil correctly observes,

"Over the past few years, I’ve come to believe that not everyone gets the same education, even if schools and transcripts are identical. Some folk mentally compartmentalize: church goes here, family here, school stuff here, life in general there. So when they pass tests on what they’ve heard in classrooms, and at the end of a span of time, usually16 years and some august personage hands them a rectangle full of fancy lettering, they’re done with it. No more schooling, and no learning above what’s needed to live comfortably. Schooling in its compartment yonder, not touching this compartment, which is where we live."

And

"The problem, I think, is this: There might be information over in the school compartment that is relevant to the contents of the living compartment. It might supply answers, or at least stimulate thinking.

"Left in the ghetto of the school compartment, denied access to other compartments, and it is useless, and it will die. Worse, its lack might cause you to blunder."

I see the compartmentalization every day. School is in a box that gets shelved the second students walk out the door to their real lives. In fact, all school seems to be is an interruption to the lives they want to lead.