Tuesday, November 08, 2005

School Days

Today's my first day of student teaching. (Your prayers would be appreciated!!)

For what it's worth, here's an journal entry I wrote on education:

Educating Children for the Malabar Front

One of the things I noticed about Professor Shulman's presentation to EDU 201 the other week was the virtually-complete absence of the learning methods we've been studying in EDU 302 & 404, and which we're experiencing in EDU 201. Aside from a few "microsocratics" and a couple of Q&As there wasn't any vigorous interaction between the students and Professor Shulman. There weren't any small groups, no role-playing exercises, no collaborative or cooperative efforts. Professor Shulman remain seated and motionless for the first 45 minutes of the class, and while I suspect he stood and "painted the room" as a (very) subtle energy shift, the muted technique didn't change the essential format -- the dicactive lecture we're taught to use almost as a last resort.[1]

And yet, to use Professor Frederick's phrase, the lecture was very lively, an "interior dialogue" between Professor Shulman and each of us.

So why, on this most auspicious day, one eagerly anticipated by all of us Constructivists, did we default to the didactic-lecture format? Shouldn't we have been treated to a brilliant expose of all those exciting strategies we've been studying? Shouldn't we have seen at least one power-point slide? I think the answer is, "No," perhaps even, "Hell no."

Like actors, or policemen, or trial lawyers, what we're studying is methods, the techniques of teaching. And like actors, or policemen on a traffic stop, or lawyers before juries, if we do it right people won't notice 90% of what's going on. Few people waiting on the roadside for a traffic ticket notice the cop's surreptitious hand pushing on the trunk to see if it will open because there's contraband or someone hiding inside. Nor will they notice the cautious approach from the driver's or passenger's blind-side, meant to allow the officer time to observe someone reaching for a weapon or hiding something under the seat. When we see George C. Scott deliver his speech before that huge American flag well, by God, we think it's George S. Patton himself growling at us; we don't notice the acting, the acting is invisible. That's true for teaching, too. The method should be invisible, or at least unobtrusive, because it's not the point of what's happening.

That brings me back to Professor Shulman's lecture. Mostly, I thought, it dealt with "meta-issues" such as the purposes and value of comparative / hierarchical grading. His indictment of law school pedagogy as "corrupt" was all too charitable.[2] The first semester our grades came out, not only friendships realigned, but some romantic relationships as well. That's not counting students who let their spouses put them through law school before "better dealing" themselves into new marriages with classmates. I remember one student at the law school telling us that he'd asked the lawyers who were interviewing him for a job what kind of wife would fit into the social life of the firm. He thought the question displayed complete loyalty and put him up over the others. Somewhere out there is a very lucky woman, because he didn't get the job. I wonder if he was beat out by another classmate who asked whether having children fit into the firm's social life.

Most people in my experience tend to think that "corruption" means exchanging something good, true, or beautiful for money. That definition's too limited. "Corruption," to my way of thinking, means exchanging something good, true or beautiful for something that's less true, good, or beautiful. Money just happens to be the most common medium of exchange. It's good to get high grades. It's good to have a well-paying job with a prestigious law firm. But it's corrupt to trade higher, finer things like home and family for them. I think law schools provide that acculturation for their students, playing off the James Bryan Conant / John F. Kennedy "best and brightest" acculturation that preceded it in the lives of their students.

Lawyers, like educators, have immense power. What future can come from legal men trained in the mold of Cromwell rather than Thomas More? I know a lawyer whose firm routinely takes cases that violate his religious principles; he's told to work on them or take a walk. He walked. If he'd stayed, he'd have been corrupt, trading his identity for a mess of 401(K) pottage. I know a Supreme Court Justice who takes pride in his conservative, Catholic credentials -- and then writes articles claiming that the teaching of the Catholic Church against the death penalty doesn't bind his conscience, because if it did, he'd have to resign from the Supreme Court.[3] I recall CS Lewis wondering, in Perelandra, how many college professors have lost their souls pursuing the high opinion of their colleagues. I remember the Sermon on the Mount: "Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets." (Luke 6:25). If professional schools were to teach anything valuable, they would teach that. It could be said that the greatest soul-killing myth in the American religion is the identity of virtue and worldly success. I'm glad Professor Shulman lifted a corner of that shroud last Tuesday.

Shulman's cross-cultural comparison of the dilemma of a teacher under the American and Soviet spheres of education was bold, and apt. History, for example, is supposed to be what Herodotus said it was, an investigation, not a memorized group of "just-so tales" cobbled together by mono-multi-stereo- cultural lobbying groups. I have no problem with his solution, either, so long as it's done without hypocrisy or dissembling. I'm not going to teach the spread of Buddhism in Ceylon just because somebody on the state standards committe wrote a doctoral thesis about it. Nor am I going to portray Western Civilization as being particularly shameful or worse than Asian civilization. My World Civilization book has a good deal on the Western slave trade, and nothing on the ancient and long-running Chinese custom of foot-binding (abolished, interestingly enough, by a fascist government). I'm not saying that every conscientious teacher ought to go stalking around the school, fiery-eyed with a chip on his shoulder, itching for the chance to duke it out over some principle or other. I'm saying that members of the learned professions have a constant obligation to exercise an inner moral vigilance, and to perpetually entertain the possibility that this vigilance will demand resistance, perhaps even a donnybrook or two, with corruption.

The rant having ended, I return to the reason I started writing this little thing to begin with. Why, if the topics were so important, didn't Professor Shulman dazzle us with constructivism? I venture the opinion that it's because all the tips and tricks, all the glittering methodology of collaborative classrooms, cooperative learning, "jigsawing" and the like exist because they are deliberately-inefficient ways of teaching. Professor Shulman's didactic lecture was delivered in ideal circumstances. He was a learned and experienced professional speaking to an audience on a theme in which we were already interested and highly-knowledgeable.[4] As liberally-educated men and women, we also shared a common fund of knowledge and experience with Professor Shulman. He did not have to explain what "communism" was in order to make his point about government censorship of education in Czechoslovakia, and had he quoted Shakespeare we would all at least have known he was quoting something, and we all had the verbal and intellectual skills to take his meaning even if we weren't personally familiar with the reference. In short, that classroom was an ideal instructional environment because we were linked, if you will, by superconducting lines of communication.

Our readings (in both EDU 201 and 302; I've given up trying to keep it all separate and entered a sort of syllabus-induced fugue state) undeniably suggest that the exclusive use of didactic lectures is a thing of the past. It is described often as a holdover from medieval times. But in the Middle Ages, the only people with access to higher education had already become literate in at least one second language (Latin) or more (Greek and Hebrew). They were thoroughly-versed in a base corpus of knowledge drawn from Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, classical (mostly Roman) authors, etc., a corpus which is decidedly smaller than our own. On the other half of the educational spectrum, even local schooling tended to focus mostly on the children of wealthy (or at least comfortable) families, and usually ended with acquiring enough Latin to read legal documents and international correspondence. Martin Luther expressed the general view admirably, "A boy should pass one or two hours a day at school and let him have the rest of his time for learning a trade in his father's house. . . . So also girls should have an hour a day at school." Likewise, the law implementing compulsory attendance at school passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1496, applied only to children of the nobility and freeholders (families with their own land), and then only to the point where the children acquired "perfect Latin."

The United States seems, not a unique example of the project, but certainly the first and most prominent of a nation embracing an ideal of universal education as part of the national raison d'etre. From Jefferson through Dewey and beyond, our society has considered "education" (however variously conceived in terms of content or method) to be synonymous with the entire American project. I venture to suggest that because of this egalitarian passion the United States undertook to do for education what Napoleon did for military service, transforming a state function that had been sharply restricted along class lines into a national program of total participation involving all strata of society. One recalls in this connection the strong militaristic tinge that has accompanied American educational reform. Intelligence testing became popular as a result of its use by the American military in WWI, and gained new impetus when schools were enlisted in the national project of defeating Communism and vindicating the American Way.
Our final word, perhaps better characterized as a plea, is that all segments of our population give attention to the implementation of our recommendations. . . . Help should come from students themselves; from parents, teachers, and school boards; from colleges and universities; from local, State, and Federal officials; from teachers' and administrators' organizations; from industrial and labor councils; and from other groups with interest in and responsibility for educational reform.

It is their America, and the America of all of us, that is at risk; it is to each of us that this imperative is addressed. It is by our willingness to take up the challenge, and our resolve to see it through, that America's place in the world will be either secured or forfeited. Americans have succeeded before and so we shall again.
-- "A Final Word," excerpted from A Nation at Risk.
The quoted passage is, in a very Napoleonic sense, a "revolutionary" vision of education in which the state is general to a social army fighting to preserve the motherland against forces that would deprive her of her rightfully-glorious place in world history.

This observation, if true, leads to a number of questions about whether American education, as practiced and popularly conceived, is an example of civilization or merely systematic barbarism. With regard to the immediate point, however, the enlistment of the nation in an "education army" poses some of the same issues for learning and teaching that technology posed for the military establishments of the 19th and 20th centuries. It's an interesting fact, recorded in William Manchester's Dreadnaught, that in 1850 the British Army conducted a study proving conclusively that in the hands of properly-trained troops, the longbow was superior to the rifle in accuracy, rate of fire, and effectiveness at killing or incapacitating an opposing force. The obstacle, as the British realized, which prohibited re-equipping the army with longbows was that effective training in the weapon required literally years of exhaustive tutelage; in the days of Crecy and Agincourt skill in the longbow was often handed down from father to son, giving rise to English family names like Archer, Bowman, Fletcher, Butt, Buttson, and the like.[5] In contrast to competent military bowmanship, riflery can be practiced at an acceptably-effective level with only months, perhaps even weeks, of drill. The rifle, and not the longbow, was the eminently suitable weapon for modern military establishments, which must be capable of enlisting and training huge numbers of soldiers quickly drawn from all classes and conditions of society.

Although that old debate has long been settled by technological advances, the human dynamic it highlights remains a feature of mass politics and therefore mass education. The most efficient, most effective method of teaching -- the lecture, that "inner dialogue," the oral essay, perhaps joined with a truly Socratic dialogue -- can't be relied on to train the "conscript armies" of modern students. The gap in training and experience between student and instructor is too great. (And that, by the way, assumes a lot about instructors which is not, strictly speaking, true). As the infantry of the 1850s no longer came from backgrounds which provided training in the skills necessary to use the longbow, the modern student no longer comes from backgrounds which provide training in the skills necessary to listen to a good lecture or meaningfully participate in a socratic exchange. In the last century, it was realized that some basic training in riflery took less time to impart just enough skill to work on the battlefield, and now we're realizing that the eight-minute sound-bite (accompanied by appropriate audio-visual stimulus) takes less time to impart just enough skill to work in the modern factory. When the Founding Fathers spoke of standing armies as a threat to liberty, perhaps they spoke more truly than even they suspected.

I still wonder at the point of it all. The purpose of our own education as teachers has been forcefully stated as the development of the whole child, but I wonder . . . development into what? The question doesn't seem to require much by way of critical thinking skills in the educational establishment. That's not a judgment, however much it may sound like one; an alienated, culturally-bereft, materialistic society is justifiably intolerant of moral debates or moral didacticism. In that respect, the concentration of educational activity into a state system operating under secularist principles has been a subtle and brilliant method of driving "higher-order moral thinking" out of education altogether. Moreover, the resulting absence of teleological explanations of human existence which exceed materialist priorities carries its own powerful message, one which is all the more powerful because it's never expressly stated and thereby subjected to examination. The educated man's picture of human life becomes a closed circle in which he both eats to live and lives to eat. Leisure, and all the higher levels of human meaning it presupposes, is trivialized into a pleasant hobby at best, a dangerous eccentricity at worst. Thus we wonder, astonished, at the prevailing attitude among teenagers that knowledge and wisdom are not worth the candle, that accelerated and high-order intellectual performance is an example of uncouth bad taste, even an implied insult directed at everyone else.

Perhaps that's as it ought to be. The Revolutionary Army can hardly be expected to question the purpose of its own existence. Maybe it's better to turn all of America's schools into well-funded, cleaner, bowdlerized versions of Seward Park High[6] -- holding pens for thousands of unreflective, other-directed, morally-ignorant young people subjected to a frequent barrages of inducements to enlist in the army. Whichever army -- the one fighting the war on poverty, the one fighting the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on Saddam, the war on intolerance (by which is usually meant moral objections raised to materialist / secularist priorities). Someday we might even wrap all those wars into a neat catch-phrase, something like "the Malabar Front." It's easier to run a society along those lines. It's certainly much easier to run a school.

[1] This bespeaks no inherent prejudice against the method, as I hope my observations explain. IMHO, the de-emphasis on didacticism and lecture is due in no small part to their familiarity and ease of use; under stress, any person will default to his or her training. Most of us have seen didactic lecturing for the better part of our entire academic careers. (That goes for law school, too; what passed as "Socratic method" at IU in my day was "Socratic" only in that it made one long for a draught of hemlock). Our course of instruction is, I think, intended to "skip over" the brilliant oral essay on the theory that any of us can speechify things fairly well already, and we ought to be conditioned so that the stress of a classroom causes a default to other methods.

[2] If I were reading this from the pen of another, I'd think, "sour grapes." Maybe. I wouldn't say my stint in law school even remotely resembled a star academic performance. But I did write on to the Law Review, was selected to represent the school on the ABA Moot Court Team, and I was elected to the Order of Barristers by the faculty. I also went on to clerk for two federal judges, one at the District Court level and another on the U.S. Court of Appeals. I do have biases that influence this appreciation of law school, but GPA-envy isn't among them.

[3] Antonin Scalia, "God's Justice and Ours," First Things, May, 2002.

[4] That's a comparative judgment, of course, but it's comparatively right.

[5] The first names require no elaboration. As to the others, fletchers were skilled artisans who "fletched," or manufactured, arrows; "Butt," "Butts" and "Buttson" are all derived from a term in archery for a place of practice or target.

[6] The high school featured in this book.

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