Encore Culligan Man

In a posting last July I said that a teacher was not a Culligan Man—a kind of delivery boy. I objected to the metaphor that “a teacher’s job is to deliver instruction.” A teacher’s job is far more complex than “delivery,” and calling it that trivializes or oversimplifies what happens in the classroom. The metaphor is dangerous because it sets up expectations that teaching is simple and can be done by an underpaid lunk as well as by an intelligent seasoned pro. It also trivializes what is to be taught by making learning sound like a kind of stuff or—dare I say it?—a product.

I subsequently discovered that this expression is meant to run counter to “constructivism,” the educational philosophy that says a school should be a kind of attic in which the student explores and sets up his or her own lessons. Teachers in a constructivist school are a kind of custodial staff with grade books. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the comedian Jonathan Winters had a TV program in which he sometimes appeared in a large attic-like room. I picture him as the valedictorian of a constructivist school: lots of attic antics, but can he write? And what happens if a student at a constructivist school is not as imaginative in an attic as Winters?

The valedictorian of an anti-constructivist school is the angel in blue on the left of the illustration by William Blake at the bottom of this web page (the picture is taken from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), and the devil in the center is a teacher “whose job is to deliver instruction” (or a principal who insists that “a teacher’s job is to deliver instruction”). Notice how passively the blue angel accepts delivery of the instruction: this idea of schooling depends on such docility and tractability in the face of “deliveries.” But what happens if a student at a non-constructivist school is not a blue angel? (The orange angel is practicing his “test-taking skills” for the competency test that ends the school year so that he can pretend to be a blue angel by means of an Orwellian confidence trick.)

The divergence between the delivery boys and the attic antics exemplifies educationist binary thinking and excludes the subtle possibility that really good teaching should embrace elements of both constructivism and teacher-centered instruction.

The problem with subtlety is that it is messy and not easily categorized. It entails subtlety on teachers (and their administrators!) and assumes the capacity to distinguish constructivist learning from fooling around, or to distinguish “delivery of instruction” from scripted teaching. Scripted teaching! Can you imagine it? Everything is scripted, even down to a snap of the fingers to indicate to the students when to turn the page. And why not, if a teacher is a delivery boy? Imagine how many multiple choice questions the students in such classrooms can answer after twelve years.

What I find worrisome beyond the question of what kinds of learning will take place in such environments is the thought of teachers’ work becoming so narrowed and thinned out that a genuine teacher becomes superfluous. Can the attic be minded by a baby-sitter? Can the pages of the script be turned and read by a visiting fireman[1]? If  education continues its drive to make teaching uncongenial to anyone but a dunce or a doormat, maybe baby-sitters and visiting firemen will be all the schools get.

[1] See an earlier posting for the reference. I am not taking a shot at firemen, members of an esteemed profession and necessary to urban civilization. I am saying that some firemen would be as good in front of a classroom as I would be behind a fire hose.



The Smut of Emily Dickinson

I would not paint — a picture —

I’d rather be the One

Its bright impossibility

To dwell — delicious — on —

And wonder how the fingers feel

Whose rare — celestial — stir —

Evokes so sweet a Torment —

Such sumptuous — Despair —

I would not talk, like Cornets —

I’d rather be the One

Raised softly to the Ceilings —

And out, and easy on —

Through Villages of Ether —

Myself endued Balloon

By but a lip of Metal —

The pier to my Pontoon —

Nor would I be a Poet —

It’s finer — own the Ear —

Enamored — impotent — content —

The License to revere,

A privilege so awful

What would the Dower be,

Had I the Art to stun myself

With Bolts of Melody!

—Emily Dickinson

(With apologies for WordPress’s lummox-like formatting decision to insert a mandatory single line space after every press of the “enter” key)

This poem, which my colleague and I used to set our students in I. B. English A1, became the eye of a whirlwind for some time, and as such illustrates problems surrounding the teaching of poetic interpretation.[1]

Before telling you more, let me mention the work done by I. A. Richards on poor interpretation and misinterpretation in his famous book Practical Criticism. Richards gave a number of unidentified poems to his students to interpret, and then he analyzed their work.  He found that a number of impediments exist to the sound reading of poetry. One of them, usually explicable as the result of faulty preliminary understanding, is to achieve one small tenuous insight and let that serve as the basis of a thorough (mis)interpretation of the poem as a whole.

I think this is what happened to send my colleague to my room one day after her English class, eyes wide with upset. Both of us knew that Dickinson sometimes stretches syntax and signification, but we were confident that, handled right, the poem was not too hard for sixteen-year-olds with a good command of English to get. Both of us reject the view, held by some literature teachers, that any opinion of meaning offered by a student must be accepted as valid, even if it cannot be justified by a careful examination of the work interpreted. If the opinion has its origins in careless or cursory reading, we are certainly not obliged to credit it.

So when my colleague told me that one of her students, reporting on this poem to the class, had asserted that it was “about masturbation,” we knew that we needed to do some quick but calm remediation. The basis of the student’s “interpretation” depended on a lurid and decontextualized notice of the words “fingers feel,” “lip,” and “stun myself.” Leave it to a sixteen-year-old or a graduate student in critical theory to come up with that! It is one thing to assert that this poem makes use of some erotic imagery—perhaps even autoerotic imagery—but another to say that it is “about masturbation.” We therefore decided that we should discourage students from drawing hasty conclusions about the poem’s subject matter from a cursory reading or from overemphasizing a poem’s debt to Eros. Knowing that by the time my own students appeared for their class this “interpretation” would have swept through the cafeteria, I preemptively reproved hasty overgeneralizations about poems based on cursory readings and, in particular, a view that this poem is “about masturbation.” I accompanied that reproof with some hints at how the poem might convincingly be interpreted. Since I didn’t want the students to take my offering as a “canned interpretation,” I didn’t go into comprehensive detail, but they took my point.

Eventually my colleague and I determined that “the masturbation poem” had gone back to being an ambivalent and deeply felt meditation on art, the artist, and the audience and that Dickinson’s work was not in danger of being honored during Banned Books Week. (Mind you, we would not have minded teaching a Banned Books Week poem, and indeed we taught Philip Larkin’s “High Windows,” though we allowed students who found it objectionable to demur discreetly to the study of it.)

Here is a bit of imitation Dickinson, in this case meditating on interpretation from an inexperienced student’s point of view:

Nor would I be a teacher —

I’d rather be the one

Who conjures a significance —

Not rigorous but fun —

A deconstructionist declares

My thesis — the last word —

No matter how divorced from words —

In import how absurd –

Let me end with a nod in the direction not of critical theory, much of which is repellent and unreadable, but of one of its critics, the late Denis Dutton, who wrote an article worth noting in connection with the determination of meaning. He asserts that the author’s intentions cannot be dismissed, and he proves the assertion by “interpreting” a passage of David Hume as being ironic, which of course it is. Most of us agree that irony exists, though sixteen-year-olds have their doubts. If an author’s intention didn’t matter, what would happen to irony? If intentionalism will not go away, neither will the belief that Dickinson would not have written a poem “about masturbation.” And if that doesn’t clinch the argument, there is always recourse to the poem itself.

[1] I suspect that it also illustrates the phenomenon of chain-pulling, which sixteen-year-olds love, and that of prurience, in which love they are like the voice of Tom Lehrer’s song “Smut,” which sings, “All books can be indecent books/Though recent books are bolder,/For filth (I’m glad to say) is in/the mind of the beholder./When correctly viewed/Everything is lewd.”)


When Numbers Might Not Tell the Tale

Reading Malcolm Gladwell is always interesting. A few years ago he wrote a piece[1] for The New Yorker on how difficult it is to anticipate which teacher-candidates will turn out to be good teachers, suggesting that the ways typically used to determine potential quality are not very useful. In that same article he gave a qualified endorsement of “value-added learning” calculations as useful in distinguishing excellent teachers from dreadful ones. The qualification was that it is a crude tool not meant for fine distinctions such as those regularly made by the testing-and-accountability people.

My own experience with “competency testing” using home-grown instruments tells me that it requires painstaking construction of tests, careful analysis, and great modesty in drawing conclusions. An example of a modest conclusion would be that “the 10th-graders are not doing as badly on writing as they did last year, so the remediation we adopted might be having a good effect. Let’s take out the scores of transfer students to see whether the improvement holds up and then try to decide whether we can take credit or whether the 9th-graders are just growing up.” Another would be that “the 10th-graders are having more trouble making abstract inferences and putting them in good language.” Is there a problem in the program as a whole? In a part of it, for example, the way in which vocabulary is taught? In the development of the 10th-graders’ abilities in abstract operational thinking? In our recent subscription to’s plagiarism-detection service?

In short, using our home-grown instruments required nearly as much judgment and subtlety as not using them, and we never, ever believed or asserted that the numbers alone told the tale. We did claim that they might be crude indicators of gross competence or incompetence or of trends in whole grades, but beyond that we did not want to venture. In my experience, the makers of standardized tests also offer caveats with their scores: there is an x % chance of unreliability; this 800-point test is valid within 50 points of the actual score obtained, etc.  We successfully resisted suggestions by administrators working on their Ed.D.s in correspondence school that we might use them as the basis of a value-added learning program. And we were fortunate that our school operated at that time on a collegial, not a bureaucratic-authoritarian, model of administration.

In a collegial system an educational leader brings others along; in the bureaucratic-authoritarian system, he prods or lashes them forward with threats and menaces instead of good sense, discussion, and generosity. In a collegial system the “crooked timber of humanity” retains a knotty integrity; in the bureaucratic-authoritarian system it is turned into lumber, planed into shavings, or thrown away. It is the system most likely to like a one-test-fits-all “solution” to educational “problems.”

Gladwell recently wrote another article[2] about the U. S. News rankings of American colleges and universities. The thesis of the article is that the ratings are shot through with unexamined and unwarranted assumptions that skew results—that do more than skew results: they “validate” sometimes invidious or adventitious distinctions between colleges. To illustrate, he gave the list of the “top ten” law schools: U. of Chicago, Yale, Harvard, Stanford,  Columbia, Northwestern, Cornell, Penn, NYU, and Cal Berkeley. He explained the calculations that lay behind these rankings and then made plausible alterations in the basis of calculation. The new “top ten”? U. of Chicago, BYU, Harvard, Yale, U. of Texas, U. Va, U. of Colorado, U. of Alabama, Stanford, and Penn.

Quite a change, and quite a plausible one. Yet another set of numbers, used by the Wall Street Journal and based on corporate recruiters’ opinions of the schools where they actually hire their rookies, identified the number one school as Penn State. Gladwell suggests that ratings of this kind may not be very solid, very accurate, or very objective.

One of the intellectual vices Gladwell notes in his article is the use of “proxy” values that can be easily quantified in place of values that are impossible to measure (but not, I would add, to judge). The main problem with the use of proxy values is that the basis for the use of the proxy is usually nothing but an unexamined assertion of its equivalence by the person using it. Since these unexamined assertions are not subject to the usual checks on misjudgment that open discussion or a good old-fashioned give-and-take can provide, they continue unexamined, transmitting to their numbers all sorts of crypto-subjectivity.

That being the case, users of such numbers ought to be cautious in the conclusions they draw from them, but that is not what is happening. People accept these ratings and the implicit fine distinctions as valid. A similar error of judgment marks the acceptance by testing-and-accountability people of the fine distinctions between competent and incompetent teachers or between good and poor schools. A moment’s thought should tell us that it is ridiculous to judge the quality of a school by examining the results of its students on two multiple-choice exams administered once a year. That sort of crude proctology by statistics should have no place in the evaluation of schools or of teachers.

In future postings I hope to suggest what might do instead.

[1] Called “How Do We Hire When We Can’t Tell Who’s Right for the Job?” in his recent book What the Dog Saw

[2] “The Order of Things: What college rankings really tell us” in The New Yorker, Feb. 14 & 21, 2011.


Which Schoolhouse Is It?

In the wake of the Chinese PISA scores and Amy Chuan’s writings about how Chinese mothers bring up their children we have heard a lot of commentary about the “American system of education,” usually to extol it at the expense of Chinese practices. Much of this commentary suffers from a problem discussed by Professor Harry Frankfurt in his little book On Bullshit. It is the desire or feeling of need to express views on subjects regardless of the views’  value. When our wish or need to say something prevails over a becoming thoughtfulness and intellectual modesty, we end up with something not worth reading. And it really is not worth reading that Chinese students don’t think or that American students are creative, or whatever banality is on offer.

I suspect that people who say such things suffered from a defective education. Signs of the defect to look for in the classroom or schoolhouse:

  • Participation in “class debates” where exuberance trumped thoughtfulness and fluency trumped intellectual care
  • No Socratic discussions in which students were politely but firmly and relentlessly questioned to establish the extent of their understanding of the claims they made and the thinking that lay behind them
  • Grading of writing that contained few or no challenges to nonsense or overstatement, or in which all compositions, regardless of merit, were given an A or a B
  • No insistence on the rewriting of bad compositions, or even a working recognition that a composition can be bad
  • Too much “peer editing” and not enough editing by a qualified editor or an experienced thinker, i.e., the teacher
  • Approval of baloney offered with exuberance or charm
  • Offering thought-cliches instead of real thinking

Actually, American education seems from where I sit to be many kinds of education, but at its best it has all the virtues ascribed to it by its defenders. Unfortunately, other processes and schemes claiming to be education prevail in many American schools. Before we could offer comprehensive praise of American schools, we would have to get the right answers from most schools to the following questions:

1.      Is the school rigorous?

2.      Do its teachers make effective distinctions between rigor and hard labor?

3.      Do they know the subjects they teach well enough not to need an “answer book” or not to be surprised by the ones they use?

4.      Do teachers make effective distinctions between knowledge, skill, and understanding, building up all three?

5.      Do teachers have the respect of students, parents, and administrators?

6.      Does the school day have schedules and practices that encourage the build-up of intellectual momentum as opposed to distraction and fragmentation?

7.    Is the school free of Bold Initiatives and Great Leaps Forward, content with modest and organic improvement where needed and recognition of good quality where it is found?

8.    Do its evaluations of teachers show subtlety and finesse, or are they gross and statistical?

9.    Are its administrators educational leaders?

10.  Do they support the teachers in their endeavors and encourage collegiality?

11.  Are the relationships among students, teachers, and parents free of legalism and adversarialism?

12.  Have students been properly inculcated in the virtue of discipline, concentration, and work?

13.  Are they learning the difference between creativity and fooling around? Is creativity rewarded and fooling around reproved?

14.  Can students have some, but not too much, fun at school?

15.  When students have laudable ideas and inspirations, are they encouraged to work them through and pursue them to something like a conclusion or a result?

16.  Are class sizes small enough that the teachers can be reasonably expected to do the coaching and Socratic instruction that their subjects require?

17.  Is the school free of competency testing for accountability, and do the students nonetheless come out of it knowing something valuable?

18.  Do its administrators understand Campbell’s Law?

The right answers to most or all of these questions suggest a school that manages to provide the best of American education.