Twin Taproot

For some years now I have been paying the costs of two South African boys’ education. The boys are brothers; their father is a single parent, Mom having died of cancer two years ago. The school they go to, chosen by their parents when Mom was still alive, is in general pedagogically “conservative,” has a full slate of activities for the students, and has a good reputation locally. For years all of its seniors have passed the “matrics,” South Africa’s school-leaving tests (the national pass rate is about 60%). Most of the students live near the school, but it draws students from all over Johannesburg. Discipline is consistent and firm but not harsh by South African standards. Students carry a diary requiring parents’ signature daily, in which the parent or teacher may write about current concerns. On the whole, the school’s parents support the school’s practices and decisions.

When the boys get home from school, they start their homework and continue at it with short breaks till they are finished. When they were younger, dinner waited till homework was done; now, dinnertime is often a break time after which homework continues. The elder boy, 13, was a poor student in his early years but has gradually improved till now he is an honor student and was recently chosen as a kind of sub-prefect. The younger boy, 9, has always been an excellent student, a budding athlete, and, as his father says, “the induna [great leader] of the playground.”

At home there is no doubt that the demands of school must be met. Dad’s own schooling started at a public school and continued at a mission school not far from the family’s village in the rural north. For a long time the mission was the most prominent institution in the area, its priests, brothers and nuns generally respected throughout the countryside. Dad named the elder boy after one of the priests, who chose to be buried in the mission’s churchyard rather than in his European homeland; and he still speaks fondly of his history teacher Sister Mary Hugh, as did his classmate the late novelist Phaswane Mpe. His parents, both orphaned, were taken in at the mission and received their schooling there. It is one of the givens in this family that schooling matters.

However the value of schooling becomes or remains a part of parents’ fundamental beliefs, one thing seems clear: the instillation must be affirmative or positive, not negative. Though the boys are sometimes punished for the occasional lapse, it would be destructive to try and punish them programmatically into a “respect” for school that would actually be only a sullen and fearful acquiescence. In fact, the boys like their school very much. Here is the probable basis of an element of effective parenthood: parents bring beliefs forward from childhood experience through growth to adult application.

Hence my concern on reading that state legislatures are considering and even passing legislation fining parents for their children’s educational misdemeanors such as truancy. If parents’ child-rearing practices are leading to truancy, delinquency, and failure, such laws will only punish the barn after the horse gets out. Diane Ravitch says that “[p]arenting education needs to begin when a woman is pregnant. The window is open from prenatal days until age 5.” This comment jibes with those made by an occupational therapist who used to be my colleague. She thought that much of the needed physical and mental discipline leading to effectiveness in school had to be instilled at a young age by parents who had a sense of how to do it and felt doing so as a positive and continual obligation.

Ravitch goes on to say that “the root problem” lying behind poor child rearing “is poverty.” In a similar if more general vein, Dr. Johnson says, “Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.” Ravitch says further that “we should be giving [poor or unknowledgeable parents] a helping hand,” which seems to echo Dr. Johnson’s dictum that “a decent provision for the poor is the true test of any civilization.”

I think, though, that if we did more digging we would find a double taproot. One part is as Ravitch & Johnson claim, but poverty cannot be a sufficient cause; otherwise, the South African family I have told you about would have completely different experiences of education, for they were and are poor. Nor does relative affluence necessarily guard against fecklessness, as many teachers of more economically fortunate students know. If beliefs lie behind action and inaction, maybe those also need examining as part of a possible explanation of what is going wrong.

Whatever happens, we are not going to do any real explaining or any real fixing if we spend our time wondering, as Ravitch puts it, “If only we could find the right person to punish.”



Brevity and Immediacy

Some years ago I read a Pushcart Prize piece whose title was also a precise description: “One Thousand Words on Why I Should Not Talk during a Fire Drill.” A perfect illustration of the notion that sometimes more is less, the essay warns against two practices that are regrettably too common among teachers: 1) attaching minimum word limits to writing assignments and 2) assigning writing as punishment. The Pushcart piece is of course unreadable: counting its 1,000 words one by one is easier than making sense of them because engaging seriously with its repetitiveness is like giving oneself the Chinese Water Torture.

The student assigned a punishment piece knows that no literary virtue will matter in the finished work and suspects that the teacher assigning it will not actually read it attentively. The teacher thereby doubly undermines good writing by trivializing it and by depriving the student of the intellectual and affective engagement that it should receive in normal circumstances.

Nor may the assignment of word limits be the best way of dealing with writing that is not given for punishment. Better than setting an arbitrary word limit would be marking up a short first draft with the kinds of questions and comments that any draft should provoke at need:

  • Prove.
  • Example? Illustration?
  • Could you explore this in greater detail?
  • Explain.
  • What are you implying?
  • Chain of reasoning is incomplete.
  • Background?
  • So?

Students addressing them would be taking one of the needed steps towards quality in writing without pumping up their stuff with words words words. But it is hard to move against a current carrying notions with it that length equals quality. The I. B. Organization has minimum requirements of length for many of the assessments it requires of the students taking its courses, and the SAT I Writing sample, according to one of its critics, rewards length and ignores errors.

Length-lovers should have a chastening look at Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the Mount Everest of political discourse in English, which is under two pages long and uses fewer than seven hundred words. It is figuratively and literally lapidary, having been carved in stone on an interior wall of the Lincoln Memorial. It is sad to think that, submitted as a high-school thesis in government, it might “lose points” for its brevity.

One of the reasons Dr. Johnson’s conversation was famous was his ability to say things briefly. Asked one time why in his Dictionary he defined pastern as “the knee of a horse,” he disarmingly said, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

His distillations could be acidic and painful. He once disparaged fishing as “a stick and a string with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.” Mary Monckton, later Lady Cork, insisted that she found Laurence Sterne moving. Johnson replied crushingly, “That is because, dearest, you’re a dunce.” Dorothy Parker had also mastered the pungent quip. When someone came to the Algonquin Round Table to announce that Calvin Coolidge had died, Parker asked, “How could they tell?” But Coolidge was famous for a brevity that was a parody of itself. Asked once what the preacher’s sermon at church had been about, he said, “Sin.” When asked what the preacher had said: “He was against it.”

In a postscript to his XVI Provincial Letter[1] Blaise Pascal apologized that “I made this letter longer only because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.” In this thought we see both why brevity is not automatically the soul of wit and why brevity can be solid stuff. The important conditions of good-quality brevity are that, except the rare gem of repartee, it take time or carry a context with it.

Major General Sir Charles Napier was famous in his day for many things, one of them a one-word military dispatch that he sent by telegram. Since telegrams were billed by the word and extremely costly, the medium carried a built-in impetus to brevity. In 1844, at the conclusion of his campaign to conquer the Sindh in northwestern India, he sent this wire to London: PECCAVI. It is the Latin for “I have sinned.”

And Evelyn Waugh wrote what must be the shortest letter on record as a post card, a medium that used to encourage (often witty) brevity in its users. He learned that his first wife had had an affair with his friend John Heygate, who came to regret the affair and confessed it at church. His confessor would absolve him only on the condition that Heygate obtain Waugh’s forgiveness. In reply to Heygate’s written plea Waugh wrote JH OK EW.

All these examples suggest that wit is the soul of brevity. Unfortunately, most of the time most of us will not produce such gems and must meet demand with longer, less coruscating and more time-consuming expedients like selection, development, elaboration, synthesis, and other requirements of ordinary writing. When we forget this, we are in the same danger as those who report events in real time. The danger, often realized, is that they sound like the people you hear on their cell phones in the grocery store: “I’m in the produce section now.”

A related danger lurks in “threaded discussions” of the kind one finds after some newspaper columns and blog postings. This twin danger is that, being mediated, these “discussions” lose the zest of immediacy that only live conversation provides, and that no compensating virtue such as wit or pungency will take its place. Instead we find pedestrian writing full of red herrings and goony insults. The exceptions that prove the rule prove it all too infrequently.

And so we come to an article in The New York Times about teachers who use “social media” in their classes to encourage students to “speak up.” I experimented with them and regretfully gave them up. I say regretfully because it was clear that my painfully shy students found them a tolerable alternative to classroom discussion and conversation with the teacher, and one doesn’t happily give up such helpful innovations.

The problem was that the same mediation that made these encounters tolerable to the painfully shy left most students and me impatient for something zestier and less etiolated (though my students didn’t say so in quite these words). And there were the bandwidth problems that slowed everything down, turning such “discussions” and the attention they demanded and then thwarted into cases of arrested envelopment. There were also students who welcomed the slowdown of intellect imposed by the medium’s snail-pace as a chance to be contented in a semi-vegetative state. I ended up preserving live discussion when I could spark it into flame, and I told the shy students that they could make arrangements with me for supplementary discussion.

A conversation is fleeting unless a Boswell or a recording gadget is taking it down, and though we might regret that Boswell took down a scant fraction of the conversations Dr. Johnson actually enlivened, in general we are glad to have old discussions fade away. Boswell’s diaries reveal that even he was highly selective of his material. How much briefer—or more selective—we should be, and yet how much less brevity and selectivity of writing some contemporary media encourage.

That is why my rule of thumb for how long students should talk or write is usually “short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover the subject.” I would add here that purpose and medium matter too.

[1] It’s a pity that the Provincial Letters are about a subject few people now want to explore at length because they are a masterpiece of polemical prose: lucid, witty, authoritative, and devastating. In them Pascal invented the blog posting and at the same time produced the incomparable masterpiece of the genre.



A Class’s Nickel Drops

Teachers speak of a moment or short period when a student suddenly gains a massive understanding: the time when at last “the nickel drops.”[1] But I have found that a class has a personality too, and that its nickel sometimes drops in a miracle of shared timing. (Of course every class has its outriders in both directions, but the advanced riders help their classmates find their way in the new terrain, and those in back gain in confidence and understanding from seeing their classmates familiarize themselves with ground that at first only The Teacher seemed to understand.) Since the ethos of a class can do much to help or hinder individual students, dropping nickels bring music to a teacher’s ear.

Unlike knowledge and skill, whose gains are usually slow and steady, understanding can come in a rush, as it did when Helen Keller figured out what “wah-wah” was, triggering the miracle that Annie Sullivan worked for as her teacher. Good teachers cannot and do not “deliver instruction” of this kind. Instead, they lay groundwork, do their planting, and then cultivate the budding grove. Like Japanese gardeners they take account of the specific features of the terrain and the planting to get the best out of a class.

This sometimes means adapting a plan to a particular class’s needs and sudden gains. I managed such an adaptation recently in my Theory of Knowledge class.

The International Baccalaureate program’s excellent but difficult course in ToK presents to its teachers a measure each of problems and opportunities. Unlike traditional subjects that have a coherence conferred by time and experience, ToK lacks this advantage. The order conferred by the “ToK Diagram” does not come with advice on such questions as “Where and how do we enter the Roundabout?” and “What do we do once we get there?” The entire curriculum consists of questions, and there is no Answer Key.  Indeed, there is no official textbook, though enterprising authors have produced a few that are widely used in spite of the IBO’s recommendation against relying on them. The students who take it, usually juniors or first-term seniors, are just starting to develop their ability in “abstract operational thinking” as it is called, and some of them are late bloomers who have trouble with the concept work the course entails.

The opportunities are more than worth the difficulties. I have written elsewhere[2] about the skill and understanding that accrue to students who take this course and take it seriously. It also has the potential for being a showroom of intellect and of classroom techniques, where the inventive teacher can try things on for size that might not have a place in something less experimental or flexible. When taught pass – fail, as I think it should be, ToK allows risk-taking by students: What they lose in not having their noses to the gradestone they gain in the chance to think in unaccustomed ways without serious penalties for the inevitable missteps. It also provides a great opportunity for conducting a colloquium, which students heading to college should experience.

We ToK teachers can do so much. During the unit on the arts my colleague the art teacher and I have asked students to do a criticism of a picture that comprises three steps: description, interpretation, and judgment. Classes have come up with critiques of Picasso’s Guernica, Magritte’s Le Retour, Whistler’s mother, and the Christ Pantocrator of Daphni. Applying the three-step critique to another art form, they criticize a favorite piece of music of theirs, which they may play in class if the thing to be played is under five minutes. I usually give a sample critique before they do theirs. In the past they have heard Louis Armstrong’s Dipper-Mouth Blues, Hank Williams’s Honky-Tonkin’, and the 8th Piece from Schumann’s Kreisleriana. They in turn have brought in everything from heavy metal to the Moonlight Sonata.

When we discuss how emotion can be a way of knowing, it is one thing to read about the need to know in Charles Sanders Peirce or José Ortega y Gasset, as they have done, and another to experience the need to know when they play “Petals around the Rose” with five dice and Teacher doesn’t tell them the solution or tell them the name of the game. They can contrast Western thinkers’ grounding of natural law in reason and Mencius’ grounding it in feeling with his thought-provoking example of a baby approaching an unfenced well[3].

When discussing logic and mathematics we can see how proof by contradiction depends on our taking as true an unproven axiom of Aristotle’s. We can ask why students accept a logical proof by contradiction in math when they don’t accept one in St. Anselm’s ontological proof of God’s existence, and they can read the proof to decide if, when, and why they part company with St. Anselm.

The physics teacher and I used to conduct the natural science unit together. She would apply her knowledge of physics, do Young’s Double Slit Experiment, and discuss peer-reviewed literature, while I would introduce Kuhn and paradigm shifts. We would supply each other’s shortcomings, play to each other’s strengths, and produce a good series of talks, demonstrations, and discussions.

The danger in a course with such various material is that it can become a disordered jumble of tricks and snippets. The opportunity, realized in a successful offering, is in giving students the chance to stand back from their studies, to examine them with a critical eye, and to see subjects not as endless strings of deliverables but as the husbandry of wisdom nurtured and pruned by people who know and love it.

In Modern Times Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp endures being fed by a feeding-machine, which can also stand as an image of a student being taught by a teacher who lacks the “endless discretion” teaching requires and views himself as “delivering instruction,” particularly in a mechanical way. The aim is rather to have the flexibility to meet the needs of a particular class.

And so we come back to my ToK class. Its personality had two salient traits. The first was, in general, to think of knowledge as something to memorize. Two corollaries: to teach is to tell what is to be memorized, and to learn is to memorize it. While this is of course sometimes true, as it ought to be, it doesn’t cover skill or understanding, which cannot be handled by telling and memorizing, not even in an on-line course. The class therefore had trouble taking seriously material that it didn’t have to get by heart. Its second trait was a tendency to silence during discussion time. Tendency is maybe too weak a word. Except two or three chattering standbys, the students in this class almost never spoke unless called on.

These traits make it difficult for a teacher to “establish the conditions in which understanding can take place[4],” and understanding is very much what ToK is about. Until the week before last, our discussions were short. Any attempt to sustain them ended up less like Plato’s Symposium than like Dr. Burney’s Evening Party[5].

Then last week something happened resembling in its suddenness a spring thaw on a frozen lake. Maggie, who had never said a word except when called on and then only “yes” or “no,” had questions every day. A number of students besides Grace took up a thread offered by Katie, who would start strands of conversation even though they never ended up tapestries in this classroom. Murty had some remarkable thoughts about sagacity, one of the twin powers of reasoning identified by William James. And Matt, whose papers showed extraordinary insight but who spoke in monosyllables, asked a question that led to our discussing how different thinkers seem to have an affinity for different subjects and intellectual pursuits.

Here was an opportunity. Given the tenor of the students’ remarks, I decided to change the order in which I would present my ToK units. We were finishing math, and I decided that we should read Pascal’s piece from the Pensées about the two kinds of mind and then move to history instead of the natural sciences as I had originally intended. The students’ comments and questions suggested that they would relish a contrast in type of thinking that considering history would provide, and that they were ripe for Pascal.

And so we began. This week has gone wonderfully. Finally I could see ahead of me the opportunities that good discussion brings to a class. Though leading a Socratic discussion has its challenges, there is nothing like it to develop and fix understanding.  Not much of the academic year remains, but it should be a very fruitful time, and they will continue the course next year. I won’t say that I wish we could postpone summer vacation, but I can say with some confidence that when June finally arrives, the class will have turned out a success.

[1] British English says “the penny drops.” The expression comes from the moment when a jukebox or other coin-operated machine begins working as the user deposits a coin. I don’t mean by this metaphor to imply that teaching or learning is mechanistic.

[3] Google Mencius baby well to read it.

[4] Said by the ingenious education consultant Martin Skelton

[5] Go here to read Virginia Woolf’s account of it.