Plain Speaking from Jane Eyre Redux

About a year ago I made the following posting. I’ve touched it up a bit: it speaks to some concerns I’ve addressed in recent postings, so I thought it would be worth reposting.

[Adèle] was a lively child, who had been spoilt and indulged, and therefore was sometimes wayward; but as she was committed entirely to my care, and no injudicious interference from any quarter ever thwarted my plans for her improvement, she soon forgot her little freaks, and became obedient and teachable.  She had no great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste which raised her one inch above the ordinary level of childhood; but neither had she any deficiency or vice which sunk her below it.  She made reasonable progress, entertained for me a vivacious, though perhaps not very profound, affection; and by her simplicity, gay prattle, and efforts to please, inspired me, in return, with a degree of attachment sufficient to make us both content in each other’s society.

This, par parenthèse, will be thought cool language by persons who entertain solemn doctrines about the angelic nature of children, and the duty of those charged with their education to conceive for them an idolatrous devotion: but I am not writing to flatter parental egotism, to echo cant, or prop up humbug; I am merely telling the truth.  I felt a conscientious solicitude for Adèle’s welfare and progress, and a quiet liking for her little self…

Jane Eyre, Chapter XII

 

Today’s guest writer was a first-rate novelist, and her words are instructive because she also happened to have been a teacher. The extract from Charlotte Brontë goes back to the 1840s, long before even Teachers College was founded, but it is worth a second look for what it says about perennial conditions of teaching and learning and about discourse on education.

Brontë spent a number of years as a schoolteacher and a governess, the experience of which gave her an understanding and clarity of thought about education that she shows in what she says about her pupil and “herself,” if we may call Jane that; for Jane, like Brontë, was earnest, grave, and reserved. Let us take a look at her observations and conclusions.

We see first of all that Adèle had to accept Jane’s authority and give up her waywardness and “little freaks.” Given Brontë’s own (brief) experience in an abusive school, we may be sure that Jane would not have wanted to impose an abusive regime on Adèle, but merely to insist on a certain tractability or readiness to meet her governess’s reasonable expectations in order to become “obedient and teachable.”

What expectation did Jane have of Adèle? Not that she “achieve proficiency” in her subjects; not that she engage in “mastery learning;” not that she become a Baby Einstein: no, Jane expected her to make “reasonable progress.” There was no question of saddling with unreasonable expectations a girl whom we in a modern mathematical metaphor would call “average,” a word Brontë would not have considered using. Nor, we feel, would Jane have let Adèle get by with work below her capacity.

Finally, Jane had an expectation of reciprocal regard and care: that Adèle would entertain a “vivacious, if not very profund, affection” for her; she, in turn, became attached enough that the two of them could be content in each other’s company. At a school where I taught, the governing emotion was said to be “unconditional love.” That seems too extravagant to be normative, but some kind of emotional tie must exist between teacher and pupil.

These seem like reasonable goals for an ordinary pupil, but they would have to maintain their integrity against five ways of thinking inimical to good teaching and learning, which Brontë names (I give them here in her order):

1.  Thinking that children have “angelic natures.” We may reject St. Augustine’s belief that children in their natural state deserve damnation[1] and yet still have some reservation about how naturally good they are[2]. This reservation is a basis of our rationalizing and justifying punishment or correction, and it helps any good teacher keep a weather eye out for trouble.

2.  Conceiving an “idolatrous devotion” to one’s children or pupils. We have in this kind of mistake the starting-point of much mischief, including what some educational psychologists call the “permissive-indulgent” style of child-rearing or teaching.

3.  Flattering parental egotism. Given the difficulty of letting down a parent who thinks Junior walks on water, leaps tall buildings, and understands string theory, the alternative has a certain attractive but dangerous appeal. Three dangers lurk in it: The parent is abetted in forming unrealistic expectations of Junior, which he or she then sometimes expects the teacher to abet with or without justification; the school is suborned in various kinds of academic fakery; and the teacher is accustomed to misrepresentation of Junior’s accomplishments. All teachers, but not all parents, recognize the first danger. Of the second we may instance cases of schools’ offering “accelerated courses” to students who can’t handle them because parents demand them. Of course the jig is up when, say, the AP test scores come back and 40% of the students taking the test get a 1 or 2. But forces other than just parental egotism lead to such impostures, so we should not just blame parents—or our attitude towards parents—for them. But teachers (and their administrators!) should find ways to keep these dangers from becoming real by giving honest assessments tempered by humanity.

4. Echoing cant[3]. This old-fashioned but excellent word refers to a kind of baloney all too common in the Ed Biz when The Biz is not echoing nonsense. A good example would be the way that Jerome Bruner’s thinking was (over)simplified or misrepresented to justify “mastery learning” and in doing so to put an onus on the teachers, some of whom did not have, and should not have been expected to have, the nimbleness of conception necessary to adapt singlehandedly a structure of learning to the developmental needs of dozens or hundreds of pupils. The basis for this onus was the cant expression that any subject can be made teachable to any pupil at any stage of development, a manifestly false position.

5. Propping up humbug. It’s too bad that the only person to use this word besides Jane is Scrooge, for humbug is forever, though its details may change from time to time. But humbug becomes dangerous when it is made into law. What else are No Child Left Behind’s demands for “proficiency” and penalties for poor performance on “value-added learning” tests than a gigantic prop to humbug? What else are the breaches of Campbell’s Law in corrupt school districts that we have read about in the last two years?

To these five ways of thinking Brontë offers five antidotes: reciprocity, attachment, expectation of reasonable progress, telling the truth, and conscientious solicitude for students. To me it is no contest.

 

[1] St. Augustine could be severe, or dark-humored. To a questioner who asked him what God was doing before he created the heavens and the earth, he answered, “He was creating hell for people who ask foolish questions.”

[2] Thus my colleague the geography teacher had a small lidded earthenware pot near his classroom door labeled “ASHES OF TROUBLESOME STUDENTS.”

[3] the expression or repetition of conventional, trite, or unconsidered ideas, opinions, or sentiments; especially : the insincere use of pious phraseology. “cant.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (16 Jul. 2011).

 

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