Quality vs Baloney

Everyone has heard superlatives about UC Berkeley: numbers of Nobel Prize winners on the faculty, top world rankings in hard and applied sciences, best public university in the world, etc., etc. And the students it attracts or attracted: one former colleague, the valedictorian of his high school class, who had his wedding reception at the Faculty Club, a lovely old building designed by the peerless local architect Bernard Maybeck; another, admitted at the age of fourteen after getting a perfect SAT score, studying philosophy under John Searle of the famous “Chinese Room Argument;” etc., etc. And the place: situated on a hillside with splendid views of San Francisco Bay when fog permits, the tallest hardwood stand in the country in one of its groves; a stream flowing through the campus, bordered by canyon walls, a botanical garden, and in these straitened days, planting a bit more disheveled than formerly, etc., etc.[1]

This needs “rebranding”? Someone evidently thinks so. The University has an office of “marketing communications,” and this office has devised a “plan,” called Onward California, “meant to give the university a new visual identity, attract new students and articulate a vision for its schools.” Just what a splendid-looking campus with excellent students and carefully planned programs needs. The office thought the University’s 19th-Century seal, with its book and rays of metaphorical light, was too old-fashioned, and tried replacing it in “marketing communications” with a bizarre shield that looks like a dented blue and gold washing machine.

Students and alumni think of the university as a functional community, and a pretty good one. They do not think of themselves as collectively needing a makeover with a nip and tuck here and a washing machine there. And they are right: a fine university is not improved by branding and baloney. It is improved by the public’s unpropaganzided conviction that a splendid public university and public schools are a precious resource. For a while it looked as if California was moving away from this conviction. Perhaps it still is, but recent events may suggest otherwise. Groups of Californians both large and small seem to be deciding that in a real community some things are worth paying for, e.g., the state’s voting in Proposition 30 to raise taxes for schools, universities, and other programs, and the City of Alameda’s voting in a property tax surcharge for its public schools. And they seem to be deciding that some things, like branding makovers, are nonsense. Alumni even got the washing machine banned. These good moves are very promising, though I would be pleased also to see the office of marketing communications closed, its funding applied to hire gardeners and maintenance crews. Splendid schools and universities don’t just exist; they don’t just appear as if in a glossy brochure; they are made and kept that way, both physically and intellectually, by real communities at real work.

[1] The campus is such a cynosure that people try to drive and park there, but parking on campus is usually strictly forbidden. Exceptions are the university’s Nobel laureates, who receive campus-parking permits. Saul Perlmutter, a Physics Prize winner, famously said that the reason to get a Nobel Prize is to be able to park on campus.


Kindred Spirits

A good friend and former colleague of mine, now sixty-seven, still lives on the farm that next year will have been in his family a hundred twenty-five years. In his father’s heyday it produced dairy foods as well as crops, but my friend manages just the crops these days, including the maple syrup I once had for breakfast at the farmhouse with him. The farm being in a northern state, he spends much of the summer preparing for the winter, repairing the barn, bringing in the harvest, and chopping, sawing, and stacking cordwood, the farmhouse’s only source of heat. His main concession to what passes in him for age has been to leave the farm during midwinter for warmer climates.

His education was the result of the same kind of hard work that characterizes his farming: an excellent undergraduate career at the state university followed by a graduate fellowship in history at Harvard. That education took place in the 1960s, but in the intervening years it has become more difficult for people of modest means, whether from the farm or the ‘hood, to attend university: half again as hard, according to one measure.

The exception to this trend is Asian-Americans. A particularly interesting locus of fascination is California, whose people voted some years ago (Proposition 209) to end the use of racial preferences in making admission decisions in public universities.  Now, of the twenty colleges in the U. S. with the highest percentage of Asian-Americans, nine are California public universities, including all but one campus of the University of California.

What Asian-Americans often seem to have in common with my former colleague is a capacity for hard work, the result of a solid upbringing not particularly dependent on the advantages money can buy. But success will have its detractors, and so young Asians get the reputation of workhorses with résumés, who have been whipped into college by horrifying parents. One writer reports that the absurd stereotypes even go so far as to disparage the violin and piano as “Asian instruments” that white children would do well to avoid learning. Most remarkable are reports that minority enrollment in California public universities has declined since the passage of Prop 209, their authors seeming to forget that Asians are a minority—and one with a sad, dark history in California.

Before my career as a teacher I worked in another line that took me into offices in and near San Francisco. Three of my bosses, Japanese-Americans, had spent World War II in “internment” camps, one of them having been born in a camp. Another one of them one day raised his usual curtain of silence to tell me about his experience being uprooted from home at the age of ten and returning after the war to find that the family’s land was sold, or transferred, or something, to others. I am sure that his story was not unique. He went from being almost a refugee in his own country, penniless and landless, to the University of California, where he received his undergraduate and professional degrees. He died last year at the age of eighty-two, having retired from the firm that bore his name.

My current career in teaching has taken me to China, where I have had a chance to teach at schools whose student bodies are mostly Chinese. I need to deal with some stereotypes here, too. At my current school the students are applying to colleges, many of them in the U.S. They have heard what a 2009 study claims, that white students are three times more likely to be admitted to selective universities than Asian students with the same academic record. One of them, a championship debater in English with a SAT I score of 2400 and an IB predicted score of 43, has already received his first rejection, though I am sure he will receive some acceptances “before the season is quite over.” He and his classmates are hard-working, but they don’t go around with circles under their eyes or weal-marks on their backs. Most of the music students specialize in instruments other than piano and violin, including some real Asian instruments. They field athletic teams that any school would be proud to have; indeed, their swimming and tennis teams would probably thrash most other schools’. And can they think independently? Hong Kong’s PISA scores of reading “reflecting and evaluating” are the third-highest in the world, suggesting that they do not just memorize, a result my experience confirms.

My former colleague on his farm in the Northern Tier would probably find some kindred spirits among these urban students fifty years his junior on the other side of the world. It is to be hoped that the people admitting them to selective colleges in the U.S. will recognize the kinship too.


Wishes for the Holidays and New Year

My annual wish list with something for the current season:

May your classroom be full, but not too full, of eager students.

May your students not be jaded.

May they have had a good night’s sleep.

May they greet you when they come in and bid you goodbye when they leave.

May they look you in the eye but not get in your face.

May they never say “whatever.”

May they get their work done—by themselves.

May the sparks in their lives be of interest not notes.

May their parents appreciate what you do for them.

May your classroom not enchain you with gadgets or constrain you with needless routines.

May its main source of light be sunshine.

May your bag of tricks be bottomless.

May the only added value in your life be the value added to your abundantly deserved retirement accounts.

May your administrators be educators.

May they see the paradox in preparing individual students for standardized tests.

May they not think that schools are a business or education a product.

May they share your horror of baloney and pink slime education.

May your school’s mission be expressible in under ten words, none of them a superlative.

May nothing in your building leak.

May your school’s network work.

May you possess or achieve the serenity to accept the human condition and the keenness to relish the good things you have.

—and two wishes in light of current events:

May you and your students be alive and safe a year from now.

May the friends and relatives of those killed in their classrooms find the strength to endure their loss.


Attack of the Learning Blender!

One of the earliest postings on this blog was about my discovery that Googling “McLearning” on a lark brought up a very unlarklike mother lode of junk in education. It was called “blended learning” by its profit-making proponents, and touted as a “solution” in the war of pink slime education on the old-fashioned kind provided by live teachers in real places. I guessed then that its main drawing power would be that it was cheap and could “deliver” “instruction” en masse, sidestepping reliance on the pesky and expensive human beings who traditionally help young people get an education.

It is no longer a guess. The schools of Manchester, New Hampshire are now planning to introduce “blended learning labs,” in which students take courses on line during the school day. The “labs” would be under the supervision of a “facilitator,” who… what? Facilitates on-off switching? Facilitates brightness and contrast? Facilitates the removal of chewing gum from tables? It is not clear how someone not acquainted with the subject being taught could “facilitate” learning it, which is what we would expect of a teacher rather than a “facilitator.”

The Manchester schools superintendent, saying that the introduction of pink slime education would “deal with…the need for students and school districts to catch up with technology,” puts the cart before the horse. Technologies may be introduced to schools once the technologies’ capabilities  “catch up with” the classroom’s educational needs. If a technology cannot provide coaching, if it cannot provide Socratic questioning, if it cannot provide formative assessment, there is no need for teachers and students to “catch up with” it.  As usual, the Canard of the 21st Century is confusing the issue, which is actually very clear: education is being debased, and the debasement needs stopping. The Manchester parents and teachers opposing pink slime are right to do so.

One of the arguments used to promote the “delivery” of recorded “instruction” is that excellent lecturers can reach more students on record than if they spoke live, and that they could replace lousy live lecturers. While this claim may have some validity, it needs further examination. An old colleague of mine, still teaching at the school where I began my career, reports that the school’s move to introduce one “blended learning” course per student per term has met with resistance and dislike by the students, who prefer the dynamic of a live classroom and interaction with a live teacher.

When I was a first-year teacher at this school, I used to visit the classes of teachers reputed to be excellent. One classroom I visited was that of Mr. C., who taught the school’s A.P. American History courses. His pedagogy was old-fashioned: lectures and papers. His results, among the best in the state, were due not to his adopting more up-to-date means of “delivering” “instruction” but to the quality of his lectures and the pains he took with them. He would frequently come into the faculty room after a class and collapse in one of the armchairs, sometimes in a sweat. I remember walking under the second-floor windows of his classroom and hearing his voice peal out to make a point or tell a story. He was also an accomplished amateur musician and had a fine singing voice that  he would use once a year in his annual Elvis impersonation, given to each of his classes, which would cheer him to the echo—his “fun[1]” for the year. He allowed only one recording of his speaking: a tape he made of Jonathan Edwards’s hair-raising sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God[2].” While it was an impressive performance, it couldn’t hold a candle to his live classroom, even when he was not being so pyrotechnical.

The answer to the problem of dull lectures is not Mr. C. in a can: it is the instruction of student teachers in platform technique for when they give a lecture as part of a varied classroom offering, so that students may enjoy it, or at least benefit from it, as well as the other things on offer. It is probable that few student teachers will turn out to be as good at the lectern as Mr. C., but they can surely be brought to the point of talking well, of planning well, of questioning well, of correcting well—in short, of teaching well, which is teaching live.

[1] “Too much fun is of all things the most loathsome.”—William Blake, and Mr. C.

[2] Edwards is supposed to have delivered this sermon in the calm, measured tones of a learned Puritan divine, but Mr. C. delivered it in the best fire-and-brimstone tradition, justifying Richard Hofstadter’s judgment that it was a “sermon such as a sadist might have trembled to deliver.”


Today’s Trudgin’ Women (and Men)

Back when Ansel Adams wrote his spoof The Trudgin’ Women for an early 1930’s Sierra Club high Sierra trip, he could count on his audience knowing something about ancient Greek drama. The trudgin’ referred to backpacking, not to the experience of reading Euripides’ The Trojan Women or other ancient Greek drama. That experience was (generally thought to be) anything but trudgery or drudgery.

People like me, who were not classicists, would find a good translation or, often, encounter one in college. My memory of Lysistrata is that it was not drudgery but very funny. My classmates and I read the translation my college required: by Dudley Fitts, a secondary-school teacher who was also a classicist and translator. (He gave the Spartans what a New Englander thought was a Southern accent.) But that was not my first acquaintance with the title. According to a Ralph Story’s Los Angeles episode, which I saw in the mid-1960s, an early 1930’s L.A. production was ordered closed for obscenity by the Los Angeles Police Department. They wanted to arrest the author, but Aristophanes could not be found.

I enjoyed reading Greek drama, but to judge by a recent New York Times article I should have felt as if on some kind of death march of students “trudging through their Aristophanes” instead of over the Sierra Crest, while clever young men like Mark Zuckerberg were dropping out and making their millions. I do not disparage people who seek their fortune in a bright new city or a garage of genius rather than tolerate a mediocre college—or “college,” as we seemingly must call places that do not deserve the name. But I very much dislike the idea implicit in the article, that either university or Aristophanes is somehow ipso facto boring. To a good student a good education will be a pleasure worth having for its own sake. To a student whose aim is not an education but a qualification, the whole process may seem like an imposition—and maybe it is.

More to the point is the article’s horror of the colossal debts being undertaken by young people to get an education, or an “education,” or a qualification, or whatever it is. I treasure my university education, but I am dumbstruck by the thought that today I might have to trudge under nearly a quarter of a million dollars of debt for it. Even more shocking than the price is the possibility that instead of a thrilling liberation, some unfortunate “university” students are getting a Pink Slime Education for that price. No wonder bright young people are seeking alternatives!