It’s So, Joe, Redux

It has been two and a half years since I lamented the sad story of Atlanta’s cheating scandal, so it was a relief to read that the schools’ former superintendent was just indicted for “racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements.” As we wait for justice to be done, let us consider some of the problems that may have led Atlanta, and perhaps other places, to this sorry pass. Not all of them are criminal, but following any, let alone many, of them may bring people to the edge of a very slippery slope.

(I don’t mean to single out Atlanta. I guess that one of the main reasons that city is now in the headlines is not unique wickedness but an unusual dedication to prosecution, including funding the fireballs who probed for years to amass their evidence. One prosecutor claims that his earnestness gained him no friends in Atlanta’s business community, which didn’t want this kind of publicity.)

1. Readers of these postings will know that when social-science “instruments” are used for social decision-making, a “corrupting pressure” is placed on that use, and the very social processes themselves tend to become corrupt. We don’t use knives as screwdrivers, and we don’t bring knives to gunfights (I hope), so why do we use measurements of social processes as arbiters of social decision-making? This misuse should stop.

2. Sometimes no corrupting pressure needs to be exerted because the influential person is already corrupt. If individual corruption alone were the problem, it could be rooted out when found, but people in positions of administrative responsibility not infrequently buck up or tolerate their corrupt colleagues rather than reprove them, leading to a state of institutional corruption. At one school I happily no longer work at, one administrator submitted fabricated statistics to the school’s re-accrediting agency. A second administrator, to whom I reported this fraud, made no response, and the submission was included in the school’s report. This is one example on the fly.

3. The late great Stephen Jay Gould said, “If the evidence looks too good to be true, it probably is.” People in positions of administrative responsibility who lack a moral compass should at least assume that suspicious persons with an IQ in three digits will see through some of the most egregious fraud and be deterred from committing it. These suspicious but salutary persons should remain suspicious until they have received a satisfactory explanation, a confession, or a conviction.

4. People in positions of administrative responsibility within schools and districts sometimes act as if their beau ideal of leadership is King Louis, Marshal Stalin, or Jabba the Hutt. By contrast, the famous management theorist W. Edwards Deming proposed such ideal behavior as a. Drive out fear. b. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets. c. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership. Leadership! What a concept!

5. There is widespread acceptance, or at best little questioning, of the proxy values proposed by education “scientists” to represent actual values, even when these proxy values are absurd and the use of them reveals the bankruptcy of intellect that lies behind their formulation and adoption. These postings are full of examples, but a recent favorite was the distance-evaluation of teachers by MP3 file, the files having been produced and cut by the teachers themselves. Of course the longest-running scandal is that of “value”-“added” “metrics.” The operative intellectual model for these things seems to be consensus by somnolence. Time for a wake-up call!


Matsushima, ah! A-ah, Basho, A-ah!


The I.B. course in English A Literature has a flexible syllabus with many choices left up to the teacher. Many, but not all. The rules for choosing are somewhat complicated, but their object is to ensure a syllabus that represents the possibilities of literature across time, place, and genre. This laudable goal runs into a problem: most students are of one place, and all are of one time.

One of the works on my syllabus is Matsuo Basho’s travel diary The Narrow Road to Oku. It happily satisfies many of the course’s criteria for variety of time, place, and genre, but for just these reasons—and others—it challenges students to meet it halfway. I think it important to get the students to take up this challenge. The classic rationale was given by Dr. Johnson as he visited the ruins of Iona: “[W]hatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.”[1] Flannery O’Connor had a more up-to-date formulation: “The fact that [non-modern] works do not present [the student] with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them. Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday.”[2]  Her exasperation with this state of cultural amnesia leads her elsewhere in this essay to the rather pungent assessment that “by the reverse evolutionary process children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively.” The reason for this regression, she says, is that “ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning.”

O’Connor is severe, but her assessment must not be dismissed out of hand. Students unfamiliar with the historical and cultural terrain that surrounds a work new to them will, like the rigid adults they are growing into, tend to dismiss it and thereby secure their rigidity. They ask why they should work at understanding something new and strange when other things are ready to hand and beckon with their familiarity. The answer of a liberal education to this question is that understanding is liberating.

Like a history course, a course in literature, as part of a liberal education, will get students to enter the past and other terra incognita imaginatively. But it is not just the student who must have a look: the teacher must also try to make the new terrain less daunting than students first take it to be.

And there is much in Basho to puzzle over. Students familiar with the tradition of long Western poetry (and even comparatively long Chinese poetry) will be surprised and at times puzzled by haiku, a form so short it is almost over as it begins. Stranger yet is the undeniable pre-eminence Basho reportedly holds as a Japanese poet: how can a poem of just a few words be so highly admired? And there is the Problem of Action: where is it? Among the diary’s highlights are a temple famous for its silence, a helmet with a cricket under it, a grassy field where a castle used to be, and a bay with hundreds of islands sitting in it.

Ah, the bay! It is called Matsushima, and though Oku contains a haiku about it by his companion Sora, an apocryphal haiku attributed to Basho is more famous. At a loss for even the few words that a haiku requires, Basho was supposedly inspired by its beauty to have written

Ah, Matsushima!

A-a-h, Matsushima, Ah!

Ah, Matsushima!

It turns out that this poem and his famous poem (also not in Oku) about the old pond and the frog are a way into the aesthetic of minimal communication. My students found the many translations of the frog haiku fascinating, particularly the one by James Kirkup that goes




They would sometimes find themselves reciting “Ah! Matsushima!” with amusement.  I knew I had them when I asked them whether they had heard “The Junk Food Haiku.” I then recited, “Ah! McDonald’s!/A-a-h…” and didn’t get any farther than that before the room exploded in a wave of desk-slapping hilarity and laughter. It turned out that most of them thought of a classmate of theirs, famous for his love of McDonald’s hamburgers, which he buys for lunch every day. The “poem” got back to him: that lunch hour he looked at me with a big grin on his face.

This goofiness must not be despised: it lightens the whole and helps to pace the study of kigo and kireji and other keys to understanding. So does the use of “slide” shows that let the students see briar roses and verbena and shinobuzuri cloth and sumi-e paintings. So does the use of activities done in groups, where students work together with each other rather than under the Dreary Shower, as Blake called us. In one they compare Basho’s arrival at Shirakawa and Dr. Johnson’s arrival at Icolmkill. In another they work up their own travelogue with haiku imitating Basho’s record of his visit to the grassy plain of Hiraizumi. And of course they have to prepare the “Interactive Oral Activities” required by the I.B. in its course syllabus. In these they handle historical, cultural, and literary issues having to do with Oku. Sometimes I feel like a ringmaster! At other times I recall a line of Walt Disney’s, in which he said his job was to buzz around the studio like a bee spreading pollen. But one way or another I feel that they end up entering Basho’s world imaginatively and, after an outsider’s fashion, coming to some kind of understanding of it. This opposite to stupidity is an advance in their dignity as thinking beings.


stupendous studies: / the fiery event / of every day in endless / endless assent

Paper 1 of the International Baccalaureate’s exam in English A Literature requires students to write a commentary on a poem or prose passage they have never seen before. At the higher level, students must proceed without even  “guiding questions.” Clearly no education that produces only knowledge of particular poems would prepare these students to do this paper. In yesterday’s lesson my own English A Literature class examined Elizabeth Bishop’s “Anaphora,” a somewhat difficult poem not least because of its title. My students—at least some of them—remember that anaphora is the rhetorical use of identical openings for grammatically parallel sentence elements, of which the most famous example is Lincoln’s statement in the Gettysburg Address that “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” But a second, more obscure, definition comes from the Greek Orthodox liturgy, where the Anaphora is the part of the service roughly corresponding to the Canon of the old Roman Catholic mass.

I thought that this second definition could safely be overlooked when I discussed the poem with my students. I was wrong. I offered my thesis that the anaphora of the title was metaphorical and referred to the parallel and identical “white gold skies” and “brilliant walls” every morning opens with before the “ineffable creature” “the day was meant for” begins its descent to “assume memory and mortal / mortal fatigue.” I explained that the actual, literal anaphora of the poem’s lines 21 and 22 was not the key to the poem, though it was important. I suggested a parallel to Frost’s treatment of the theme in “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which they studied last semester. As always, I proceeded by allowing the students to question and to offer their own theses. One of my brightest students suggested that the Anaphora was that of the Greek liturgy and wondered whether Bishop was treating religious disillusionment in the poem. This student’s question was more tentative than the declaration of my colleague’s student some years ago about the smut of Emily Dickinson, and its purpose was to elicit a comment from me, and a discussion. In addition to considering and finally rejecting this thesis I made the general point that we have to consider reasonable likelihood in our interpretation of poems. Was it more likely that a poet and writer would use the rhetorical definition to describe the decline of day, or that she, by no means a devoted Christian, would allude to Greek liturgy to treat a daily disillusionment there is no evidence of her having felt? And of course the poem itself would have to support this likely reading. Otherwise, as Kenneth Koch says, we “concentrate on what is not there at the expense of what is.”

During this discussion the students were taking some notes and listening with (at least the semblance of) attention. My sense was that their questions and discussion added to what they got not just about this poem but also about interpreting poems in general. That is, they gained not just knowledge but understanding. What is more, they gained it of a fundamental ability: how to read a poem. The importance of this ability has been recognize by, among others, Charles Darwin, who sadly reported having lost it in the course of his adult life and wishing that he had not.

Whether the cultivation of this ability should be taught to everyone or some people, in high school or in university, could, I suppose, be debated; but it seems hard to deny that it is in some important sense a fundamental prerequisite to an appreciation of the power and potential of language. If I am right that it involves not just knowledge but also understanding, not just hearing and remembering but also formulating and testing, then it is hard to see how it could proceed without give-and-take between student and teacher such as a discussion course allows. It then follows that this fundamental ability cannot be cultivated in an on-line class consisting of lectures or stepwise analysis without question time. It is true that a gifted lecturer might inflame a student’s interest with a fine discussion of a strongly appealing poem, but that is serendipity—not something on which to hang a curriculum.

Of course reading and getting poems is one of many fundamental abilities, the cultivation of which should constitute introductory or general courses. In any fundamental ability requiring understanding—and I mean here to include more than just reading poems—online or “blended” (!) learning will be not just a bad education but what John Dewey called miseducation. If a student ends up listening to twenty lectures on poetry and takes away from them the idea that a poem is an obscure communication that really means what the teacher says in the lecture, something profoundly wrong has happened. But how can it be otherwise if the students do not experience reading as at least in part a conversation?

Two dispiriting developments in California’s system of higher education seem to be working against the acquisition of poetry-reading and other fundamental powers. One is the growing appeal of on-line education, which plays to knowledge only and not to understanding. The second is the shameful administrative and educational disaster of not having enough places in introductory courses for all the students who want to take them. The students, thus deprived and placed on waiting lists for long periods of time, delay their progress through an increasingly expensive education that they are decreasingly able to afford.

And so the terrible inevitable has happened: California is about to pass a law requiring its colleges to accept online courses even from outside, and perhaps commercial, “institutions” for credit in these oversubscribed basics. I fear that students of the future, instead of pondering anaphora, will have to gum down a pelletized processed education, for this trend will not stop at just “introductory” courses that are “too” popular.




Tom Sawyer vs. the Brontë Sisters: Paintball for Literacy?

Whatever else Joel Klein is, he is marvelously undead. He left the New York City Schools after imposing on them a “value-added learning” program that did nothing for students’ learning, and a “basic literacy” program thanks to which literacy did not improve but at-risk reading students foundered. He went  to work for Rupert Murdoch’s mischievously named “News Corporation,” which specialises among other things in bimbo spreads and phone hacking. There he divided his time between attempts to rehabilitate Murdoch’s reputation (aided no doubt by his experience in touching up his own reputation) and attempts to make education profitable for his master’s corporation, if not for students.

Sensible and decent people in the U.S. hoped that at least one of these projects would have kept him busy in Britain, but—no! He is back. Is he here to help popularize those page-3 topless spreads in tabloids? Is he here to persuade people that phone hacking is not such a big deal? Is he here to throw his weight, such as it is, behind RAce to the Top (RAT)? Is he here to promote “national security audits” in public schools and their “human capital”?  Maybe yes, maybe no, but he is certainly here to promote a corporate vision of “blended learning” that he hopes will earn “News Corporation” a return on its own, somewhat inhuman, capital. And, not content simply to harness the power of students to earn profit for a company by “studying,” he is “launching” a new tablet computer.

In another context the late Senator Sam Ervin suggested that we must not expect philanthropic results from organizations that are not “eleemosynary institutions.” If this bit of homespun wisdom from the mid-70s’ most famous “country lawyer” does not seem self-evident, consider more details about this “educational” product. The new tablet has a game in which “Tom Sawyer battles the Brontë sisters,” no doubt with virtual paintball.  We read in the Times article hyperlinked above that this bit of e-diocy is part of a “curriculum, including video games as elaborate as anything played on an Xbox,” that will “turn students into readers” while contributing 40% of the “education” company’s profits—I fear not in that order. How can anyone believe that students will become better readers by having a battle between Tom Sawyer and the Brontë sisters? If it comes to that, I’d rather trust Charlotte Brontë on education than a commercial huckster any day.



Sauce for the Goose, Sauce for the Gander, Sauce for the Rat

There is a huge irony in the New York City Schools’ announcement that it is changing part of the admission exam to its gifted and talented program because of test preparation companies. To understand why, recall Campbell’s Law[1], formulated in 1975 by Donald C. Campbell. A test of giftedness should, strictly speaking, be used simply to decide whether someone is gifted. Unfortunately, that is not the use to which the City Schools’ test is being put: it is also being used for “social decision-making”—as an admission test. As soon as a test’s purpose goes from diagnosis to social decision-making, it becomes subject to “corruption pressure.” The New York Times article hyperlinked above reports precisely such corruption pressure in the form of test-prepped four-year-olds so expert in test-giftedness that one of them can brush off the psychologist’s oral instructions with a dismissive “I know what to do.”

Well, my dear, so do your teachers; and that leads to the irony. The City Schools are not shelving, or even changing, the tests and formulae used as the basis for “value-added metrics” even though they entail social decision-making that can denature the “education” students receive or unjustifiably break the careers of the teachers “evaluated.” This in spite of (or because of!) the City Schools’ spending more for books of test preparation than for any other kind. It is ironic that a school system objects to the hijacking of tests by test-preparation companies at the same time that the corruption pressures spawned by its own “evaluations” turn whole schools, whole districts, into a giant test preparation company. I smell a RAT[2].

[1] “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort or corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

[2] RAce to the Top, which mandates testing and value-added metrics as a qualification for its funds.