Amputating the Body to Save the Limb

Often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb.—Abraham Lincoln[1]

Having been a teacher for twenty-six years, I have many friends in the profession, if I may so describe the calling—the job—the facilitatorship—the clerkship we share. I give the “profession’s” names in the order of decreasing importance and dignity through which government mandates and the Ed Biz and its shills are taking us on the road to “Value-“ “Added” “Metrics,” the RAce to the Top (RAT), and “blended learning.” During my summer holiday, having returned to the US for my first visit in some time, I have heard many recitations of current conditions in American education. The story is not pleasant

The conditions mentioned do not arise in any other “advanced” country. No one outside the US appears to be abandoning well-funded well-regarded public education. No one is talking about on-line “schools” or instruction. No one is implementing commercially produced programs of “blended learning.” No one is guaranteeing universal proficiency at reading and math and then backing away from the guarantee because it is impossible. No one is hiring teachers who have not received thorough and effective training. No one is thinking of firing teachers because their students do poorly on multiple-choice tests of their “learning.” And almost none of these countries do as badly as the US in educating their students.

Good teachers have some thoughts about these programs and failures, but almost no one is listening. My colleagues are gloomy about the prospect of education for the great mass of the people, but they have ideas about how that education should proceed. Since their voices go unheard, as do voices of others who are critical of what is happening in many American schools, their worries are likely to be realized.

Hence the quotation from Lincoln. His practical sense told him when an idea was unworkable—something that research evidently cannot do. Hence the many harebrained schemes for “improvement” that promise miracles and produce messes. To take one of many: NCLB has turned schools into test-taking factories in which the education received has been thinned out to the vanishing point, in an effort to shore up test scores in a mere two subjects. If that is not amputating a body to save a limb, I—and my friends—don’t know what is.

[1] Abraham Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864.

One reason among many to investigate Lincoln is his writings. Barzun called him a “literary genius,” a judgment in which I concur. Though I did not include his pithy remarks in my posting on Brevity and Immediacy, they are often wonderful. He is supposed to have dismissed a book with the brief review that “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like;” and he once defined eternity as “two people and a ham,” though Dorothy Parker is also credited with that definition.


Far from the Madding Cloud

I am distant from anything e this week and next. I hope to have a posting again before long.


Sow a Wind: What History Boys?

One of my students in Theory of Knowledge just qualified for entry to a highly regarded global business program, partly on the strength of his ToK Paper and Presentation and the marks they earned him. In a recent email to me he thanked me for the help he had pulling his work together, and added that he thought Theory of Knowledge would end up being the best preparation he got for that program.

The reason is, briefly, that the Paper requires students to examine a general claim about knowledge judiciously and fairly, using examples in the contemporary world to make a judgment about it. The Presentation takes a “real-life situation” facing the students (or our world) and asks them to abstract a “knowledge issue” from it, dealing with that issue in a balanced way before offering a judgment. Some of my students, including the one I mentioned above, went through three or four drafts to reach the impressive results they handed in.

But studying the humanities has always had a beneficial formative effect, and in fact Professor Barzun says that history’s chief effect “is formative. Its spectacle of continuity in chaos, of attainment in the heart of disorder, of purpose in the world is what nothing else provides: science denies it, art only invents it. One might suppose that an astute synthesis of the items in the daily paper would supply it, but the paper lacks charm and solidity; its formative effect is nil, as one can see from sampling public opinion…. History is a means of cultivation much more than of instruction.[1]

Barzun goes on to say that history properly studied is “an antidote against cultural poisoning”: “It heightens resistance to the superstitions of the day, the flood of conventional knowledge—all of it plausibly wrong—that the surrounding sources of information keep spreading like a sterile sort of manure over contemporary thought.”

It is an “antidote against credulity,” for “the most difficult choice is not simply what to believe but what mode of thought to trust that leads to belief.”  The failure to provide this antidote is shown in “so-called educational research, where the sense of evidence is at its feeblest and the knowledge of history apparently non-existent.” Raw credulity accounts for the acceptance of the Coleman Report in 1966, whose astonishing claim was that schools bring little to bear on students’ achievement.

It is an antidote against homogenizing, the intellectual tendency “to naturalize the disparate, to force discrepancies out of logic’s way,” and to be reductive, thereby allowing the production and acceptance of over-reductive and absurd “studies” like, for example, Max Nordau’s showing that artists are mental degenerates.

It is an antidote against overintellection, including pedantry and the replacement of feeling and vividness in mental endeavors by “processes” that give “abstract notations of phenomena and…new symbols for instinct.”

It is an antidote against self-centering, the placement of the self at the center of all knowledge.

If Barzun was right in ascribing to the study of history all these good effects, we should be teaching it. Instead, “humanities programs get a fraction of the funding that STEM programs do,” and public intellectual health is exposed to danger. What whirlwind will we reap by sowing this wind of ignorance?

[1] Clio and the Doctors, pp 123 – 124


What a Book Is For, Revisited

[This is a reprint of an old posting, but with an afterword.]

A recent article in The New York Times reported the city schools’ ending book purchases at book fairs of small “trade-book” vendors in favor of mail order from large suppliers operating in remote locations. While it is always sad to see a local fabric of professional relationships ripped up by the demand for cheapness, that was not what made me take a second look at this article.

It incidentally reported on what trade books the schools bought and explained what trade books are for. The article said that these books, including novels and works of non-fiction, “are intended to fill out lesson plans” and “supplement textbooks.” I guess that in this view books of poetry are also intended to fill out lesson plans, though the article doesn’t mention them. It did mention that the city schools spend a third of their book budget on trade books. This is sad news to someone like me, who have taught English without a textbook for many years, as is the view that “trade books,” i.e., books, might be considered “supplements” in an English class.

Are the books most ordered by the New York schools novels? Are they works of non-fiction like, say, Richard Hofstadter’s America at 1750? Are they poetry anthologies like The Rattle Bag, edited by a Nobel-Prize-winning poet and a Poet Laureate of England? No, they are guides to prepare students to take standardized tests. This dispiriting statistic is a confirmation, if one were needed, of the test mania now submerging American public schools, those dikeless Low Countries of learning. If I were to recommend a “trade book,” i.e., a book, to read in order to understand where test mania comes from, I would choose Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, whose chapter on “Tulipomania” I have shared with students for many years.

To return to “trade books,” i.e., books: which textbook would they supplement? So many English textbooks are so bad: The sidebar distractions—the smeary dreary badly colored pictures—the little boxes of crap—the inane assignments: where does one begin the catalogue? You might say, “Rather than begin a catalogue, begin with the literature.”

Let’s take poetry as an example and counterexample. I mentioned The Rattle Bag, which many of my classes of 9th-graders used for many years. This book is so immediately appealing to them that I find the best way to introduce them to it is to give them half an hour or so just to browse and read. By the end of that time most have found a favorite, shared it with their neighbors, and begun looking for more. By the end of the poetry unit their favorites and mine have become a part of their study and experience. And their favorites can be surprising: not just Nash or “Frankie and Johnny,” but also Blake and even Thomas Hardy.

I attribute the success of this anthology to the likes and dislikes of the anthologists, who clearly chose poems that tickled them or took the tops of their heads off, which is what you would do when choosing poems for a good anthology rather than a textbook. Can a textbook be so good? It is difficult. In 1967 Lionel Trilling published one called The Experience of Literature. The success of this book was a sad one. It contained fifty-two prefaces to works in the collection, each of them a masterpiece of criticism written by a master of prose who could have the top of his head taken off by a good poem. Teachers complained that the prefaces left them little to say, so they were removed (the prefaces, not the complaining teachers). Students were still left with Shakespeare and Sophocles, but deprived of a keen critical intelligence by their side. The prefaces now appear separately as a “trade book,” i.e., a book. I use one of them, passing it out to the class, when teaching Hopkins’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” to 12th-graders. The textbook with prefaces is out of print.

Wallace Stevens complains of the white nightgowns in his poem “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” that “none of them are strange.” What would he think of the poetry collected in many current textbooks? It is unexceptionable, and it can fill out a lesson plan, but it’s like a 180-day diet of mashed-potato sandwiches. When a highly capable student of mine, a Berber from Algeria, decided to examine Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” in the collection of the same name to see how it gets from its startling opening to its stunning conclusion, he was not in the mood for mashed potatoes, and he should not have had to eat them. He engaged forcefully with the poem and came to an exceptionally good understanding of it, and his classmates congratulated him.

Everything he (and thereby his classmates) came to understand that week about English was the result of his engagement with a poem that he could not shake off. By contrast, most students have no trouble shaking off the material in a bad textbook, and I am sure they will shake off much of what they “learn” in a course of preparation for a standardized English test. We would do far better to imagine lesson plans supplementing good books than the other way around, and to teach those books, not the tests that follow them.

* * *

I republish this posting the day after the I.B. results came out, and it seems necessary to consider what I have said in light of the very real demands that externally set examinations place on students and their teachers. Before I became an all-I.B. teacher, I could work with students on poetry in different ways than I do knowing that they must all be able to produce well-written answers to questions about poetry as a genre and poets they have studied as well as extemporaneously written commentaries on poems they have never seen before. Nonetheless, I believe that I still  teach students first and foremost to “read the poem,” as Professor Koch would have said, while concurrently teaching them how to make a solid written argument. This ends up partly “teaching to the demands of the test,” but by way of teaching to the demands of a coherent intellectual life as an adult.

By following the I.B. curriculum’s requirements to teach collections of work by single poets rather than an anthology of many poets’ works, I find that the students can hear better the way poems speak to each other as well as to their readers and hearers. It adds a depth and keenness to their analysis that a survey could not produce. And it is still possible to expose them to a variety of poetic types. If they have to read poems by Yeats, Frost, Bishop, Lawrence and Hopkins as well as Antony and Cleopatra, they will end up having seen a good sampling of the possibilities of poetry, and that is a good thing regardless of test scores.

By the way: My students did well.