Wait a Bit

Much has already been written about Seamus Heaney since his death yesterday, but my words will perhaps seem tangential to many of the eulogies, for my subject today will be not Heaney’s poems but his marvelous anthology The Rattle Bag, compiled with his co-editor Ted Hughes. I first came to it while in Cambridge, England.  A friend of mine, then an editor at Granta, told me that this was his favorite poetry anthology, so on my next visit to Heffers I found it and was instantly captivated. (The copy I bought then in 1982 lies open in front of me as I write this.)

Captivation has also been the almost universal reaction of the 9th-graders in my English classes, who used it as their poetry anthology. The first lesson was an easy one-word pleasure: “Read!” In half an hour the whole class would usually be talking about their finds. Students would be required to give a practiced reading of one poem, and a recitation by heart of another. Students chose freely except with a requirement for a minimum number of lines. Examples of chosen poems include “All the world’s a stage,” “Be Merry,” “Cocaine Lil and Morphine Sue,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Invictus,” “Jerusalem,” “Kerr’s Ass,” “The North Ship,” “A Poison Tree,” “Poppies in July,” “The Smile,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed.” You must have noticed that the list of students’ choices begins and ends with Shakespeare and has everything in between.

You may also have noticed that the list is in alphabetical order. That is the only order in the book. There are no chapters, themes, subjects, headings, techniques, explanations, exercises, questions, interpretations, skills, or footnotes. (A small glossary of strange and foreign words at the end, and a list of poems sorted by poet are the only apparatus.) The only criterion Heaney and Hughes applied when choosing the poems was that “each poem, full of its singular appeal, [transmit] its own signals [and take] its chances in a big, voluble world.”

I love that criterion that a poem should be “full of its singular appeal.” To say why requires a story.  It is set in a place near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. I was seated for dinner at a restaurant that was open on one side to an adjacent forest, or wood, or jungle of what I had been told was first growth. We were elevated at least a big cat’s leap above the woods; nothing other than a kind of balustrade separated us and the forest’s inhabitants. Midway through the meal we all heard a pronounced and extensive rustling and cracking of brush and branches, but no animals came out of the bush to be seen. We continued our dinner with a certain uneasiness.

The following morning I was out for a walk where a road skirted this same wood.  In front of me were a number of pedestrians standing patiently, at some distance from a herd of fifty or so Cape buffalo that were crossing the road. Following the pedestrians’ lead, I kept my distance. I remember from reading “The Most Dangerous Game” that Zaroff thought the buffalo the most dangerous game, though of course he turned out to be wrong. I had heard similar warnings from others.

But the best warning I have read was in one of the Yoruba hunter poems in The Rattle Bag. It is called, simply, “Buffalo.”

The buffalo is the death

that makes a child climb a thorn tree.

When the buffalo dies in the forest

the head of the household is hiding in the roof.

When the hunter meets the buffalo

he promises never to hunt again.

He will cry out: ‘I only borrowed the gun!

I only look after it for my friend!”

Little he cares about your hunting medicines:

he carries two knives on his head,

little he cares about your danegun,

he wears the thickest skin.

He is the butterfly of the savannah:

he flies along without touching the grass.

When you hear thunder without rain—

it is the buffalo approaching.

To take only the first couplet: the thorn acacia’s thorns are an inch or two long, and they are hard not pulpy. The wag’n bietjie bush’s sharp curved thorns catch and hold you to “wait a bit”—just what you don’t want when the buffalo is coming. Children may learn the pain and danger of thorns, but they also know the greater danger of the buffalo with his “two knives.”

The anthology has page after page of such vivid surprises mixed with some of our old favorites. The poet most quoted is Blake, but Ogden Nash “weighs” in with eight choices including one bit of unexpected heaviness to keep us guessing. Even the longer selections are interesting enough leave us expectant about what the next page will bring. Heaney’s great accomplishments as a poet are being eulogized elsewhere, but I want to thank him (and Hughes) for so many welcome chances to “wait a bit” with the sometimes thorny but always attractive poems in their anthology.


On the Frontier of the Dismal Swamp

When we think of corruption, we usually think of someone like former Governor Ed Edwards of Louisiana, who was once being interviewed on 60 Minutes by Mike Wallace:

WALLACE: They say you can be bought for $100,000.

EDWARDS: That’s an outrage! It would take at least half a million.

In the world of education such people can also be found, but their corruption, though bad, is not the most worrisome to me—not yet, anyway. More troubling is the intellectual corruption one finds in the tendency to tolerate or even encourage a vitiation of what we expect a course of study to do, and then to use that degraded expectation as a new standard. In fact, this kind of intellectual corruption, not the greased-palm kind, is what Donald Campbell was originally referring to in the paper in which he pronounced Campbell’s Law. In that 1975 paper, a school district came in for sharp criticism because it permitted a profit-making company to turn part of its education into a course of test preparation. The extent of subsequent corruption can be gauged by recognizing that what seemed egregious in 1975 is becoming normative now, and that the schools of whole districts, whole states, are becoming test-preparation factories producing pink slime education.

It is no accident that this “education” tends to be the kind that can be administered and graded by machine, rather than the kind typified by I.I. Rabi and his chalk talks in Pupin Hall. At the level of high school it turns into the kind of education deplored in a recent “open letter” from an uncorrupted (and retired) teacher to colleges and universities. Often deplored, but not always rejected: Georgia Tech will soon offer an entire master’s degree on line through MOOCs.

The article reporting Georgia Tech’s new degree shows a third kind of corruption. I mean a corruption of reportorial perspective whereby the plan is headlined as a “New Frontier”—a most loaded metaphor—followed by the claim that it “could signal a change to the landscape of higher education,” whose breathlessness is qualified by the weasel-word “could.” Strangely qualified: the next sentence celebrates the power of MOOCs to tap into unsuspected reserves of Mongolian scholarship, as revealed by a perfect multiple-choice test score in Ulan Bataar–or was it the Gobi Desert?

The article admits—in the fourteenth paragraph—that in San Jose if not in Mongolia, and in three on-line classes rather than a unique case, on-line “learning” is in trouble. The admission is expressed thus: the classes are “now paused because of underwhelming student performance.” Paused? Underwhelming? Why did the reporter not say, “The classes have been suspended because the students in them were doing poorly”?

My guess is that CSUSJ, which had been trying to develop a hybrid course comprising some on-line instruction and some classroom instruction, had pushed too far in the on-line direction, curtailed the live instruction, and discovered that its students foundered—a result that could have been predicted. A more straightforward, less tendentious report would include such information if it was available, but if the angle is “new frontiers” instead of “what really works?” that will not happen.

New frontiers!  Spare me the corruption of the purpose of language and reporting, as well as the other kinds.


The Common Core and Short Sharp Shocks

During my holiday trip, which ended earlier this week, I spent a lot of time with friends who used to be colleagues in teaching. Most of them still teach; a couple are administrators. They work in every kind of place from “privileged” secondary schools to state-run universities to public elementary schools. Their spiritedness varies from still enthusiastic to beaten down. Amidst all that diversity of background, situation, and motivation, one attitude runs through the entire group: Contempt of and exasperation with the Ed Biz’s bureaucracy- and foundation-driven Reform of the Year “movement” and its disappointments.

This blog is full of postings[1] giving examples, of which the two most egregious are No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and RAce to the Top (RAT). NCLB, which mandated universal proficiency in twelve years, is now acknowledged by most people with IQs in three digits to be a dismal failure from whose provisions states are stumbling over each other to be excused. The problem is that to be excused, states must pledge themselves to RAT, whose grants are given conditionally on adoption of the Common Core and “Value”-“Added” “Metrics.” The same government that mandated perfection in twelve years now “mandates[2]” the more-or-less immediate adoption of a whole new curriculum, with predictable results.

Why is the Reform of the Year “movement” so unproductive or counterproductive? Some ideas from my talks with former colleagues suggest themselves[3]:

1.       Its roots are political and economic as well as pedagogical, and from these roots strange and invidious growths proceed.

2.       At the bottom of its assumptions lies a rooted suspicion of or contempt for teachers. You can’t have a good “system” of education if you despise the people that are at its core. Asked by a reporter to explain Finland’s success in education, one principal said three words: “teachers, teachers, teachers.” How many American reformers and the administrators they impress would say the same?

3.       Concurrently, there is no investigation of administrators as a class to determine how competent, savvy, and humane they are. What hope is there of producing better schools if they are to be presided over by incompetents and second-stringers?

4.       Like many typically and counterproductively exigent education reformers, Ed Biz “leaders” will have their way not because their reforms tap into the collective wisdom of the human race or will produce sensible results in the fullness of time, but because these reformers want them, now, and will have them even at great cost. At one point in the movie Downfall, Hitler, asked to justify an order, says, “It is my will.” Raise your hand if you know administrators and other Educational Personages who justify their choices that way. Keep your hands up if they made you proud and happy to be a teacher.

5.       Speaking of the collective wisdom of the human race: it is amazing how harebrained educationist schemes manage completely to avoid the tonic test question “Is it wise?” when being hatched. Why should anyone expect a sudden accession of good sense and humility from people evidently under-endowed with these qualities? Many of them seem to have taken their education degrees at the Grand Academy of Lagado. How can we expect them to preside over teaching, which Barzun calls “an act of endless discretion”?

6.       And what primarily motivates the teachers required to participate in the typical top-down reform program? Lyrics from a ditty by W. S. Gilbert suggest the answer: “Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock / From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block.” Titipu and the Ed Biz are a long way from the intellectual and organizational world of Edwards Deming.

7.       While I see much of the “research” that undergirds current reform movements as suspect or non-existent, I didn’t arrive at that conclusion through discussions with my former colleagues. Their own rather cynical view of “research” is that it is cherry-picked to justify claims that someone already wants to make and programs someone already wants to start.  They would not be surprised to learn how empty much of it is, and their curiosity sensibly turns away with distaste from spending the time to find out.

8.        No reform takes place in a cultural vacuum or a closed system, but much of the Educational Reform Movement assumes closed systems and vacuum-packed assumptions that would not survive critical examination or open air.

9.       Slowly, slowly catchee monkey, says a proverb. What does the education reformer say? How many educational monkeys has Arne Duncan?

The reason for more than the usual number of links in this posting is my strong sense, after returning from talks with my former colleagues, that the trouble we are now seeing for the Common Core could have been anticipated and turned aside with proper programs properly planned and executed in the fullness of realistic time. It’s all there: both the predictable bad consequences of the bad programs and, like Helen Epstein’s “Invisible Cure,” many of the unseen or unnoted solutions that will actually work.

[2] I am aware that Arne Duncan says the Common Core is not, strictly speaking, mandated, which is true: DOE merely withholds all RAT money from jurisdictions that don’t comply with their program of voluntary adoption. Some brave jurisdictions have refused the mandate and the money, but most, reduced to beggary by cuts in funding typical of no (other) “advanced” country, decide to sup with the devil and hope their spoons are long enough.

[3] These are given in no particular order.