Education by Poetry and Education by the Beast from the East

During his years teaching poetry at Amherst, Robert Frost came to understand an important feature of ‘slow learning’ that is often overlooked by proponents of ‘virtual’ education. It is that in a classroom, students often show their nearness to or achievement of understanding by a look that is fugitive but unmistakable when it appears. Experienced teachers recognize this look and use it for two purposes. One, which Frost discusses, is a check on understanding. At one point in his ‘meditative monologue’ on “Education by Poetry’ Frost correctly asserts that sometimes the look is the only thing we have to go on for judging successful understanding and for marking.

These postings have argued that assessments that are close to the course being taught are likelier to capture fugitive elements of a course than are ‘distant’ assessments like standardized tests. William James argued that consciousness includes an item on which we focus and a ‘fringe’ of material that is tentatively present to us, to which we may immediately turn at need. On line education rids the ‘classroom’ of this fringe and proceeds, as if blinkered, through its syllabus. How many of us have had a teacher like Mr. Ciriello, who used to scan the faces of his students for comprehension during lectures and discussions? When I realized what he was doing, I could knit my brow and count on an explanation without the embarrassment of having to raise my hand and admit that I did not understand what he was talking about. And how many of us have had teachers like Professor Sareil, who probed and crumbled caked wisdom thoroughly and relentlessly at his colloquium table? It was scary, but it worked; and by being a bit scary he helped teach me how not to crumple under forensic pressure[1].

One of Frost’s students reports that after his classmate had done a particularly splendid reading of a poem, Frost told him, “You get an A forever.” What a wonderful reward and motivation to continue as he had done! Education on a human basis allows all these possibilities. Education by machine does not.

* * *

My summer trip continues, during which I heard two stories about excellent teachers of long standing who were maltreated by capricious administrators. One of them was a gifted math teacher who after twenty years of successful teaching[2] was hounded out of his school by a vindictive principal. Another, a successful English teacher of thirty years’ standing, suddenly started receiving negative reviews. It turned out that the reviewer’s administrative colleague, whose son she had taught, had given him false reports of her methods. This kind of whispering campaign is not always detected and eliminated, as my friend’s fortunately was. More often it results in wreckage such as happened to the math teacher.

(The ghastliest story of capricious bullying by an administrator involves a former colleague who became a target of our principal’s tender attentions. She was gradually beaten down, but the last straw came when her husband, a distinguished physicist, received news that he had been elected to the Royal Society. She asked the principal’s permission to attend his investiture; he rejected her request. She came to school but announced her resignation. I saw her a year after she left, her health entirely restored.)

Evidence shows that American teachers are dead last among jobholders in the quality of relationships with their supervisors. One reason, but only one, is this kind of treatment by bad administrators. Why is no one investigating this deadly impediment to good teaching and learning?

[1] As I think about it, I wonder whether part of the washout problem in American universities is due to students’ not having had such experiences in their education.

[2] One of his students, a future Senior Wrangler of Cambridge, was beyond the high-school curriculum, but this teacher arranged for him to receive instruction by professors at Cal Berkeley.


Unraveled Sleeves and Abaci

My summer holiday took me this week into some terrain containing oblique lessons in education. While on the remote and mountainous Big Sur coast of California I stayed in a monastic ‘cell’ at a monastery whose monks are largely silent except during sung and spoken prayers. (The discipline is relaxed at the midday meal.) Like the cells of the Grand Charterhouse in Grenoble, the cells of this monastery are designed for silent reading and other contemplative activities by their tenants when they are not at work or prayer. Each one has a little garden with a wall around it. After evening prayers the cloister becomes utterly silent and dark. No TV, screens, or gadgets.

These conditions, it turns out, may conduce to good and healthful sleep of the kind that students (and their teachers) are, more and more, giving up. It is not just that they are staying up longer: it is that when they finally drop off, the sleep they get is less in quantity and quality.  The reason lies to a great extent in the kind of light they experience in the hours before their bedtime. Light with an abundance of its constituent wavelengths at the blue end of the spectrum acts on our bodies as a signal that undercuts the impulse to sleep, even to the point of disrupting circadian rhythms. This is precisely the kind of light emitted by the gadgets one does not use at the monastery.

Though most of us would prefer a bit of sleep deprivation to a very ascetic life, there is a big difference between a bit and a lot. Sleep is supposed to “knit up the ravell’d sleeve of care,” but no knitting gets done when students are murdering sleep in how they conduct their waking lives.

* * *

Today I visited a small but excellent bookstore that deals in new and used books. The shop assistant was helpful but distant until I took out my fountain pen to sign the credit card slip. She complimented the pen and asked if she might try it. She took it in a practiced grip and with confident speed executed a line of beautiful calligraphy. It turns out that she had studied calligraphy under Corita Kent. As the fountain pen goes the way of the abacus (except at the marvelous Hop Cheong Pen Shop in Hong Kong and other outposts), we are not just giving up a bit of the modest artistry that a full life should afford. We are handicapping the young people who miss the formative and even therapeutic effects that handwriting can have, for it turns out that learning to write and then taking notes in cursive letters rather than typing them aids in the handling of the material noted.

Such experiences and arguments would not impress Idaho’s unfortunate Governor Otter, who said of one of Idaho’s gifted but gadget-free teachers that if she has “only an abacus in her hand, she is missing the boat.” He and others like him, who keep catching futile boat rides to successive futures of the month, will eventually be forced to see what they and their students miss and what remains unraveled in their education.


Great-rooted Blossomers

Hong Kong’s schools start their summer holidays in mid-July. (Summer’s lease hath all too short a date, for we return at the beginning of September.) At my school year-end report cards are distributed to students on Parents’ Day, the second-to-last school day. Each student and his parents meet with his ‘academic advisor’, a teacher who minds his progress during the year, flagging trouble if need be.

I was in the office this morning (Saturday) because I needed to meet with a student and his parents: the father would be unable to attend on Parents’ Day. We had a productive meeting at which (again) I marveled silently at how non-adversarial the relationship between parents and teachers tends to be here. There are exceptions, but they are notable, not run of the mill.

Before that meeting I was reviewing the report card, which is actually a seven-page document that includes, besides grades, comments by each teacher, explanations of grades, and a compendium of Creativity, Activity, and Service. Academic advisors usually check with teachers who write severe or non-laudatory comments to try and find out what lies behind them. There were none of this kind of comment on the report I was about to hand out. The student’s grades were very good, though not quite what he would like; but he has been deeply involved in a number of extracurricular activities, particularly drama.

While I was looking, a familiar voice called to me on the intercom at the door that allows students (politely) to summon teachers from the office for meetings. Whom should I find at the door but two graduates to see me! One of them, who graduated a year ago, is ‘reading’ (studying) law at the London School of Economics. The other, who graduated two years ago, is in the Philosophy Politics and Economics program at Oxford.

Both graduates had been in the school choir, but the LSE student has turned to writing in his spare time, while the Oxford student joined the choir of his college, where he now regularly sings at the college’s services. (It is Oriel College, where the Oxford Movement started).

This evening I’ll be attending a ‘Homecoming Concert’ in the school’s auditorium. There are four in July to mark the end of the school year.  All charge rather stiff prices for seats, and all the seats are sold out. I am looking forward to hearing the Senior Choir, the Orchestra, the String Orchestra, and other groups play.

These are not just elitist frills, or shouldn’t be. My own public high school in California used to field award-winning bands and orchestras, and wherever they are found, secondary-school arts and music programs bring something essential to a curriculum and a school. Some students like my Oxonian continue their musical activities past graduation. Most have fond memories of them.

But there is more. They bring something essential to the mind, something that Charles Darwin regretfully recognized in his middle age. He said that he regretted giving up listening to music, reading poems, and looking at pictures, and was sure that he had lost something essential in this lack. In touting the STEM we should not forget the roots and trunk and crown.


Caution: Sowing in Progress

Sometimes a single statistic tells a whole story. That is the case with a statistic taken from a report I recently read. Pages 3 and 4 of the report say that California now spends nearly twice as much on its prisons as it does on its universities. Thirty-five years ago it spent more than three times as much on its universities as on its prisons.