Water Water Everywhere

I’ve been away from these postings for a while, but I’m rumbling out of hibernation partly because of Hong Kong’s early spring weather (80s with humidity and rain. I just imagined Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing ‘April in Hong Kong’, but it lacks something). More than rain splashed me: Friday was the IB Grade 12s’ last day of lessons before their reading period for the exams begins.

It was rainy, but the G12s, who come to school out of uniform that day, spent some early hours ‘preparing’ the IB Building for the occasion, including booby-trapping the elevator, affixing satirical posters, and raising a huge color banner of Chairman Mao with the IB Coordinator’s face digitally superimposed on the rest of the bust. Against this backdrop they all spent the morning soaking each other and sometimes their teachers with water guns and water balloons. The IB Coordinator received a thorough drenching, and I did not entirely escape the water guns, though spoilsport that I am, I wore my Bean foul weather gear and managed to stay dry underneath. I am not sure it would have protected me against a water balloon to the head, and at one point I thought the jig was up when I rounded a corner and saw dead ahead of me one of my students eye me appraisingly while hefting a water balloon. But I was reprieved as another. more gratifying, target presented itself.  By lunchtime the festivities were over, and the students had cleaned up the broken water balloons and sodden posters and banner. All that was left was the soaking wet building, which was wet to begin with because of the rain.

All the students had a good time, but one student’s face spoke eloquently for the group again and again. It had a look of utterly gleeful intensity. The student to whom this face belongs will probably get a 44 or 45 next July but was having a ball that morning, till the fun and festivity ended. It was a bit like the end of Carnival in The Count of Monte Cristo or Benvenuto Cellini. Carnival is Carnival, but at some point it ends. We don’t always get to continue what makes us gleeful, as this student has the good sense to recognize.

He (along with his teachers!) has more good sense than the founders of a chain of proprietary schools designed to ‘create an educational “ecosystem” that was unusually responsive to the interests of children, feeding them assignments tied to subjects they cared about’. Any teacher reading the article linked above will shudder deeply at three depredations on teaching. One is the administrative nightmare of e-constructivism combined with data shining out of every orifice but not shedding much light. Another is its reduction of teachers to a kind of genial idiocy in support of the ‘work’ done by the students. The third was put best by Flannery O’Connor: ‘Ours is the first age in history to ask the student what he will tolerate learning.’

Not just teachers should be shuddering, and not just about careers in inanition. The article reports that the children at these schools often have a tendency to be caught in ‘rabbit holes’ of special interest, neglecting their ostensible focus of study. Who’d have thought? I for one had an early inkling. In 8th grade I was invited to join a ‘gifted and talented’ class at junior high school, which was called Individual Studies. We spent an hour a day in a room Rich in Resources, during which we could study anything we liked. Dreary basset hound of learning that I was, I started working on a report on South Asian religion. Meanwhile my friend the Golden Boy spent months—months!—working on hexaflexagons and origami fortune-telling cutouts. All of us marveled at the way he coaxed Mrs S into allowing him more and yet more time to exercise his creativity with scissors, paper, and colored pencils. By the time the class was disbanded as a constructivist boondoggle he could have out-Gardnered Martin Gardner on these little amusements, but he didn’t end up gaining much. He himself later regarded his hexaflexagism as a joke.

I have written elsewhere that it takes a Jonathan Winters to make much out of a constructivist attic and that most students are not little Winterses. He was funny, but throwing over education in favor of squirreling is no joke. One of the parents of a student at the ‘academy’ said, ‘We are very comfortable with our kids being guinea pigs.’ Such generosity! But other parents might justifiably question the wisdom of doing so, and they would be right. It is one thing to gamble away ones own money and time at ‘creative disruption’ or ‘failing forward,’ but children? There are times when even a teacher who lets students find out things for themselves must drop that approach and offer good old-fashioned guidance. There are times when the carnival ends and the water guns are put away.

Going back at least as far as Hawthorne and Melville we find American myths of a place of rightness, whether in the forests outside Boston or the mountaintop viewed from the Piazza, where everything is all right (and don”t forget the ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain‘!). But myths made immanent can turn messy. Educationist mythologizers always forget the mess at the end of Individual Studies and get misty-eyed about that mountaintop.

In China such transformationists with wrecking-balls are regarded with suspicion not because Chinese people have no imagination but because their history has examples of ‘innovation’ at work.  One was Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when schools were closed, books burned, and teachers sent in dunce caps to dig turnips in the countryside.

The second came to mind as I was reading an article on China in The New York Review. Along with the article was a Qing Dynasty painting of the First Emperor as he conducted his ‘transformational’ (but ultimately unproductive) campaign against ‘backward’ Confucian scholarship and education. It was called Burn Books Bury Scholars. In the upper background of the painting a teacher is depicted on his knees before the Emperor, who points to the foreground, where we can see two things. One is a pile of books set afire. The other is soldiers flinging teachers alive into a ravine where they are to be buried while still living.

Like Individual Studies, Burn Books Bury Scholars didn’t last, from which we may derive a grim kind of satisfaction.

I will take further satisfaction from a plan afoot for this summer. A former student, now in his final year of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) program at Oxford, will be back to conduct an entirely extracurricular colloquium in philosophy, including readings from Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Rousseau, Gettier, and Nozick. Students are already promising to attend.

The founders of the proprietary schools in the article linked above say that they want their students to know ‘skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent’. This is a double shovel-load of baloney. First, many of tomorrow’s jobs are also today’s jobs and planned for, while those that aren’t haven’t been imagined and can’t be planned for. Second, knowledge is only one of the three basic kinds of learning, the other two being skill and understanding. Historical precedent has prescribed learning that successfully promotes such skill as verbal fluency, consecutive thinking, meeting an argument, and marshaling one’s forces to solve a problem or answer a question, to name only a few. And encounters with great thinkers advance us in understanding, or should. Socratic encounters with the lesser thinkers that are one’s teachers also have these beneficial effects.

Water games should be a holiday from these endeavors, not an alternative to them.

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