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Which Schoolhouse Is It?

In the wake of the Chinese PISA scores and Amy Chuan’s writings about how Chinese mothers bring up their children we have heard a lot of commentary about the “American system of education,” usually to extol it at the expense of Chinese practices. Much of this commentary suffers from a problem discussed by Professor Harry Frankfurt in his little book On Bullshit. It is the desire or feeling of need to express views on subjects regardless of the views’  value. When our wish or need to say something prevails over a becoming thoughtfulness and intellectual modesty, we end up with something not worth reading. And it really is not worth reading that Chinese students don’t think or that American students are creative, or whatever banality is on offer.

I suspect that people who say such things suffered from a defective education. Signs of the defect to look for in the classroom or schoolhouse:

  • Participation in “class debates” where exuberance trumped thoughtfulness and fluency trumped intellectual care
  • No Socratic discussions in which students were politely but firmly and relentlessly questioned to establish the extent of their understanding of the claims they made and the thinking that lay behind them
  • Grading of writing that contained few or no challenges to nonsense or overstatement, or in which all compositions, regardless of merit, were given an A or a B
  • No insistence on the rewriting of bad compositions, or even a working recognition that a composition can be bad
  • Too much “peer editing” and not enough editing by a qualified editor or an experienced thinker, i.e., the teacher
  • Approval of baloney offered with exuberance or charm
  • Offering thought-cliches instead of real thinking

Actually, American education seems from where I sit to be many kinds of education, but at its best it has all the virtues ascribed to it by its defenders. Unfortunately, other processes and schemes claiming to be education prevail in many American schools. Before we could offer comprehensive praise of American schools, we would have to get the right answers from most schools to the following questions:

1.      Is the school rigorous?

2.      Do its teachers make effective distinctions between rigor and hard labor?

3.      Do they know the subjects they teach well enough not to need an “answer book” or not to be surprised by the ones they use?

4.      Do teachers make effective distinctions between knowledge, skill, and understanding, building up all three?

5.      Do teachers have the respect of students, parents, and administrators?

6.      Does the school day have schedules and practices that encourage the build-up of intellectual momentum as opposed to distraction and fragmentation?

7.    Is the school free of Bold Initiatives and Great Leaps Forward, content with modest and organic improvement where needed and recognition of good quality where it is found?

8.    Do its evaluations of teachers show subtlety and finesse, or are they gross and statistical?

9.    Are its administrators educational leaders?

10.  Do they support the teachers in their endeavors and encourage collegiality?

11.  Are the relationships among students, teachers, and parents free of legalism and adversarialism?

12.  Have students been properly inculcated in the virtue of discipline, concentration, and work?

13.  Are they learning the difference between creativity and fooling around? Is creativity rewarded and fooling around reproved?

14.  Can students have some, but not too much, fun at school?

15.  When students have laudable ideas and inspirations, are they encouraged to work them through and pursue them to something like a conclusion or a result?

16.  Are class sizes small enough that the teachers can be reasonably expected to do the coaching and Socratic instruction that their subjects require?

17.  Is the school free of competency testing for accountability, and do the students nonetheless come out of it knowing something valuable?

18.  Do its administrators understand Campbell’s Law?

The right answers to most or all of these questions suggest a school that manages to provide the best of American education.

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