Encore Culligan Man

In a posting last July I said that a teacher was not a Culligan Man—a kind of delivery boy. I objected to the metaphor that “a teacher’s job is to deliver instruction.” A teacher’s job is far more complex than “delivery,” and calling it that trivializes or oversimplifies what happens in the classroom. The metaphor is dangerous because it sets up expectations that teaching is simple and can be done by an underpaid lunk as well as by an intelligent seasoned pro. It also trivializes what is to be taught by making learning sound like a kind of stuff or—dare I say it?—a product.

I subsequently discovered that this expression is meant to run counter to “constructivism,” the educational philosophy that says a school should be a kind of attic in which the student explores and sets up his or her own lessons. Teachers in a constructivist school are a kind of custodial staff with grade books. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the comedian Jonathan Winters had a TV program in which he sometimes appeared in a large attic-like room. I picture him as the valedictorian of a constructivist school: lots of attic antics, but can he write? And what happens if a student at a constructivist school is not as imaginative in an attic as Winters?

The valedictorian of an anti-constructivist school is the angel in blue on the left of the illustration by William Blake at the bottom of this web page (the picture is taken from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), and the devil in the center is a teacher “whose job is to deliver instruction” (or a principal who insists that “a teacher’s job is to deliver instruction”). Notice how passively the blue angel accepts delivery of the instruction: this idea of schooling depends on such docility and tractability in the face of “deliveries.” But what happens if a student at a non-constructivist school is not a blue angel? (The orange angel is practicing his “test-taking skills” for the competency test that ends the school year so that he can pretend to be a blue angel by means of an Orwellian confidence trick.)

The divergence between the delivery boys and the attic antics exemplifies educationist binary thinking and excludes the subtle possibility that really good teaching should embrace elements of both constructivism and teacher-centered instruction.

The problem with subtlety is that it is messy and not easily categorized. It entails subtlety on teachers (and their administrators!) and assumes the capacity to distinguish constructivist learning from fooling around, or to distinguish “delivery of instruction” from scripted teaching. Scripted teaching! Can you imagine it? Everything is scripted, even down to a snap of the fingers to indicate to the students when to turn the page. And why not, if a teacher is a delivery boy? Imagine how many multiple choice questions the students in such classrooms can answer after twelve years.

What I find worrisome beyond the question of what kinds of learning will take place in such environments is the thought of teachers’ work becoming so narrowed and thinned out that a genuine teacher becomes superfluous. Can the attic be minded by a baby-sitter? Can the pages of the script be turned and read by a visiting fireman[1]? If  education continues its drive to make teaching uncongenial to anyone but a dunce or a doormat, maybe baby-sitters and visiting firemen will be all the schools get.

[1] See an earlier posting for the reference. I am not taking a shot at firemen, members of an esteemed profession and necessary to urban civilization. I am saying that some firemen would be as good in front of a classroom as I would be behind a fire hose.


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