The Enchantments of Schmendrick

We must regret the recent passing of Dr. Vito Perrone, who in North Dakota and at Harvard rejected the view of teaching and learning as industrial processes. There are fewer like him left, though one hopes the incipient fiasco in No Child Left Behind education will change that. In particular, he rejected the exaltation of standardized testing, the Aeaea of contemporary education’s daft and flighty odyssey.

Those on this odyssey are daft because they steer away from what many educators already know about teaching and learning, including many things of proven value: otherwise how could the decreasing number of schools that still offer solid education do what they are doing? And they steer towards “solutions” (what a word!) offered by sorry wizards[1] with incantations borrowed from industrial systems and business jargon.

If these “solutions” were the only or the best possible ones, then charter schools led by “CEO”s would be sweeping the field. Unfortunately, as Diane Ravitch has pointed out, the evidence shows that charter schools generally do no better than public schools except when doped with funding from private foundations. Also unfortunately, these new schools of dubious value are muscling in on the terrain long claimed by Catholic education, which has for years taught children in poor urban neighborhoods effectively and comparatively cheaply.

Even the Times’s writer of the obituary for Dr. Perrone falls under the wizards’ enchantment, for he has been beguiled into describing teaching as a “process” and speaks of it as something that might be “streamlined” by standardized testing, at least in the view of those who have adopted the tests. But except at the lowest grunt level of basic organization, teaching is not a process because understanding doesn’t proceed, it occurs. We have real teachers with Professor Barzun’s “perpetual discretion” and, by contrast, we have data entry clerks with their procedures manuals.

More sadly, he refers to Dr. Perrone as “the conscience of the profession in the modern era.” While I have no doubt that Dr. Perrone was a voice of sanity and right-mindedness in our profession, I also have no doubt that it has many, many consciences and has had for years. The sad thing is that these consciences—these sound thinkers, too—are going unheard.

[1] They remind me partly of Circe for what they do to teachers, but also of Schmendrick the Magician from Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn with his ineffective or dangerously bungled spells. Unlike them, Schmendrick has at least a glimmer of real magic and finally learns how to use it.


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