Late Great Teachers

The death of Professor Piero Weiss, a concert pianist and gifted teacher, at the age of 83 saddened me and sent me back in time. My college required (and still requires) its students to take a class that surveys Western music from plainsong to the 20th Century. I was officially enrolled in another teacher’s section of that class. The other teacher, now at Bard College, was good and enthusiastic; and I credit him with opening my ears to Mozart. But my classmates enrolled in Professor Weiss’s class kept praising him and inviting me to audit his lessons.

I found, when I started auditing, that my classmates had not oversold him. He often set the classroom aroar, whether with laughter at his bone-dry jokes delivered with a George-Burnsian cigar in hand or with applause at his wonderful “examples” played on the classroom’s “not altogether satisfactory” piano. He opened my ears to Schubert, his favorite composer, and propelled me through Carnegie Hall to a lifelong appreciation of a great pianist, the recently retired Alfred Brendel.

William James in his Talks to Teachers reads from Charles Darwin that he had a great regret in life: he had not spent more time “listening to music and looking at pictures” because of these activities’ beneficial effects, of which he felt deprived. I have been fortunate both to live much of my life in places with music nearby and to have had my interest in listening to music kindled by teachers like Professor Weiss. We must therefore also regret the passing of music education, whether in playing or in appreciation, at so many schools.

We must simultaneously and I think with a degree of anger deplore the movement in education towards teaching software, which along with everything else that is happening to schools across the United States is lessening students’ chances of learning at the feet of a superb teacher. The anger that inflames this regret is due to the wish of companies selling the software to make a profit even if their “products” do not do any better than a traditional textbook taught by a live teacher, and to ignore or misrepresent the evidence of these unspectacular results.

And, according to a New York Times article published yesterday, that is just what the Education Department’s What Works Clearinghouse has determined in its analysis of studies of various brands of software’s effectiveness. It turns out that most of the studies finding a benefit in teaching software have not been conducted under properly rigorous protocols. What is more, the software being sold costs in some cases three times as much as the textbooks it is meant to replace.

To judge by the extract from a mechanized math lesson in the Times, the software might have some value in the remedial instruction of students who lack the basics, and I would like to see the results of some studies done to assess its helpfulness in those circumstances. But it’s hard to see how such elementary material will help any students get airborne, much less soar.

It is also hard to see how schools whose IT resources are underfunded, scrappy, and unreliable will be able to run complex and sophisticated programs for large numbers of students. Better to leave instruction in the hands of experienced teachers with their “perpetual discretion” (and their cigars) than in an IT system with down syndrome. That is, of course, if all the concomitant cutting of teachers’ pay and benefits does not reduce them to the level where the only people that can be hired as teachers are, as Richard Hofstadter put it, “drifters and misfits.”


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