Everything with Nothing

When writing about education is readable, it often throws away some potential readability in breathless enthusiasm, particularly when anticipating the destruction of rule books, great leaps forward, revolutions, new eras, etc. Given that “era” has almost become a synonym for “moment,” that Eden sank to grief, and that the original Great Leap Forward was not, this kind of writing should be suspect. Our suspicion may be aroused because the writing bears a resemblance to ad copy promising a “revolutionary advance in dishwashing” and other kinds of pitchman’s b*******[1]. It may be suspect because it conflicts with what our imagination of the real tells us is “the educational experience of the human race.” It may be suspect because it overlooks the indisputable fact that many people receive a sound education without a single revolution.

It may also be ironic. Hence perhaps an article in BBC News recently about another bold initiative in the New York City Schools, this one called iZone, which the reporter helpfully tells us means “Innovation Zone.” It has promising brand-recognition cachet, but what will it deliver?

The iZone’s Principal hopes to solve “the fundamental problem” of most schools, which, she says, is that they “are not organized around individual students’ needs.” The way she hopes the iZone will solve this problem is by destroying the requirement of “seat time.” In another line that made me instantly suspicious, she said, “We have students who are ready for graduate level work now—and we have students who will not make progress unless they’re in a three to one staff situation. Having them in a class of 30 is not going to get results.”

To understand my suspicion, consider that there is now one and only one system that is “organized around individual students’ needs.” That system is private tutoring. All other systems are organized around a combination of students’ and institutions’ needs—as they must be in any real world. Not to recognize this is either blindness or baloney, and pernicious baloney if the institution’s effectiveness is vitiated by demanding of its teachers what only private tutors can do. How well would Leopold Mozart’s lessons have gone if he had had to give them to 129 students in addition to meeting little Wolfgang’s individual needs? If Frank Russell had not intimately known his brother Bertrand, could he have had the same chance of overcoming Bertie’s aversion to studying Euclid? Could he have had that knowledge while teaching five sections of geometry?

On the other hand, many people have had an excellent education in well-taught classes that required seat time. What babies is iZone throwing out with its bath water? The principal gives away part of the game when she mentions the students who need a “three to one staff situation.”  My guess is that the iZone will end up meeting some, not all, students’ individual needs. It could be argued that young Mozart needed a “one to one staff situation,” but I bet that such students’ needs will not be met as Frank Russell met Bertie’s.

I have discussed elsewhere the problem of fobbing off constructivist nonsense on students for whom it is ill-suited. While I share the principal’s concern that students who need three-on-one support to make progress get what they need, it would be a shame to divert lots of teachers to the needs of the few students with certain needs while shortchanging the many students with others. It would certainly be wrong to divert resources from the education of bright students to make good that need, for bright students have needs of their own. Recognizing this problem is essential if some students are not to lose the schooling they can get from an institution with reasonable aims.

I fear that schemes to place kids in constructivist hangars or depots with work stations connected to banal software will turn out to be the way such schools “meet” some of their “individual students’ needs,” thereby freeing up teachers to mind the ones who need a “three to one staff situation.” We are already seeing some software being touted by its manufacturers as like the Oxford tutorial system. Who knows that someone won’t end up believing it? Fiscal pressures are increasing too, requiring teachers to do more and more with less and less.  This demand could be affecting the need for education-hangars. At what point will teachers finally be expected to do everything with nothing? Some irony!


I recently listened to a discussion with the 103-year-old Professor Jacques Barzun. Asked by his interlocutor to comment on the “writing process,” Barzun left him momentarily nonplussed by saying at the outset, “All systematic devices for generating good writing are a mistake.” I wish the two had discussed this comment more fully, for it seems to go against much of what was taught in the 1980’s and ‘90’s (and later) about writing.

The length of Professor Barzun’s life has allowed him to hold the record for the longest absence from the New York Times Best Seller List between consecutive best-sellers—some forty years between The House of Intellect and From Dawn to Decadence. His first best-seller, called Teacher in America, still in print after nearly seventy years, may have hit on the alternative to “process writing.” It is very simple: teachers must “work like dogs” at commenting on the writing of their students. In my experience nothing could be truer. I would love to find a shortcut, but I never have. “Peer editing” still seems to me more like writing instruction by homeopathy than genuine writing instruction should be. I mention Barzun and writing because in all but the best talents, and sometimes with them too, “individual students’ needs” shape the coaching given. It would be a shame to see the teaching of writing farmed out to software or otherwise ignored in the rush to meet “individual students’ needs” when some of them turn out to be more equal than others.

[1] See Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, p. 22)


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