Where Is the Forest in This Picture?

One of the annoyances of working in the profession of teacher is the widespread notion not just that anyone can do it but that people with little or no experience in education can speak authoritatively about it. Hence the thousands of students who would not be allowed in an operating theater without years of schooling, internship, and residency being sent not just to classrooms but to tough classrooms to teach after five weeks of preparation.

And hence the pronouncements of outsiders on what schools need to do, which are treated with respect or at least polite interest rather than allowed to sink into the oblivion that is their due. Such is a report by a panel led by Condoleeza Rice and the egregious Joel Klein. Will Rice succeed in bringing to education what she brought to Iraq and Afghanistan? We cannot say yet, but we do have some information about Klein’s tenure in education. A lawyer by profession, he spent some time interloping in New York City schools with programs like Basic Literacy and Value Added Learning.

Fresh from these triumphs, the two reveal the humanity that underlies their philosophy of education by referring to children as “human capital.” Always suspicious of anyone who thinks of people by using mass nouns, I am doubly suspicious of these two and their breathtaking proposal that the government should develop a national security readiness audit to judge whether schools are meeting “targets” in preparing their human capital for—for what? National security? It used to be enough to want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Will we have another audit on top of the No Child Left Behind audits? Those are already so unsuccessful that the Feds are handing out waivers, conditional on the recipients’ joining the RAce to the Top (RAT) and its audits. At what point will RAT waivers start appearing? And now we are going to have a third audit? Just what we need: three tiers of junk statistics instead of judgment and “perpetual discretion.”

Can we be living in the same country that was inhabited by Jacques Barzun, Abraham Maslow, and Richard Hofstadter? Barzun’s seminal Teacher in America came after ten months of visiting schools not to gather data but to share in experience. His book was not a tabulation but an explanation, not a theory but a synthesis of teaching as it happens. Maslow devised his Hierarchy of Needs with no data at all. (Subsequent generations of scholars are grateful to him for that: they could make entire academic careers gathering the data that showed he was more or less right.) Richard Hofstadter wrote chapters like “The Road to Life Adjustment” without surveys or stack searches. Indeed, he somewhat uncharitably referred to scholars who dig details and data instead of thinking as “archive rats.”

I suggest that good thinkers with their eye to what is really going on in the classroom can make more sensible suggestions about should be going on there than will a couple of educationists-manqués who think education is a form of capital accumulation.




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