Bringing Up Baby

That students often talk freely with each other when their teachers are nearby is a mixed blessing. We sometimes overhear remarks that help us focus on problems of learning that they’re having, and teach to those problems—something no online school will be able to do no matter how hard The New York Times flogs online learning. We pay for these moments with insights we would prefer to do without. I remember listening to one small group of students talking about how strict or lenient their parents were. The daughter of the strict parents had no sympathy from her classmates: “You have to train them. My parents are trained.”  Given the fecklessness, incompetence, and baseless confidence of the speaker of that line, I could guess what he had trained his parents to do and not to do. The insight that came to me from this listening-in was that some high-school students have been malignantly indulged. The intention is not malignant, though we know what road is paved with good intentions; but the results are.

This phenomenon is not universal, as anyone knows who has spent time teaching overseas. It manifests itself in tell-tale signs, many of which I had to “teach against” in my day-to-day work. Such teaching usually involves refusal to comply with a student’s order (an order!), coaching in manners to adopt when asking a favor, reproof of attempts to indulge in emotional blackmail, and lessons in those disagreeable but inevitable elements of the human condition such as that teachers and other adults have needs and expectations too, and that “there’s no fine thing / Since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring.”

It also involves (attempts at) demolition of magical thinking and replacing it with the Reality Principle. The magical thinking usually consists of a belief by a student (and often his parents) that success will come in spite of incompetence, unpreparedness, and ineffectiveness by some kind of miraculous concept-work, arrangement, fix, or spell, usually with the teacher as a kind of compliant medium. The Reality Principle says that a crux in a student’s education is a time for hard work and difficult choices, not plea bargaining or magic.

But there’s only so much a teacher can do to work against this kind of upbringing, which an article in The New Yorker discusses this week. The author compares some anthropological and psychological fieldwork in the U.S., France, and the Amazon jungle and concludes that the Matsigenka people of the Urubamba River are better at bringing up children than are many Americans. She notes a story by a former Wall Street Journal reporter that her, the reporter’s, daughter was “invariably the most ill-behaved child in every Paris restaurant and park she visited.” Even if the author exaggerates to make a case plain, my experience tells me that she has a point. She also has a point in her discussion of magical thinking when she talks about parents who say, “Little Ben may be unable to tie his shoes, but that shouldn’t preclude his going to Brown.” One of her stories discusses a couple of parents who hired a lawyer when their child received a failing grade in a major assessment set by his school. What is a teacher to do when faced with that kind of reaction to his professional judgment? What to do when parents undermine the teachers’ efforts to educate their children, whom they have brought up badly?

Two pernicious consequences follow on this combination of incompetence and adversarialism. One is playing out now in public discussions of universities’ need to adapt themselves to young men and women who have reached the age of adulthood but have not learned to apply themselves to a sustained job of work and thought. It is anyone’s guess what the discussions will finally lead to, but my guess is that they will not lead to an improvement in university education.

The other is to impose a system of blame on schools that does not correspond to reality or improve any real conditions. Speaking of flogging: in days of old when knights were bold, a prince at his lessons would have a commoner boy studying with him. When the prince failed to learn his lesson, the tutor would whip the other boy, called a whipping boy, as a punishment for the prince’s failure. Can you guess how well such a system of correction worked for the prince? Can you guess its effect on the morale of the boy? The system of value-added learning now being implemented in schools proposes to create a class of whipping teachers, ostensibly because all failures to learn must be laid at their feet. In reality, some of the failures lie outside the classroom.

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