Integrity and Integration: A Kind of Wholeness

Though we usually use these words in the sense of “having a moral compass” and “bringing together of disparate elements, particularly different ethnic elements,” they have older senses that I want to note. Their Latin roots are the same: a word for “entire.” In these older senses a school with integrity would be one that hangs together, and whose aim is to nurture or cultivate the entire student. A subject with integrity is one that has a sense of coherence overall and among its parts. When the parts of a subject or of a school combine to make a genuine whole, we may say that they are integrated.

There may be many kinds of opposites to a school or a subject with integrity. I have dealt with Potemkin schools, which are shells behind which nothing complete or entire can be found, or indeed anything with even a tendency to completeness. And I have looked at courses that lack integrity, the most glaring example being the one George Orwell reports having taken as a boy. That course in history, which he called “a sort of preparation for a confidence trick,” lacked integrity in the familiar sense of being a trick, but it also lacked a sense of the wholeness of history conveyed entire. It did not teach history, it taught how to pass the Eton History Prize examination. The problem with teaching to tests is that it puts the cart before the horse, but many people seem happy to indulge or encourage this preposterous practice.

Another problem is the teaching of “skills” without subjects to give them form, purpose, and meaning. If someone taught me how to swing a golf club without teaching me to play golf, it would be a meaningless accomplishment. No one would urge me to take a course in golf-club swinging, or ball-hitting, or addressing a golf ball. Rather, a teacher of a subject with integrity would teach me to play golf, in the course of which I would learn how to do these things. I would then learn not just a number of “skills” but the integrative skill of combining them in a complex accomplishment.

In spite of the seeming wrongheadedness of teaching to tests and of teaching “skills,” The New York Times reports that “a new kind of tutoring aims to make kids smarter.” It turns out that it consists mainly of disintegrated exercises such as doing sums next to a hand-clapping noodge or tossing beanbags rhythmically while spelling a sentence one letter at a time. The idea is that this heap of “skills” will help people take intelligence tests. Intelligence tests! Just what Johnny needs: coaching in a dubious non-integrated “skills” that mysteriously combine in a “power” of doubtful value. Some customers, I mean learners, say the exercises help them pay attention. If the object is to teach kids to resist distraction, why not pay someone to offer them tutoring in a genuine subject, placing their mobile phone face down on the table and telling them to ignore it? Or, perish the thought, telling them to turn it off?

I am not sure what is at work in the disintegration of teaching and learning, but I think that it may be due in part to some version of the reductive fallacy, whereby an attainment with some integrity is analyzed into “factors” that it is “nothing but.” It works like a dissection of the goose that laid the golden egg. And I fear it may be the result of “science” with a mission to “discover” how to “deliver” “instruction” on the cheap: Pink Slime Education. Either way, it will end up offering something thin and unsatisfactory compared with the real, integral thing.

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