Sister Katharine’s Secret

During my second year of teaching an old nun once asked me to come with her to look at something. Sister Katharine, in her mid-seventies by then, had retired from full-time English teaching to the library, where she kept an eye on books—and on the school’s publications, including the school newspaper, sponsored by me, which she subjected to microscopic attention. My students (and I) usually escaped reproach for poor or careless writing, but the school’s newsletter for parents and alumni, which she proofread, was always letter perfect.

Sister took me to an inconspicuous door in an out-of-the-way corner of the classroom building, and opened it, revealing a closet that had clearly not been used in years. In it were many of the old materials she had used in her classes twenty, thirty, forty years before. We had a look through them. It was impossible not to notice almost immediately that the materials were prepared to a very high level of expectation. I asked her whether the students had had difficulty with them, to which she replied, “Not at first, but I retired when I found that in general, my students could no longer meet my expectations.” They must clearly have been strong students in order not to have forced her to retire earlier than she did.

Curiously, I had at that time also just read a piece by a syndicated columnist complaining that what students used to learn for free in public schools they now had to pay college-level prices to learn. It struck me that Sister Katharine was in the rear-guard against a tendency to water the curriculum of high schools and, I believe, to lower the demands made of students who encountered that curriculum.

The following year I attended a workshop offered in Berkeley by a famous local “writers’ project” for teaching writing to high-school students. I “learned” there that “the research says” students don’t read teachers’ comments on their writing and that teachers should therefore not make the comments. In this terrible lesson I became aware of an irony that Oscar Wilde, who received a “double first” at university, would have appreciated. His character Lady Bracknell asserts at one point that “statistics…are laid down for our guidance.” When Wilde wrote that line he intended it to get a laugh, but here at my workshop were “leaders” asserting that very principle in all seriousness and with devastating effect.

In this case the effect was to acquiesce in dysfunctional learning: whoever heard of a culture of learning in which students did not attend to a teacher’s comments? I certainly did, as have many of my students, particularly the ones I have now. And comments should include not just advice on semicolons but general advice, praise, and, when necessary, reproof. It has been reported that many students have trouble finishing their college education. If so, we may find the culprit in twelve years spent at undemanding tasks with no teacherly advice or admonition to accompany them.

I heard that Sister Katharine could be a tough customer, and that some of her students feared or disliked her. Professor Barzun notes that that state of relations is still preferable to one in which the student treats the teacher with casual contempt or amused disregard. Twelve years of ease and disregard, when followed by a year of unaccustomed rigor in college, are likely to have only one result except in the sturdiest and most resilient of students.

This, and not “degree inflation,” is likely to be the explanation of the recently reported phenomenon of companies that require bachelor’s degrees of their file clerks and couriers. 40% of the country’s college students do not finish their studies in a reasonable time or at all, so it can’t be that we are awash in freshly minted Bachelors. Indeed, that columnist may be wrong: students are not learning in a college they drop out of what they used to learn in a high school they persevered in. One hiring official at a company with this policy says that college graduates are serious about their careers. That is evidently proven by their degree, which shows that they can do what is expected of them.  They certainly would not have lasted very long in Sister’s classroom if they could not do that.

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While in South Africa recently, I visited the house of a black South African single parent now finishing his university studies in order to remedy an educational deficit caused by apartheid and its dysfunctional schools. His boys come home on weekdays and do their homework with bedroom door open till it is finished. No TV till then, and no computers or gadgets except on weekends or to produce academic work. When dinner is served, which they eat together as a family, they take a break from homework if it is not finished and then get back to it afterwards. Woe betide them if their school diary reports multiple demerits or poor work. But they also participate in sports and other extracurricular activities and have time on weekends to visit friends. Surely this kind of accountability in a student is a reasonable expectation?

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