Comparatives, with and without Superlatives

G.K. Chesterton said that, as used in modern times, the term “‘progress’ is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” It would disturb the elegant compression of that line to add “…or, in education, the positive either[1],” but I will risk some inelegance to make the point that educational progressives or reformers often open campaigns whose ultimate objectives and sense of present deficiency are unclear or unsettled.[2]

Take for example the Common Core. Its ultimate objective is universal career and college readiness by the end of Grade 12. It sounds noble, but to any precise meaning of the aim we are far from having settled down. I delight in the thought that Common Core graduates in their millions will have read and understood Chesterton, as the curriculum requires them to do[3]; but I am skeptical that this is what will actually happen. In short, I see here a comparative without a superlative.

Nor is the positive from which we are mandated to progress very clear. Is the reason students need progressive measures that the curriculum they study is now unsatisfactory? That the teachers who teach it are unfit? That they themselves are feckless? To each of these problems—if they are real—different remedies would need to be applied. A new curriculum will do no good if the teachers are poor and the students unmotivated; while if they are good and motivated, it may be unnecessary. Diane Ravitch has repeatedly pointed out that there is not much study behind the Common Core to determine whether it will do what it is supposed to do.

But I want to talk about personal progress now. At the school where I teach, the teachers work for the most part in shared faculty offices rather than their classrooms. Two gains emerge from this way of working. One is the stronger sense of shared professionalism one finds in a faculty who literally as well as figuratively work together. The other is the constant stream of ideas, suggestions, discussions, resolutions that I encounter when speaking informally to my colleagues there. The likelihood that these kinds of improvement will occur in an atomized school where teachers decamp to their private rooms is far less than in arrangements like my school’s. If it is true that education schools produce undistinguished teachers, how will they learn to be distinguished in an environment with little opportunity to gain from what their colleagues have to offer?

There are times when I miss my privacy, and sometimes, to get it, I will move to a quieter spot for work and study. I also miss the decorative variety that some teachers bring to rooms that have become their turf. But I would hate to give up the flow of ideas about teaching and thoughts about students that a shared workspace brings, though obviously such communication can take place in all kinds of space[4]. And I appreciate that, unlike the grand superlatives discussed above, a highly achievable and notable improvement is taking place in my own particular workspace. I would even go so far as to call it progress.

[1] Richard Hofstadter may have had such vague degrees of comparison in mind when he said that “America was the only country that started with perfection and aspired to progress.”

[2] Charles Saunders Peirce said that “truth is that to which the community ultimately settles down,” but Bertrand Russell was willing to accept some unsettled truths provisionally. The test of whether he should have done so is pragmatic, not ideological.

[3] Or to have read and understood another, comparably challenging, author.

[4] Some of my colleagues and I used to meet for this kind of discussion, and others, in Mr. O’s classroom, or by the door outside it.

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