Pass the Stake and Mallet, Please

In Orson Welles’s movie Touch of Evil Marlene Dietrich plays Tana, a calculating but sympathetic crystal-gazing whorehouse madam with high cheekbones and hot chili. During a shambling trip down Memory Lane the Welles character visits Tana in her “office.” In the background a piano roll is playing. Welles reminisces:

QUINLAN: That pianola sure brings back memories.

TANA: The customers love it. So old it’s new.

* * *

After I first saw the enchanting photograph of Professor James Murray in the OED Scriptorium, I showed it to some of my students. They all wondered why I wanted them to see a weird bearded old man reading books.  Then Harry Potter intervened: now, when I show his picture, the reaction is usually delight to see that someone actually looks like Professor Dumbledore: so old he’s new. (The Royal Mail post box outside Murray’s house still stands, identified with a Blue Plaque.)

* * *

In his article in The New Yorker on Murray, George Steiner, Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, worries that our own schooling is “planned amnesia, our work a hiatus between phone calls.” If he is somehow right, the danger of an amnesiac out for an amble may be that he doesn’t know whether he’s in Memory Lane among things so old they’re new, or in a graveyard where things that are “dead stay that way”[1]. What will he bring back?

* * *

The New York Times provided an educationist’s answer this week in an article on something called “competency-based education.” We are told by its proponents that after a century of equating time with learning as Charles Eliot Norton taught us to do, we must cross the new frontier of another revolutionary change in learning for the twenty-first century and place time itself in the dustbin of history. That is, of course, after we have become a part of another wave of the future and are “deconstructing curriculum into abstract, interrelated competencies” in order that students can give “tangible evidence of learning,” which is assumed to be the equivalent of competence, I mean competencies.[2]

There are difficulties with this approach, even apart from the difficulty of understanding what is meant. The first is that “competency,” i.e., skill, is only one part of learning, which also includes knowledge and understanding. Any system that “deconstructs” learning into “competencies” is already erasing much of what learning is all about.

Another difficulty is that in the system reviewed, students who don’t “attain” a “competency” by passing a test can keep taking the tests till they do. (Are they the same tests?) A moment’s thought about the purposes and methods of assessment will show that passing a test of competency such as a driving test means a different thing from passing a multiple-choice test, for the one is passed by demonstration, and the other by pointing. These difficulties should be so obvious that one wonders what kind of educational demolitionist would make such an elementary mistake as to confuse them.

The answer, I fear, leads to a third difficulty. It is that the demolitionists of time are not actually in favour of a new thing called “competency-based education.” What they really want is to impart impetus to (I almost said re-animate) our old friends “outcome-based education” and “mastery learning.” These “friends” are not so old they are new: they are dead and should stay that way. Anyone whose pedagogical education has continued for more than five years without planned amnesia should recognise the pallor, stiffness and chill. I certainly did! I arrived at an OBE school the year after it was implemented there and saw it abandoned a year later. I attended a workshop on OBE offered by William Spady, where I learned of new “educational paradigms” that “shift happens.” (So it does.) And I was present in South Africa as it slouched towards “Curriculum 2005,” in which an entire country adopted and then abandoned OBE[3]. I worked at two schools that adopted and then abandoned “mastery learning.” The mis-educative[4] “revolutions” reviewed in the Times article bear enough marks of the Beast for me to fear to tread there.

(Some of the proponents of this system are quoted talking about teachers’ fears in the usual fashion of false sympathy combined with the dismissiveness of fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. Actually, a certain caution is salutary in the field of education, strewn as it is with wreckage.)

In any case, the villain time is wrongly so called. In his article on Murray, Steiner notes that Murray “had the capacity for squeezing experience to the pips, for making every sensation yield organized knowledge…. There was no waste motion in heart or brain. We find this omnivorous apprehension, at once sensory and abstract, in Browning’s verse, in Carlyle’s prose, in the prodigal architecture of Gilbert Scott. A tremendous confidence underwrites it, and a gymnastic of concentration and memory.” The problem is not that schooling is chained to seat time. The problem is that education is often misconceived, and the seat time devoted to it badly used. During that wasted time bad habits of work and thought are fixed. If students who have spent twelve years at Jungle Gym Math and other kinds of fooling are suddenly told in “university” that their time is their own and that they must work their way to “competencies” in the hiatuses between their phone calls, how well can we reasonably expect their poorly trained concentration to do? The answer should be obvious.

The Times article makes much of a young man who underwent a change of attitude towards his education because “something clicked inside my brain.” Experienced teachers will recognize that click as the sound of the nickel dropping. Teachers hear it with some frequency, though not often enough for educationists to make it the basis of a self-paced program of learning “competencies” in which the students receive little or no coaching. If our young man got in “30 to 35 hours of schoolwork a week on top of 48 to 56 hours of work,” it sounds as if he finally mastered “a gymnastic of concentration and memory” as Steiner called it. That is rather different from being “liberated” from time.

What is needed for young people like this one is programs in which all three kinds of learning are given their due. “Seat” time can be time in Socratic seminars, time being coached by the teacher to improve their skillfulness, time being lectured and in other ways presented with the material they must get by heart, and time in conferences finding out how well they applied that material to new problems in their formative and culminating assessments.

[1] Flannery O’Connor’s phrase

[2] “When skills came in, skill went out.”—Jacques Barzun

[3] The abandonment was “quiet,” much as No Child Left Behind is being quietly abandoned.

[4] John Dewey’s word

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