Whisper Who Dares

S-h-h-h! No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a fallen soufflé, and the hot air is escaping from RAce to the Top (RAT) even as I write. That sound is not just leakage, however: it is a command to hush. 2014 was the year by which 100% of America’s school children were to be proficient in all their studies. Why is no one asking what happened?

Instead, we now have a mandate that 100% of America’s students will be college- and career-ready by the end of Grade 12. Because this mandate has been abducted by the Department of Education, we can expect the same care and discernment that it showed in “implementing” NCLB and RAT, with the same results.

Among other things, we may expect the “evaluation” of students, and “therefore” their teachers, by using unstable and baseless “metrics” drawn from multiple-choice tests, which cannot capture the breadth and subtlety of learning found in a good school or a good course.

They also overlook the fundamental truth that, as Barzun says, “One does not teach a subject, one teaches a student how to learn it…. Each individual must cure his or her own ignorance.” This does not mean that the teacher’s role is insignificant, as was asserted in the 1970s and 1980s. Rather, it means that under the guidance and discernment of an expert teacher, students find or acquire the means to learn. Discernment is especially important in encouraging understanding, an element of learning not easily captured by the kind of pointing encouraged in multiple-choice tests. Martin Skelton says that we cannot teach understanding; we can only establish conditions in which understanding takes place.

This view of teaching and learning is a far cry from the fill-the-bottle model of teaching espoused by those who assert that a teacher’s job is to deliver instruction. There is no discernment in a bottling machine. What is more, the bottle may have its top on during the pour, though under RAT the teacher is punished anyway if the bottle remains empty.

One of my former students, now at Oxford, wrote me in the spring to say that he would like to offer a summer colloquium in philosophy to interested high-school students. Yesterday, during the first session, he justified the effort by saying that reading philosophy does more than help us answer important questions; it also keeps us in touch with our humanity. He took a small but dedicated group through an examination of Rousseau’s Social Contract.

Implicit in RAT is the dirigiste assumption that teachers control the means of education and that bureaucrats control the teachers. By contrast, the ancient Chinese Classic of Changes sometimes recommends “Keeping Still” as the mode of leadership in some situations. That was the stance I adopted after publicizing our graduate’s proposal and making some preliminary arrangements. I sat in the back of the room during the first session and nearly succeeded in keeping still, though a couple of questions did escape me. I wrote a brief email to the new teacher with a couple of comments. I may not be invited from the teachers’ office to the subsequent sessions; we shall see. And I don’t think I or the graduate will give a single multiple-choice test. A different kind of s-h-h-h.

We are not in pedagogical agribusiness with this offering: it is a wonderful and perhaps fragile bloom, to be given space and maybe a touch here or there until it bears fruit.


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