Reptiles of the Mind

William Blake said that “a man who never alters his opinions is like standing water and breeds reptiles of the mind.” I made a visit one day to a crocodile farm[1] in South Africa. We walked along an elevated boardwalk, beneath which the crocs lay basking motionless in the shade-dappled pools. Our guide told us that the largest crocodile, called Arnie, would sometimes snap out of his stillness long enough to attack, eating just enough of his victim to be satisfied while leaving the remainder alive; and that some crocodilian adults would perk up to eat the young[2]; but most of the time they kept a primitive equilibrium. We were invited to toss the chopped remains of a dead crocodile from the boardwalk to feed the live ones. As each chopped piece fell, the nearby animals would rush forward to snap it up, and then resume their motionlessness.

Reptiles of the mind must therefore be backward, unproductive and predatory habits or systems of thought that play out like primitive life forms and are impervious or hostile to improving influences.  That being so, much of the field[3] of education in the United States has figuratively come to resemble a large crocodile farm where trying to replace destructive practices with good ones is like trying to approach Arnie. An article by Professor Jonathan Zimmerman of NYU traces part of the problem to the unfathomable idea common in the US—but not in Finland—that teachers do not really need to know the subjects they are teaching, and even that any good teacher can teach any subject, or at least facilitate at an on-line “school.” Hence abysmal ‘normal schools’ like Southwest Texas State University, which could produce ‘trained’ teachers who were functionally illiterate. Hence “faculties” whose members did worse on reading & math tests than suburban sixteen-year-olds. It is said that “at least” these places give their student teachers a grounding in “theory”, but even that claim is false; for what they give is a set of slogans to be repeated like “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

The problem will not be solved, says Zimmerman, by closing down lousy teacher education programs and insisting that teachers receive arts-and-science degrees. The reason is that many of those programs are also degraded. A report flagged by my friend at a state university notes that many colleges lack serious professional development programs that would help their professors be better teachers. Instead, the tendency in professional development is to help them build their résumés and achieve tenure. At the same time, continues Zimmerman, their students go through mediocre programs that do not really build solid understanding of any field, while enjoying a kind of firing-power conferred by teacher evaluations that lead to personnel action against teachers with the temerity to make demands of them. It could be argued that such young are eating their elders, but it is the elders who will remain tenured and the young who will be indebted and jobless. Maybe they are eating each other.

Presiding over the feast are state and federal education offices that set dinner fields of their own with programs that arbitrarily close schools and fire teachers, “making our best teachers do their job worse.” Zimmerman closes his article with a discussion of an excellent teacher who returned to education after a fourteen-year hiatus. Under the reptilian RAce to the Top program with its “accountability,” he lasted only a year.

[1] Crocodile meat is served at table in that carnivorous country. I once went to a restaurant called The Carnivore that served assorted ‘venison’: zebra, wildebeest, kudu, springbok, etc. You could also get beef, lamb & pork if you insisted, and vegetables if you pounded the table.

[2]The New Yorker once had a cartoon showing two old crocodiles seated in rocking chairs and wearing old people’s clothes. One looks up from her knitting towards the other and says, “Mothers’ Day cards remind me of the old days before I ate my young.”

[3] But by no means all

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