Working and Learning


It’s certain there is no fine thing

Since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring.

—W. B. Yeats

This being Labor Day Weekend in most of the world, I was thinking about labor in connection with teaching and learning. The first thing to be said is that education is one of those fine things Yeats was talking about, or should be. Of course there are Potemkin schools, in which movie-set schoolhouses and universities offer movie-set degrees, but a serious inspection of them would show how little work is really going on.

I mean work by students, though some teachers are not above reproach. It pains me to point the finger at such teachers, given that most of them—us—work our butts off; nonetheless, there is a real problem. A more serious problem is that they or their schools’ administrators have often replaced the assignment of solid work with idiot work[1]. Educational solids include setting and thoroughly grading student essays, conducting Socratic discussions, and preparing good lectures when lecturing is what is needed. Idiot work includes preparing for and taking multiple-choice tests, and the assignment of free-form “creative” “compositions” that are really only a cover for the flight from discipline and thinking. George Orwell thought that the “test preparation course” offered by his prep school was a “preparation for a confidence trick“, a judgment thought to be true of “test prep” at least till 1975, when Donald Campbell formulated Campbell’s Law of the corruption of “quantitative social indicator[s].”

The flight from thinking by students is a serious problem. If a student collapses under one or two Socratic questions, there is trouble; but the problem begins before the stage of accountability. What can we say of the staying-power of individual thinkers when a Harvard study reports that spending fifteen minutes of quiet time is so aversive to Americans that a majority of its male subjects would prefer receiving electric shocks to enduring that trial? It is not helped by schools where “failure is not an option”—schools in which rubbish can receive passing marks. So thoroughly has “failure” been banished that for a while it was even possible to “pass” New York State promotion tests with random guessing.

It is possible that students do poorly because they suffer from mental impairments like ADHD, but even that claim needs careful inspection. While the ADHD rate in the US approaches ten percent of students, in France it is half a percent. This difference is not due to the native psychic toughness of Frenchmen but to differences in child-rearing and educational practices in the two countries. French parents tend to set firm limits on children’s behavior and not to shrink from punishing transgressions. They also frown more on debilitating junk food and incontinent snacking. When an intervention is necessary, a French psychologist tends to analyze what in the afflicted young person’s family and environment needs addressing rather than prescribe drugs. The parents are in charge of the students rather than the other way around.

Of the latter way a friend gives an appalling example. At a conference with a low-scoring student and his father, my friend, the boy’s teacher, said that the boy would do better if he studied properly and did his homework. The father said, “I think you had better stay home two nights a week in order to study.” Junior replied, “Fuck no! I’ll go out if I feel like it” (with the car Dad provides him). The father acquiesced, and the student continued to do poorly. (Such a well-trained father may be abdicating his responsibility to bring up his child properly, but when the VAM scores come back, the teacher will be blamed.)

Education is not or should not be a magician’s trick. No spells and charms gain their users anything. The only thing that seems to work is work itself.



[1] The extent of the replacement is exemplified by the blurb one American school of my acquaintance has for its International Baccalaureate program, which is described as “demanding,” “challenging,” “strict,” and “stringent.” Students are reassured that they do not need to take the full diploma program. My readers should know that in Hong Kong the IB program is widely seen as easier than the Education Bureau’s curriculum, though that perception may be erroneous. My own students, every one of whom is in the full diploma program, think it is.

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