Education by Poetry and Education by the Beast from the East

During his years teaching poetry at Amherst, Robert Frost came to understand an important feature of ‘slow learning’ that is often overlooked by proponents of ‘virtual’ education. It is that in a classroom, students often show their nearness to or achievement of understanding by a look that is fugitive but unmistakable when it appears. Experienced teachers recognize this look and use it, as did Frost, to check understanding. At one point in his ‘meditative monologue’ on “Education by Poetry’ Frost correctly asserts that sometimes the look is the only thing we have to go on for judging successful understanding and for marking.

These postings have argued that assessments that are close to the course being taught are likelier to capture fugitive elements of a course than are ‘distant’ assessments like standardized tests. William James argued that consciousness includes an item on which we focus and a ‘fringe’ of material that is tentatively present to us, to which we may immediately turn at need. On line education rids the ‘classroom’ of this fringe and proceeds, as if blinkered, through its syllabus. How many of us have had a teacher like Mr. Ciriello, who used to scan the faces of his students for comprehension during lectures and discussions? When I realized what he was doing, I could knit my brow and count on an explanation without the embarrassment of having to raise my hand and admit that I did not understand what he was talking about. And how many of us have had teachers like Professor Sareil, who probed and crumbled caked wisdom thoroughly and relentlessly at his colloquium table? It was scary, but it worked; and by being a bit scary he helped teach me how not to crumple under forensic pressure[1].

One of Frost’s students reports that after his classmate had done a particularly splendid reading of a poem, Frost told him, “You get an A forever.” What a wonderful reward and motivation to continue as he had done! Education on a human basis allows all these possibilities. Education by machine does not.

* * *

My summer trip continues, during which I heard two stories about excellent teachers of long standing who were maltreated by capricious administrators. One of them was a gifted math teacher who after twenty years of successful teaching[2] was hounded out of his school by a vindictive principal. Another, a successful English teacher of thirty years’ standing, suddenly started receiving negative reviews. It turned out that the reviewer’s administrative colleague, whose son she had taught, had given him false reports of her methods. This kind of whispering campaign is not always detected and eliminated, as my friend’s fortunately was. More often it results in wreckage such as happened to the math teacher.

(The ghastliest story of capricious bullying by an administrator involves a former colleague who became a target of our principal’s tender attentions. She was gradually beaten down, but the last straw came when her husband, a distinguished physicist, received news that he had been elected to the Royal Society. She asked the principal’s permission to attend his investiture; he rejected her request. She came to school but announced her resignation. I saw her a year after she left, her health entirely restored.)

Evidence shows that American teachers are dead last among jobholders in the quality of relationships with their supervisors. One reason, but only one, is this kind of treatment by bad administrators. Why is no one investigating this deadly impediment to good teaching and learning?

[1] As I think about it, I wonder whether part of the washout problem in American universities is due to students’ not having had such experiences in their education.

[2] One of his students, a future Senior Wrangler of Cambridge, was beyond the high-school curriculum, but this teacher arranged for him to receive instruction by professors at Cal Berkeley.

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