The Devil Made Me Say It

Today I offer entries from The Didact’s Dictionary, with apologies to Ambrose Bierce.

Baby Einstein®: The name of a series of proprietary videos by the Walt Disney Company, a corporation with a profitable record in education. We may worry when  Baby Einstein products and MOOCs start to resemble each other.

balonist (bə-lōn΄-ist) n.: one who offers or requires baloney. Not to be confused with a balloonist, whose hot air is confined to his balloon. Cf. “Baloney Bingo”; Richard van de Lagemaat offers a workshop in “Baloney Detection across the Curriculum,” but not at schools of education (q.v.).

brand n.: 1. a proprietary mark burned into the hides of livestock to identify their herds and to distinguish them from members of other herds. 2. a proprietary name given to a product to distinguish it from other similar products. v. 1. (standard) to apply such a mark, which is permanent 2. (non-standard): to use the services of a balonist, often called a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), help people pretend that a leopard has changed its spots. Sometimes applied to schools’ efforts to position (q.v.) themselves.

education, school of n. 1. any of a number of imaginary institutions that impart sound principles and practices of teaching to their students with a minimum of baloney. 2. any of a number of real institutions that do not.

education for the 22nd Century: Is it too soon to brand a century? CMOs and balonists of the future think not.

mission n.: a statement, not necessarily accurate or intelligible, by a school of its reason for existing, usually by imparting vaguely described super powers to its graduates. Example: “Our graduates will demonstrate appropriate critical thinking behaviors in a global context for a variety of self-actualizing purposes in keeping with the aims of personal fulfillment and good world citizenship.” Often considered important in branding and positioning (qq.v.).

position: n. (used with “assume the”): a stance often adopted by a teacher in the ordinary course of work. v. (non-standard, usually used of shape-shifting by organizations) to play make-believe about oneself or one’s product with respect to similar products and to brand accordingly, as with Baby Einstein,® or a school or university that sees education as a product.

standard (stănd΄-ərd) n.: 1. something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality. 2. (educ.)a. a statement of a particular thing the graduate of a school can do. b. a claim made by a balonist of what the graduate of a school or university will be able to do, but what the graduate will not actually be able to do. adj.: well established by usage in the speech and writing of the educated and widely recognized as acceptable. (ant.: non-standard)



Mr. Eyal Ophir, a recent graduate of Stanford, reports that “shortly after he came to Stanford, a professor thanked him for being the one student in class paying full attention and not using a computer or phone.” This item stimulated a memory of my own undergraduate days. The scene: a chemistry lecture. Professor Reinmuth, perhaps unfairly stigmatized as a dull lecturer, noticed that two students were whispering to each other. He paused for a moment and, when they did not take the hint, announced, “Gentlemen, you are excused.” The offenders slinked from the room. That was the one time during my undergraduate career when I saw any students not paying attention, or not appearing to pay attention, to what the professor was saying. It never occurred to me that students could have, should have, might have multiple tasks during a class.

Professor Reinmuth eventually took private lessons in public speaking and later in his career was complimented for the quality of his lectures; but, dull or brilliant, they were the center of the class, and students were expected to attend to them. In his class and in all my classes I took notes, using the left side for quick one-word and symbolic margin­alia, which I would later amplify. I had no idea that I had privately invented “Cornell notes,” as they are now called in the Ed Biz.

Nor had I any idea that in my review of marginalia I would be doing something increasingly rare not just in class but outside: building purposefully and soundly on information and ideas previously encountered. The same New York Times article reporting on Mr. Ophir also reports on his psychology research, which shows that people who habitually divide their attention (what is called “multi­tasking”) tend to be easily distracted. More troubling, multitaskers, when faced with the choice of getting new information or of analyzing what they already have, prefer the new. That response, which made sense in an environment full of leopards and brush fires, makes less sense in one where people must pause for consideration, synthesis, and judgment. It is strange and disquieting to think that new technologies might promote atavistic responses and leave untested or actually diminish mental powers needed in environments other than caves and savannahs.

(William James wondered whether there can be such a thing as too much peace and perfection, leading us to recoil from Chautauqua meetings, wishing for dirt and dust-ups. Maybe the people who multitask feel a lurking nostalgia for leopards and brush-fires, but this is a blog about teaching and learning, not about paleoanthropology in everyday life.)

The short of it is that Mommy’s little throwbacks may be noticing many shiny new things, but they should be learning to pay attention. That is because they should be learning how to hold to something new long enough to become familiar with it, to analyze it, and to find or make a place for it amidst what they already know (or to boot it out). Otherwise they will have an attic instead of a mind. Attics are fine, but they are upper rooms, not living rooms.

One of the best ways to acquire the intellectual and mental powers I am talking about is to take a long course of instruction in a traditional subject. The traditional subjects (say, the Seven Liberal Arts or any subject under the tutelage of a Muse), having been around for hundreds or thousands of years, have developed ways of analyzing and synthesizing (or rejecting) the raw data submitted to their consideration. By assimilating these ways, students start to furnish their minds, thus making a starting-point for the development of their own skill and understanding. A subject teaches not just a subject matter but how to handle it, though we can’t handle the matter unless we learn to pay attention long enough to have ideas about it. A young mind, guided by the accomplishments of the past, learns inclusion, arrangement, analysis, and synthesis; by the transfer effect, these powers can turn to other, newer subjects once they are developed and can assimilate the new material and make something worthwhile out of it.

They will not develop by being subjected to “courses” in “critical thinking” or “information literacy.” Subjects have their particular ways of testing their own truth claims, and these ways have themselves been tested in years of struggle, rejection, and proof. By contrast, what is the likelihood of students new to history producing something of value when asked to tell in critical-thinking courses “how they feel” about the causes of current tension in the Middle East?

Information literacy, if it has a meaning, means the ability to do well what Mr. Ophir reports as harming our concentration and as lessening the suppleness with which we change mental direction purposively. It is electronic gobbet-gathering. For the 97% of students who are likely to be unsuccessful multitaskers, information literacy will be a dead end marked by a heap of facts and wasted time. By contrast, let the following story illustrate literacy-without-qualification.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was lecturing an audience about Samuel Johnson. While telling them about Dr. Johnson’s practice of letting his home serve as a halfway house for down-and-out or destitute people, he mentioned a “fallen woman” called Poll, whom Dr. Johnson had brought home one night half dead over his shoulder (she gradually regained her health at his house). The audience started laughing. Coleridge coolly said, “I remind you of the parable of the Good Samaritan.” The audience stopped laughing. Coleridge’s literacy allowed him not just to recognize the story but to apply it in a live situation. The audience’s literacy allowed them to respond: twelve words and a reaction. They might have gained knowledge about the Good Samar­­­itan in a course of study, but they gained it in a way that allowed them, perhaps by further study and thought, to attend to it and foster its potential for live influence rather than to drop it for the next shiny new thing that came along. If learning includes knowledge, skill, and understanding, what could literacy mean except the ability to do what Coleridge and his audience did? And how could they have done so without the ability to pay attention?


At the Table

We often speak of a teacher’s philosophy of teaching, but we rarely speak of a classroom’s, and yet classrooms do have their philosophies and can impress them on teachers. Sometimes that is a good thing.

In the 1930’s the Phillips Exeter Academy adopted the “Harkness Table” as the result of a gift whose donor specified that the classrooms using his gift should have classes conducted as conferences in which students were encouraged to speak up and discuss.

Some years ago I watched a video of a math class being conducted at a Harkness table at Exeter. The dynamic was decentralized and exploratory, with small groups of students working independently at different problems, discussing and chalk-talking their way through them either on boards or in clusters at the table on paper. The teacher had a noticeable but unobtrusive presence: his role was advisory. During this class he did not direct any comments to the group as a whole, but let them get on with their exploration and learning.

At some point later in my own career I thought I was ready to try some of the Harkness lessons. I got some encouragement from a colleague and from a classroom. By an accident fortunate for me, the classrooms at the school where I taught were furnished in half-hexagonal tables that could be arranged into a kind of doughnut that simulated a large Harkness table. My colleague had done so, and I decided to follow suit.

Some good things immediately ensued, and some bad things vanished. No more students in the back of the class doodling (it was too long ago for them to be texting their friends). No more of the kind of student who vanishes in the third row, never to be heard from again. Everyone was in the front row in places of equal importance. The quality of discussion improved, and with it, understanding. It turned out that the doughnut had its uses. When the class broke into its discussion and work groups, I could stroll inside and outside them.

Another colleague of mine used the tables to form hexagons for a number of work groups when they were needed. He could also form the doughnut. A third colleague went with the doughnut as I did. The only time we arranged the tables traditionally was during exams, and our classes were better for the other arrangements.

Of course, more than just an arrangement of tables is needed for a good class. To start with, classes should be small enough that the whole group can function as a discussion group. In my experience the ideal size of such a class is from twelve to fifteen students. I once attended a class at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, whose object was to read and discuss The Ambassadors. A group of twenty-two was workable in that class because all the members of the class understood St. John’s way of conducting discussions, all were motivated, and all were mature. One can’t count on those conditions among ninth-graders discussing the tenth chapter of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or eleventh-graders digging in to William James on “The Perception of Reality.”

The next requirement is that all students—and the teacher!—share a way of discussing. That way is an old-fashioned one: conversation. For the same reason it takes years to prepare a dinner for six, it takes much time and effort to get ready for a twelfth-grade colloquium on Isaiah Berlin’s “Equality.” Students should know or be taught how to manage themselves in one. They should understand why a class is not like those televised eruptions of shouting heads, not even during a “class debate.”

Now, the teacher is of course not strictly a conversationalist and must be ready to advise students when they need it. Students should learn to recognize certain traps and not to fall into them—post hoc—question-begging—tu quoque—special pleading—ad hominem. My beginning students easily and frequently beg the question, most of them not having learned what question-begging is until I tell them in 11th grade. It would also help if students learned to avoid bad habits of speech such as using “like” as a space-filler or saying “I’m like” instead of “I said.” (A New Yorker cartoon shows a Valley Ophelia telling Gertrude, “So he’s like ‘To be or not to be,’ and I’m like ‘Get a life.’”)

Another line tells us that a classroom is a place where twenty children sit and watch a grown-up work. That is the approach invited by the classroom arranged in rows facing a teacher’s desk, or lectern, or podium. For a traditional lecture, nothing could be better; and there are times when only a traditional lecture will do. But other aims call for other means, and a classroom and teacher adaptable to those means can bring about results achievable in no other way.


Baloney Bingo

What are we to think of a proposal that a school’s mission should be to produce “motiv­ated global contributors”? The proposer said in support of the phrase that “I like the word ‘global.’” Now, I like the word “nectarine” but would not want it in a school’s mission.  Nor, even if I particularly liked the word “global,” would I want it in the phrase “motivated global contributors.”

The reason for suspecting this phrase has to do with the ideal of aptness in language—not an easy ideal to work with. That is why most civilized countries insist on years of instruction in language, why people who are keen on words push beyond their lessons to explore what words can do, and why Shelley would not defend poetry by saying that it helps one pass multiple choice tests. It is why learning a language is more about understanding than about knowledge, though it is very much about knowledge.

Given the need for years of instruction mixed with and followed by more years of exploration and acquaintance, it is shocking how little the teaching profession thinks of good language, to judge by what it permits and even encourages in profes­sional speech and writing.

Consider again the proposed mission statement: we don’t know what a “global contributor” is. The phrase carries a vague suggestion, maybe of making a great impact in the world, or maybe of thinking of the consequences of what one does for the world as a whole, or maybe of philanthropy on a worldwide scale, or maybe of returning to the Earth what one takes from it, whatever that may be.

Another problem is the insistence on motivation, as if having motives would be supererogatory normally, but not at our school. And never mind what the motives may be, so long as we have them.

It is hard, when confronted with an expression like this one, to avoid conclud­ing that the proposer doesn’t particularly care what it means so long as it “sounds good.” A “good sound” doesn’t even have to be euphonious; it merely needs to be vaguely suggestive of a moral or social good—the more vaguely, the better.

The field of education is full of this kind of talk and writing, of which the mission statement is not a particularly egregious example. It does not have to be so. Read excellent writers on teaching—Plato, Rabelais, William James, Mortimer Adler—and you move into another climate of discourse, one free of the usual dreary showers.

I think there are two explanations for the predominance of bad language in education. One is that we are nearly the world’s oldest profession, many of whose excellent practitioners have been leaving their thoughts behind for thousands of years. Someone who whose ambition embraces more than teaching—who may be a Global Education Contributor—may feel daunted by or resentful of this repository of well-written wisdom and advice. Such a person will try for new language if he or she can’t come up with new thoughts; and if the previous language was apt, the new language is liable to a falling-off.

The other is educationists’ predilection for baloney, a kind of talk that Professor Barzun calls “flatulent Newspeak.” This taste has many explanations, none of them to the credit of the profession. Professor Frankfurt wrote a famous philosophy paper about one variety of baloney, “bullshit,” which arises from a lack of concern with accuracy and the truth as compared with, say, the wish to sound good or to say what people want to hear.

No signs exist anywhere of a general move away from baloney.  What are ordinary teachers to do when presented, as they inevitably will be, with language that offends their intellect and their aesthetic and moral sense? I am grateful to a colleague for a suggestion: the game of Baloney Bingo.

To play, produce a series of bingo cards, but instead of having the numbers 1 – 75, these cards should have a word or phrase taken from current baloney in the field. Each letter (B-I-N-G-O) has fifteen possible words or phrases. Here are fifteen suggestions:













personal opinion




Put five of these phrases under the letter “B” instead of the five usual numbers. Do so with all five letters except the free space. Distribute cards to your colleagues, who then take them to faculty meetings, teachers’ conferences, and professional development courses. Each time you hear one of the words or phrases, mark it. The first person to get BINGO wins.

It probably won’t do to interrupt meetings and conferences with cries of BINGO, so you should just note the time when you hear a phrase. After the meeting, compare cards so that the teacher with the earliest time of completion wins. Beware of offering prizes for bingo games at conferences, lest they produce a perverse side-effect: Imagine a really dreadful BINGO-maker giving a talk that would normally be shunned. Suddenly this BMer will become the most popular speaker at the conference. One way to judge a conference is to see how quickly it produces BINGOs.

Baloney Bingo may not solve the problem of awful language, but it will allow you to have fun with it, and teachers must often take their rewards where they can find them.


Montillation in Progress

A bright student of mine recently asked me what a “judicious tone” in writing was. I explained, and he brightened up, telling me that he had “guessed right” on a standardized test he had just taken. That test had a multiple choice question asking about the tone of a passage he had read, and he chose the right one not because he knew judicious writing when he saw it but because he could eliminate other possi­bilities from the five given him and guess fortunately among the remainder.

This is distressing on two counts. One is that any guess on a five-choice question has one chance in five of being “right,” even on an answer requiring discrimination and judgment. Let students hazard guesses at the tone of a piece in an essay and see how lucky they get if they do not know about tone to begin with. 20% is too high a chance for random guesswork to be credited.

The other is that students learn by taking such tests to associate good luck with “being right.” The problem with thinking this way is that if you get the “right answer” by guessing, you are not right, you are lucky; and there is a big difference between them. A multiple-choice test can’t distinguish between someone who is actually able to discuss the tone of a piece and someone who is a fortunate pointer. To the argument that four or five questions about tone would separate the knowledgeable test-taker from the lucky one, the answer is that this weeding-out is highly probable but in no way guaranteed and that in order to do the weeding the test has to sacrifice coherence. It would do so by taking four or five accidentally concatenated passages and questioning the test-taker about each one’s tone. By contrast, an essay on one passage or work could require a discussion of tone without sacrificing the coherence and depth that a thoughtfully composed essay question allows—requires—students to confer on their understanding.  This, not luck, is what students should associate with the tests they take.

This student of mine and his classmates read a short piece last semester on “The Montillation of Traxoline” and took the short-answer quiz that followed. Traxoline doesn’t exist, making it rarer even than a judicious tone, and there is no process of montillation for traxoline or anything else. Nonetheless, my students were able to get 100% on the quiz. They did so by using their understanding of language and tests to mimic understanding of a subject.

For all I know, someone will think these good examples of something called “test-taking skills,” but there is a difference between being able to take a test with confidence and aplomb and being able to wrench rightness out of it with luck and mimicry instead of knowledge, skill (no plural), and understanding. If that is what we want, then we are no different from Harry Potter’s adversary Professor Umbridge, who says that getting students to pass tests is what schools are for.


Reading, Rassling, and Ruminating

Why would teachers have silent reading during class time? One simple reason is the guarantee reading in a group provides that students will encounter their reading as a group, with all the benefits that a group of inquiring students can provide each other: a colloquium-in-progress. A second is the guarantee against contamination by “study guides” while the students wrestle with their reading unaided.

(TV rassling sometimes takes place in teams. When the protagonist-rassler tires, he signals his brutish teammate to come in and thrash the adversary. The thrashing has often been planned ahead of time. A student using “study guides” instead of his own thinking is like a team rassler who calls in a brute to give the material the needed going-over, usually in a highly predictable and conventional way. And, yes, such a student does regard his reading as The Adversary.)

Yet another is that in a classroom reading can occur with an enforced quiet that students, left on their own, often don’t bring to their tasks. I am thinking of the use of electronic entertainment during reading, or an open cell phone, or other distractions from steady work. We can assure ourselves that students have an ambience of study that allows them to follow the thread of a complex sentence or view the unfolding of a subtle or difficult idea without pulling away from it and then having to re-enter. Finally, it can be an entryway into another assignment that dovetails with it—usually discussion or writing.

High school students can also benefit from being read to. An experienced and practiced reader can help students make sense of what they read and can shape their encounter with it. Reading aloud also helps them explore the possibilities of language by realizing how the material can be shaped by music and sympathy, which is what reading aloud provides. Many students, particularly those who learn best through the ear, will find that literature, particularly poetry, when read aloud leaps off the page at them.

Reading aloud may even shake their general perceptions. One of my students listened with amazement and some disapproval as I read his class Lord Macaulay’s dramatic account of the execution of the Duke of Monmouth from his History of England. When I was finished, I could tell that it had shaken something up. He protested that that couldn’t be good history because it was interesting and because it adopted a point of view. For two days he tried to fit Macaulay into his view of history as a series of undistinguished rubble-heaps compiled by the writers of the textbooks he had been reading. He finally announced to me and the class that he’d decided what he had thought about history was wrong and that an historian should be obliged to engage his readers. (Or hers: he also heard Wedgwood on Richelieu.)

For reading a teacher should choose something that plays to his strengths as a reader. I have had good results with Tacitus (the fire of Rome and the “notorious Christians”), Flannery O’Connor (“The Enduring Chill”), Yeats (“Lapis Lazuli” and “Circus Animals’ Desertion”) and Hopkins (“Binsey Poplars”), but any good teacher will be able to choose some personal best readings. One class was struck dumb and breathless by the ending of “The Enduring Chill,” and dumb breathlessness was not that class’s usual response to anything. Teachers may also judge one class receptive to one reading and another to another: I read O’Connor to this one class but not to the others I had at that time.

To return to silent reading: it can serve yet another purpose for an experienced teacher. I usually assign silent reading at the beginning of the year to all my classes as a way of judging how fast and well they read. I use subsequent reading-sessions when I think something subtly wrong may be afflicting a student and needs smoking out. One of my 9th-graders kept having some serious and inexplicable difficulty getting what he read.  Over a period of time, as I watched him read in class, I was able to see that his eyes did not fall on the page right. (I’d watch him read from my desk, where I could monitor his downturned eyes). I finally wrote a note home suggesting that he be examined by an ophthalmologist. It turned out that he had an unusual kind of strabismus that was corrigible by eye-exercises. The happy result was that a couple of years later he was reading successfully along with his classmates.

It’s a pity that the average beginning teacher does not last five years in the profession, though some schools welcome short-tenured teachers as a way of reducing costs. The problem is that short tenure of teaching also reduces quality. Many of the insights I gained into reading, both silently and aloud, including most that lay behind the successes I report here, came to me after I had been teaching five years.


Yum! Into the Learning-blender

On a lark I Googled the word “McLearning” and was rewarded with a visit to the web page of an education processing company. The opening statement on the page notes the likelihood of a “further shift towards a multiple learning channel paradigm” while offering to “leverage the most effective content delivery format,” allowing its customers “flexibility in determining the best learning modalities for training on-demand and blended learning.”

Blended learning… Hardly are those words out, as Yeats says, when I think of another blended product and the company that sells it. Beef Products Inc. makes something called “processed beef,” a kind of ammoniated bovine slurry. Its factories form the “product” into standardized patties, which it then freezes and sells to schools to feed to their students in hamburgers.

Not too long before this e-visit I saw an English teachers’ web page with a blurb for a book called Literacies, the Arts and Multimodality. The use of literacies, skills, competencies and other such plurals is always suspect (“When skills came in, skill went out.”–Jacques Barzun); so is the use of multimodality, a term borrowed seemingly though inexplicably from statistics. It is hard to be sure what the word means outside statistics, but one giveaway of purpose if not of meaning was an explanation elsewhere of the concept’s value in “distance and internet-mediated learning.”

I have thought for some time that education “theory” is moving towards an acceptance of and preference for methods of teaching that will be equally “good” when used by a live teacher and by a screen. This movement coincides with the movement towards the kind of learning that can be “delivered” “multimodally” and evaluated by standardized tests. I am afraid that the result will be a kind of junk learning that we should be resisting not welcoming.

Many explanations suggest themselves for this trend. One is that people are not put off by processed learning any more than they are by processed beef. Another is that in times of scarcity, haste, or mistaken priorities, people will look for feeding and education on the industrialized cheap even if regular diets of McLearning and processed beef are bad for them. A third is that the push towards an “accountability” based on “objective” testing is taking finesse and subtlety out of teaching and learning, whose victims come to find a better diet unpalatable and reject it when it is presented to them.


What a Book is For

A recent article in The New York Times reported the city schools’  ending book purchases at book fairs of small “trade-book” vendors in favor of mail order from large suppliers operating in remote locations. While it is always sad to see a local fabric of professional relationships ripped up by the demand for cheapness, that was not what made me take a second look at this article.

It incidentally reported on what trade books the schools bought and explained what trade books are for. The article said that these books, including novels and works of non-fiction, “are intended to fill out lesson plans” and “supplement textbooks.” I guess that in this view books of poetry are also intended to fill out lesson plans, though the article doesn’t mention them. It did mention that the city schools spend a third of their book budget on trade books. This is sad news to someone like me, who have taught English without a textbook for many years, as is the view that “trade books,” i.e., books, might be considered “supplements” in an English class.

Are the books most ordered by the New York schools novels? Are they works of non-fiction like, say, Richard Hofstadter’s America at 1750? Are they poetry anthologies like The Rattle Bag, edited by a Nobel-Prize-winning poet and a Poet Laureate of England? No, they are guides to prepare students to take standardized tests. This dispiriting statistic is a confirmation, if one were needed, of the test mania now submerging American public schools, those dikeless Low Countries of learning. If I were to recommend a “trade book,” i.e., a book, to read in order to understand where test mania comes from, I would choose Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extroardinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, whose chapter on “Tulipomania” I have shared with students for many years.

To return to “trade books,” i.e., books: which textbook would they supplement? So many English textbooks are so bad: The sidebar distractions—the smeary dreary badly colored pictures—the little boxes of crap—the inane assignments: where does one begin the catalogue? You might say, “Rather than begin a catalogue, begin with the literature.”

Let’s take poetry as an example and counterexample. I mentioned The Rattle Bag, which many of my classes of 9th-graders have used for many years. This book is so immediately appealing to them that I find the best way to introduce them to it is to give them half an hour or so just to browse and read. By the end of that time most have found a favorite, shared it with the kids around them, and begun looking for more. By the end of the poetry unit their favorites and mine have become a part of their study and experience. And their favorites can be surprising: not just Nash or Frankie and Johnny, but also Blake and even Thomas Hardy.

I attribute the success of this anthology to the likes and dislikes of the anthologists, who clearly chose poems that tickled them or took the tops of their heads off. Can a textbook be so good? It is difficult. In 1967 Lionel Trilling published a textbook called The Exper­ience of Literature. The success of this book was a sad one. It contained fifty-two prefaces to works in the collection, each of them a masterpiece of criticism written by a master of prose who could have the top of his head taken off by a good poem. Teachers complained that the prefaces left them little to say, so they were removed (the prefaces, not the complaining teachers). Students were still left with Shakespeare and Sophocles, but deprived of a keen critical intelligence by their side. The prefaces now appear separately as a “trade book,” i.e., a book. I use one of them, passing it out to the class, when teaching Hopkins’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” to 12th-graders. The textbook with prefaces is out of print.

Wallace Stevens complains of the white nightgowns in his poem “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” that “none of them are strange.” What would he think of the poetry collected in many current textbooks? It is unexceptionable, and it can fill out a lesson plan, but it’s like a 180-day diet of mashed-potato sandwiches. When a highly capable student of mine, a Berber from Algeria, decided to examine Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” in the collection of the same name to see how it gets from its startling opening to its stunning conclusion, he was not in the mood for mashed potatoes, and he should not have had to eat them. He engaged forcefully with the poem and came to an exceptionally good understanding of it, and his classmates congratulated him.

Everything he (and thereby his classmates) came to understand that week about English was the result of his engagement with a poem that he could not shake off. By contrast, most students have no trouble shaking off the material in a bad textbook, and I am sure they will shake off much of what they “learn” in a course of preparation for a standardized English test. We would do far better to imagine lesson plans supplementing good books than the other way around, and to teach those books, not the tests that follow them.


Understanding Understanding

One way to make distinctions among the kinds of learning is to differen­tiate knowledge, skill, and understanding. Let me illustrate with an example of understanding.

Gilbert Ryle opens a piece of his[1] with the following conversation: “Don’t you know the difference between right and wrong?” “Well, I did learn it once, but I have forgotten it.”  He then adds, “This is a ridiculous thing to say. But why is it ridic­ulous?” Let us take his answer through the three kinds of learning.

The first possible answer to his question, which he gives in order to criticize, is that “the difference between right and wrong” is a collection of facts and labels: “duties to be done and derelictions to be apologized for.” We retain it, the argument goes, in something like the way we retain the reminders of the imminence of Christmas in early December: we remember the difference because we are reminded of it in factual encounters. If this were so, argues Ryle, then one might credit such forgetfulness as rare but not ridiculous. (I would argue that factual knowledge is the easiest kind to forget, and forgetfulness not so rare, particularly after cramming.)

The second answer, which he also dismisses, is that “knowing the difference between right and wrong is of a piece… with knowing how to do things.” If knowing the difference between right and wrong were a skill, he argues, it would improve with use and worsen with desuetude; but that is not the case. We don’t speak of conscience as we do of a golf swing. We can go to the driving range to improve our swing, but we don’t go to the right-and-wrong range to improve our conscience. People who have spiritual directors do not call them “Coach.” One can become more callous, but when one does, one is not “getting rusty.” (Learning as skill can be dusted off and brushed up, hence “refresher courses;” but whoever heard of a refresher course in ethics?)

The third, incomplete but not entirely wrong, is that knowing the difference between right and wrong is an educated taste or a cultivated preference. Since we usually associate tastes and preferences not just with knowing but also with approving, relishing, admiring, and pursuing—or their opposites—it seems incongruous, but not ridiculous, to have such knowledge and then to let it fall into disuse. Nor would we say that conscience is a kind of expertise or connoisseurship; otherwise, we could not expect it to be common knowledge. Knowing the difference between right and wrong is not this kind of understanding, though it is close.

Why, Ryle asks, if virtue can be taught, do we not have universities and technical colleges giving courses in “industriousness, fair-mindedness, and loyalty?” The answer is not that it cannot be taught. That is the answer you would expect of some­one who thinks that teaching and learning are all instruction and “behavioral objectives.” The answer is that it lies outside the scope of our “academic epistemologies,” in terrain inhabited by “inspiring, kindling, and infecting.”

I would add to Ryle’s discussion my own insight as a teacher: that this terrain, discovered or established by a good teacher and found by a good student or pointed out to other students, is primarily emotional, as Ryle’s discussion of understanding suggests. The emotions are complex, but they must include sympathy in both teacher and student. On the teacher’s part they include, as noted above, approving, relishing, admiring, and pursuing—or their opposites. On the student’s part they include the capacity to feel these emotions as well as some kind of uninstructed relish for what is being taught. They also include an act of faith or trust whereby the teacher’s feelings become an object of sympathetic emulation. The student learns the subject about which the teacher has these feelings, and activates or maybe even learns the feelings themselves, by application, by proving-encounters with the teacher (as on a Socratic or other proving-ground), and by inculcation. It is a powerful way to learn, which explains why even those who have not articulated how they learned this way can find absurd the notion of forgetting their lessons.

[1] “On Forgetting the Difference between Right and Wrong.”


The Relevance of Vaults and Visitations

“…something rich and strange”—Shakespeare

“…enter the past imaginatively”—Flannery O’Connor

“…emotional and intellectual sympathy with ways other than ours”—Jacques Barzun

Many good things come from watching good teachers in action. First is fascination: how do they do it? Second, curiosity: what are they doing? Third is interest: I want to take the rest of this class. Last, to another teacher, is applicability: how can I assimilate what these teachers do well?

All of the above came into play as I observed Mr. Roke, a teacher of Western history, in his classes. He taught at a public school whose students were mostly the children of military personnel stationed at nearby military bases, cycling in and out of the school according to their parents’ tours of duty. He had been there for about twenty-five years when I visited.

His classes had a strong orientation to the visual and to art history as well as to memorable stories linked by ideas. The classroom itself was a museum of cuttings, pictures, old student art, and bric-a-brac amassed during his career.  Every few weeks the classroom would undergo a complete change in displays from floor to ceiling, coinciding with the period being taught. Out went the gothic cathedrals and coats of arms; in came the Bernini sculptures.

Mr. Roke gave lectures with slides and filmstrips. When he used a filmstrip, he disregarded the tedious recorded lecture accompanying it, and used his own lectures, which were far more interesting. What he couldn’t show in photos and slides he often produced on the blackboard. I remember particularly an illustration in three-color chalk of a quadripartite rib vault that formed a part of one lecture. Other examples came from the decorated walls of the classroom, so that by the end of each historical period, the decorations had become familiar to the students.  Students took notes on these lectures.

(The quality of recorded lectures accompanying “media” stuff varies vastly and scandalously, from the likes of Simon Schama on the high end to performances of appalling paint-peeling dullness on the other. How often do those ordering these “materials” actually listen to and criticize the words accompanying the pictures as a part of the decision to purchase? Vetting such things should be mandatory.)

One particularly fine demonstration of what he had accomplished occurred during a discussion of an assignment in class to compare and contrast a Renaissance and a Baroque painting of the Visitation. His students were making intelligent comments on what distinguished the two pieces. Mr. Roke told me that one former student of his, in a thank-you note penned a few years later, said that he was able to take his parents to an art museum and comment on the pictures they were looking at.

A dreary critic might ask why students were being taught “content” such as Baroque Visitations in a history course taught in a public school whose curriculum needed to be “secular” and “relevant.” The answer is that in being made alive to the past in their present they were becoming fledgling critics taking art and history seriously. The focus on art, though unusual, was at least a focus, and it enabled Mr. Roke to confer some coherence on his subject. It held together and permitted students to achieve coherence in their own thinking when they wrote about the past. It presented them with the unfamiliar so they would be prevented from relying on thought-clichés and caked wisdom in place of doing real and actual thinking. It gave them a sense that history is more than a maze of multiple-choice questions. It helped prepare them for their own future work, to which one hopes they will bring an organizing intelligence, a sound judgment, and a sense of clarity and vividness in communication, all of which good history teaches.