This paper consists of two parts: an introduction to eight of my premises about education, and a narrative that discusses these premises in a deeper way with some reflections on my teaching practice.
Part I. An Ironic Reduction.
My approach to education can be summarized by resorting to eight premises that I have rather lamely reduced to eight bumper stickers. Some of these “bumper stickers” have an explanatory note where I thought this necessary. All of these ideas will be further developed in the second part.
1. Education is about reality Education should be an introduction to the whole of reality (see Giussani, 1996, pp. 50, 106).
2. Reality is meaningful.
3. It’s the content, stupid. Inputs are more important than outputs. I regret using this jargon, but it is handy to say what I mean. What I mean is that I believe that many things involving a quality education are not (directly) measurable. I think that assessment is important but not a trump card. I wish to state at the outset that methods should be at the service of content, not the other way around.
4. Preconception reduces “’The method of research is imposed by the object.’ This is an important assertion by Alexis Carrel ([then a] young Nobelist in medicine) which means that we are called to give more importance to the observation of real events (in other words, the real facts of our life), instead of trying to interpret reality on the ground of an intellectual scheme present in our mind” (Bonomo, 2006).
5. Opinion is not knowledge This has to do with mainly with my insistence that what is given the name “knowledge” is often mere “opinion.” That is, we (humans) often find ourselves spouting off about ideas that we have borrowed from God knows where and parade them about as if they were ours.
6. The West has a hypothesis
7. Verify This one is directed toward my students more than myself (in a professional sense, though it is no less necessary for me at the existential level). Bumper sticker #6 speaks of a tradition (the Western tradition as a hypothesis of meaning); whether one embraces this or any other tradition, the fact remains that the dominant view of reality is that of Western Civilization. A major task of the educator is help the student ask whether or not this hypothesis corresponds to his/her desires.
8. Stay in front of reality If there is any one pitfall I see in secondary education, it is this: becoming hardened (in the intellectual and spiritual senses, though this may also include the emotional) by repeatedly teaching the same courses year after year without returning to the original questions that led them to become courses in the first place. The ancients insisted that “knowledge begins in wonder.” Retrieving wonder is essential to my role as an educator.
Part II. An Exposition.
In what follows I will take up my premises in some detail and refer to how some of these ideas have worked (or failed) in my teaching practice.
The barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time (MacIntyre, 1984, p. 263).
As I survey the landscape of secondary education, albeit in largely unscientific ways, I find many cause for concern: apathetic students, ignorant teachers, incompetent administrators; I see competing and often contradictory goals and objectives; I see methodological confusion over how to teach and philosophical disagreement over what to teach. All of this I see from the classroom to the federal level. I consider myself a reasonable person, so it must be asked: Given the state of education today, why bother? That is, why willingly subject oneself to an environment characterized by such discord and disorder?
For the sake of brevity I am tempted to reach for some cliché, such as “to make a difference” to justify my existence in a teacher preparation program, but there are numerous ways to make a difference in society, not all of them constructive nor attractive. One can engage in other forms of cultural rebuilding such as writing or lobbying, but these have not chosen me; teaching, however, has chosen me. That would be inaccurate: the Mystery (God, Christ) has chosen me for this work. That is its only rational justification.
Let us begin to judge. This is the beginning of liberation (Giussani, 1997, p. 11).
In reflecting on both my experience as an educator to date and the standards that are proposed to me as teacher, concerning content and approach, I am frankly dismayed. I find, for example, the Colorado Model Content Standards for History (1995) vague and not very helpful; nor am I enamored with the Performance-Based Standards for Colorado Teachers. My reasons for this will become readily apparent throughout this paper, so I will not elaborate here; I will, however, note in passing that on the Colorado teacher standards, a teacher’s content area ranks fourth. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this ordering, but this seems to reflect the mentality that teachers must all be generalists first, and secondarily passionate about their specialty. In my experience as a student, it was teachers who were passionately engaged with their area of specialization who impressed me and motivated me to become a teacher: Tim Gould who bled Philosophy, Regis Martin who sweated Theology, and Jeremiah Ring who gushed History. Of these three (I could mention dozens more), there was no unitary method or approach – these differed wildly. What was universal was their engagement with the students and their love for what they taught.
I must admit that I am a bit misplaced as a social studies teacher. My real love is not merely what has happened (history as a record of the immutable past), but why things happened and why they are happening now. Further, I am interested in what reality means and this is not discernable by looking only at history. Thus I find myself drawn toward philosophy, religion and anthropology more than history or American government. Put another way, I bring these interest into the study of history and government. My approach to history tends to be textual and this comports well with teaching my ELLs. (So perhaps I should also seek endorsement in English!)
There is nothing new under the sun. (Holy Bible, 1966, Ecclesiastes 1:9)
In my experience great teachers can and do illuminate reality. Thus education is about reality. The current pathway through which I try to illuminate my students’ path is through the subject-formerly-known-as-history: social studies. History, though it is always an approximate science, inasmuch as it deals with both the nonrepeatable past and human beings (who always surprise us), can give us knowledge about our present. So, for example, in studying ancient Greece, I avoid the textbooks as much as possible. I find the textbook helpful for orientating the student to the general lay of the land. But just as map is limited compared with the actual terrain, the textbook falls short of helping the student to experience the ancient world.
The method I find most helpful is to go to ancient texts. Curious about Greek mythology? Well, first off, it wasn’t mythology to them, it was a living, breathing religion with strange stories and stranger still rituals and sacrifices. Into the Bacchae we plunge, meeting fate and Dionysus; seeing “how far” we have come in some ways, but also acknowledging that the modern secular altars we bow down to are in some ways more despotic than the suave yet capricious Dionysus. A typical text says this about the Greeks and philosophy: “By asking questions, the philosopher Socrates forced people to examine what they believed. This great teacher always said, ‘Know thyself’” (King & Lewinski, 2001, p. 159). Well, yes, but one will not have the slightest clue of his importance if one does not read Plato. Reading Plato takes time, so students will lack breadth to get depth. This is generally worth it if the students are willing because it takes a subject that might seem lifeless and they find vibrant characters full of life’s intensity. My students have risen to the occasion, even when I have chosen archaic and notoriously difficult translations. I am filled with awe and appreciation.l
Everything is grace (Bresson, Diary of a Country Priest, 1950).
If everything is a gift, life is meaningful. I know for some coworkers and many students, life’s beauty and wonder are not something self-evident. This leads to my assertion that reality is meaningful. Sometimes one finds an insistence in educational literature that activities should be meaningful, but doesn’t this beg the question, “What constitutes meaning?” Two people can perform the same action but for one person it is pointless, for another it gives life. So as a teacher I attempt to till the soil in order to help the student see meaning. I’m no fool: I know that competing with a culture built on consumption is, one the whole, a lost cause. The modern secular society is driven by a desire for “bad infinity,” which one of my favorite theologians defines as trying to satisfy infinite desire with finite, consumable articles.
Despite this, I believe that my students can find value in the education they receive to the degree that they find meaning. This is always a possibility but I prefer to not leave these things to chance. By relating the past of others to the present of my students, they have an opportunity to grapple with the same questions posed by Plato, Jesus, Marx, etc.
Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? (Plato, 1976, p. 3).
The best methods of teaching are hotly contested (although expertise in any method or methods is conspicuously absent from Colorado teacher standards). At the [public charter high school], where I teach, we are utilizing the SIOP Model (Echevarria, J., Short, D. J., & Vogt, M.E., 2003) to teach our English language learners. If our school existed twenty-five or thirty years ago, we probably would have been utilizing bilingual education. Which one is better? Scientific arguments can be made both ways, but in the final analysis, there is no “über-method” that miraculously cures a student’s ignorance. I believe that it is important to be open to methods that may, to a greater or lesser degree, help convey content; but I think it absurd to insist that one method works for all subjects or all students. Thus methods are at the service of the content. To recall Plato, despite buckets of research, we still don’t know how to ensure that a child learn. We can point out certain necessary conditions and obstacles to learning, but we are ignorant of what makes it all possible. This is not surprising when we reflect upon the mystery of language.
Why is it that scientists have a theory about everything under the sun but do not have a theory of man? Is it possible that a theory of man is nothing more nor less than a theory of the speaking creature? (Percy, 2000, p. 8).
To speak of the origins of language may seem tangential to a philosophy of education paper, but I am convinced that many of the root causes of educational dis-ease are to be found in unwarranted assumption about what it means to be human; what one can, should or ought to learn; what the real goal of education is, etc. None of this can be developed here, so suffice to say that all approaches to education presume (of necessity) a certain anthropology.
Education without authority is impossible… (Giussani, 2006, p. 29).
Given our ignorance of our own lack of knowledge, it can be tempting to fall into relativism or despair. More typically educators seem to avoid these questions and stick with what they know. Psychologically, this completely understandable, but it consists of an abdication of one’s role in introducing others to reality. To do less than this is to train, not educate. The teacher as an authority means firstly to be one who takes his humanity seriously; secondarily, it means to be interested in the pupils’ destiny. It borders on pathological when educators seek satisfaction from their students. It is like a mother who expects to be nursed by her own baby! Perhaps what I’m trying to say here can be summed up saying that the teacher must have a high degree of self-knowledge before embarking upon the task of walking with others.
Sadly I find that all too much of my authority is expended on disciplinary matters. Sometimes it seems that all I am doing is rebuilding a foundation after having built the same foundation on the day before. In part this is the nature of my students. In part it is my own failure to help the students grasp the importance of respect and decorum. Still another part is the school culture as a whole that does not place value on coming to school to learn. In the not too distant past I looked on all of this is mostly negative terms: “Oh, here we go again – Drill Instructor McGuiness reporting for duty.” Now I still see creating a peaceful environment as necessary and a lot of work, but I can also recognize the progress my classes have made. When the year began, students were throwing things around the classroom and cursing like sailors. This trimester I marvel at their ability to settle down for the task at hand, be it “quiet reading” or a quiz. Chaos seemed to reign in the past but now I see them engaged in reading, listening, writing, and speaking (appropriately!). Not all the time, but frequently enough that I may be able to retire my campaign hat for the year. I don’t attribute the change to my personal authority. I think that’s a piece of the puzzle, but I think my students have discovered the value of learning and they understand that it is up to them to make it possible. A few weeks ago, it was the day before a quiz, a Civics class was particularly rambunctious. I said, “Listen, if you want to prepare for this quiz, let me know. If not just keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll do something else.” I then proceeded to begin reading a book. Within in ten minutes, the students had become quiet. Several students said, “Mister, we’re ready.” We then prepared for the quiz.
To be an authority does not mean to be one who possesses the keys to all knowledge. To be an authority is to know one’s weakness, ignorance, and need. And yet, yet one knows. That’s the paradox. It is a paradox that seems to be denied by statements such as “Collect data on individual student achievement and be held accountable for each child's learning” (6.6). Now the first part of the statement is reasonable: see how students are progressing. The second part strikes me as completely nonsensical: why or how should one be “held accountable” for another’s learning? What can this possibly mean? That I fire myself if students don’t progress in a way I find adequate? To be willing to receive praise or blame for what a student knows? One might be able to teach 99 students in an exceptional manner, but there remains one who seems unreachable. In such a case, what does it mean to be held accountable? As a slogan, this standard sounds nice; as a guide for praxis, it is worthless. Still, I do “hold myself accountable” as we all do and must. I find that I rely on both formal assessments like quizzes or writing samples and informal assessments. For students’ grades, the formal assessments are king; my informal assessments help me to know where the class is at and where we may be going in the future. This points to the reality that teaching is more an art than a science, despite a myriad of benchmarks, standards and testing to the contrary notwithstanding.
Behold the man! (Holy Bible, 1996, John 19:15)
I insist that all teachers (regardless of content area proficiency) should affirm silly bumper sticker number three: it’s the content, stupid. Already in my nascent teaching career, I have run into my fair share of educated fools who obsess over the measurable and the statistically verifiable. They are like the interns who surround Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson) in the film Wit. These interns have lab reports and tons of data but cannot see her humanity. Doctor Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) asks about side-effects of the chemotherapy on Ms. Bearing. After listing what is documented in medical reports, they still are missing an obvious side effect. Dr. Kelekian exclaims, “Hair loss!” (Wit, 2001). Like Kelekian’s interns, I often miss the symptoms or cues that the students manifest. There are times when I expect “more” from students but they just aren’t ready. It is difficult to discern genuine exhaustion from laziness, but it gets easier in time. Still, there are other times when I’m sure they’ll want to travel the easy road, but they consciously choose a more difficult task. This occurred last trimester in a Civics class. I gave the class the option to finish up the year with an open book examination or a Shared Inquiry discussion on the Declaration of Independence. They chose the Declaration along with all the difficult vocabulary and conceptual baggage therein.
Content is interesting when it is related to the humanity of one’s students. If and when students connect content with life, something magical happens. It is as if the veil of the world is lifted for a moment and they see things as they are. On the other hand, when content is subservient to measuring and assessing tools, we have entered the theatre of the absurd. The latter seems to be the trend, but because some have chosen to invert means and ends, it doesn’t mean one must swear allegiance to such a farce.
To love the truth more than our own ideas about it is the same as being free from preconception (Giussani, 1997, p. 32).
Having preconceived ideas about this or that is unavoidable. We have all been shaped by our experiences, family, education and numerous other factors. To lack any preconceived ideas would be to have no memory or experience whatsoever. Still, excessive preconception can lead one to positing answers before even knowing the questions! Thus preconception reduces when it clouds openness to the real. Nearly every day I teach I am challenged to not reduce my students to the lesson plan I have conceived. Rare is the day that my pristine plan goes as planned. Shall I give up planning? No, because by acknowledging that I am in some way an authority for these students, it is important that have a clue as to where I am headed, even if they erect barricades or have other destinations in mind. The victory of preconception occurs when I force my agenda on the students without due consideration for their interests, fatigue or fears.
I also attempt to disabuse students of some of their preconceived ideas. I recall when I first began teaching at a [public charter high school] two years ago. I proposed some task and the students responding by calling me “racist.” This was curious indeed: they haven’t mastered English but they are adept at playing the race card! In any event, this was surely not an adequate explanation. Rather than become defensive or apologetic, I said, “OK, you’re right I’m racist. I decided to come teach at this school to give you the worst education possible. So let’s get on with it.” From this they were able to go a little deeper in articulating their objections to the proposed assignment.
I must also confess that I have let go of some of my assumptions about teaching of late. I came to this school armed with a pair of prejudices: students should be at school to learn and some students will be in school simply to avoid a less pleasant fate. These prejudices both turn out to be true, but it is in understanding their application and relevance that I have grown. If the ideal of all students coming to school to learn on the terms and conditions set by teachers and administrators, how should I respond? By trying to understand my students and to simultaneously call them up to something higher. Perhaps their education is fragmented (whose isn’t today?) or they live in a home that devalues learning or any of a myriad of obstacles. I’m reminded of these words in a song by U2 “I can’t change the world / But I can change the world in me” (Hewson, 1981). I can’t change who and what my students are, but I can respond to them in ways that are productive. How else can education become attractive?
How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know what it is? (Plato, 1976, p. 13).
The truth is, we know less than we think. I find my students have many opinions but not a whole lot of knowledge. In this way, they are not much different than me or my peers. Still, it is a problem and opinion is not knowledge. One might cynically respond, “What problem? Isn’t this evidence of assimilation at work?” This would be to conflate ignorance with the American ethos, which doesn’t seem quite fair. How then to move students (even if it be ever so slightly) from opinion to knowledge? I haven’t found a sure fire way, though I know it is critically important. One concrete way is to have students write about their own learning through journaling. I should do more of this.
Rome is the light (Gladiator, 2000).
Despite the fact of slavery, colonialization and other oppressive practices, it is still undeniable that the West has a hypothesis of meaning that has sustained humanity for centuries. To my mind this means, among other things, stressing exposure to some foundational texts: The Bible, various works by Plato and Aristotle, St. Augustine’s Confessions, Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address, the Communist Manifesto, etc.
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Colorado Department of Education (1995, September 14). Colorado model content standards for history. Retrieved February 11, 2007 from the World Wide Web: http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdeassess/documents/standards/hist.htm#full-standards
Colorado Department of Education (2000, January 13). Performance-based standards for colorado teachers. Retrieved February 11, 2007 from the World Wide Web: http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdeprof/download/pdf/li_perfbasedstandards.pdf
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Wit (2001). Director Mike Nichols. Emma Thompson; Christopher Lloyd. VHS.