1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Letter from a Denver-area teacher

Here's a letter from a reader who wished to remain anonymous, but asked us to identify her as "Mary."

I teach English at a public charter high school and every year we get a lecture about the supposed separation of church and state as it relates to that peculiar Christian holy day, Christmas. This year's homily was particularly egregious: “If a student asks you what you think, keep your beliefs to yourself” we, the adults, were commanded. Whether I was thinking prudence is the better part of valor or if I was moved by sheer cowardice, I kept my mouth shut, thinking, “Hasn't he heard of the #@*&! 1st Amendment?” This incident helped clarify for me what's wrong with education in America today.

Among evangelical Protestants the concerns over public education, if we can believe what we read in the papers, tend to be centered around the lack of school prayer and the teaching of evolution as “the answer” to human origins. What ever truth there may be in this old stereotype, this two-fold concern is not mine, nor does it seem to resonate with most of the people I meet. Instead, it is a concern over the violence and superficiality of public schools that gives one pause. We are a homeschooling family because of the limited curiosity of the local schools. We don't want our children's education to be a series of subtractions from reality, but a presentation of the panorama of human thought and experience – a broadening of reason if you will. Ideally, the public schools should be collaborators in the task of education, but at present they are antagonists. Antagonistic to our insistence that education be a complete education. So-called religious neutrality is a big part of the failure of public schools.

A complete education cannot reasonably exclude religion, either in its historical or literary forms, or from its more existential exigences that spontaneously arise from the hearts of students. Talking to a school board member or principal and asking him or her, “How does your district (school) conceive of man? What is the human person and what does he need?” is likely to result in blank stares at best. Professional educators can wax poetic about test scores or the latest methods and strategies for getting students excited about learning, but when it comes to the true protagonist in education, the student, their view is superficial and hollow.

In The Risk of Education Luigi Giussani takes Joseph Jungmann's definition of education as axiomatic when it comes to the legitimate range of pedagogical concerns: education ought to be an introduction to the whole of reality. A moment's comparison with my administrator's narrow (and alleged secular) vision with these two clerics' insistence on an open horizon points out how the ideology of secularism has truncated the curriculum and become (paradoxically) parochial. Yet not all administrators or school districts are this timid, so I am hopeful that more schools will begin taking the humanity of the students seriously.

The rapidly accelerating charter school movement in our state is encouraging more pluralism, but given the track record of the courts concerning religious liberty and public schools, there is a possibility that these taxpayer supported charters may be allowed to promote only academic excellence, not human wholeness. While the voucher movement seems to have stalled, perhaps the charters can take up the cause of meaning-full education reform. It will take school leaders, teachers and parents who are not beholden to the secular status quo, but it just might happen; God willing, it will happen.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Quantity versus Quality?

This is a fascinating file!

It gives a comparison of the US and other countries with respect to the number of hours teachers teach. It does not provide statistics of how the students fare in this countries, but it is fairly common knowledge that these countries are (generally) doing better to educate children.

We have, I think, tended to equate hours of teaching with higher student performance. Not to say that students will "automatically" do better the fewer hours (individual) teachers have to teach them, but it does seem in the American system that the so-called accountability is (mis)placed on teachers instead of students.

What teacher at the secondary level hasn't felt exhausted and demoralized at the end of a week, thinking, "I have nothing left!" Our American system seems to resemble more of an assembly line than a school. Undoubtedly, American adminstrators think, "Those lazy Europeans! Those teachers do nothing!" But look at the quality of their "product." Less is more.

Wow, a school that expected more preparation (by giving them the time and breathing space necessary to do it well) and less contact hours per year from teachers. That would be innovative (and so simple).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Giusanni and Adler I

Two educators I profoundly respect and admire are Luigi Giussani and Mortimer Adler. Adler's contribution to the Great Books movement is profound and helped lead a retrieval of Western thought in English translation; Giusanni's influence began in Italy in the late 1950s and has begun to be felt recently in the US. Both draw substantially from the Western tradition but there is a divergence when comes to understanding that tradition.

Adler's approach (as I understand it) is to present the student with a text of perennial value and help the student to ask deep questions from the dialogue with the text. From this dialogue, the student defines the meaning he or she finds in the text and refines (or recants) this understanding in conversation with others.

Giussani's approach differs inasmuch as he insists on the priority of experience in judging whether something is true or not. Giussani also envisions the educator at a witness to meaning; as one who carries a tradition in his or her person. The teacher is one who proposes a hypothesis of meaning to his or her students. Thus the student is invited to verify whether something is true or false or if judgment must be withheld.

Adler does not seem to admit proposing a particular hypothesis of meaning in the selection of Great Books but something similar to Giussani would seem to be afoot once one has said, "These texts but not these." Can the criteria for selecting books be anything other than the acceptance of a tradition?