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

Sunday, May 24, 2009

For the Sake of the Children

Hearing this phrase is also grounds for reaching for the proverbial Luger or perhaps a reason for paying close attention to what the speaker says next.

On talk radio and during an interview
A local radio station (KHOW) has a show called "Caplis and Silverman" co-hosted by Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman; they are a great pair - far more interesting than, say, Hannity and Colmes were. Last week they were discussing a sick out by Boulder Valley teachers. Caplis was suggesting that everyone should agree to do "what is best for the children." Hmm, sounds good. But so does "pro-choice" unless you think deeply about what is being chosen. Yet unlike the "pro-choice" mantra, "for the children" is far more ambiguous.

Short term or long term?
In my experience, "what is good for the children" is sometimes proposed without reference to what is good for teachers. I've heard administrators say such things as "this isn't about teacher comfort, but what's good for the students" in reference to an inane and insane requirement that teachers call each student's home at least once per week. This was at a charter school where the parents were predominately Spanish-speakers. Call 120 homes in a language I don't speak; this benefits whom, how exactly?

On the "Caplis and Silverman Show," Dan Caplis was suggesting that teachers should always do what is best for the students, not themselves. (Not to get Kantian here, but does Mr. Caplis in his law practice do what is best for his clients without reference to himself - does he routinely foreswear compensation?) Implicit in this naive remark are at least two facts:

1. What is "best" for the children is rarely univocal.
Is it always best that teachers stay on the job and never strike? Well, that would depend on the rationale for the strike. Teachers might be striking because of bad adminstrative policies that "dumb down" the curriculum or teachers might be asking for an unreasonable pay raise; in the former case one would say, "strike," in the latter, don't.
Is a longer school day always best for the children? It depends on how the time is spent and what provision is made for teachers having adequate leisure [I find it interesting that the only people I hear say how "easy" teaching is, are either (a) incompetent teachers or (b) more likely, those who don't teach]. I met a guy recently who was fired from a charter school chain because he suggested that teachers have more time to meet together and fewer contact hours with students. In other words, because he was concerned about an "assembly line" approach to teaching, he was deemed to not be a "team player" (even as he was asking for more time for "the team" to coordinate their activities!)

2. What is bad for teachers is also bad for students.
Suppose you have a cadre of teachers that always believes a principal when he says, "This is good for the kids, so we're going to do it," and these teachers nod their heads in assent. If the administrator is wise, benevloent and saintly, then, well, perhaps all of these good things shower upon teachers and students alike. If however one lives on this planet, we would soon find out that "what is good for the children" (for now we'll assume that these are actually good things) -- things such as longer school days, more instructional time, and more lively instruction -- these things have a price that teachers must pay. Let's take them in order with the assumption that there are no changes in staffing:

A. A longer school day. This means that either teachers make their families and friends suffer by cloistering themselves away and continuing to grade papers long into the night and skip time with the family or these teachers, say, "Screw it, I used to ask for essays, but now I don't have time to grade them, so I'll start handing out multiple choice quizzes" or some other time saving measure. In the long term, students pay the price.

B. More instructional time or "contact hours."
Teachers teach more but they might also communicate less. A great booklet I recently read was Julian Carron's "Educating: That is, a Communication of Yourself." Carron makes it very clear that the most important thing a teacher communicates is not content per se, but how the teacher views all of reality. This is not pie-in-the-sky, but quite concrete. More contact hours may translate into uninspired teacher, which helps no one.

C. More interesting or lively instruction.
This one kills me: the vision of the teacher as entertainer and the assumption that students should be distracted into learning. In any event, where does the time for creativity come from? It has been taken away. If the teacher does make instruction more entertaining, it will in fact be less interesting; bells and whistles will have replaced curiosity and wonder.

Abstractions are useless
What I love about teaching is that reality is unavoidable. My students challenge me to ask daily why I do what I do (and if, in fact, it is worth doing!); I cannot just fall back into some ideology to explain reality: they won't let me.

Those who use ideological phrases like "it's for the children" aren't working with the children (even if there is a classroom of kids in front of them); they are working with abstractions. In The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, E.D. Hirsch has a great glossary of terms and he shows how eduspeak is a dodge from thought. Let's add "for the children" to the list.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Plato I

A Return to Sanity
Pretty bad when reading about a guy who is on trial for his life over trumped up charges seems like "sanity." In comparison to Dewey, Socrates is a breath of fresh air (whereas Dewey is largely stale error). There are so many things to learn about through the "Apology." Something that struck me on this rereading was Socrates' patience in explaining the context of how accusations arose against him. How preconception and prejudice led to his indictment; how he did indeed do things that were, in today's parlance, politically incorrect.
Two for One
As I mentioned previously, taking up an ancient text was motivated by a desire to get some distance from the modern mentality (well represented by John Dewey). Reading the "Apology"
and Aristophanes' "The Clouds" (a first) was also motivated by the opportunity to teach an undergraduate Philosophy course. I was able to get what I think is a very good translation by C.D.C. Reeve - it's certainly more readable than the Jowett translation (see The Trials of Socrates at http://www.hackettpublishing.com).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dewey VII

Later, Dude!

Let God be the judge between you and me, Mr. Dewey! I tried (and tried) to read your book with an open mind in order to understand what is attractive about your thought. As I mentioned before, Experience and Education came highly recommended from a man I admire and respect (Dennis Littky), so I thought, "OK, I'll give Dewey a second chance."

I did so. When you went from obscurity to obscurity, I pressed on; when you used ordinary words (i.e., experience, freedom, purpose, etc.) in the most peculiar ways, I remained open to the possibility of some good emerging from my Herculean labors. While I can say that I do have some vague notion of what your approach to education is all about, I would have to emphasize "vague."

The Scientific Method

Were I forced to say what you say the essence of education is, it would run something like this:
Education is most authentic when it uses the scientific method as its means and ends: one hypothesis leads to another "truth" that serves as a stepping stone for another hypothesis which leads to more and more transitional truths, which lead to more and more growth.
I'll pat myself on the back for such a concise statement of your thought, but I freely acknowledge that it might be inaccurate. But this summary does seem to sum up your love for science and it as a model for education. But I think you are patently wrong on this score: If education is all about life, then take a look around and see how life is more than "science." Science reduces reality to what can be managed, manipulated and manufactured. Education-as-science is something ultimately inhuman.

A final quotation

On the last pages of Experience and Education you write:
What we want and need is education pure and simple, and we shall make surer and faster progress when we devote ourselves to finding out just what education is and what conditions have to be satisfied in order that education may be a reality and not a name or a slogan (90-91).
"Finding out"? "May be a reality"? I believe, sir, that the primary purposes of writing non-fiction are either to understand better some aspect of reality one is wrestling with or to communicate some truth to others one has discovered. It seems to me you have done neither.

Farewell, Mr. Dewey. I shall now take the advice of that great theist, C.S. Lewis, and read an ancient text after I have read your thoroughly modern work.

(Mutter, mutter! Twenty two days of reading his book and all I have are rambling posts and a raging headache! Mutter, mutter...)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dewey VI

Authority the Unavoidable

Such was the title of a chapter in Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World. In the fourth chapter (Social Control) Dewey deals with the role of the teacher in the classroom and gives us the image of children at play as a point of contrast and comparison. With children at play we find an example of "social control of individuals without the violation of freedom" (54).

Dewey rightly indicates that the teacher often has an "undue role" that is forced upon him because of school design. I agree. He goes on to claim that in the "new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility" (56). These seems a little fuzzy and seems to ignore the obvious: in both traditional and new (now old) schools, authority is imposed from without. The freedom of the students is conditioned upon the willingness of the adults to give it to them (I'm not suggesting it should be otherwise, only that it is true in both cases).

I have seen numerous times when group projects quickly devolve into one or two students taking responsibility for what gets done and feeling (rightly) resentful at the slouching mass of students who have nothing to contribute.

Put me in, Coach!

Dewey claims that when schooling is more of a social process, "The teacher loses the position of external boss or dictator [no, I assure you, he wrote that] but takes on that of leader of group activities" (59). Sounds good; sounds democratic. But wait a minute. This transition is based on Dewey's earlier comparison of schooling with games. This image seems inapt on several points.

First, games have a natural attraction to kids that need no external mandate (at least before XBox and associated lethargy-makers); schooling is required.

Second, games cannot be sustained for prolonged periods of time. When you're done, you're done (Dewey might go so far as to urge the modification of the school day to fit the "needs" of the students, I don't know - I wouldn't mind a two-hour teaching day!)

A third thing that bugs me about the game image is that it implies that fun and "engagement" (now there's a thorougly misused term) are coextensive with education. I think this is patently false. Perhaps a more realistic metaphor for education is exercise. It requires self-discipline and endurance, but it possesses moments of fun and engagement. If I approach exercise with a gamish mentality, I shall soon slouch back into my couch potato self.

Next time: the role of the teacher and the myth of the teacher as the Great Architect.

Dewey V

An (The?) End in Itself

I well remember Aristotle's insistence that in the moral life, happiness is paramount. It is also an end after which we seek no further end. Once one is happy, satisfied, blessed -- the journey, in a sense, comes to an end.

Dewey's insistence on growth as good when it leads to more growth, which leads to still more growth made me think of Aristotle. Think of The Philosopher in this sense: What Would Aristotle Think (or WHUT)? I don't know what he'd think of Dewey's ideas about education, but I don't think he'd like his ambiguity.

Biology and Teleology

For Aristotle the moral life has a clear end - happiness; for Dewey, education has no end beyond vaguely differentiated, on-going (infinite?) growth. With Dewey's materialism, he surely recognized that life runs up against its terminus in death. So it seems the life Dewey envisions goes something like this: Growth, growth, growth, annihilation. You, me, everybody.

Here we find yet another case of "bad infinity," where the need for the infinite gets projected onto finite realities. In focusing on growth the way he does, Dewey is at odds with himself, for how can life (existence) come to an end but growth never come to an end?
Question: Did Dewey ever confront this riddle?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dewey IV

Progress and Democracy

In Chapter 3, Criteria of Experience, Dewey says that "one thing which has recommended the progressive movement is that it is more in accord with the democratic ideal to which our people is commited than do the procedures of the traditional school..."(33). It is interesting how Dewey links "the progressive movement" (in education, presumably) with "democratic ideals." He paints both the "new education" and "traditional schooling" with such broad strokes (perhaps even bordering on caricatures of the latter) that he has failed to demonstrate this thesis. How odd for a man who takes the methods of science for his model in educational philosophy.
#1 Because a school is more "democratic" (whatever that might mean), is it a better school?
#2 What evidence would validate Dewey's thesis?
#3 What evidence would validate it?
Dewey's Mythical Anthropology (or why growth will not suffice for man)

Again and again Dewey highlights how education is all about growth. But a nagging question for me is: Is it possible to have the goal of growth as "the" end in education ["the educative process can be identified with growth" (36)] without a fairly definite idea (or ideal) about what this growth ought to tend toward? I think one must have an ideal, lest growth simply be an end in itself (growth for growth's sake), which leads towards ambiguity, incoherence, and perhaps even nihilism.

All of this growth talk by Dewey makes me think of the various schools of Utilitarianism with their future-oriented calculi: whatever brings the most happiness/pleasure for the majority, well that's the right thing to do. By invoking growth and the way he defines it without a goal for the human subject, one seems to be always stuck in the future (perhaps this makes the term progress apropos indeed).

[At some point it would be interesting to look at Dewey's ideal of growth in light of the biological fact of death. If death is the end for Dewey, then why bother with all this growth? Growth would seem to lead only to nothingness. Maybe later we can look at this.]

Dewey's growth (unlike Aristotle's flourishing, which is linked to excellence), lacks any end beyond more growth. "Growth without end, amen." Such is the prayer of Dewey.

I'm not persuaded. Dewey has the ideal opportunity to address the concerns people have about his definition of growth (really, a lack of definition) and how he would distinguish "good" from "bad" growth: "[A] man who starts out on a career of burglary may grow in that direction, and by practice may grow into a highly expert burglar. Hence it's argued that 'growth' is not enough; we must also specify the direction in which growth takes place, the end towards which it tends" (36). Indeed, we must; however, Dewey never does.

The closest he seems to come to a specification of ends is to say that good growth is the growth that has "opportunities for continuing growth in new directions" (36). Coming back to our burglar, we would seem to have no way of judging whether or not the "school of theft" is educative or mis-educative: if he grows in skill and expertise, this might be enough. Who ultimately is the judge of growth untethered from tradition, ethics and anthropology?

#1 Is it reasonable to accept such a premise (growth and its inherently subjective nature) when it is on its face so incoherent? (If one were to say the goal of eating is more eating - would this persuade anyone?)
#2 How can a thinker who is all about democracy and community base his educative project on such a subjective premise?
#3 If it is possible to build democracy and community on such a principle, is it not necessary for the community (or the majority) to be in charge of creating conditions for appropriate growth or defining what is appropriate? (I'm tending toward thinking this is what Dewey is suggesting at some level.)

Next time: something about Dewey's use of biblical allusions or his definition of the aim(s) of education.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Dewey III

One out of three ain't bad

I had hoped to discuss what John Dewey thinks experience is, how it can be (or cannot be) communicated, and its telos, but at least through the second chapter, he has not given a defintion of experience. I had assumed that he would provide a definition because he says, "To know the meaning of empiricism we need to understand what experience is" (25).

Communicating experience. He does suggest that teachers help students experience things in an orderly fashion: "It is [the educator's] business to arranged for the kind of experiences which ... engage [the student's] activities and ... promote desirable future experiences" (27). Something curious about this the lack of his discussion of inter-subjectivity. That is, he does not discuss how one can create a lesson that is for one student a powerful, life-changing experience, but for another student it is "boring." (What teacher hasn't seen this?). In any event, we'll see if he goes into communication of experience in more detail.

I'm happy to report that he does define what the end or goal of experience is: further future experience. No joke. Here are a couple of examples:

Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of afresting or distroting the growth of further experience (25).

"[Y]oung people in traditional schools do have experiences [but the trouble is] their defective and wrong character -- wrong and defective from the standpoint of connection with further experience" (27).

Wholly indepedent of desire or intent, every experience lives on in further experiences. Hence the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences (27-28).

"[A] coherent theory of experience ... is required by the attempt to give new diretion to the work of the schools.... It is a matter of growth, and there are many obstacles which tend to obstruct growth and to deflect it into wrong lines" (30)

All of these are from Experience and Education, but this zinger comes from Democracy and Education: "The educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end" (59).

If this is accurate, I think Dewey's view has staggeringly negative anthropological implications: humanity has no goal, no center, no point of reference beyond "growth" or the "educational process."

Questions so far in this chapter:

#1 Why doesn't he discuss his own experience (either as a student or as an educator)? This chapter is entirely too disengaged from any discussion relating to students and teachers (not even anecdotally do either show up).

#2 Dewey thinks that the empirical sciences "offer the best" kind of educational organization but he doesn't say why. Why?

#3 Is it ultimately coherent to say the primary purpose of education is to have experiences that lead to more experiences, ad infinitum? To achieve that goal, one could play in traffic, take hikes, read books.... Anything would seem to achieve the goal of richer, worthier, better experiences.

#4 How does Dewey's thought converge/diverge from Aristotle? I was think of Dewey's growth and Aristotle's flourishing. Are they compatible?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Dewey II

I remember a talk that Lorenzo Albacete gave a dozen years ago in Denver. At one point he said something like this: "All of these people running around talking about their experiences, but they're not talking about ex-perience because it's all about them.... All real experiences come from the outside, not our own subjectivity."

For some reason I recalled Albacete's remarks in my reading of Dewey. I'm now delving into chapter two of Experience and Education and I'm finding that Dewey seems to suggest something erroneous about what experience is and how it can be communicated. But first, something positive about Dewey (lest I never get there!):

The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative (25).

Again, experiences may be so disconnected from one another that, while each is agreeable or even exciting in itself, they are not linked cumulatively to one another. Engergy is then dissipated and a person becomes scatterbrained (26).
Just so. An experience is not merely a "something" that happens, for then we would talk about the experiences of monkeys and lions; rather, an experience requires a something, an event, but also reflection and an understanding of what the event means. Otherwise it's just one damn thing after another.

Next time I'll pick up on where I think Dewey goes off the rails with his understanding of what experience is, how it can be (or cannot be) communicated, and its telos.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

John Dewey I

Just started John Dewey's Experience and Education. It's come highly recommended from someone I admire and respect; others have spoken highly of Dewey too. I'm trying to be open to anything me might have to say that could be useful.

As an undergrad I took a philosophy course devoted to Dewey's thought. What a mortifying experience. Terrible writer. And vague. Mystifications from a famous pragmatist. Well, everyone - especially one departed - deserves a second chance.

Experience and Education is allegedly a clear and concise overview of Dewey's approach to education. In the preface he says that he will "call attention to the larger and deeper issues of Education" (p. 6). We'll see. I'm open - no, really.

The Joy of Spring Break

How useful to step off the merry-go-round that teaching can be. Intense year, intense semester. Stepping back gives perspective (good, bad, ugly).

Began and finished Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut is so "unsummarizable" that I will merely point out that he has a great capacity for showing the depths of our human needs in a way that is always funny, profound, and unresolved - he was the president of a humanist organization, after all).

Began Augustine's Confessions and Chris Hedges' I Don't Believe in Atheists. Augustine is moving and deeply personal; Hedges not so much. Trying to "dip into" Augustine a little each week (I think I've got what I can out of Hedges' book, so I may stop reading - God love reporters, but they seem to have a real knack being superficial and annoying.)

Augustine on Cicero's Hortensius: "What won me in it was what it said, not the excellence of its phrasing" (p. 38, Sheed translation).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

David Brooks on Obama's Education

No Picnic for Me Either is the title of Brooks' March 12, 2009 piece in the NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/13/opinion/13brooks.html?_r=1&ref=opinion).

Here are my thoughts on what Brooks had to say. He seems completely correct at this point:

"We’ve spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher. You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience."

Just so. A minor oversight here is that relationships, while not wholly dictated by school structures, are certainly influenced by these structures. They can be more or less human. Although Brooks doesn't mention this school model by name, it sounds like he is familiar with the Big Picture model. They focus on "relevance, rigor and relationships" and are having some tremendous results.

Now for the Great Lacuna: What about our need for total meaning? Do human relationships exhaust our need for Relationship? Hell, no. Here is the problem with all reforms that don't acknowledge our existential depths: they possess an emaciated anthropology that doesn't admit of the Mystery. The teacher may possess it (and in this case, no power in the world can suppress it), but if it isn't given tacit acknowledgment, we're really just deluding ourselves and our students.

We seem to still be a long way away from acknowledging the depths of reality in education. Given the way government funding limits what schools can say about ultimate reality, we have a real dilemma on our hands. Like something out of the film The Village, God has become "Him we don't speak of" in public education. (For how absurd jurisprudence has become in this area, read about the coach in New Jersey who is forbidden from joining his players in prayer - as if students are too stupid to separate the coach from the State! )

(Here's a link to that story: http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2009/03/supreme_court_rejects_east_bru.html)

The courts can continue to stifle the freedom of adults in the name of the liberation of youth, but the questions of the heart cannot be silenced. Let us pray for the courage to educate in a fully human way - no matter what the obstacles.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Revisting Fight Club I

What does this film have to do with education?

That's what I asked myself as I watched it again for the nth time. I think that the short answer is "more than you'd think."

The protagonist (for clarity I'll call him "Rupert") seems to have everything going for him: a decent job, a condo, the ability to afford Ikea products, etc. Yet he can't sleep. In fact he's had severe insomnia for a year. Materially he's full; spiritually, empty.

Rupert finds temporary solace in attending support groups for people struggling with disabling and life-threatening diseases (significantly, the first support group is for men with testicular cancer). It is only temporary because he finds that the presence of another impostor at these support groups, "Marla" (played magnificently by Helena Bonham Carter) means he once again cannot sleep. Marla serves as a provocation, both in Rupert's attraction to her and his need to move beyond a mere emotional catharsis to physical violence (those who think the point of this film is violence have completely misread it, I think).

Beauty and violence serve as points of transcendence for Rupert. Ultimately beauty wins out, but violence serves as a channel of grace (in a way that I think Flannery O'Connor might well appreciate) and, ultimately, love. This film is about the irrepressibility of the heart and our need for meaning and friendship and love.

Dead Ends

Admittedly, the film is more about what does not satisfy the human heart. There is a veritable laundry list of what does not satisfy our deep human needs. Tyler's "homily" deserves to be quoted in full here (found in full at http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Fight-Club.html, but I've modified it to reflect the dialogue as found in the final edit of the film)

I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived -- an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertisements have us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need.

We are the middle children of history, man, with no purpose or place.

We have no great war, or great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We were raised by television to believe that we'd be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars -- but we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed-off.

Tyler finds that violence does not satisfy his need for total fulfillment. What materialistic society offers is not an adequate answer. He will choose a two fold path: violence that moves from his fellow man to the structures of economic injustice in society, and the path of friendship and love (via Bob and Marla). The former has the louder voice in the film, but the latter wins out.

The Path of Communion

It might sound irreverent to call this a religious film, but I think it is (albeit in a very confused and halting fashion). There are clues sprinkled all around: (1) Rupert's tears on Bob's shirt that mimic Veronica's Veil; (2) the secrecy of the fight club "liturgy": like the early Church, outsiders are not let in ("The first rule of fight club is that you do not talk about fight club"), the fighting occurs in a basement (cf. the catacombs), the doors are closed to the initiated; (3) after Bob's death, the members of Project Mayhem take up a definite liturgical dimension: "His name is Robert Paulson; his name is Robert Paulson..."

It is Bob's death that shakes up Rupert to begin asking serious questions about himself - again, for the first time. Ulimate violence leads to a moment of grace: asking the questions that matter. Bob's death leads Rupert to discover two profound things: first, he is not who he thinks he is (or rather Tyler is not who he seems) and second, his profound love for Marla (he sends here away on a bus for her safety and confesses that her good is more important to him than her presence).

A Happy Ending and Beginning

Rupert's rununciation of holding on to Marla allows him to free himself from his shadow, Tyler. By beginning to love the other, he can finally have affection for his own humanity and emerge from the toxic shadow of Tyler. The form this takes is a kind of dying of self; a kind of 9mm exorcism. ("The kingdom of heaven suffers violence - the violent bear it away"). From this violence to self, the tenderness of a reborn Tyler emerges. Marla takes pity on Tyler and her love overcomes all the dysfunction and abuse.

As civilization is levelled by the bombs, Tyler and Marla hold hands to behold a new beginning. They are now equal: witness the way their clothing matches (Tyler has not pants, only boxer shorts which match Marla's skirt).

But what does this film have to do with education?

Ultimately, this film reminds me that the needs of my students cannot ever be met merely by material satisfaction. That going to college is a worthy goal, but is not sufficient for happiness. It reminds me that education is "always more." That it is openness to reality if it is real education.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What's wrong with American Schools? Anthropology for Starters

The British author G.K. Chesterton was asked (along with other U.K. luminaries) by an English newspaper, "What's wrong with the world?" His response was as follows:

Dear Sirs,
I am.

I think what is most atrocious in American education is our lack of regard for the humanity of the student. Often lip service is paid to things like a "student-centered curriculum" or leaving no child behind, but generally the rhetoric about children is a clever way for the adults (teachers, school boards, principals, administrators, governors, presidents, et al) to at once appear concerned about kids while retaining their hold on power.

What is lacking in far too many schools is a concern for the "I" in Chesterton's reply.

We are a homeschooling family and I teach at a public school (a damn good one, I might add). We don't think homeschooling is the right choice for all families, but we do insist that until we find schools that are concerned with our kids integral development, we don't plan on sending our kids to those schools. (The school I teach at is a high school and we do plan on sending at least one of our kids there when he is old enough)

Our culture is saturated with reductions of the human person: The person as economic cog in a vast financial machine. As a family, materialism doesn't interest us - regardless if that materialism flows from the mind of Adam Smith or Karl Marx or any of their progeny. Yet that is what most public schools offer: a "pragmatic" education that focuses on skills without reference to the meaning of life.

The justification for ignoring meaning (except in the occasional literature class) is often "church state separation." Yeah, best to ignore issues that might bring in a hail of lawsuits in our litigious culture. Or not.

Of course even the term "public education" seems to be a farce when public ideas, values, debates, religions, and ideologies are barred from the school house. (When I was crabbier I refused to use the term public education and substituted "government education," but the latter term is also misleading.)

The fundamental problem, as I see it is that we fear asking two or three questions because they could/would upset the status quo. Question #1: What is the human person? Question #2 What is education, really? Question #3: What would an adequate education of the human person require?

There's a can of worms! I have my "answers" to these three questions, but I'd like to hear what others have to say....

Sunday, March 15, 2009

New Description; Similar Focus

The description for this blog since its inception read:

This site is devoted to inquiring about how a charter high school can be developed in Colorado that takes into account the human heart. "Sophia Academy" has been proposed because we take it as axiomatic that what is needful in our time, and for the next generation (hence, a high school) is Wisdom (both theoretical and practical). Our name may change in the future, but we will still be concerned with Wisdom and see this is as the sine qua non for Happiness.

The idea for a new school continues to percolate, but the focus is now broadened to include reflections on education in general, with an emphasis on a truly humanistic (in a fuller sense of the term) education. We hope to examine various bright spots in education and engage in critical reflection where there seems to be a reduction of the human person or freedom or the pursuit of truth. As before, our focus will be the high school level.

Education: Prisons and Schools

(This piece was published sometime in February, 2009 for the Denver Post online edition)

Why do our public schools lack so many public ideas? Look outside of school and find a cacophony of ideas, viewpoints and opinions; turn inward and inoffensiveness is found to be the defining characteristic. This absurdity crystallized for me several years ago as my class was exploring some point of Plato at a prison in northeastern Colorado: an inmate remarked that in prison one speaks of neither religion nor politics. “Good gravy!” I exclaimed, “Then what else is there to talk about – sports?”

Sadly, in this respect some public schools resemble penitentiaries. To exclude religion and politics from education means to radically diminish questions about where we came from and where we are going. Our schools should be places where ideas – radical and conservative alike – are argued for and against. They ought not to be places where we facilely equate high test scores with deep thoughts or assume a school is great because many students are taking Advanced Placement courses.

Part of our problem is that we don't know what we mean when we use the term “education.” In The Risk of Education, Luigi Giussani says that “to educate means to help the human soul enter into the totality of the real.” This seems to be a very satisfactory definition, but I will leave the reader to judge how well the typical public, charter, private, parochial or home-school educates to this standard.

Today our schools seem to be driven more by what can't be done than by what needs to be done. Rather than help students to discover reality, in and out of the four walls of the school building, the curriculum is reduced to a kind of lowest common denominator, lawsuit-proof, tapioca pudding: almost tasteless but inoffensive. Here are three fascinating topics that get roundly mistreated:

Sex. It becomes mere plumbing, hygiene and safety. No commitment, no adventure, no meaning. Then there's our human origins. We act as if Darwin's theory is – by itself – an adequate answer to the question, “What is man?” The more interesting metaphysical questions are entirely bracketed.

Lastly, there's God. The less said about God the better. I once had a (high school!) principal who said that because Christmas was rolling around, we teachers had best keep our mouths shut if students asked what we thought Christmas meant. While such overt censorship as this is rare, his comments do reflect a common attitude about God and education.

One can trace the problem of maligning and mismanaging God, man and sex back to a certain incoherence in the First Amendment itself. It speaks of both non-establishment of religion and free exercise of religion. Our schools seem to have taken the pragmatic course of ensuring that nothing gets established or exercised.

While none of us likely to solve the great church-state separation debate, we can surely reflect more deeply on the goals of education. Suppose that all of us – like Giussani – actually believe that young people ought to be introduced to all of reality. How might that change what we ask of schools and the kinds of graduates they turn out?

This is a question that educator Dennis Littky has asked and answered. In The Big Picture: Education is Everyone's Business, he writes, “Over the course of three decades watching kids walk into my schools, I have decided I want them to be lifelong learners, creative, ready to take risks; to have integrity and self-respect; to have moral courage; to truly enjoy their life and their work.”

Like a good disciple of Aristotle, Littky insists that these results are attainable if we keep in mind the kind of student we want to see graduate. It is possible if we help the student discover reality in all of its splendor – without setting limits on what the student might learn. What our schools need is more reality, more humanity, more risk and less ideology.

[Matt McGuiness teaches at a public school in Denver]