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

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]