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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Education, Institutions and Accountability (Part I)

Earlier this week there was a horrid article by Susan Greene in the Denver Post entitled "Who would Jesus fire?" that lamented the firing of a Director of Religious Education at a Catholic parish because of her sexual immorality - oops, I mean her "preference." Ms. Greene was mortified that a church and pastor would actually expect a staff member to practice what she (allegedly) teaches, namely, such things as the sacrament of marriage and lacking that, sexual continence.

This article did get me thinking about what it is that secular institutions such as public schools and universities do stand for. Is there anything beyond competence in subject matter? I think there is very little that would get one censured or remove from a post unless the activity were illegal. That's a fascinating thing, really: secular has come to mean all is permitted unless it is illegal. Thus, in theory, if bigamy were legalized (and with the push for gay marriage, it is difficult to find grounds to argue against bigamy), the bigamist would have as much job security tenure as anyone else.

Beyond these moral questions, the deeper question is, "What do institutions of learning stand for?" Hmm.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ian McEwan's Saturday

Surely McEwan is an artist. But an artist at the service of what, exactly? If absurdity rests in answering a question that hasn't been asked, then near absurdity would seem to also consist of mundane answers or simply skirting deep and provocative questions. The latter is my take on Saturday.

The story begins with Henry Perowne waking early and seeing a burning aircraft fly across the sky of early morning London. This sets him on all kinds of metaphysical musings:

If Perowne were inclined to religious feeling, to supernatural explanations, he could play with the idea that he's been summoned; that having woken in an unusual state of mind, and gone to the window for no reason, he should acknowledge a hidden order, an external intelligence which wants to show or tell him something of significance (16).

But for Theo's [Henry's son] sincerely godless generation, the question [of theodicy] hasn't come up. No one in his bright, plate-glass, forward-looking school ever asked him to pray, or sing an impenetrable cheery hymn. There's no entity for him to doubt (32).
But these musing don't extend into or penetrate far into Henry's world. His agnosticism or practical atheism seems to be summed up here:

Perowne regards this [religiously motivated behavior] as a matter for wonder, human complication beyond the reach of morals. From it there spring, alongside unreason and slaughter, decent people and good deeds, beautiful cathedrals, mosques, cantatas, poetry. Even the denial of God, he was once amazed and indignant to hear a priest argue, is a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer: it's not easy to escape from the clutches of the believers (17).

God, religion, faith - these are superstitions at best, violent perversions at worst. Not realities at the very heart of human experience. So what is the driving force behind Henry's life? Work, it would seem. He and wife Rosalind are typically modern here:

Well, in ambitious middle life it sometimes seems there is only work. He can be at the hospital until ten, then it can pull him from his bed at 3 a.m., and he can be back there again at eight. Rosalind's work proceeds by a series of slow crescendos and abrupt terminations as she tries to steer her newspaper away from the courts. For certain days, even weeks on end, work can shape every hour; it's the tide, the lunar cycle they set their lives by, and without it, it can seem, there's nothing. Henry and Rosalind are nothing (23).
Yes, nothing. This is profoundly insightful about the nature of modernity: without something constantly pecking at us, we disappear. I don't say it isn't in some sense true, but I do insist that it is outrageous. That McEwan doesn't discern the outrageousness of it furthers my outrage.

I don't want to give away the ending, but it seems to me that the questions set forth above are answered by a certain flattening of these questions. It is enough to do one's duty as an Englishmen and a surgeon. Human questions? These must stay within the realm of the pragmatic; if it is mysterious, it can't exist.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Newspeak, Eduspeak (Part I)

The latest buzzword: effective. Colorado children need effective teachers; every student deserves an effective teacher; teachers will be evaluated on their effectiveness.

Hmm, let's define effective: "producing a decided, decisive, or desired effect" (Merriam-Webster).

Once again slogans and jargon are taking the place of thought. Left out of the discussion is what constitutes or is the defining characteristic of "effective teaching." I'll take my cue from Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos here and see if I can shed light on the question by posing several possibilities of what the effective teacher is or does.

(a) The effective teacher is one who connects with all of his students and helps each one of them to explore the mystery of the universe in unique and unexpected ways. This teacher is like Socrates, Jesus and Buddha all rolled into one, except he does not alienate anyone. He is able to impart wisdom simply by his presence. All of his students are above average and getting better and better, every day and in every way.

(b) The effective teacher improves all students' performance on standardized tests and clearly the students learn other great things as well. He's loved by all.

Question: Did you notice the farcical quality of options A & B? If not, you are probably a political commentator, politician, or a member of a non-profit organization that concerns itself with education reform. It is unlikely you have children of your own or that you are a teacher or spend much time on this planet.

(c) The effective teacher figures out how he will be evaluated and maximizes his efforts in these areas. If effectiveness is measured by standardized tests, the teacher focuses on techniques and imparting knowledge of these things. If, on the other hand, his evaluation depends on something else, something else is what the teacher delivers. This teacher is like a mirror for what is asked of him by the dominant power. He is truly self-less.

(d) The effective teacher cares not a whit about the latest fad in education or his own fate because of his disinterest in said fad. This teacher is really good at communicating some very important things to some students, helping many students some of the time, confusing a few students not so often. In short, this teacher is very human.

(e) The effective teacher is a combination of C & D.

(f) The effective teacher is undefinable and unclassifiable. First because we don't know (or agree) on what we want concerning outcomes with students. Second, we don't know why some techniques "work" (have an effect on a group of students) while those same techniques in the hands of another teacher teaching another group of students fail miserably. In other words, teaching is more art than science, but, living as we do, in the age where technology seems capable of solving all of our problems, we're unwilling to admit that science and technology can't help us much here. We're back to Plato in the Meno where Socrates asks, "Can virtue be taught?" Like Meno, we want to reduce the question. Thus we spend enormous amounts of time, energy and money attempting to do what cannot be done: making education a purely rational (abstract) activity.


Friday, May 07, 2010

Colorado Education "Reform" Part I

Part of the subtext of the debate around SB 191 seems to be the idea that teachers should be held accountable for the one factor that is fundamentally beyond their control: the interior freedom of the student. Yes, a good teacher can help a student to have academic growth. So too might an inert teacher witness a student grow academically. Furthermore, a brilliant teacher may have a student who flat-lines or even declines in the course of a year. The teacher is one factor among many - sometimes central, other times peripheral.

Any teacher who has the courage to be honest amid all this smoke and fury will tell you that he has witnessed numerous intellectually capable student tank tests for frankly mysterious reasons. Apathy, indifference, nay, even hostility - these and countless other factors can and do reside in the souls of our students. Unless and until we embrace the Spartan ideal of putting our youth in barracks so that we so-called experts can have total control, please don't expect teachers to take sole responsibility for the academic shenanigans of students. If you do that, I will refrain from boasting that I am the reason for my students' enlightenment and growth.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Ahistoricism and education

Jeez, the abuse scandal stuff and the luridness of the media is getting tedious. At the risk adding sound and fury, here's my contribution:

The secular consensus seems to be that a good thing would be married clergy, gay marriage, condoms for all, a “zero tolerance policy” for sex crimes, and extravagant payouts for victims. This litany is trotted out as “the answer.”

I guess I don't have enough hubris to claim to know “the answer” (dear reader, please recall T.S. Eliot's injunction against “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”).

Those who possess worldly wisdom have what they think is the answer, but I seriously wonder how many of them have even asked the question, “Why not pedophilia?” I'm not being glib; this is a serious question.

Yes, my secular friends, in a certain sense, the Church has “brought this on herself.” It was Christianity who told the pagans (my beloved Socrates died before he got the memo) to give up pederasty. Without Christianity, without Christians, in short, without the Church, there is no guarantee that the nauseating “boy love” we find in Plato's “Symposium,” for example, would not be normative today. It was wrong then; it is wrong now, yet without the Church you wouldn't know that.

Friday, March 26, 2010

NAEP 2009 - A Personal Reflection

The March 25 edition of The Denver Post tells us that "Students' reading scores show little progress" (3A). I couldn't help but think, "No surprise, that." It seems that often overlooked by the media of the dominant mentality are the roles of parents and culture in education.

Here is a typical quotation from one invested in the status quo:

"I really think that there are tremendous implications for the quality of teaching and the development of school leadership to make sure we have high performing schools across the country," said Steven Paine, superindendent of West Virginia schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests" (Ibid.).
God bless him, but, really? I'm grasping for a metaphor here that might convey my exasperation with the assumption that pathetic test results can be changed by tweaking the current system or that it is the exclusive domain of teachers and schools to "fix" these students. Here's a possible metaphor:

Suppose you're the captain of The Titanic and you realize there's this huge gash in your ship. Instead of dealing with that problem, you decide to retrain your observation personnel. You tell yourself that the gaping hole in your ship is really beyond your capacity, but getting everyone up to speed on the latest techniques for effective use of bincoulars is something you can control.
Naturally, the ship sinks.
Silly, right? Well, the dominant ideas surrounding education are not far from this outlandish and absurdist scenario. The "huge gash" is the students who don't read because they are in households where computers, televisions and ipods have replaced books, magazines and conversation; the ship's captain stands for those "professionals" who always have the answers but remain blissfully unaware of the questions; the training in observation and binocular use represents the pathetic attempts to overcome overriding cultural indifference among the general population by teaching teachers new techniques and strategies of dubious value.

Yesterday I was made aware of the barbarizing effect of technology on good students. We're reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road in one of my English classes. I'm blessed with this small cohort of students who have superior reading abilities. I started the class by asking the group if they had been keeping up on the reading. The majority have and it shows in their penetrating observations about the text.

After class a student approached me and said, "I have a confession to make. I haven't done the reading." (This really surprised me because he had advocated strongly for this book at the beginning of the trimester.) He continued, "This weekend we got Netflicks and I've been watching all of these killer movies. I've got to stop." I said, "Yeah, you only have so much time and space in your life and if you do one thing, it means you can't do another."

This student is in a great place: he has sufficient self-awareness to recognize that if he follows the logic of entertainment, it will displace reading.

How is that this high school student can see it but the educrats can't?

No, Virginia, you can't have it all. If you want an education, you'll simply have to unplug.