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.