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

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wanted: school with a positive hypothesis

I came across this interesting paragraph in Giussani's The Religious Sense:
The position of doubt makes us incapable of action. I remember reading in a newspaper one time about a certain school established in the United States. Its purpose was to form a special capacity for invention of super-intelligent children. In other words, it was a school for educating geniuses, became coming up with new inventions is an act of genius. The entire school was designed to teach children to approach problems with a positive hypothesis. The worst thing in the world is to place oneself in front of reality with a hypothesis, not necessarily negative, but simply suspended. In such a situation, one no longer advances (p. 127).
Anyone out there in cyberspace know what school Giussani was referring to? Did it ever get up and running? Does it still exist?

Friday, December 09, 2011

Horace's Compromise

Like Shirer's Rise and Fall, Theodore Sizer's Horace's Compromise was on my "to read" list for some time. I admit that I approached it expecting progressive claptrap about the problem of education being "the man" and how if we can all just learn to get along, education will (some day!) save us from ourselves or other hooey.

On the contrary

This is an amazing book on at least two counts. First, Sizer is able to take his experience of visiting hundreds of schools and distill what are undoubtedly dozens of teachers and students and create composite characters that ring true. Second, Sizer is profoundly realistic about the prospects of meaningful education reform and what that would really mean (versus the babble ABOUT reform coming from all sides).

The prologue alone is worth the price of the book (but it can be found for free at the above link) and I couldn't put it down after reading the prologue. What struck me is how Sizer is able to point out the obvious without condescension or undue criticism: he sees peoples' humanity throughout.

Sizer may not be my new BFF (well, he died two years ago, so that would make it impossible!) but he has given me a lot to chew on. I disagree with him on some things (such as his apparent willingness to equate a secular education with a complete education) but agree whole-heartedly with him on others: teachers must be treated as professionals and as human beings; students must be held accountable and told to figure out more on their own; primacy must be given to the school as a place of intellectual "work" not other things - no matter how noble.

Thoughts - stolen and derived - for a new school

Here's a rough list:
  • Promise to do less but really do it
  • Articulate clearly what is primary and what is secondary, and let the secondary stuff fall away if necessary
  • Avoid at all costs of the never-ending compromise of adding "just one more thing" to teachers' to do lists
  • Writing should be the center of schooling (Hmm, see page 104)
  • Coaching as a task of teachers (and tutors)
  • Teacher to student contact time - keep it somewhere between college professors and what it currently is (gravy, if my counting is right, it was about 32 on paper at MEC - patently absurd, Charlotte & Co.!)
  • Teachers draw out what is inherently interesting in their subjects (versus facile "relevance" or drill and kill)

Much to mull over and explore. Sizer has done something profoundly interesting. May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Rise and Downfall

Although it is not the longest book I've ever read, it comes close: William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This is a book I've wanted to read since I was in sixth grade. It was far too daunting for me then, but it was worth the wait.

A mere summary?

I tell people that this book is an interesting summary of Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazism in a "mere" 1143 pages (plus notes). But it is a summary in the sense that one gets a feel for the major players and events but at no point is there a lot of historical depth.

Still, there is enough context and detail that events such as the rescue at Dunkirk are riveting even though one knows the final outcome.

One becomes aware of so many lost opportunities to stop Hitler early on, but one is also left with the sense that he might very well have gotten away with far more than he did and the present world order could be far different. Chilling.

Existential lessons

Perhaps what moved me the most in reading this book was the realization of things I've left undone or unsaid out of fear or of human respect or God-knows-what. I'm thinking of some events in the last few years in my professional life where I was a guilty bystander. Letting the emperor proclaim how great his (or her) new wardrobe was -- knowing all the while it was utter nonsense, or, worse still, harmful nonsense which did sensible and perhaps permanent harm to decent people.

Those omissions of mine - how were they any different from the silences of so many Germans in the 30s and 40s? We are all so ready to declaim, "THEY should have known better," but the plain fact is that they is us: my humanity, their humanity, your humanity - it is the same. Sure, the weight of the situation is different, but that points out the merely obvious by way of evasion.

Enter Downfall

If Shirer's book is a summary of the Nazi period, the same is true of the film Downfall of it's final days. Bruno Ganz is brilliant as Hitler: one gets a sense of his madness for sure, but also his "tenderness" and pockets of humanity that are hidden behind the famous mustache.

The film is based largely on a memoir of one of Hitler's secretaries, Traudl Jung (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) and much of the action is seen from her perspective. In an older documentary, an old Traudl addresses the "how could you?" question. She admits that it seemed to her for many years that she was not culpable for much of anything and then, one day, something happened. She came upon a memorial to Sophie Scholl and the White Rose movement. She saw Sophie's date of birth and realized they were the same age. The same age but such different responses to Nazism! It was there that she realized she could have acted differently.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Art of Getting By (Gavin Wiesen, Director)

Half way into this film I was enthralled; by its conclusion I was annoyed and glum. This is a film that -- through the protagonist played at once oddly creepy and attractive by Freddie Highmore -- asks all the right questions but fails to follow the logic of those questions.

George is a high school senior at a fancy pants prep school in NYC who has been led by the following bit of pop existentialist philosophy -- "you are born alone, die alone and everything else is an illusion"* -- to despair of doing anything meaningful. Despite the despair inherent in the slogan, George is quite chipper and expends vast amounts of energy doing what he wants and avoiding doing what The Man would have him do: study hard, takes tests, and prepare to go to a fancy pants college.

Surely there must be more to life?

Indeed, George's intuition that there is more to life is profoundly correct, but he takes the ever-popular romantic shortcut into enlightenment: falling in love. Don't get me wrong: love, beauty -- these and many more can be a path toward the truth about oneself. But in this film I was reminded of the glib "sex as salvation" tonic fobbed off on moviegoers in Titanic. George's relationship with Sally Howe (Emma Roberts) seems like too pat an answer to George's questions. It left me feeling like the film was suggesting that the way to get the girls is to play the moody existentialist. (That may well be true, by the way.)

Perhaps the film should have been entitled Go Along to Get Along, for if the heart can be satisfied by loves that do not exceed what immediately confronts us, then George will be a happy camper by being successful according to someone else's criteria.

*Orson Welles may be the source of this quotation; I didn't pursue it very far online.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Doing what Dewey discoursed about but decidely did not do

Experience and Education

Years ago (Francis J. Stafford was still the archbishop), Lorenzo Albacete gave a talk to Catholic catechists and school teachers. He spoke about how so many people are running around these days talking about experience but because they are so solipsistic or materialistic, they really aren't talking about experience, per se, but something much smaller and limited.

While re-reading portions of John Dewey's Experience and Education I thought of what Albacete said. Dewey was of course a thorough anti-religionist and materialist, so one wonders if he ought to entitled his book "Interactions and Education" or "Stimulus, Response and Education." This might have cheated him of the opportunity to further devalue the English language, but it might have made for a book with greater clarity.

Etymologically, ex-perience indicates the perception of something that does not originate in me; it has its origin in something other or Other. Thus ontologically one realizes that the self is not the center of reality but that all has been given. Experience in depth opens one to the transcendent; experience with the preconception of positivism leads a flattening of everything -- the center does not hold.

One will search in vain to find a coherent discussion of either education or experience in Experience and Education. But perhaps the title of Dewey's work is useful inasmuch as it points to what should be obvious to everyone: education ought to an experience that means something.

Bring out the Juice...

What Dewey cannot do, Luigi Giussani (aka, "The Juice") does do: dissolve the false opposition between so-called traditional and so-called progressive pedagogies.

Giussani recognized in The Risk of Education that a partial education will tend to be ideological (be it political or religious in nature) and that the goal of human (hence, authentic and complete) education is an education in freedom:
What we want -- and this is our purpose here -- is to free the young generation from mental slavery and from the tendency to conform, which mentally enslaves them to the forces in society (11)
In order to do this he proposes three simple (but by no means easy) premises for a pedagogical approach:
  1. Present the past in a suitable form (tradition)
  2. The content of tradition is discovered in one's own life right here, right now (experience)
  3. Tradition and experience must be reflected upon and judged (criticism) [pages 8-9]
The dominant approaches to education may possess one or sometimes two of these elements, but one does not find a major "pedagogical school" that takes all three into consideration. Thus
  • Progressives may link criticism and experience but neglect to take tradition seriously (e.g., "critical pedagogy" as espoused by the likes of Joan Wink)
  • Traditionalists too may value personal experience via interpretation of a text and surely value traditional/canonical texts but often are superficially critical (e.g., Mortimer Adler's Paideia Proposal)

Giussani has thus discovered (rediscovered?) an approach that prevents teachers from either being "gurus" who know it all or passive-aggressive "facilitators" who push an agenda. Students too benefit by this approach because they are taught something of substance (tradition) and encouraged to relate this to their own life experience and then take the crucial next step:

The young student will now explore the contents of his knapsack, critically comparing what's inside of it -- his received tradition -- with the longings of his heart. The final standard of judgment must be found inside of us, for otherwise we are alienated (9).

What can he possibly mean by the "standard of judgment must be found inside of us"? If you are expecting a shallow relativism, you'll be surprised.

Stay tuned for details for answers to these and other exciting pedagogical topics.

One small step...

It's only what I can conceive of in terms of providence: the Denver Post published a guest commentary by me for their online edition. This is my attempt to articulate the logical connection between school funding and a meaningful education in 21st century America. The full article can be found via the above link.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Such was the term used by friends of old of the protestant/fundamentalist variety years ago to express the voice of their conscience. "The Lord convicted me" or "I'm convicted about 'x'." Very recently I was convicted (or made aware, which is more precise) that I've spent a lot of virtual ink defining what I don't believe with respect to schooling, pedagogy, education funding, etc.; however, what has been lacking are positive proposals.

This awareness was sparked by re-reading Henry Edmondson's John Dewey and the Decline of American education: how the patron saint of schools has corrupted teaching and learning. In it, Edmondson criticizes both John Dewey's strawman approach to his opponents and his inability to clearly articulate his own point of view.

The "opposition-as-idiots" (also known as the fallacy of the straw man) is found especially in "Traditional vs. Progressive Education" in Experience and Education. Dewey opens by noting that people tend to think in extremes and then goes on to speak of "traditional" education as extremely wrong without giving a hint that it may have positive values. No, what is traditional fosters only "docility, receptivity, and obedience" (p. 18).

Dewey speaks of the need to "compromise" and not deal in extremes, but then spends the entire chapter engaging in a series of "either/or's" concerning so-called progressive versus traditional education:

  • To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity
  • to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience
  • to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal
  • to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life
  • to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world (19).
Dewey's point of view

If Dewey can't seem to move beyond stereotypes (concrete examples are notoriously lacking in Experience and Education; being his defensive re-statement of his views, it would have made a great deal of sense for him to deal in concrete realities rather than abstract notions -- isn't that supposed to his main point, that education ought to experiential?!), neither does he clearly articulate what he means.

My pledge

Thus I shall endeavor to avoid the missteps of Professor Dewey and state clearly what I believe about education and be as clear as possible. In addition, I will do my best to not misrepresent the view points of others. These things I will attempt to do at least frequently, if not always. This is a blog, after all.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Diverting money from public schools"?

Diane Ravitch repeats the above mantra in the September/October 2011 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Looking beyond the implied (and utterly false) doctrine that all of God's American children somehow belong to the public schools (a doctrine that was declared unconstitutional in the USSC's decision, Pierce et al. v. Society of Sisters in 1925: parents have the right to raise and educate their children in ways that they see fit and children are not "mere creatures of the State), it is evident that Professor Ravitch is a "glass half empty" kind of person.

One could view the departure of students from public schools as a good thing (in certain cases). We hear about school overcrowding -- what better way to decongest schools than to have some students go elsewhere? Yes, the public school loses some money, but it also has fewer students to teach.

Is Ms. Ravitch of the view that bigger is always better? Is the solution to education problems to maximize the number of students in a district or school in order to have large piles of cash or is the solution to be good stewards of the resources at hand?

The minute we begin looking at children as sources of revenue instead of as human beings, we know we've made a fundamental error.


Having criticized Ms. Ravitch, I must here add a point of agreement: the dangers of privatizing education. There is something perhaps ominous about education corporations emerging (well, they already exist) who shoot for instant (albeit short-term) results and big profits at the expense of students and parents. I'm not one who has complete faith in the invisible hand of the free-market.

I taught for three years at a charter high school in the Denver metro area (The New America School, co-founded by the businessman/politician, Jared Polis) and that experience illustrated to me the short-sightedness of the franchise model in education. In particular, the focus on growth and student enrollment.

LinkI recall attending a retreat in which the future of the school was being discussed. I mentioned that I thought the focus should be in establishing a sound pedagogy before pushing for more schools to open. I was in the minority on that one. A minority of one or two.

The corollary to growth is student enrollment (or "the numbers for October count"). This was a particularly shameful spectacle. Two examples:

1. Admitting the wrong kind of students. During my last year at the school we had a new principal who was literally obsessed with maximizing the number of students at the school. I can't recall even one student he advised to elsewhere. When a student comes to enroll with his probation officer, well, one would think one might hesitate about enrolling the student. No, no hesitation. Warm body = $. Violence, expulsion, sexual predator? No problem.

2. Gift cards. That same year the school was giving students $50 gift cards for students who referred friends to the school. They would get the card if the new student stayed through October count. Shameless.

Yes, the privateers can more easily succumb to the temptation to put dollars and cents ahead of pedagogical sense, but it is naive to think public schools are immune from the fixation on the bottom line.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What's so "public" about public education?

It seems to me that what is meant by "public" in public education is something rather diminutive and it certainly is not something that takes into account the values of most parents.

Public is governmental is secular. Another way to put this is that public education as it is currently configured is partial at best. It is not rooted in a particularly strong hypothesis of meaning nor does it generally even admit that it possesses one.

Should education be restricted to a certain, limited view of things or should it be a window that opens to all of the real? The Austrian Jesuit, Joseph Jungmann insisted that "education ought to be an introduction to the whole of reality." I've had secular educationists "agree" with me on this definition of education, but that was because their view of reality is truncated: secular reality is all they see.

The choices of inclusion and exclusion in what is considered "public" in our schools is very interesting:
  • anthropology, biology is included but spirit is excluded
  • metaphysically, the schools exude a soft agnosticism and fundamental questions such as "Does God exist?" are systematically avoided.
The regime of agnosticism makes "practical" sense because if students discovered God existed, where would we put Him [or Her] in the present curriculum?

But let's leave God out this for the moment. After ten years of teaching in the public schools I found it amazing that few teachers recognized that they themselves communicated a hypothesis of meaning to their students. It is as obvious as air and thus can similarly be taken for granted. What I observed in my colleagues was a hypothesis that went something like this:
  • if you study hard and go to college, you'll get a good job
Pretty thin gruel, that. I don't blame the teachers per se for promoting this view: they breathe it as we all do. We are all implicated in a culture we did not create. American culture is notoriously superficial and it is difficult to tell if that is because of public education or that our culture drives superficiality into education. Methinks it's a symbiotic relationship.

There are more adequate hypotheses (Neil Postman characterizes these as "gods" or stories or narratives in The End of Education) and not all of them are "faith-based." How so many intelligent and educated people can think that students can be truly and completely educated without having a clue about the meaning of life is something that I am not wise enough to puzzle through.

That the hypothesis of economic utility is ultimately empty and, literally, incredible, is evidenced by the indifference of the denizens of public high schools. Indifference? Life is a wonderful, mysterious adventure but the soft nihilism we preach in school leaves students bored and flaccid.

(This post is based on my response to a blog post by Deborah Meier in "Bridging Differences" in Education Week.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011


We received all of the first trimester grades yesterday. The results are mixed. One of our kids did "poorly" in several subject areas and yet I know he is bright and thoughtful. I also have a suspicion that may be why he did poorly grade-wise.

Poor grades can be a noble act of rebellion. The motive for disengaging can be "I'm not buying this crap." As a kid, what alternatives do you have? Adults can change majors or careers but middle school kids are stuck.

Now the task is discover the root of the lame grades.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Walker Percy's genius

I recently finished (again) Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome. It strikes me on this reading how masterfully he is able to create and sustain a mood that feels at once futuristic (e.g., the Qualitarian Centers) and historical (e.g., his description of pre-war Nazi Germany).

This book proposes (or hints) that the culture of death is an engine driven by nice, respectable people with the best of intentions and the highest of motives. Still, they lack just one thing: a sense of the dignity of the human person. The mystery of the person has been evacuated and the results are predictable:

Do you know where tenderness leads? Tenderness leads to the gas chamber (360).

So says Father Rinaldo Smith and the fact that he's crazy doesn't diminish the truth of what he sees and what he has experienced. We ignore him at our peril.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A film against Positivism

I approached this one with fear and trembling: a Danish film about a priest and a neo-Nazi. Yet within 30 seconds I was hooked and on the edge of my seat. Adam's Apples is a fascinating film about the nature of reality: is it good or bad; for us or against us?

The priest, Ivan, has a brain tumor that the doctor says prevents him from accepting things "as they are" but he may see more than meets the eye. The neo-Nazi, Adam, wants to disabuse the priest of his "rose-colored" view of the world and conspires to show him that "God hates him." He manages to convince the priest that this is the case based upon (the divinely or demonic) Book of Job which Adam encounters on no less than three occasions (all mysterious).

Ivan does lose his faith. He despairs and just doesn't give a damn about anything. And then something terrible and wonderful happens to him. I won't say what here, but this is a film worth seeing -- more than once. It is a film that makes me think of Flannery O'Connor, Life is Beautiful and Fight Club. Perhaps not THE Holy Trinity, but definitely three worth attending to; surely a film worth attending to as well.

What about the ten percent and the "other" one percent?

Last Friday was the first Veterans Day that I had off in years. It always annoys me that it is a low-grade holiday (for federal workers only it seems). This Veterans Day I called and emailed various people who have served: friends and family. I am shocked at how few veterans I know.

When I searched for all things military online I discovered (IAW U.S. Census stats) that about 10% of adults (18 and older) are veterans and a mere 1% of the population currently serves in the military. The latter seems to indicate that the odds are good that people in general know someone who knows someone who knows someone who is in the military in some capacity, but very few people know military personnel. I find this disturbing.

I suppose it's akin to knowing poor (really poor) people: if you ain't one, you don't know them.

When I was in the ARNG (up until March 1997), I was naturally in contact with all kinds of guys serving. Now? I know only one person on active duty. That seems really weird. Men and women bleeding and dying far away and they remain unknown (or worse, mere images on a screen) to us.

I want to do something to change this peculiar fact but I don't know what.

An Immodest Proposal

It has always seemed to me that universal conscription (i.e., the draft) is a good idea. One would think that the draft would make us very hesitant to wage wars when a broad swath of the male population was subject to getting shot at. That's probably just another one of my clever theories that has no basis in reality. It certainly wasn't the case that the draft prevented the Vietnam conflict!

Still, it seems that one percent is really low for a so-called Global War on Terror. Statistics I found in a population journal indicate that the current level of mobilization is the lowest ever in a major conflict. World War II was the biggest with 9+ percent and then steadily declining since then. One in ten to one in a hundred. It makes a big difference, I think about how one views war.

Naturally, neither an all-volunteer force or a conscripted force can abolish war, but I think there may be good civic reasons for bringing back the draft. One is simply the idea of solidarity: if I've trained as a soldier I have a better idea of what those in combat are facing (even if the most violence I saw in the military was accidentally getting shot at!). Next, a broader swath of the population gets an idea of what the military is and isn't. Finally, it puts rich and poor together in a way that doesn't happen very often.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Distracted from distraction by distraction

T.S. Eliot called it a place of disaffection, but young people generally call it "boredom." Somewhere Walker Percy traces the origin of the word to 14th century France. Apparently it's related to the word "to stuff." Thus one who is bored is over-stuffed with something. I witnessed a sample of that "something" recently at a local public library.

LinkA high school student arrived at a vacant desk popped open her binder and began to study (or so I thought). Three or four minutes must have elapsed. She pulled out a cellphone and chattered thus: "What are you doing? Do you want to come to the library? I'm so bored."

There is a wonderful but disturbing scene in Fight Club in which Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) kisses and then sprinkles "Rupert's" hand with lye. The pain is, of course, unimaginable. Tyler tells Jack: This is the greatest moment of your life and you're off somewhere in La-La Land, missing it.

That is the scene that popped into my head at the library. The ubiquity of technology strips us of patience, which is always a kind of suffering.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Finding Academic Freedom

Who would think that one would expereince academic freedom in the midst of Catholic homeschoolers? For many average folk and most educators, the homeschooling milieu is the last place one would seek out the freedom to teach.

Infinite Horizon

What is the nature of academic freedom? Historically, the idea of academic freedom arose in research institutions so that nutty ideas might be given an opportunity to flourish or be dis-confirmed. Academic freedom is supposed to be operative in institutions of higher learning but one wonders if the screening process weeds out innovative thinkers in advance.

Existentially, academic freedom is found in the teacher who is able to realize a harmony between where his heart is and where his research/inquiry leads. It means following reality and not losing one's teaching post as a result.

"Scopes" redux?

Historically informed readers may recall about the Tennessee case of years gone by where a teacher was convicted of teaching evolution. It's curious how "orthodoxy" in public schools has hardened to the point where the materialist is exalted and the theist is left out in the cold.

Can you imagine in Tennessee (or any other state) a teacher teaching religion as if it were true? Suddenly there are no appeals to academic freedom, but the teacher would be pilloried as a backward "impositionist." How dare he impose his views.

This is why religion ends up being discussed in schools less than pornography. If it can lead to trouble, why bother?

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Hubris of Low Expectations

I recall a Catholic retreat I attended in the early '90s while attending Metro State. The theme was "Peace, Peanut Butter and Cooking with Jesus." I'm not even kidding. One can well imagine the content and spirit of such a retreat!

Nevertheless, the retreat was useful in this sense: I met two people who had a benevolent influence on me (Ann Brna and Mike McManus). The latter had this to say: God, we're surrounded by theological midgets! This brief aphorism captured my feelings perfectly. I remember it often when I think of education reform.

Generally one thinks of the hubristic in terms of over-reaching or some form of presumption in the extreme: Hitler waging war on two fronts, Gary Hart daring reporters to follow him around, Bernie Madoff creating his elaborate Ponzi scheme, etc.

But when it comes to public education, we seem to suffer from chronic under-reach: we have no vision but the technical and all of these various techniques (often manipulative of the students) are not related to any other greater meaning. I groan inwardly when I hear teachers emphasizing college for their charges. "Alas," methinks, "Do you think deferring questions of life's meaning is useful for anyone?"

Somewhere Scripture has it: My people die for lack of vision. There's the education crisis in a nutshell: not what and how, but why. Finding the missing why is the key to education reform.

Neil Postman's Contribution

In his penultimate book, Neil Postman made an observation akin to that mythical child who pointed out that the Emperor was wearing no clothes:
At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living. Such an enterprise is not eaasy to pursue, since our politicians rarely speak of it, our technology is indifferent to it, and our commerce despising it. Nonetheless, it is the weightiest and most important thing to write about.

Not everyone agrees, of course. In tracking what people have to say about schooling, I notice that most conversation is about means, rarely about ends. Should we privitize our schools? Should we have national standards of assesment? How should we use computers? What use can we make of television? How shall we teach reading? And so on. Some of these questions are interesting and some are not. But what they have in common is that they evade the issue of what schools are for. It is as if we are a nation of technicians, consumed by our expertise in who something should be done, afraid or incapable of thinking about why (The End of Education, p. x)

He's spot on. We still have all the blather about education reform and nary a peep about ultimate goals (What kind of person should an educated person be? What kind of life is the good life -- irrespective of career choices? What bonds of friendship make life better (or worse)? What kinds of educational systems will facilitate or divert us from answering these questions in a positive way?)

Ah, Neil, I don't know what you believed about ultimate reality, but pray for us! We need all the help we can get.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Vilifying Voucherites

There is much to criticize in this commentary by John Young in last Sunday's Denver Post, but these four sentences are surely the most egregious:
They want their children associating with "people like me," as opposed to "those people."
And contrary to any other rhetoric, that's the No. 1 reason why some are so dedicated to the concept of school vouchers. It's not about education. It's about association.
There was a radio show from long ago that went something like this: Who knows what evil is in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows. Since he offers absolutely no evidence for this claim, one must conclude it is based upon an assumption or that John Young and The Shadow are really the same person.

Freedom of Association

Even supposing that it is true that some parents have "klannish" or racist intent, is that an argument against vouchers? The medieval maxim puts it this way: The abuse of something does not abrogate its legitimate use. But according Mr. Young freedom of association ought not to be universally available -- at least to parents of modest means.

An Existential Turn

I have no idea what kind of parent Mr. Young is -- did he (or does he) monitor the kind of relationships his kids had at school? Did he suggest that playing with bookish students might be a tad better than hanging out with kids doing meth? Gosh, that would constitute a kind of discrimination now, wouldn't it? Yes, discriminating between caring for a child or neglecting the child.

It is curious that someone who has been awarded recognition on more than one occasion by Planned Parenthood -- that great protector of choice, albeit, oh so narrowly defined -- is so "anti-choice" when it comes to the formation and education of the young. Are we to believe that mothers can be trusted to have their child "associate" with an abortionist in utero but not entrust a mother with that freedom after a child is born?

No, Mr. Young, vouchers are about education and the freedom of parents. Yes, there will be (because there are already) racists in the apple barrel. Such is life and such is the nature of freedom: the ability to make wrong-headed choices.

Why do you want to limit the freedom of parents? Why is it that you support millions in taxpayers' dollars going into that "non-profit" killing machine called Planned Parenthood but utterly reject a few farthings for schools like Christian Valor?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Top 10 Education Books

These are not so much about methods, but about the issues surrounding education: culture, motives for learning, what the content of education ought to be, etc. At a later date, I'll post something for the specific books. (I've omitted the full publication data out of laziness but it is readily available.)

Alphabetically by Author
1. Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation.
2. Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis
3. Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft
4. Henry T. Edmondson III, John Dewey and the Decline of American Education
5. Luigi Giussani, The Risk of Education
6. Francis D. Kelly, The Mystery We Proclaim
7. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach
8. Joseph Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture
9. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
10. Neil Postman, The End of Education

Catechetical Films

For Catholic junior/senior high schools students (and other students of good will)
  1. The Apostle (following Christ, human imperfection, forgiveness)
  2. Catch Me If You Can (personal identity, family, relationships)
  3. Contact (faith and reason)
  4. Gattaca (determinism, manipulation of the human)
  5. Groundhog Day (destiny, saying Yes to reality)
  6. Henry Poole Is Here (sacramental economy, meaning, relationships)
  7. King of California (the meaning of 'success,' the nature of paternity, what constitutes a living personality)
  8. Millions (communion of saints, generosity, eternity)
  9. Signs (faith and reason, what faith is/is not)
  10. Strictly Ballroom (the human heart, how the gaze of another transforms one, choosing fear or life)
  11. The Truman Show (the artificiality of modernity and the nature of media; Plato's "Allegory" too)
  12. Unbreakable (fatherhood, acknowledging a plan for one's life, pursuing questions to their end)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Where's "Atheist Academy"?

Alas, even Richard Dawkins is not interested in starting a school for atheists.

Call me cynical, but is it because atheists don't think they themselves believe in anything worth communicating to others? No, the flood of books on the market by these evangelical atheists ("the good news is, life is meaningless") would disprove that theory.

Surely the atheists are morally upright and concerned about the future, and hence about education. Why no charter school with a STEM focus? Or a private school founded by a rich atheist (surely God doesn't just bless the theists!)?

Perhaps the reason is that they are happy with the public schools. Seriously.

Why start a school that incessantly talks about the God Who Isn't (as an atheist school presumably would) when you can send your child to a school that simply ignores that same Non-God? Ideally, an atheist might prefer an Atheist Academy, but Agnostic Public School works just as well and it's a lot more convenient.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Adolf or Therese?

One of the joys of taking a sabbatical (of sorts) is the change in routine it provides. A most pleasant change in my life has been decreasing the amount of AM talk radio chatter I listen to. Instead of this chatter, I've been reading more. Currently I'm reading St. Therese's Story of a Soul and William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Talk about an odd couple.

Power or Love?

What I've gleaned so far from Therese is an overarching idea (as simple as it is counter-cultural): success doesn't mean very much. As a public school teacher who became immensely bored by both the utilitarian praxis of the "educrats" and mindless slogans such as "every child can succeed," Therese's life is of great interest. She accomplished nothing that changed history, nor was she was responsible for a technological innovation that made life easier; rather, she simply made her entire life an offering to Christ's merciful love. She had one insight and ran with it. Now, she's a Doctor of the Church and her life is a compelling answer to the title of a book by Wendell Berry -- What are People for? Her life indicates that what ultimately matters is love, not the gods of power and success or blood and iron.

Enter Adolf

I've read many books on the Second World War. I even took a course entitled Nazi Germany (the professor was such an expert on the subject that it was no mere academic exercise -- his mannerisms while lecturing mirrored those of Adolf Hitler, which was at once hilarious and eery). But it is reading Shirer's book at this time in our history that I've been truly chilled by Hitler.

As I listen to AM radio (right and left, chocolate and vanilla), I see little corporals running through trench-works; I smell stale beer and acrid cigarette smoke in a beer hall; I hear the thud and scrape of heavy boots on cobblestone streets. Perhaps I have an overactive imagination.

Enter Ideology

What is not imaginary is the delusions of ideology. Not simply the delusions of a particular ideology (be it national socialism or communism), but the fact that ideology is never able to admit its inadequacies. In The Religious Sense, Luigi Giussani notes that ideology takes an aspect of reality and makes it "into an absolute" (p. 95). Herein lies both the appeal of AM radio and its reductionism, which could be fatal to the republic if it were taken seriously.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Virtues of "The Village"

The Village provides a window for understanding that adults and parents - always and everywhere - propose a way of life to children. This is no less true for successful, career-oriented parents living in a plush gated community than it is for Edward Walker and friends in the film.

The Better Portion.

The crucial difference between these two ways of life is that the villagers take seriously (and choose deliberately) what kind of life is to be preferred: one in which economic prosperity is the highest good or one in which an authentically human life can be lived? The villagers have chosen the latter and it seems in many ways to be a better choice.

Authentic Goods.

Despite the fundamental deception of the village's founding, the community possesses some authentic goods. While I would be loathe to suggest that the end justifies the means, the admirable qualities of this mythical place include charity, humility and fellowship.

Fellowship. When Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) misbehaves or murders, he is put in "the quiet room." The greatest punishment available in this community is to be shunned or isolated. Throughout the film, the villagers have a lively life together and truly enjoy each other's company. Whether it is sharing a community meal or washing the dishes, people stay together.

Humility. Although the village is founded upon a presumption that seems to say, "We can create a world without pain," Edward Walker (William Hurt) possesses the humility to ask, "What was the purpose of our leaving? Don't forget, it was out of hope of something good and right." He is thus willing to let the whole ideological edifice fall away if innocence can be protected. He adds: "If we did not make this decision [to go to the towns to seek medicine], we could never again call ourselves innocent, and that in the end is what we have protected here: innocence!" One is reminded of what Jesus says about scandal:
If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:6).
Naturally, the "scandal" of a society built upon deliberate omissions and falsifications does not disappear because of the founders' desire to protect the innocence of the children.

Charity. No one can fault the intentions of the villagers. Who, if given a choice, would refuse a good life for his son or daughter? Yet it is not mere theoretical love that is displayed in the film, but concrete actions:
  • Edward's agreement to allow Ivy to fetch medicines from the towns while knowing full well that the entire social order may collapse as a result of the secret being made known.
  • Ivy's willingness to risk her life for the beloved, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix).
  • The security guard's willingness to protect Ivy's secret and not exploit her.
Theoretical versus Actual

I can't help but think of the Amish as a kind of point of reference in the film. The villagers are a kind of fictional doppelgängers with respect to them:
  • the Amish are religious but the villagers are secular and therapeutic
  • the Amish possess historical rootedness but the villagers create a history and culture from some raw materials and their collective imagination.
  • the Amish are willing to let their children risk living with "the English" as they reach adulthood, whereas the villagers are fiercely insular.
Thus the Amish possess in reality something greater and more human -- precisely because they have a tradition and are faithful to that, not a mere ideology.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Infinite Jello?

One doesn't generally think of ineffable sadness and longing with punk rock, but Dead Kennedys manage to pull it off with "Moon Over Marin." Told in the first person, the song is a lamentation over a toxified California coast and the protagonist's desire to find meaning through routine and the hope of a stable cosmic order.

In this dystopian future, our narrator is privileged enough to own some beach front property amid a "crowded future" and "still find[s] time to exercise" "on my beach at night." The beach itself seems to be the coast of the Valdez oil spill gone mad and global:

Another tanker's hit the rocks
Abandoned to spill out its guts
The sand is laced with sticky glops

Despite the horror, he concludes, "There will always be a moon over Marin."

Jello Biafra -- longing for the Infinite. Who woulda thunk?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Vices of "The Village"

I couldn't help but be reminded of this passage in Aladair MacIntyre's After Virtue after viewing M. Night Shyamalan's The Village:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history [i.e., the Dark Ages] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the coninuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead -- often not recognizing fully what they were doing -- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness (2nd ed., p. 263).
While there are clear parallels between the fictional inhabitants of "the village" and say, a Benedictine monastery, the divergences are fascinating. I think the differences (of course on is fictional, the other historical!) can be attributed to the differences between ideology and faith. Luigi Giussani defines ideology this way: "Ideology ... is based upon an aspect of reality ... taken unilaterally and made ... into an absolute" (The Religious Sense, p. 95).

1. Suffering. This "partial aspect" of reality taken to an extreme is the desire to eliminate suffering (especially in the form of violence) by leaving behind "the towns" (the big city) and isolating the community into what appears to be the late 19th century. Thus absent from the community are tools of violence and technology. Naturally, suffering cannot be willed out of existence -- it is intrinsic to the human condition. Much of the story hinges upon how the characters deal with balancing the desire to protect utopia and to care for innocent victims of misfortune.

2. Evil's Ubiquity. All of the founders of the village have a box in which they keep reminders of their prior lives. These serve as physical reminders of the pain and sorrow that is found in the towns outside. Yet in reconstructing a 19th century world it was also psychologically necessary to exaggerate the nature of violence and evil found in modern cities.

3. Myth or Lie? Perhaps the most brilliant creation of the founders is "Those We Don't Speak Of" -- imaginary creatures that surround the village and serve as means of insulating the next generation from the temptation of leaving home. Unlike the Amish, the villagers make it impossible for their children to explore a different world. And yet there is a certain truth to the creatures because the world outside the village is hostile to much of what the villagers have constructed: mutual dependence, cooperation and affection. Although "made up," the creatures do express a truth.

4. "Our Therapist, Who Art in Vienna..."

a. Godless? But at bottom, the village is not sustainable. By my reckoning, God is mentioned once. Several times we hear this prayer: We are grateful for the time we have been given. It is a curious prayer. It references a What but not a Who. And yet if one follows the logic of this prayer, one must necessarily encounter a Giver.

b. "Church" and Community. It is not until toward the end of the film that I was able to make sense of the meetings in the church-like structure in the village: the elders gather together, often in a circle to discuss issues before the community, but it has the physical form of group therapy. This goes beyond the pragmatic need to govern the community but speaks of our human need to connect with each other.

This film has many layers but it can certainly be "read" as a cautionary tale against utopian aspirations. Next time I will discuss the "virtues" of The Village.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Nietzsche Matters

I went with some friends to a lecture entitled "GOD IS DEAD - Friedrich Nietzsche vs. G.K. Chesterton." Dale Alquist was as entertaining and humorous as I expected he would be. Yet I was a bit disappointed in one aspect of his talk and it also came out in how he answered questions about Nietzsche afterwards. It involves this question: How seriously should one take Nietzsche?

Mr. Alquist's answer was "not very"; in fact, I would say he was downright dismissive of Nietzsche. I think this is a mistake at two levels: first there is the theological virtue of charity; second there is the cardinal virtue of prudence.

Let's begin with charity. Love for another (even those odd "neighbors" who live the seventh heavens of academia, namely, philosophy professors) suggests that if people take a man and his ideas seriously and he's had a profound affect upon the shape of our civilization, this is worth our time and consideration. This doesn't mean personally mastering Nietzsche's work, but saying, "Hey, he has had a profound influence and I'd like to understand what draws you to him."

I've always been a bit frustrated in my reading of Nietzsche because it is not clear to me when he is posturing or when he is really serious. I'm not sure Nietzsche knew, either. Yet I think he worth taking seriously in way that, for example, Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett is not.

Why might prudence dictate opponents of Nietzsche take him seriously? Perhaps because we are all Nietzscheans now and it would behoove us to understand how we got this way. Granted, we are "soft Nietzscheans" inasmuch as we don't follow the logic fully, but can we truly say that we don't at times live "as if 'God' were 'dead" and organize much of our social order and relationships something very akin to Fredrich's "will to power"? If that last sentence has no resonance in your life, I salute you, while at the same I wonder if some special Providence has not protected you from the present age!

Nietzsche is a prophet -- not in the line of Melchizedek, but more like Flannery O'Connor's Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find": one who unwittingly can bring one to Christ if, and only if, we take seriously what he says, even if we giggle at the absurdity of his life.

Let's not forget that although "Satan fell by force of gravity" (as Chesterton tells us), Christ took him just seriously enough to be his undoing -- and to perhaps have the last laugh.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Public Education's Missing Link

After teaching for ten years in three public high schools and one prison, I’ve arrived at an adequate answer to this question. But before I give my answer and attempt to justify it, I invite the reader to answer this question for himself.

What is missing from public education is a recognition of the students’ humanity. The central educational problem today is not declining test scores nor illiteracy nor the absence of prayer nor the evident excess of immorality and violence. These are mere symptoms. It is the public schools’ (reduced) vision of the human person: “citizen, consumer, worker” are the approved secular end-products of public education. But each of these conceptions of the person reduces the person to a means to an end, to a mere function. One need not be an Immanuel Kant or a Karol Wojtyla or even a believer to notice that there is something profoundly amiss with the anthropology of public education.

This is especially disturbing given the whole backdrop of so-called school reform: schools are urged to gobble more and more of a child’s time and what is the vision that the school has for the child’s destiny? The greatest good in public education is “success,” which is as pernicious as it is vacuous. After all, being successful simply means accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. Although I have not met even one public school teacher who would suggest that being a successful axe-murderer is a worthy goal, there is nothing in the doctrine of Successism that could rule this out a priori.

Success for public educators generally means graduating from high school, going to college and getting a good job. All of these are good things, but the rub is we’re made for great things, not merely good things. Indeed, we are made for the Infinite! But the secular ideal – with its so-called religious neutrality – is to immerse one in the here and now but to simultaneously suppress the deepest yearnings of the heart that are provoked by a meaningful engagement with reality.

Thus in public education everything gets short-circuited: the mystery of affection and sexuality is reduced to mutual indifference and “safety”; the desire to know the Origin of everything is dumbed-down to a superficial approach to evolutionary biology while a hostility between faith and reason is presumed but never argued for; religion, when it is even touched upon, becomes a realm of one opinion versus another, but it is never taken as a serious proposal for one’s life.

The practical reality that faces us is something truly Orwellian: in public education ALL RELIGIONS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME RELIGIONS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS. Agnosticism rules the roost and it is unquestioned.

For Catholics and others who reject the public schools’ great sin of omission, and recognize their own responsibility for their children, there are several positions to take. One can wish and pray that the State will recognize its obligation to help fund all schools (public, private, parochial), but the risk is seeing the Second Coming before that happens. Or one might say, “Well, you get what you pay for,” so public education isn’t so bad and perhaps an hour or two of CCD and/or taking an interest in my child’s formation will “inoculate” her from secularism. Or one might opt to send their children to a Catholic school if it’s financially viable. Others look to homeschooling as a way to ensure that both solid academics and Catholic doctrine get communicated. Still others homeschool and find some form of one day per week enrichment program (public or private) that helps with the more difficult subjects or simply gets the kids working with their peers.

My wife and I have done all of these at one time or another (except for the Catholic school option) and have found that what matters most is being attentive to the needs of each child, every year. While the powers that be are blind to the glorious destiny that awaits all of us in Christ, this is no reason for us to settle for the inanity of secularism.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Toward a more complete education

I recently began teaching a couple of classes for homeschooling parents looking for some enrichment options for their middle- and high-school aged children. This has me thinking about the feasibility of offering courses specifically for homeschooling families.

The ten percent principle

Well, I don't know if it's a full-blown principle, but the idea is something like this: Catholic high school tuition runs between $7,900.00 and $11,225 in northern Colorado. Suppose you're homeschooling your kids and you realize, "Geez, I can't meet all their needs. A little help would be nice." Would a one day per week program be worth 10% of $10,000? Would $500 per semester be economical enough to consider courses in math, science, religion, etc?

Further, could such a program be made financially worthwhile for prospective teachers? Class size of 15 x $500 = $7,500 divided by four teachers means $1,875 over 15 weeks means $125 per day - which is top-end for what districts will pay a substitute teacher. Materials, rent, and other incidentals also need to be factored in.

It just might work.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why Conspiracy Theories Fail

Perhaps this post should read WHY CONSPIRACY THEORIES FAIL. In any case, I came across this fascinating audio of Art Bell interviewing this guy who claims to have been part of a secret project to make things invisible.

Here's the link: http://www.archive.org/details/ArtBellPhiladelphiaExperiment_1

Please don't tell THEM about it.

I think I discovered the fatal flaw of all the conspiracy theorists: they over-reach. I was almost convinced about this secret project until the guest indicated not only was an invisibility project part of this but time travel, "free" electrical power, UFOs, the one world government/New World Order -- in short, there is one global conspiracy controlling everything.

Ho, hum. A theory that explains everything finally explains nothing.

I think I get the impetus to buy into conspiracies: we see things that the dominant theories of reality fail to explain and look for a cause that is comprehensible. Everything would be different if THEY were not working behind the scenes to prevent good from naturally emerging from the world.

All this strikes me as a way of getting at what orthodox Christianity claims: the world is dragged down by the Evil One who would love to thwart every human desire for happiness and eternal life.

So, perhaps the conspiracy theorists actually under-reach: the evils of this world are not reducible to secular explanations.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

News! Masters become Slaves...

It is known by everyone who was taught in a public school that there are really only two ways to make more money (three if you count going into administration): (1) years of creditable service or "time served" and (2) education. Time flows at a constantly velocity, so one can not accelerate the years, but moving up the pay scale is something one can do by taking graduate courses or by earning a Masters or Ph.D.

Here's something curious: full-time teachers in a full-time graduate program. Hmm, does anyone really think it is possible to have the cake and eat it too? The "system" would seem to believe it, for otherwise a provision outside of this insanity of working full-time and going to school full-time would not be encouraged.

Two cases:

Case #1: Jennifer J. (a social studies teacher at a Denver high school). Jennifer was in a media and technology class taught by David Hildebrand at the University of Colorado, Denver. It was a fascinating class. Texts included Albert Borgmann's Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium, Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and other works. One evening I was talking to Jennifer after class and she was really angry at the professor. Apparently he had said that in his opinion she was trying to do too much and that her academic work was suffering as a consequence. I asked her, "Well, what are you getting out of this course? How did your last paper go?" She said with work and the course, she was just having trouble concentrating, but she was sure if the professor would just give her more time, she could get it all done. In other words, Doctor Hildebrand was correct!

Case #2: Myself. While working at a charter high school in the Denver area I was working on my alternative teaching license. As I recall, we had classes every other Saturday with a lot of reading and analysis in between. It was a lot and it trivialized teacher education. Not necessarily by design (though it does not take a rocket scientist to realize that if one is doing full-time graduate work AND holding down a full-time job that one of these will suffer), but certainly by consequence. I tried to balance the demands of the job and of the program, but both suffered to some degree. Naturally, my family suffered, too as I became increasingly insufferable that year.

What did I really learn in an alternative teacher program? My biggest "lesson learned" was that public education is extremely superficial. For all the reams of data and analysis, education is seen to be about technique, not passion; manipulation, not wonder.

What is the meaning of this post's title -- Masters become Slaves? It is only this: by encouraging teachers to work and to study to the point of exhaustion, sheer frenetic activity is encouraged and thought is siphoned off. If education is a "communication of yourself" (Julian Carron), then teachers willy-nilly communicate their own busyness to their students.

In other words, stressed-out teachers keep their nose to the grindstone and encourage their students to do likewise. The message is "It's not who you are that matters, but what you do."

Rather than facing the riddle of existence, it's "busy, busy, busy" (as Kurt Vonnegut has it in Cat's Cradle). Or as those of a more theological mind have put it: Bad Infinity -- the multiplication of the finite (be it sex or shopping or booze) to make up for one's own nothingness, one's lack.

That's how slavery gets perpetuated.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The McNamara Effect

In his fascinating history of the United States Air Force, Walter Boyne discusses the priorities of Robert Strange McNamara that "created a climate of fear and [placed] a value on reporting rather than on doing."

Boyne continues:
Numbers -- whether it be of the bodies counted, sorties flown, bombs dropped, or Congressional delegation visits -- became the be-all and end-all of the military system McNamara shaped.

Report numbers were transformed from black dots on a page to truths that were quantified, defended, and extrapolated from.

Whole bureaucracies sprung up to create the numbers, challenge them, and mold them into new requirements for more numbers (Beyond the Wild Blue, 2nd ed., p. 160).

Any teachers out there who can relate to a climate of fear and an obsession with "measurable outcomes" and "growth"? I can sure relate to it. We know what the McNamara Effect was on that war in Indochina: hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians dead for no purpose.

What the end game is for public educators who embrace McNamara's approach is yet to be seen. I'm betting Ho Chi Minh wins.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"Honey, I shrunk the kids (and myself)!"

Teachers and parents (not to mention students) often deplore the increased use of standardized tests and assessments. That horse has been pulverized into subatomic particles, so I don't wish to dwell on stadardized tests, per se; rather, I'd like to briefly explore what existential or spiritual factors may lead to inordinate desire for "hard data" or "proof of learning."

In God at the Ritz, Lorenzo Albacete describes two elements of human work.

Human work has an "objective" and a "subjective" meaning. The objective meaning of work measures progress in terms of practical tasks accomplished. The subjective meaning of work measures preogress in terms of the fulfillment of the deepest needs of the human heart (140).
A moment's reflection will reveal that test-taking represents a desire to obtain an objective accounting of what a student knows and can be expected to accomplish in the future.

So far, so good: parents, employers, and indeed the student himself all have legitimate needs for this kind of knowledge. The danger is when the objective eclipses the subjective. In other words, when human desire and its fulfillment are marginalized or ignored, the result is alienation.

The student begins to reduce his conception of himself to what is needed to please others or to do "what's important" according to measure of those who hold power. Good grades are not nothing but they don't answer the question, "What, in the end, makes life worth living?"

The teacher too is put into an awkward position: When promotion and tenure are linked to student performance according to what is measurable (and only to what is measureable), a "reasonable" (if amoral) teacher will focus on teaching those knowledge, skills and abilities that are testable -- to the detriment of the immeasurable.

Each of us knows from real life that the immeasurable, is, well, immeasureable. The most important things in life are non-quantifiable: affection, self-giving, generosity, etc.

Question: Where are those places where human flourishing is encouraged?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"School vouchers on hold" reads the headline

in today's Denver Post.

Mark Silverstein of the ACLU exhibits an audacious amount of metaphysical naivete when he applauds the (for the present) ban on funding for "a child's religious education." Perhaps he has been out of school for so long that he's forgotten that all approaches to education necessarily posit a "point of view" or "hypothesis of meaning." These are fancy terms for religious and philosophical commitments that an individual educator (and education systems) lives by.

After ten years in public education I became convinced that the dominant creed (or religion if you prefer) was Successism. Successism is quite simple: it is the belief that public schools exist to ensure that children succeed. To what end or purpose? Well, that's the question we dare not ask nor answer because it would unveil our nihilism, or sheer utilitarianism at best.

All education, especially public education because of its denial of philosophical moorings, promotes a creed and is thus necessarily "religious."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How TFA is gutting public education

Some of the best teachers I've met came through the Teach for America pipeline. Young, zealous, and super-smart. Very decent folks.

So why the provocative title to this post?

Perhaps I should have said, "How TFA might gut public education." That may be more accurate. Karl Marx was famous for running all problems through an economic filter, and there may be something worthwhile in asking, "What's the cost/benefit of a TFA teacher versus other teachers?"

This might be too vague. Let's take it from another angle: in this time of scarcer resources, are administrators "better off" hiring inexperienced but enthusiastic teachers or "seasoned" (i.e., old) teachers with years of experience and advanced degrees?

In the current education climate, "better off" is often defined as appearing to always do more with less; maximizing resources, in other words. Since public education tends to mimic corporate structures, the goal is to have interchangeable teachers who can do whatever needs to be done. Since individuality is really a matter of indifference, then Cheapest is Best.

So, yes, administrative careerists will naturally use "raw material" that is cheap in order to keep within budget. That's to be expected.

Teach for America is having some unintended consequences. Ultimately bringing down wages and exchanging experience and competence for enthusiasm may be just two.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bad Poetry

Bad poetry has a cathartic affect in the writing.
Like a bad wrapper, words spill out like lightning.
There is not much of substance to be found,
But an interesting stream of consciousness doth abound.
I never studied seriously those who went before.
A simple layman and a bore.

In College

In college an English teacher said I had some skill
With words and such but I didn't believe her much.
Then a historian said, "Great historical sense!,"
To which I replied, hoarsely, "But I never get off the fence."

Lastly a philosopher said, "You're among the best,"
But I was shy and too self-aware;
I was fearful of the implications and
tossed it away as a jest.

To Thomas

Eliot wrote poems
That I'll never beat;
He saw more deeply,
Looked more lovingly,
Cared more intelligently,
Listened with an attentiveness
Not found today on our lonely streets.

Still, I'd like to find a way to somehow compete.
Perhaps invent a genre at which all will gasp.
Or show talent that is above reproach.
Nevertheless, imitation ain't so bad.
In that sun-drenched heaven,
I hope this faint effort
makes him glad.


To be useless

In the tupperware state.

Nothing to be done

Save refrigerate.

Blood boiling,

Stomach churning,

Ever-willing to


The soft contours

Of life

Can lead one

To believe

That nothing

Is at stake;

That the noblest

Emotion is hate.

Step back from the abyss

Which yawns so great;

Step into a void

That nullifies Fate.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Here's to the Misfits

No, not the band, but those who have a bond or kinship with Flannery O'Connor's antagonist in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Yeah, that Misfit. I love his self-description:

“Nome, I ain't a good man,” The Misfit said, “but I ain't the worst in the world neither. My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. 'You know,' Daddy said, 'it's some that can live their whole life without asking about it, and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything!'”
After some recent events I've thought about the "it" that seems like an obstacle for me professionally. I think what gets me in trouble every time is that I'm not a partisan or true believer or company man -- whatever moniker one would place on those who line up and salute the dominant position or point of view.

Here's an obvious truth you'll never hear in a school of education or from a school district official or teacher's union rep: When someone says, "This is good for kids, so we should do it," he or she really means: This is good for kids based upon what I/we think is good for kids, so you better get in line with me/us -- or else!