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

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: Adam's Apples

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.

Someone has written about the "evidential power of love" and that seems to be precisely what Ivan communicates to Adam. Ivan serves One whom Adam does not know and Adam comes to see that this "unknown lover" is the one he needs - whether Ivan rejects God or not.

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)