Fine Tuning the Rabbit Ears

We aren’t a research school & so the visiting speaker or two a semester are usually anticipated with some pleasure; we try to look up their work, read a book or two of theirs. The list has included Louis Menard & Dinesh D’Souza. When I heard this one was going to be about “education” I was surprised; the social studies group usually does the inviting and their general attitude is that most education departments would be improved by a little carpet bombing.

So, I dutifully ordered Paul A. Zoch’s Doomed to Fail: The Built-In Defects of American Education & started reading. At first it seemed like coffee room grousing: he describes an interview with a student who suggested helpfully that if Zoch would “sing and dance, we’d learn this stuff” (xviii). Given the quality of students that take Latin at a public high school, I wondered if he was ironic – but, then, the student was already failing the class.

The grousing, though, is not really the point. We grouse they want us to entertain them but we also complain about poor preparation. This is not Zoch’s argument; after all, he is a high school teacher. It is in education theory (preached in endless workshops to which high school teachers are subjected) he sees “built-in defects.” Zoch expands upon the way “progressive education” softens America – ideas sketched out in Barone’s Hard America, Soft America. (Discussed repeatedly & warmly on this blog.) Barone describes “progressive education” and Dewey’s theories as a symptom of “Soft America” (24-27), a thread throughout his book. Zoch begins with an affectionate chapter on William James, but then moves to the core of his complaints. Critical of Dewey but more harshly of his followers, he notes how progressive “educationists” repudiated James’s respect for ideas and emphasis upon the disciplined hard work of learning.

Zoch appreciates James’ toughness; he believes education is designed to challenge the intellect, to force it to “constantly change and adapt its behavior to meet goals and to respond to the demands of an ever-changing environment.” (7) He praises the rather commonsensical notion that “Memory is a habit, and students must drill some basic facts and information into their heads. James here attests to the importance of prior knowledge, for the more one has learned, the more capable he is of learning and solving problems in the future” (12). Each semester my students are awed by the bombastic early poem, “The Day of Doom” by Michael Wigglesworth. They understand its drama, even though few feel the fear that was quite real to the Puritans. Still, I point out, it’s human nature to enjoy fear when it is formalized & we can enjoy its resolution – that strong narrative pattern surely helped with the memorization. Their real awe, however, is not at judgment day but at the large portion of American school children that memorized the 224 stanzas of 8 lines each, written (helpfully) in a rather rollicking ballad meter. Even the more talented poet Edward Taylor described the pleasure he found in a wife whose breath was “perfumed” with such stanzas.

We may doubt such rote memorization is a good use of time. On the other hand, most of us figure kids shouldn’t be dependent on calculators for basic multiplication tables. And it is also true that repetition – that mastery of at least the surface of a text – can be (if not always is) coupled with contemplation of meaning. It is no loss, I suspect, that few American students could master such a text in such a way. But it is a loss that students have developed few of the techniques the rigid traditional system encouraged. Facts, dates, quotes – it is good to keep a few of these in our heads, ones to which we can affix later ideas and see patterns.

To think well, we need to have mastered certain abilities – these include both facts themselves and ways to remember and organize those facts. Without hooks – both techniques and previous knowledge – new information is not stored in the compact, organized & useful way Lex so helpfully demonstrated in “Women Know Your Place.” I’ve always been suspicious of the popular argument we should teach students how rather than what to learn. Writing is not a skill easily taught to people who have never read good writing. Process is useless in a vacuum. Our students need to practice learning on an actual content (preferably worth their time). And some facts need to be learned.

Zoch teaches Latin, a subject few arrive knowing; mastering it requires an understanding & even memorization of details of grammar & vocabulary. Taking James as his model, Zoch states his position toward the end of that first chapter:

While we should expect teachers to do all they can to help student learn both academics and productive habits and atttitudes, we should understand that the teacher’s power is limited, even small when compared with the power of the family and the social environment. To assign to teachers the responsibility for overcoming the problems of families, the larger culture with its anti-intellectual tendency, adolescent culture with its youthful rebellion; and the school culture itself, is absurd and unproductive. Instead we should urge, expect and train students to acquire habits and attitudes that lead to success: hard work, diligence, sustained effort and concentration, and accuracy. (19)

Most of the rest of the book pursues the problems of the “school culture” – one he finds expecting at once too little and too much of students.

The book was useful in outlining the series of steps in “progressive education” that brought us to where we are today. Zoch argues that modern education theory fails because it devalues subject matter and because it posits a passive student at the mercy of teachers – it is anti-intellectual and mushy.

The instances of the former are scattered throughout the book, but I thought my Chicagoboyz colleagues might be amused by Zoch’s summary of the results of what he calls “the Progressive Paradigm’s hostility to formal academic studies and its preference for affective goals.” I might note in passing that the frustrations of a classicist teaching in a public school system & attending “in-service” merit our sympathy. Clearly Zoch is familiar with the jargon but more familiar with what it clothes.

The survey by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis revealed that fewer than 15 percent of teachers believed that it was very important to teach students “specific information and skills.” In contrast, more than 70 percent favored the premise that “learning how to learn is most important” for students. Not surprisingly, only 25 percent of the fourth-grade teachers and 28 percent of the eighth-grade teachers reported that during their evaluation of student’ work they put primary emphasis on whether or not the student got the answers right. Thirty-eight percent of the fourth-grade teachers and 49 percent of the eighth-grade teachers set a single, class-wide standards while the majority assigned students their grades according to individual abilities. The Schools and Staffing Survey of 1990-1991 records that only 40.1 percent of public school teachers rated “Academic Excellence” as their first, second, or third most important goal. A similar finding was reached in the survey by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis. These teachers merely reflect their training, for their education professors show a bias against substantive knowledge and stress affective goals more than the intellect.

Pushing students to achieve high standard through painstaking diligence would probably result in negative attitudes, which is absolutely contrary to Deweyism For an experience to be educational, wrote Dewy, it must create the desire for future educational experiences. Teachers are therefore expected to teach in such a way that student become “lifelong learners,” the modern restatement of Dewey’s criterion; it is now almost ubiquitous in schools’ mission statement across the country. (75)

What strikes me about this is that the lifetime learners I know – impelled by intellectual curiosity, loving the play of ideas, moving back and forth from fact to generalization – are people who really did study in high school, really did become quite absorbed in learning. They are also people with fond memories of a coach or ballet instructor or teacher who pushed them fairly hard and they found what they could achieve with hard work. They were also quite often the people that educationists are quick to label as “nerds.” On the other hand, a C student remarked to one of my colleagues that she felt good about her grades. She contrasted it with a remark of a high school teacher who said a clearly inflated grade on a paper was given because it was “good for her.” The teacher implicitly saying, ah, see how well you have met my expectations for you – for you, with your inferior mind, this was a good paper. (And they think this builds self-esteem? Teaches someone to work better? Teaches someone to write? Doesn’t stoke both despair & anger?)

Zoch spends chapters on the dizzying variety of techniqes posited as enabling students. He chafes at the responsibility this puts on teachers, but fears, as well, the kind of character it encourages. We’ve all seen our children’s assignments – ones that appeal to their kinesthetic senses, their visual ones, their auditory ones. (One of my old office mates said he wanted to get out of high school teaching before they expected him to teach literature by appealing to the smell – there must be “olfactory learners” out there.)

Perhaps Zoch’s most disturbing educationist metaphor of mushy passivity is the theorist who sees students as t.v. sets: the ideal teacher adjusts each individually to perfect the reception of the material; students will passively “receive” an education once a teacher adjusts the antenna & then sends waves precisely calibrated for that student. As he observes at another point, this is no preparation for participatory democracy.

Teaching high school Latin, Zoch clearly loves his subject – one he knows is demanding and requires a good deal of old-fashioned rote learning to master. Such mastery, however, is a satisfying goal. Barone’s Hard America is that of the creative Davids Glenn Reynolds’ describes, those who decide to brew their own beers or record their own records. Clearly those in Hard America are having a lot more fun, if working a lot harder, than those in Soft America. This paradox (one not likely to surprise us) is observed by Zoch as he contrasts the accountable & “hard” Japanese system with our own. Japanese students enjoy school a good deal more – it may be hard, but “hard” generally means “purposeful” & the bracing challenge of “accountability” lends drama. (Of course, students are not likely to enjoy a culture that demeans the very skills and even more the content on which they spend their days.)

In Dewey’s followers we can hear echoes of that great American sage of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Certainly, his stress on individualism, on listening to the voice within are ones modern educationists find attractive; not surprisingly the transcendentalists (who had their own somewhat eccentric ideas about education, as both the Alcotts and Margaret Fuller discuss at length) provide a great storehouse of slogans for “progressive” education. Certainly, Emerson’s romanticism values immediacy, feeling, insight more than the discipline of traditional education. He also shares with educationists a certain calm about human nature which comes from a belief in the noble savage; this view is not likely to be shared by a classist is less likely to share. Towards the end, in exasperation, Zoch returns to an earlier target, Kirkpatrick, whose argument is that “a merely bookish education may be a menace.” Zoch asks “Are teachers expected to root out original sin? I have no doubt that educationists are willing and eager to do the research on how teachers should do so.” (170).

On the other hand, that same individualism, with Emerson’s powerful emphasis upon self-reliance, underlies the pragmatic self-sufficiency Barone finds attractive (and hard) and Reynolds praises. The self – so central to the vision of the American Renaissance – can become self-absorbed or self-reliant. Margaret Fuller uses the term “self-centered” to mean someone whose education has been disciplined, whose self-understanding has centered them, led to self-confidence rather than dependence, an ability to stand beside a man rather than to be shielded by him. We often use the term in a more disparaging way. The paradox of that duality is central to individualism. None (Zoch, Reynolds, nor Barone) cite Emerson. That is not surprising. Emerson stood tall in the nineteenth century, but he was as much representative (perhaps more so) than influential. History, geography, industrialization, & Emerson all led to the policies when The Eagle Screamed. Emerson’s voice is that of the zeitgeist, one Goetzmann drew from in naming his earlier book (New Lands, New Men. (His title is fromNature; but he, too, only mentions Emerson in passing.) I suspect, it is what Emerson thought, but in the long run it was less his (individual) perspective but rather that he best represented it, best defined it.

While contemplation of such juxtapositions may be just weird, they also point to the complexity of our tradition of individualism. A momentary pause at these apparently quite diverse works – Barone’s, Goetzmann’s, Zoch’s, Reynold’s – leads us to the empowerment & temptation of Emersonian proclamations. His words may be less useful in understanding each separately but we sense a pattern that we know well. They throw into relief our American tendency to embrace extremes – in these cases self-absorption and self-reliance, the passivity of the navel gazer with the ferocity of the pack, the contemplative with the active and, in the end, perhaps, willful self indulgence with sturdy independence. These may seem far apart but the originating spring is that same great self-consciousness – one leads to a stagnant backwater and the other to a forceful (and life-giving) stream.

1 thought on “Fine Tuning the Rabbit Ears”

  1. “The root of their difficulty was not, as in Ye Olden Time, simple ignorance, but the sort of university-trained doctrainaire backwardness which seems to result when men with no natural aptitude for ideas are nevertheless obliged to stuff their heads with them.”

    The writer was talking about the General of World War I and why so many of them were so bad, but I think this passage applies equally well to our educational “experts.”

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