It Goes Both Ways

I sat in my office chair and reflected on what had just happened.  It is not like this does not happen often (because it does) but sometimes you are hit right between the eyes with it.  My students had just enlightened me.

Often in my seminar course, where I am seated and sharing equally in the lessons the Great Conversation teaches us all, I learn new things from Plato, Augustine, or Camus.  In my literature courses as well, the students find things I have never seen.  But this time it was a Freshman!

My course for the Freshmen introduces them into the Intellectual Life and teaches them the basic skills to thrive in high school and college.  We play around with such basic skills as reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  It is a class where I feel “safe” with the subject material.  And yet, on this day, the clouds parted and light poured in.

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” I think you are selling something none of us want to buy.”

The student was unblinking and bold as he stated what it seemed to him the majority of his classmates were thinking.  We had been discussing reading and why it is so central to the Intellectual Life, and perhaps, all of life.  I had poured out my passion for reading, and books, and ideas, and learning, and…and…then this bald statement.  The wind kind of came out of the sails.

“What do you mean by that?”  I was convinced that if he rethought his statement, he would see the error.  But instead, he and his classmates began answering the question in spades.

“Of what real value is reading in today’s world?”

“Who needs to read anything when you can Google it?”

“What job requires reading?”

That is when the light struck me in the eyes.  Our modern world makes little of reading.  When I was young (and dinosaurs threatened my extinction), there was tremendous guilt for the young person who did not read.  He or she would hide or disguise their lack of reading.  Now the tables seem to be turned.  Reading for any prolonged period of time is mostly seen as either recreational or utilitarian.  “Of course I will read if it will bring me some monetary benefit.”  But don’t hurt yourself reading more than you have to; keep this to a minimum.  Read smart.  Those on the cutting edge will let SparkNotes do the heavy reading for them and they get the gist in bulleted points.  Most of what we as adults model to young people is how to read as little as possible, not how to read more and better.  Far too many of us (and I hope you note I am including myself here) read a title or half a sentence and then click on to the next thing.

So did this moment destroy my passion for teaching students to read?  No.  But it sure helped me see more clearly that such instruction is more and more a counter-cultural activity, not something to be assumed.  I had answers to the questions they raised, but the fact that they are now being raised when they really were not even questions in my youth helped me learn a lesson I hope I never forget: learning is as much about what we love as what we know.  We are what we love.

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21st Century Problem

Studying humans is a hard thing to do.  We are not a discrete lump of information, and we don’t pattern very well.  Most of the mis-guided assumptions of past ideologies about how science can tame the wildness of anthropological study are just that: wrong guesses.  But that being said, we still try to discover what truths we can find in the morass of data that is ever growing in various Excel sheets of the world.  My peremptory point is this: science is limited in what it can tell us about education.

But…many are looking at whether the leap to electronic media is helping or hindering the pursuit of educational excellence.  Read this overview from the Business Insider and then consider my few “off the cuff” considerations of the issue of whether screens or pages are better.

Meditations on the Surface of the Issue:

  1. The media are different – ink on paper is not the same as light on screens.
  2. A potential impact on these author’s study could be that by studying college students, they are still studying students who learned to read on paper and moved to a screen after acquiring their reading skills. Not sure if their findings hold years from now when screen reading is all that has been done.  That does not dismiss everything, it just makes me wonder how much is incidental and how much is necessary.
  3. There is probably a connection between reading speed and reading comprehension, so the fact that online is faster would lead me to the conclusion that it was less comprehending. The key here is not necessarily to change media, but to slow down.
  4. How much of this discussion is a matter of taste, or a discussion of the familiar vs the new rather than a real substantive discussion of benefits compared?
  5. The “digital revolution” is over, we just have to figure out how to live with it. I am not seriously considering trying to promote a counter-revolution, but all such paradigm shifts include unintended consequences that usually impact front line folks way more than those who implemented the shift, such as teachers in the classroom figuring out how to “use” an ipad to promote learning.

 

Is Change Good for Education?

Ken Robinson starts his compelling talk on Paradigms in Education (see a whiteboard video of that talk here) by stating rightly that education around the world seems locked in a cycle of constant reform.  Educators are hard to please.  They have quantified the human soul (or so they think) so now let’s get the “numbers” headed up.  This, coupled with the misguided assumptions of Progressive thought, means that yesterday’s answers are never useful for today’s issues.  But I beg to differ.

First, it has been very convenient for modern education to constantly be in a state of flux.  Let’s take something that is known to be fairly standard:  standardized testing.  Most insiders know that if there is one thing Standardized tests are not, it is stable.  I know the “standard” is referring to the fact that it is the same test for everyone.  But should it not also be roughly the same test today that it was ten years ago?  Otherwise any discussion of how students have performed over time is irrelevant.  If the test is changing regularly, it is not the same measurement as it was formerly.  And my perception, unauthoritative though it may be, is that the tests have not even changed for the better, but rather that the same score today indicates less proficiency than ten years ago.  So if a school’s test scores are holding steady, they are getting less proficient.  If they are getting better, they are holding even with the change curve.  Prove me wrong and I will admit it; but part of the issue here is how hidden all this is form the surface of the pond.  These things are happening deep in the ever changing currents of modern educational waters.

Second, not all change is equal.  I will try to state this clearly, and it will thus seem too bold.  If humankind is fundamentally different today than in the past (no matter here the rate of change; the simple fact of fundamental change is the point), then all that has to do with education must be in constant flux.  But if there are aspects of humankind that do not change, then we can have principles that hold true to all education, even when changes occur.  So there is a fundamental assumption that needs declaring before any real discussion can be had.  Two people who come down on opposing sides in this question can still have good debate, but in the end they will still be across the “pond” from each other.  I hold to the notion that man has a nature, and that nature (though not what it was when initially formed) is still what it was a long time ago.  This means I can find principles throughout man’s conversation about education that still apply to what I am doing today.

If by change we mean that each generation shifts its focus, or its predilections, or its tastes, etc., then it is necessary for a teacher to exercise the principle that states the teacher must meet the student where he is and then lead him to where he needs to be.  That is a principle that seems to hold no matter the context.  Educators must connect with the student.  Such principles then need only be applied to the desired ends the educator has in mind and means (which may change with changing contexts) will fall in line.  I am not saying the ends justify the means, but I am saying there is no way to discuss whether means should change without discussing the ends.

So that brings me to my final question or contemplation about change.  What “things” can change in education without changing the definition of education?  If the ends are different today than, say, fifty years ago, then we can discuss whether all ends now are better than then, or if some were better then, or thus forth.  This discussion of ends then becomes the key to the question.  So it seems that a robust discussion of what the ends of education should be, and then what path would get us to those ends is really the determinate of what changes are good or bad.

And that is my plea here.  When I interact with the professional educator world today, much is made of means.  The ends of education, I am told, are so self-evident as to be a silly discussion.  And yet I find most of the hot button issues of today’s educational debate to be ones that would be moot if more time were spent on why we educate rather than how.

So let me write down, for the umpteenth time, what is the motto of this blog and my teaching career:

Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue in the soul of a human by liberating effects found in the constant contemplation of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  Period.

Chicken Soup for the Classical Teacher’s Soul

We approach the end of a school year; we are tired, therefore say these types of things over and over, when it’s quiet and you are alone:

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  1. Truth exists.
  2. The Truth will set you free.
  3. You cannot make truth, nor can you sell it, nor can you make it into anything. It is.  You are related to it.
  4. Your students need Truth, as do you.
  5. Truth leads to a great number of things: God, joy, happiness, wisdom, a vocation, the ability to live rightly in this world which includes loving (a small part of which is being able to earn the money needed to care for the needs of yourself and others), etc.
  6. Much of what is frustrating in the classroom is some error or impropriety regarding #1-5.
  7. A lot more of the frustration we face in teaching is outside #1-6 and lies in other expectations and pursuits we import into education when all that is truly important is contained in #1-5.

I truly believe that if we would maintain some mantra-like grasp of these 7 things, we would teach better, with more focus, and find it much easier to love our students as God would have us love them.

Ranting at the End of a Long Week About Education’s Ability to Impart Joy…

Is education still possible in a dead culture?  Is learning capable of being what is now called, “fun”?  What does it mean to care?  As in, “I don’t care about what we are doing in school.”  Or what about the best moment of the week, when I was told, “It’s the teachers job to make learning fun.”

So let’s deal with the term first.  Fun seems to mean, in most of my student’s usage, enjoyable.  So how is learning linked to joy?  It would seem to indicate a possible dichotomy between means and end.

I think this is where things are breaking down for us in education, at least in part.  I was taught when I was young to enjoy something either by finding joy in the doing of it or the end results.  I was hard pressed to enjoy suicides in full pads on the football field, but I really enjoyed the win.  Mowing the yard was a pain, but that moment of silence when the loud engine is cut off, the waft of newly mown grass is breathed in, and the look of all that uniform green grass is surveyed that true joy is there for the moment.  But what if the pain of the suicide or the sweat and heat of the mower caused me to quit before the end?  No joy.  The end only comes at the completion of the means.

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But I think that analogy is inaccurate to what I face on long weeks like this one.  I think instead a habit has been instilled in many students that leads them to avoid all means but the one they consider necessary.  They don’t run any extra laps or go ahead and trim the hedges as well.  Instead, they seek whatever gets them the end (re: the grade) and thus have no joy in either the means or the real end that would bring joy, an education.  They get the diploma without any reality in it.

So my students sit there wanting me to make learning fun.  But they don’t want to learn, they want to get past “school” to the party they perceive to be waiting for them out beyond the school walls.  Their habits of life, the means they enjoy that they hope lead them to joyful ends, are antithetical to a real education.  They enjoy texting, but not reading a challenging text (in fact they don’t equate books and written passages with a text, they think a text is something on a mobile device).  They love to talk, but they don’t want to do so with any clear definition of terms, careful exposition of their thoughts, etc.  “Why you have to be smart all the time; you should be more dumb like us, Mr. El.”  And I will leave the skills of writing and listening alone, because it has been a long week of grading papers and speaking to a non-listening group of students.

These habits will greatly limit the joy my students can have in life.  They are headed for Thoreau’s “life of quiet desperation” but I am not sure how to give them an appetite for real joy.  I love them.  I want life’s best for them.  I recognize that my frustration with them only disrupts their perception of the joy that I have in my own life in both the means and ends of a vibrant and joyful life of learning. God save me from myself and draw my students out of their caves and into the bright light of truth.

Let’s Get Out of this Cave!

It happened some years ago now, but I think it could still happen today.  I started a conversation without defining my terms.  Some teens and I were talking about classical music.  At some point it was clear they were thinking of the Beatles and I had Bach in mind.  Once they understood how I was using the term, two more things became all too clear.  First, they knew very little of orchestral or “classical” music and secondly, they did not wish to do the work necessary to get to know it.  When I played just a little of Bach’s most accessible stuff (his Air on the G string, BWV 1068) they recoiled with distaste.  Just not our thing, Mr. E.  The Beatles were old, but still kinda cool; Bach was dust.

I thought of that moment again recently when talking with teens about Plato’s cave analogy.  I was captivated with the collateral response.  Plato makes it clear that if the guide returned to the cave to free another “slave” he would be killed if they could get their hands on him.  Killed.  For leading men into the light of truth!  Ask Socrates about that kind of thanks.

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Our modern word “educate” has as its roots the meaning, “to lead out.”  That is the educational enterprise, according to the word’s root meaning.  I can’t contemplate that well without Plato’s cave coming to the forefront my mind.  My job as teacher is to educate, to lead those enjoying shadows in the cave out into the brilliant light of the truth.  While I can take their hand and lead them, they must follow.  There seem to be many who wish to stay in their chains.  “We are okay with the Beatles, but kindly keep Bach to yourself.”

I came away from my music discussion thinking about this issue of taste.  Lots of questions come to mind.  What is good taste?  Is there something that defines Bach as better than the Beatles?  Who am I to assert that my taste is better than a teen’s?  How do you lead someone toward higher tastes?  What relationship is there between knowledge and taste?  Is it a fair reading of the Cave Analogy to state it involves the improvement or heightening of taste?

Good leading out “converts” the one led.  This much is clear in Plato.  They don’t want back in the cave once they are used to life in the real world.  Their affections have become more rightly ordered.  So there is something that occurs in the heart of the one who leaves the cave.  None in the cave want to leave, but those who do, do not wish to return.  Their tastes have changed.  The teacher is a convert themselves, so if they remember the cave, they should have mercy on those still chained.  I find myself hanging around the door of the cave and thinking about these things.  So few of my students have found their way out into the light.  To some extent this is me.  But I can’t get past the notion that our society has trained the youth to enjoy the video lit dimness of the modern cave.  Come out.

 

Connections: One Benefit of an Integrated Curriculum

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There is a lot of conversation about the Liberal Arts these days.  This is a good thing.  In the midst of many reevaluating the Progressive model of men like Dewey, while still holding that the traditional L.A. model does not fit the 21st Century, many seem to be calling for something altogether new.  This article about Connecticut College is just one of many I have come by recently.  One great result of these discussions in a renewed interest in integrating the curriculum.

If all truth is one, and it is, then anything taught is connected to any other thing taught.  The Ancients had that much down pat.  As a faculty seeks to cultivate its graduate, it should carefully consider how each part of its program forms that graduate.  What unique and necessary aspects of the desired graduate come only or mostly by the study of language?  Or math?  Or the arts?  Given the full range of development best epitomized in the Liberal Arts degree, each course should its piece to the assembling puzzle.

I am not a big fan of the term efficiency.  All too often it only succeeds in sucking the humanity out of whatever endeavor it is applied to.  But in this case I can argue for the efficiency of a whole faculty working together for one end: its desired graduate.  I would accept the knock on this view that it removes diversity and individuality if I did not see that such an education best prepares each graduate to realize their own humanity, their own goals and dreams, by giving them as broad and human an education as is possible.  The most efficient education, in the end, does not seem to one of specialization, but one that prepares each student as fully as possible for as much as is possible.

May each faculty of each school enjoy the conversation about integration and the role each course plays in forming a complete person.  God bless the Liberal Arts and its efficient manner.