Monday, December 20, 2010

"Ban Fiction"

Grant Wiggins is someone in the education field whom I usually admire. I've seen him speak numerous times, I like the book he wrote with Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, and during my years with Big Education Company, I trained my curriculum team to write according to his principles.

So it was a bit of a shock to see a friend post the quote "Ban Fiction from the Curriculum" on LinkedIn today, attributed to Wiggins. It sounded unusally stupid and thoughtless. And, not too surprisingly, when you check out the larger context within which he made that statement, you find that his thoughts are, as usual, thoughtful.


I think it's still a bit extreme to say "ban fiction" or even "ban most fiction," just because most boys seem to dislike most of it. I think the important point here, relevant to the arguments Wiggins usually makes, is that fiction becomes dreary at best and useless at worst when taught by itself, for itself, as though it were an Absolute Good (art for art's sake). That may be fine in an MFA or PhD program, but kids by and large do not see ANY academic subject or sub-subject as an Absolute Good in and of itself.

Kids have real-life, real-world concerns, and we do a poor job, in education, of validating them through the curriculum. Instead, we take obvious labels and design towards those. "Oh, you're a Puerto Rican girl? Okay, here's a book about Puerto Rican girls." When I was forced to teach such a book to such a population, I came close to having the book thrown back at my face. "Mister!" one girl wailed, "I don't need to read my freakin' diary in school."

The whole point of fiction is supposed to be to allow you to explore different worlds, different times, and different kinds of people. But we don't do that out of mere curiosity; we do that to learn something about people, or the world, or ourselves.

So why isn't the English curriculum tied to anything? That's the important question here--not whether or not what the kids read is 54% fiction. Why are we putting students through a literature curriculum instead of a life curriculum? Why can't middle and high school students explore genres of writing from and about important periods of history while studying those periods? For that matter, why can't students learn the history of art and music, and have the chance to play with artistic media and musical instruments of particular times and places, while studying those times and places? Why can't we, now, finally, in the 21st century, stop fracturing the world into arbitrary and nonsensical shards of life for study, and allow students to come at the world in all of its variety and complexity, looking at important themes or questions from different points of view and through different lenses?

When we make everything a "studio" art, studied off in its own corner and taught lovingly by an expert who believes that the only way to approach the art is to learn it as a lover and life-long practitioner, of course we turn off tons of people. And worse, we give the philistines all the ammunition they need to cut the arts (and, soon, literature) out of our schools. They're frills. They're not "core." They can go without harming "the important stuff."

The arts (and let's be honest and admit that literature is one of the arts, and is a completely different subject for study than English grammar, rhetoric, or writing) are either central to our understanding of life, with tendrils and connections snaking out to history, philosophy, math, and science, or they are, like the philistines say, a frill--a silly thing--a "womanish" thing, not to be taken seriously.

Wiggins is right. It's not necessary for any American student to study or understand 1984 or Lord of the Flies. But it is absolutely necessary for American students to study and understand power and its relation to individual freedom. And a true understanding of that issue can be informed not only by a study of history, philosophy, and psychology, but also by a close reading of literature, both fiction and non-fiction. There are things to be learned by Orwell that you will not learn in your Civics class. For that matter, there are things to be learned by looking at "Guernica" that you simply will not get from a textbook. Important things. But if you're 16 or 17, the most essential thing to talk about isn't, "what an interesting metaphor" or, "look at how he draws those horses."

With all of the tools at their disposal, why must our schools focus on trivia and ignore the world that our teenagers are so hungry to talk about and learn about?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"School is Where You Learn"?

Over the past week, my older son, age 10, has been teaching himself how to make stop-motion animated videos. He was inspired partly by repeated viewings of Wallace & Gromit movies, and partly by a series of LEGO-based science-fiction movies made by amateurs and posted on YouTube. He started making his own LEGO movies and then decided to move into Claymation.

How did he learn how to do this? By watching more YouTube videos. He studied animated clips, and he found how-to videos, and he watched them patiently, repeatedly, stepping away from the computer between viewings to experiment on his own, with clay and a video camera. He's getting very good, very quickly.

Last year, we took him and his little brother to the local Air Force base to see an exhibition of planes and fancy flying. I bought him a souvenir model of an F-16. On the way home, he asked me question after question about the F-16. All I knew about it was that it had cost me 10 dollars. So he took my wife's I-Phone, and in the 20 minutes it took to get home, he taught himself everything he wanted to know about that plane, using Wikipedia, YouTube, and a few other sites.

What would I have had to do, at age 10, to learn about F-16s? I would have had to go, physically, to my local library. Or I would have had to go, physically, to my school library. Or I would have had to go to my basement, to check out the 20-year old World Book Encyclopedia that my parents had inherited from someone. Information and expertise lived in clear, discrete places, and you had to go to them to get what you wanted. That's why those places existed--to centralize the information and expertise, so that any people could have access to them. That was the democratic principle in action, because in earlier times and other cultures, only the very wealthy had access to information and expertise. They built libraries and brought tutors into their homes for their children.

Now, today, information is in the air, accessible by anyone, anywhere, at any time. And expertise is likewise being uploaded into the air, through video demonstrations and lectures, podcasts, lesson plans, and so on. You can learn how to knit. You can learn how to draw. You can learn how to factor quadratic equations. If you want information, it's there for the taking. If you want to develop a skill, some form of tutoring is there for the modeling.

So, if all this is true, and our 10-year olds are already comfortable living in this world, what is the future of the school building? What is it for?

In other words, if I don't have to sit all day in a prison-like building, moving herd-like from room to room to be talked at in groups of 30 by a succession of lecturers who care more about my obedience than my learning, why should I?

Take a look at this article by a former homeschooler, about "boredom" and his association of boredom with school learning. It reminds me very much of a chapter from John Taylor Gatto's "Dumbing us Down," in which he talks about growing up out in the country, and how he learned many things about life, nature, auto mechanics, and other things just from knocking around on his own--unscheduled, unschooled, and free to pursue his own, Tom-Sawyer-ish curiosity.

Back when Gatto wrote the book, the choices were stark: play by the rules or walk away; go to school like everyone else, or opt out entirely. Now, though, it doesn't have to be quite so either/or. There are more and more "blended" learning models being built and experimented with, combining live, on-site instruction with the use of online learning. Here is just one example.

On the one hand, this is all fascinating from a theoretical viewpoint. It's interesting to see where it's all going.

On the other hand, though, what does it mean right now, today, when I look at my 10-year old and hear, from his 5th grade teacher, that he is daydreamy and distracted, that he jumps ahead of the class conceptually in some areas but lags behind the group in fact-gathering, in other areas? How do I reconcile the child who can't/won't get his work done in school with the autodidact who is rapidly and effectively self-educating in areas of interest to him? How much conforming-to-the-norm should I have to force him into, for his own sake, if that norm is rapidly eroding...but not yet gone?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Whose Thinking Matters?

What is the role of the professor at the university level? Is it to indoctrinate, to persuade, to challenge? It is to objectively report facts? Is objectivity even possible in some subject areas, like history?

I find this article from the Huffington Post, about the firing of an American History professor, disturbing for a number of reasons. First and most viscerally, I find the professor's tone really unpleasant. I know he's angry about what happened to him, but he seems to be trying very hard to prove that he's not a "professor," that he's incredibly hip and edgy (when we knew that the truly hip and edgy don't waste time trying to take on poses). He talks about his hippie childhood in class; he talks about sex; he curses. His students call him "Bad Thad," and he wears it as a badge of honor. Ho hum.

More important is his attitude towards his teaching. He has a radical and revisionist take on American History, and that's fine--he's entittled to it. If the college he worked for didn't like it, it's their own fault for hiring him and giving him free rein without checking his background. Either you give a professor a curriculum to teach, and therefore expect some accountability, or you give him freedom to teach whatever he thinks is important, in which case you shouldn't act shocked when he does just that.

But a teacher has an individual responsibility to his students, regardless of how much or little control the university holds over him, and that's what I think is interesting here. This professor feels it is his responsibility to bring "the truth" to his students. He has a non-mainstream view of history, and feels he is fighting against a very loud and conformist point of view. If he is not forceful in his teaching, he simply will not be heard--he's a whisper in a hurricane. I totally understand that point of view and that frustration. And I accept the argument that history is not objective--that there is no universal "truth" that's accessible to anyone but God, probably. Everyone has a point of view; everyone has a bias. If we pretend it isn't so, we're hiding things from our students.

But. Even accepting all of these arguments, is your job as a professor to teach the majority argument, to teach a counter-argument, or to teach students to think for themselves?

I had a friend, years ago, who was a classics and theatre professor, and a happily unreconstructed hippie. He argued the same line as the history professor in this article: in the face of mass media and mainstream politics, someone with an opposing point of view needs to be loud, forceful, and charismatic in order to be heard. He was alone on the barricades, waving the flag.

"But," I said, "If they've been swayed to the Right by propaganda and charismatic salesmen, and you sway them to the Left using your own charisma and forcefulness, how do you know the next guy down the line won't just sway them back to the Right? Do you want them to remain sheep, but on your farm, or do you want them to stop being sheep altogether?"

I would not argue that a professor, especially at the college level, should avoid controversy to protect the sensibilities of parents, students, or the administration. Eighteen is certainly old enough to start hearing the ugly facts about the world we live in. But I would argue that the professor has a responsibility to engage students in an examination of the controversy, presenting different and contradictory facts and arguments and helping students form their own opinions--opinions that the students can defend when challenged...even if the students end up
deciding that the professor is wrong. Some of the kids will end up agreeing with you; some of them won't. That's the price you pay for working in the marketplace of ideas. The students should always have the right to buy what you're peddling or walk away. If you overwhelm them with emotional arguments or the force of your personality, your victory may seem total, but it will be short-lived.

My theatre professor friend absolutely disagreed with me, and I suspect the professor in this article would, as well. So did a grad student whom I saw leading a huge theatre survey class, who portrayed every bit of dramatic writing, from ancient Greece to today, as a battle between the master class and the proletariat. This was a survey class--an introduction to this literature. The students likely had never read these pieces before. And the grad student was seeing to it that they all saw this literature through his lenses. Is that education, or indoctrination?

Why do they do this? It's not just because these professors believe what they believe very deeply. It's also because these professors are performers at heart, and they want to keep the audience in the palm of their hands. What they do in the classroom is more important than what the kids do--the kids are simply there to take it in and nod their heads and say, "this guy is a genius!"

The problem is that no one teaches professors how to teach. People come to academia with hardenend ideas, born of their own research, and they immediately set about sharing those ideas with the next generation. Or one might say, "cramming those ideas down the throats of the next generation." No one teaches them how to teach Socratically, dialectically, or dialogically. No one tells them to respect the independence of the students they are teaching. No one tells them that the students are more important than the teacher.

Of course, they don't teach those things to high school teachers, either. They just hand them a textbook and say, "try to stay a couple of chapters ahead of the kids."

Some professors--and some K12 teachers--seem to know this. God knows where they learn it. If you've had teachers like this, you've been lucky. If you are a teacher like this, you're a godsend. But there's certainly nothing structurally built-in to our education system to ensure that teachers approach their work this way.

And--as a coda to all of this--if we teach our children dogmatically--if we spend 12 or 16 years pounding it into their heads that Mr. or Ms. Authority Figure has all the answers, and their job is to swallow the swill and sneer at anyone who disagrees, is it really a wonder that our politics is what it is, today?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Take a look at this letter from a Berkeley professor to his new students--it's a great and righteous rant against what the citizens of California have done to their school system and their children over the past 30 years.

At the end, he calls upon his students to fight back against the greed and selfishness of their parents and re-establish a social contract:

You’re my heroes just for surviving what we put you through and making it into my classroom, but I’m asking for more: you can be better than my generation. Take back your state for your kids and start the contract again.
Which is interesting, since a few paragraphs earlier, he says that the current generation of students is too ignorant of history and too low-skilled in writing to fight effectively for or against anything.

What's sad is the complete admission of defeat on behalf of the so-called adult community, the sense of utter abdication. "The grown-ups screwed it up," he's more-or-less saying, "and they're too blind and stupid to un-screw it. So it's up to you." Which is strangely of a piece with what he's been saying earlier. The generation he's attacking has abidcated responsibility for anything other than its own short-term pleasure, and now it's abdicating it's reponsibility for that abdication of responsibility. "How can you ask me to clean up my mess when I'm the one who made such a terrible mess?"

We're going to need some sort of support groups, like adult children of alcoholics, to help an entire generation cope with the selfish scum who raised them. I think it would be very...cleansing...if the current crop of high school and college students could, as a group, throw it all back in the faces of everyone older than 50 but younger than the surviving World War II veterans, and say, "YOU broke it; YOU fix it. I don't care if you have to live on dog food until you drop. DO IT."

A boy can dream.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What Do You Need to Know?

My older son, who just started fifth grade, hates the fact that he has to re-memorize all of the "math facts" that he once knew, and demonstrate his knowledge on a series of timed tests. He has a pretty hard-core teacher this year, who will not leave the kids alone on this subject until they can pass addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tests at a 75% passing rate, each one completed in three minutes (though they can start at seven minutes and work their way up). Why is the teacher doing this? Because, he says, without those tools the kids will not be able to do any of the higher-level math he's going to teach.

Read my previous post to see what happens when teachers take the opposite view.

There are interesting (though occasionally tedious) battles going on between the Core Knowledge folks, who insist that all children must know all things, and the P21 crowd, who want schools to focus more on skills and habits than on facts. Obviously, to those of us in the sane middle, neither extreme is true; what is needed is a blend of the two. But how does one blend them? And where does one draw the line? That's the tough question. What facts do you just, flat, need to know?

I think the fifth-grade example is instructive. There are certain basic tools that everyone needs, in order to perform more complex tasks. You can make the argument that not all adults need to have learned all of the complex tasks associated with every subject area--but every adult should have a grounding in the basic tools, just in case they need to look up and learn those complex tasks. And it's not enough to rely on a calculator or a spellchecker to perform those basic tasks, because unless we understand those basic tools, we won't really know how or when or why to use them when faced with more complex tasks or problems. This is why it's not okay to abandon basic numeracy and say, "I've got a calculator." You need the basic numeracy to know that, in this particular case, you'll need to divide this number by that number. You need to understand how math works. I would argue that our biggest problems in high school math--the vast numbers of students who cannot pass Algebra, even after multiple attempts--come from a lack of basic understanding of how numbers work. It's not that they don't understand the Algebra; it's that they don't understand anything.

It's no different in English. If you never learn the basic rules of grammar and syntax, you won't learn how to put sentences or paragraphs together effectively. If you don't understand how to put an argument together logically and coherently, you will not recognize when someone else has failed to do so. Why is our citizenry so profoundly susceptible to propaganda, smears, and appeals to emotion? Because we haven't trained them to recognize and resist such things. We haven't given them the tools.

Instead of starting at the bottom and listing the wide world of facts that students should or should not learn, we should start at the top. Forget about facts for a moment. What kinds of problems do adults need to be able to solve? Once you've listed some of those, then you go back to the facts. What facts and skills do adults need to have readily at hand--memorized and deeply understood--in order to be able to solve the kinds of problems that the world throws at them? I would argue that those facts and skills are the non-negotiables, the things that all students must learn, whether they go to college or not. Other facts can be looked up; other skills can be learned as needed, when needed.

The core curriculum should be a toolbox that we fill with the tools all children will need to be successful at the entry-level job they will eventually take on in the world, as adults.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On Standards

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show yesterday while driving around, performing various errands related to having been laid off last Friday. The show was all about higher education and its various woes, from the broken-down system of tenure to the threats of default from "sub-prime" student loans. One of the guests lamented the sorry academic state of many college freshmen, especially where writing skills were concerned. One of the other guests attacked him, saying something like, "I'm so tired of people blaming the high schools. The high schools are doing the best they can, and it's not for us to tell them what to do. Our job is to take who we get, where we get them, and educate them as best we can."

At which point, I dearly wished for a radio that had a button allowing me to remotely smack people in the studio.

So this is where we are, after more than a decade of the so-called standards movement: college entrance is not a goal to be attained, but an entitlement to which all comers are...entitled, regardless of readiness. You don't get to go to college when and if you're ready for college-level work; you simply go. Whenever. Ready or not. And their job is to do with you whatever they can manage to do. They don't get to call the shots or set the agenda.

A standard is supposed to be a benchmark or goal that you meet in order to qualify for something. Advancement, reward, whatever the case may be. You meet the standards? You qualify. You don't? You don't. A standard is supposed to be an immovable object. But we, in our infinite wisdom, decided to adopt standards while, at the same time, embracing a self-esteem movement dictating that everyone must qualify, so that they don't feel badly about themselves. And this idea became an irresistable force.

And as the song says, "something's gotta give."

Well, what's more likely to give--a standard of excellence which requires hard work, and which not all people will attain, or a general feeling of syrupy goodness about ourselves? I'll give you one guess.

All across the country, academic standards that took millions of taxpayer dollars to develop are being subverted by dumbed-down standardized tests (that also took millions of taxpayer dollars to develop), or by good tests with subversive grading rubrics. We talk a good game, but in the end, everyone, or nearly everyone, moves along the line. And college, which once upon a time was an elitist institution (acadmically elitist in the best of times, instead of simply socially elitist), entrance to which was a badge of achievement, is now simply the next step that everyone must take. And if the kids aren't ready to do that work, we'll just give them work they are ready to do. We don't want to be unfair.

I had thought, silly me, that the whole point of this exercise was to spend energy and resources to help more students rise to a higher standard. Instead, we have left the students where they are and lowered the bar to meet them.

And we wonder why our political discourse is idiotic and barbaric? We wonder why "Jersey Shore" is considered great entertainment? We wonder why anyone and anything that smacks of erudition or sophistication is mocked into silence?

If our only standard is going to be smug satisfaction with ourselves, why don't we save our taxpayers a lot of money, and our schools a lot of grief, and just stop the whole charade?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lighting Out for the Territories

This article from Slate made me think about a high school student I taught, many years ago, in an alternative school for kids who had "fallen through the cracks" in previous schools. This kid was immensely intelligent, but socially hopeless. He spent hours at home, reading history, but was more at home in ancient worlds than his own. And he wasn't just awkward--he had some real problems. He occasionally dressed in furs and called himself Hrothgar, and was once seen walking down a major city street wearing scuba gear. He probably needed medication, but he refused to consider it, claiming that the doctors were all Men Without Honor, intent on destroying his manhood, or robbing him of his soul.

And when you looked at the world through his eyes, it was hard not to see things the way he did. To him, the modern world was alien, small, weak, and strange. Compromised in every possible way. In an earlier time, he would have set off for the frontier and become...what? A fur trapper, perhaps? Pa Ingalls, maybe? The kind of homesteader who could quote Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but who could not sit still in either school or church? Huck Finn, running away from being "sivilized"?

One of our teachers took this kid out on camping trips from time to time, to try to help him become more self-sufficient and capable, thinking that maybe we could get him a job in a national park, up on a fire tower or something. Because in our world, there was simply no place for him.

Our headmaster, who had spent many years teaching dyslexic students, was convinced that the thing we called dyslexia was a problem of definition more than anything else. In our modern, hyper-literate world, we saw these kids as problems, because they had trouble reading. But we tended not to see what often came hand-in-hand with those reading problems, which was intense creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and dynamic leadership skills. In an earlier time, all you would have seen were the gifts. Would it really have mattered if Alexander had inverted his letters, or if Napoleon had been a slow reader? Not so much. But in our world, which doesn't particularly value Alexanders or Napoleons, the tail wags the dog.

What are we supposed to do with students who are simply not built for school desks, multiple-choice tests, and college? We live in a country that attracted pioneers and out-of-the-box thinkers from nations all around the world; we live in a country that was, to a large extent, built by those people. The West was settled by those people--people who were more comfortable cutting down trees, building a house with their own hands, and hacking a living out of the soil than they were living in town--people who tended to uproot themselves and move further west when the land they had settled became too settled. Say what you like about people like that--you like them or you hate them--but don't pretend they no longer exist. Do we really think, somehow, we have bred those qualities out of collective gene pool? Do we think that will no longer have any Pa Ingallses or Alexanders, simply because we have no need for them anymore?

No--they will come. They come every year. The dispositions are there, and they're not going away, even though we have no place for them. And we have no place for them. There are no frontiers, no unsettled places to which the unsettled minds can run away. There are no unruly places for the people who need to make their own rules. There are only round holes, anymore; if you happen to be a square peg, you're shit out of luck. If you're round-ish, we can accommodate you. If you're willing to squeeze yourself a little, or shave yourself down a little, we can find a place for you. But square? Genuinely, freakishly square? Good luck.

I have no idea what happened to Hrothgar, as I moved away from that city soon after teaching him, and lost touch with many of my fellow teachers. In my mind, he's still on the prowl, in furs, looking for a place to call home.

And Alexander wept, because there were no more worlds to conquer. But Ritalin took care of that.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Democracy without Deliberation?

The self-government that we claim to revere, though we practice it little and disparage it often, is more than just a formal structure for political decision-making; it's also a way of thinking and being in the world. Democracy, whether it's practiced at the national level or at a town-hall meeting, is not the same thing as mob-rule, and it is not the same thing as acting as though what you want is right, simply because it's you, wanting it (and what others want is wrong, simply because it's not-you, wanting it). Democracy requires discourse, and reflection, and compromise, so that the eventual decisions reached reflect the best thinking of The People as a group. And all of that requires time.

Democracy was born in times that had more time. When the American colonists protested against some act or other of the British Parliament, it took time for the response to reach American's shores--whether that response was a sharply-worded letter or a ship full of Redcoats. The distance between Us and Them didn't just give us isolation and protection; it also gave us time to think--to think about what the best way forward might be. And that time allowed our representatives to study past precedent; to take the politcal temperature of their constituents; to discuss and argue amongst themselves; to step back from the passionate arguments and reflect on what had been said; and to come back to the table to listen and to compromise.

We have time for none of that now.

We live in a world, now, where action and response are expected immediately, whether in business or in pleasure or in politics. Our technology has taught us to expect things as quickly as a fiber-optic cable can deliver it. When we want something, we want it now. When we decide something, we expect to see it happen now. Important papers are not delivered by mail; they must be faxed, or scanned and emailed. We will not wait.

And when things seem to take too long, or when people appear to change their minds about something, we lash out at them for dithering, or vacillating, or flip-flopping. Many Americans loved George W. Bush for projecting an image of No Change: he believed what he believed; they were the same things he had always believed; they were the same things he was going to believe tomorrow. Some of us were horrified by the idea that the man's attitudes and opinions were invulnerable to experience--that nothing that might happen in the world would change the way he saw that world--but others took as a sign of strength. And what did people call his political opponents, when they wanted to insult them? Intellectuals. Elitists. Flip-floppers.

Barack Obama is being attacked today for acting too "cerebrally" in response to the BP oil spill. We want him to ride in on a white horse and "plug the damn hole already." But the real problems of the real world are seldom solved by heroes on white horses. Our problems are complex, but our culture increasingly despises complexity. "Just plug the hole." "Just finish the border fence." "Just DO IT."

"Think it through" or "let's talk about it" are signs of weakness. "Act without thinking" is a sign of strength. If these things continue, how can anything resembling democractic self-rule survive?

Because we're not alone. Out there in the larger world are countries that can act (seemingly) without thinking, because they brook no public argument or discussion. The leader simply decides. And to an instant-gratification culture like ours, that may look increasingly attractive. Democracy is slow, and clunky, and deliberative. It requires synthesis before action. Totalitarianism is none of those things. Someone simply ACTS. And the citizenry simply takes it.

The tea party folks can talk like libertarians all they like, and hold their so-called town-hall meetings, but it's all sham. I watched some of the videos of those town-hall meetings. There was nothing deliberative about them. There was no sense of a community coming together to discuss its common needs. It was a room full of individuals, each armored against the others, all screeching "I want, I want, I want," and making it very clear that they would not tolerate having their tax money spent for anything that fell outside the small orbit of their own, personal, "I want." The entire concept of an "us" is falling apart. "E pluribus pluribus" is the future we're racing towards.

And as much as totalitarian governments like to embrace a rhetoric of nation or community or one-ness, they actually thrive on splitting people away from each other and encouraging them to care only about themselves. Because if they can satisfy some basic, material needs of individuals, and keep them selfish, then organization, community, and union become less likely. People get the stuff they want, and someone else makes the hard decisions. Quickly. Decisively. Without bothering us too much. And we will like it, because "American Idol" is about to start, and we just bought a new 500-inch, 3-D , HDTV.

I said in my last post that it all goes back to high school, and it's true here, as well. You get what you train for. If you want a nation of thoughtful, reflective, rational actors, able to come to the table in a spirit of discourse and with an ability to compromise, then you need to teach those skills to children, explicitly and in school. You need to give them the deep and broad content knowledge they can draw upon to make reasonsed decisions and listen to reasonable opponents without calling them names.

Or you can throw a lot of pre-determined and pre-digested facts at kids in short bursts, yell at them to memorize them, and give them multiple-choice tests to see if they did memorize them.

Which kind of education do you think the people who created this country had? Which kind of education do you think the people who can sustain this country need?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

It All Goes Back to High School

Here are three things you should not do, simultaneously, if you want to keep a sunny disposition: read political blogs; attend online graduate classes; and be married to someone who teaches college-level writing classes.

When I look at the writing skills of my fellow students in online classes, and my wife reads selections from her students' papers, I grimace and think, "Why don't people know how to write?" But when I look past the lousy grammar and sentence structure, and really examine the content of what's being said, the actual question is, "Why don't people know how to think?"

When I include the blogs (left and right) that I sometimes read (some of which are written perfectly competently; they're just insane), it's even worse.

When I say they don't know how to think, I don't mean that I disagree with their arguments. I mean that they are inept at laying out their arguments and, worse, perhaps incapable of forming a coherent argument.

And it all goes back to high school. Maybe even middle school. Because it's not a natural skill, like speaking, or walking. You have to learn how to think. You have to learn how to form a coherent, logical argument. You have to learn what a main idea is, and what a supporting argument is, and the varieties of different ways one can support an argument: emotionally, factually, persausively, and so on. This is supposed to be part of your education. You learn the skills and you practice the skills. You read the arguments of others and you deconstruct them, to see how they built their argument, and why it works. You learn how to look under the hood, or look behind the curtain. You learn the tricks so that you can use the tricks and--much more importantly--so that you can avoid being fooled by them when other people use them.

Or you don't. In which case, you end up thinking Glenn Beck is the savior of American Democracy.

I got into an argument, years ago, with a former theatre colleague who was an unreconstructed hippie and proud Leftist. I was telling him about an interdisciplinary, high school curriculum unit I was designing on the idea of utopia. The history section of the unit focused on the Cold War, and included essays from both the Right and the Left. The essays disagreed on pretty much everything, and it made the kids crazy, because they were used to reading textbooks. But we pushed them to read everything, come up with an opinion, and defend it. We didn't care what opinion they ended up with, as long as they could support it. My friend was very upset. He felt that it was his job to push a Left agenda with his students--hard--to counter what he felt was the larger culture's Rightward drift. I argued that it didn't serve the students, even if he was successful: all he would have done is sway them from Right to Left on the force of his personality or argument, leaving them open to swing right back again on the force of the next teacher. His job, I argued, was to get them to think independently, regardless of what opinion they ended up with, even if they ended up disagreeing with him.

He was unmoved.

Our fear that children will reach conclusions we disagree with keeps us from allowing them to engage in real independent, critical thought. So we give them textbooks that have ready-made, pre-digested conclusions, and then give them multiple-choice tests to see if they have accurately remembered those conclusions. And we leave them open to cultural and political vultures and con-men, who tell them what is cool, or what is right--what they should wear and what they should think. We raise them to be sheep--ready for the shearing--easy to manipulate and bamboozle and con.

And maybe that's good for the economy--I don't know. Maybe we need to raise easily gulled fools to keep people buying ten tens of shit that they don't need. But it's going to be the death of our democracy. Because if we raise generation upon generation of voters who laugh at people who ask questions, and revere people who come with easy answers, then it won't take long before people start asking why we need to bother with a Congress or a Court at all.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Narrow Place

Apologies to the 3.5 people who read this. I haven't posted anything here in a long time. Blame other social networking media, and grad school. And life.

Anyway, here it is, Passover. And as usual, I get irritated by the literalists--both the historical literalists who insist on believeing that the Exodus must have happened, as written, in historical time, for it to have any meaning, and the ritual literalists, who insist on leading the seder as though every page must be read out loud, in order, as is, for the evening to have any meaning. I reject both points of view.

I've participated in discussions, at my congregation, about the historical truth of the story, and everyone at the table got completely hung up on the topic. To them, the idea that maybe, just maybe, there were no Israelites enslaved in Egypt--the fact that no archeological evidence had turned up yet to confirm this--was terribly threatening to them. Like the story had no meaning unless it was literally, historically true.

And this is a Reform congregation.

To me, the story might actually have MORE meaning if it's not true. I mean, think about it--why would our ancestors have chosen, on purpose, to make this story of enslavement and redemption their founding myth? Who does that? Every other ancient culture that I know of saw itself as descended from gods or heroes. The Jews saw themselves as descended from slaves. Why? What does that say about us, as a people?

For me, as a writer and a former English major and English teacher, the fact that something may be poetry does not mean that it isn't true. There is truth in poetry--sometimes greater truth than we find in history.

What does the poetry of Exodus tell us?

Let's start with crossing the Red Sea, or Sea of Reeds, or whatever it was. Does it matter whether the sea was really parted? Not to me. What matters to me is the imagery of something enormous being crossed by the Israelites, and then being closed behind them. It means that true freedom requies a boundary-crossing in a way that does not allow for backsliding and return. We know the Israelites bicker and complain constantly--that they are terrified of freedom and, in the face of each crisis, beg to return to Egypt. It's important that the door behind them has been closed, and that the only way forward for them is forward. If the oppressed peoples we've known of had been able to truly close the door on old chapters of their history, they might have been more able to move forward into freedom, rather than backsliding into tyranny, as so many of them have.

How about 40 years in the desert? What does it mean that the slave generation had to live out in the wilderness and die there, and that only their children--the ones born in the open spaces of freedom--were ready not only to understand the commandments given unto them, but also to live them, and make a new nation for themselves? How many peoples throughout history have had the benefit of "40 years in the desert" between tyranny and freedom? How many have had the luxury of not having a new potential tyrant, in their nation or in a neighboring country, breathing down their necks and waiting for them to fail? We, in America, had that luxury, only because most of the rest of the world was separated from us by two oceans that took a long time to cross. In fact, we had worked out quite a lot of what it meant to self-govern long before our revolution took place. Who else has been so lucky?

What about the giving of the law and the building of the calf? Huge. Someone once made what he thought was a nasty joke about Jews, saying, "Only the Jews would come up with the idea that laws = freedom." But I didn't find it nasty. I said, "You're damned right. Because laws DO equal freedom. Without law, all you have is chaos, and chaos leads straight to tyranny. If you don't have some laws or principels that allow you to self-govern, it won't take long for you to turn to some strong man and say, 'govern us.'"

None of these issues ever seem to get talked about by the literalists. Nothing that could teach us how to live, how to understand ourselves. Just facts.

And the literalist seders don't help us learn from our story, either. Instead, we get page after page of psalms extolling the power of God. And that's fine, to some extent. Maybe, for some people, that's fine in its entirety. That's the only lesson to be drawn.

But not for me. That's all I'm saying. To me, the Torah--the Bible--is not a book that you are simply supposed to swallow, whole, without reflection, and say, "I believe." From where I sit, my heritage and culture teach me to wrestle with the book, to argue with it, and to learn from it--constantly. And the only way to do that is to let the words and images resonate with you--to let them bounce around and reflect off things and work on you in different ways.

Like a poem.