Jul 15, 2010

Education: Some Modest Proposals

John Frederick Peto, “After Night’s Study,” Detroit Institute of Arts

I’ve been debating whether to bother you with this. Well, thanks to Ohio River Life last Monday, July 12, here it is — concerning schools, some Banjo-Think.

For education to occur, whatever else there might be, there must be the following, in this order of importance (also, notice the adjectives—not “brilliant” or “perfect,” but “willing” and “well-intentioned” people):

A. a willing student.
B. a laboratory—which may be a book, a computer, a forest, a frog, or test tubes and the like.
C. a well-intentioned teacher as guide.

Everything else is optional.

I don’t go around preaching that, but when I do offer it, I get looks that say, “Isn’t he quaint? He hasn’t even mentioned my Special Interest Group.”

Here’s the junk, the hullaballoo, everyone else seems to find essential to education:

Interfering parents.

Governmental exams written by politicians (who may or may not have been educators at some point in their lives).

Political action groups, often as bodyguards for students or teachers.

Educational supervisors (bosses) who look more at lesson plans than lessons — actual classroom experiences or other teacher-student interactions, which include the personal baggage of teacher and student.

A schoolhouse culture that endorses instructional logorrhea, a teacher’s talking at students at the expense of open discussion and other kinds of lab work.

Fear of discipline, lest you anger a parent or political group who themselves lack discipline.

Packets of rules, volumes rumored to cover every eventuality.

The Surrender of thought to local or regional sensibilities, including the
Left-ness, Right-ness, or trendiness in syllabi and curricula.

External experts (“consultants”) who seem important in a field but may or may not have useful, practical information.

Teachers’ attendance at conferences. Teachers' talk about how many conferences they've attended.

Theories about education or subject matter.

Faculty meetings in which bosses or colleagues drone on about the obvious or the irrelevant when all involved could be preparing, grading, resting or having fun with family and friends.

Which conference, meeting, or packet demonstrates to teachers The How of mixing compassion for and expectations of students? Or The How of QueenBees and Bullies? Or The How of comfort with your different drummer? Who's got the instruction manual?

Teacher publications, lectures at conferences and other trophies that bring glory to the school are mistaken for merit in the classroom.

Trophies for students. No trophy = no self-esteem. Hence a trophy epidemic, trophy-inflation and students with holes in their middles. Trophies as charity? Listening to students, respecting students, encouraging and sympathizing with students are vapor that cannot be measured or advertised. Students need objects, tangible currency, not love.

Teachers who think “academic freedom” has no limits.

Teachers who see the classroom as a soap box.

Students who have surrendered.

* * *

What riled up a Sleeping Banjo? At the July 12 Ohio River Life
( http://ohioriverlife.blogspot.com ), the blogger presents a troubling situation at the University of Illinois. For details, you’ll need to go there or elsewhere, but in a nutshell, a student has taken a professor to task for his views on Catholicism, homosexuality, and the broader issue of academic freedom. For now, it’s the Illinois professor who is on the hot seat—what a surprise. But my sympathies are not as predictable as you might expect.

It's an outrage that comparative religion cannot be taught in some (all?) public schools. Aren’t religions right up there with wars as one important way of understanding a culture? But apparently neither teachers nor the citizenry are up to the task of scholarly inquiry or the spirit of curiosity. Everybody's got a pamphlet to sell and alleged sensitivities to protect.

No, I was never personally victimized by the factors above, but I resent the defensiveness I found myself developing after a few years of teaching.

Paranoia? Maybe. But if you can't bring joy to teaching, there's little point in entering the building. In addition to your subject matter, you're teaching (and modeling) a passion for ideas, intellectual curiosity, the proverbial life of the mind. Yes, even in high school, even in the sticks or the inner city. You are the alternative to what is.

But there are thousands out there who want to make this a Left or Right propaganda affair, rather than a Why and How journey. They listen only to each other, they cluster like trendy teams of germs, and insert themselves into the classroom (phallic imagery intended) with little regard for what they are replacing, such as other people actually listening to their child, young people listening to each other, creeping forward . . . "Society creeps ever forward on the backs of its neurotics" (source unknown) -- and on the backs of youth who have been jarred out of their prior indoctrinations.

An interest group behind every pillar means that well-intentioned students and teachers—the majority—are screwed. Am I talking to that Illinois prof or the students who are after him? I don't know. Probably both. But somebody needs to shut up and look in the mirror.



Anonymous said...

As a student, it was always obvious which teachers were there because they loved ideas and discovery, meeting and meshing the freshness of our thoughts with the experience and depth of theirs, and which teachers were there because they had failed at the thing they really wanted to do.

And because there were so few of the former, I remember them -- the way they looked, what they said; I remember their names. And they are a part of me, and partly responsible for the way I look at poetry, drama, comedy, life.

I know into which category you fall. And that's why I like coming to your classroom here.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks for enduring the screed, AH--and of course for the good words. I hope you're right--I think you are. Of course I had the same kinds of teachers you mention, and it was a combo of the lit and the kind of people they seemed to be that sent me down the path.

I actually did get my act together to write a thank-you to THE two who mattered. Hope everybody does that.

(And hey, for you and Brenda, at least, that special teacher in undergrad was the only woman in the department--I tend to forget that. But she walked the walk, even though one of her idols was, yawn, Milton. But also Shakespeare).

Brenda's Arizona said...

Excellent expressions here, Banjomyn. A teacher who has passion and NOT a soapbox influences a student for life.

The professor who taught me about the Civil War from the view of geography and sociology taught me much much more than the guy who was (in his heart and mind) still fighting the damn war. The professor who spent weeks on Keat - dressing and talking and thinking out loud as Keats - and then moved on to Coleridge (and did the same), taught me so much more than just poetry.

A good teacher haunts you for the rest of your life. And, like AH, that is why I come back and back to your posts - they/you are very haunting. In a good way.

Just lovely, Banjomyn!

Banjo52 said...

I'm developing a taste for Craig Ferguson on late night TV. When his audience isn't nice enough, he accuses them of wanting pieces of chicken tossed out to them. To flip that, you'ns are being so nice I think maybe you want me to throw you some chicken. I guess I could've just said thank you. (you'ns is southern Ohio for y'all. I've sometimes envied southerners, who could just say y'all and be done with it).

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