Teaching

I was thinking today that teaching may not be so bad after all. I mean, the language of education is absurd. It’s quite simply immoral to subject young people to the soul-crushing world of “ensuring that all students reach their maximum potential.” That’s ridiculous, as is the certification process, the teaching of methods, requiring twenty-somethings to write their own philosophy of education, or come up with our own curriculum from scratch, or have much personal (as opposed to institutional) authority, and many other things. There must be some kind of conspiracy out there trying to sift out anyone who’s not either unbelievably persistent, or possessed of an odd combination of pretension and acceptance of manifestly silly ideas. “Oh, our schools are failing! Whatever shall we do?” “Why, make sure that potential teachers are subjected to as confusing and unconnected an array of educational truisms as possible, of course!”

But even so… it’s fundamentally not that complicated. We read a book and talk about it. Write an essay about it. Learn some words to describe things that authors do. What does the tension between the gods of the Eumenidies mean for humans? Was there any possible right course of action for Orestes? What’s more important, the family, the city, or the gods? What happens when they impose opposing demands? Why does Aristotle consider tragedy to be the highest of poetic art forms?

There’s a kind of tug-o-war going on in teaching and learning between being inside the text – asking questions and talking about the thing itself – and being outside it; asking meta-questions. They’re both needed, but inside-questions are usually more fruitful. There’s this thing in front of us – what’s going on with it? How do we talk about it? But Education has become all about meta-questions; what’s an activity we can do? What’s a worksheet? How do I get the students to behave? What if they don’t read the book? I’m sure I would know a good deal more about everything if I stopped being so preoccupied with meta-questions; even though they have their place. Their place is things like: what do we study? Should we read Flannery O’Conner next week or someone else. Is Sophocles appropriate for our current level of understanding? Is there something we would need to have read first in order to understand it? Do we read Canterbury Tales in modern English or as it was originally written? These are all valid concerns – but they’re precursory; they need to give way to thing’s more like: how is the Miller’s Tale a response to the Knight’s Tale?

Perhaps there are three levels of engagement. On the furthest in, most essential level there’s the questions about the text itself. Then there are questions about what to use – which book, artist, medium, essay question? And then on the meta-meta level there are questions that aren’t discipline-specific; how do I set this thing up? What’s the format? The methods? Is it a lecture, a discussion, a “research” session? All these things are important, of course – they have the potential to change what kind of thing can be taught or learned – but I kind of wonder if it’s best to choose one or two formats, and stick with them, and then stop worrying about them. It’s certainly a bad sign when people have to take years of courses about them. Once again, they’re not (or rather should not be) that complicated. St. John’s has chosen to use a discussion format for all their graduate classes. Sometimes there are public lectures. It’s perfectly appropriate that they have one method and use it all the time – because they only attract the students who like that method. Some teachers do a lecture, demonstration, lab format; that works in it’s proper venue as well. That’s what art and lab science teachers tend to do.

So my question – the one that’s been nagging at me for years now – is how did we get from all these important but simple decisions of which book to read, and what to emphasize about it, and how much time to place on activity vs. discussion vs. lecture – and turned it into this oppressive frenzy of methods?

I can’t speak for elementary schools – they seem to be a whole different game, as it were – but for teens and older students, it’s all about dumping the entire responsibility for motivation on the teacher. If the people in one of my classes here at St Johns all suddenly decided not to read or speak, the class would be dissolved. The tutor isn’t about to sit there and talk at us for two hours. Not gonna happen. But in a high school if the students decide to just sit there, I really do have some kind of obligation to make them listen, or work – basically to *make them* something. That’s intolerable.

So education professionals have noticed that this is not a good balance. It doesn’t work for teachers to stand there and try to force information into passive minds. If the students are bright enough to absorb the information well enough to pass a simple test they label this kind of interaction “regurgitation.” If nothing is absorbed, they say that the teacher isn’t teaching, however many words or how much thought he may be expending, because if he were teaching, the students would be learning.

Of course, this isn’t true of every student; perhaps not even most students. But it’s an accepted and widespread attitude.

What remedy? I don’t know. Given the premises that every “student” is a real student simply by virtue of being physically present in a classroom, I don’t know that there is one. Come to think of it, perhaps teaching really is that bad after all.

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