February 28, 2007

The Education Debate

Dan Meyer posted a thoughtful piece after watching Freedom Writers, an(other) inspirational school movie. I'm unable to post comments on Dan's blog for some reason, so I'm posting my comment here.

Quick update: IMDB offers quotes from the movie, including this:
Andre: It's the dumb class cuz. It means you too dumb.
Jamal: Man, say it to my face cuz.
Andre: I just did. See what I mean? Dumb?

The dumb class.

a pervasive complex of martyrdom. Hmm, food for thought. I disagree mostly with JD Hirsch's push for a unified curriculum, "What every child should know" etc, but his analysis of the romanticisation of teaching philosophy, the rosy glasses thru which otherwise rational people allow their vision to be distorted, I think is accurate and could usefully be read and considered by every teacher who favours "hands-on, project-based, student-centred learning". Not that I don't believe in those approaches; it's just that it's easy to get behind ideas, as Hirsch puts it, that sound good, and fail to check if they actually work or not.

That said, I think everyone involved in this debate needs to be real careful. The issue of education is one that people feel passionately about, and have deep-rooted, what I can only call ideologies about this, making reasoned debate extremely difficult and rare. I hope this blog can be one of the rare places it happens. (A great (or terrifying) example of ideologies at work is described in Doc: the story of Dennis Littky and his fight for a better school.)

Setting up straw men is a dishonest debating tactic, loved by ideologues and politicians - people who aim at persuasion, not revealing the truth - and the writing on education is full of this tactic, on both the liberal and conservative sides. Caring ? sadly ? is how the majority of my co-workers and co-bloggers have framed the objectives of our job. Really? I know and have read many who point out the importance of the emotional state in learning, but that is only in order to promote better teaching, not as an aim in itself.

And on which "side" should we place someone like Pissed Off (Teacher)? Does it sound like the administration and supervisors she works with care about the kids? Is she a wimp, trying to avoid responsibility and wriggle away from accountability, just because she cares about her students?

It's not black or white, and it's not a 2-sided issue, "caring vs professionalism". It's a lot more involved and complex than that.

Martyrdom has an interesting younger sibling: playing the victim. The Republicans have pretty much had things all their own way in public affairs for the past 7-8 years and before that under the elder Bush and Reagan. Yet many of them play the victim, whining about how the entire US (the media, the schools, the universities, the courts (!) even) is run by rabid left-wing nutcases who make them feel intimidated and afraid or even unable to speak out freely about their conservative views. I couldn't believe my ears when I listened to actual Republicans. Is this (mis)perception manipulated and exploited by some for political and personal gain? Is the Pope Catholic?

(I only know that it’s corrosive ... on a day-to-day, post-to-post basis...to teach while feeling like the harmlessly insane.... no one seems to be listening to this side closely enough. Now that isn't martyr talk or victim talk is it? No! Of course not.)

Another point where one needs to tread very, very carefully, is in avoiding being conned. Cons use people, usually enthusiastic people, to further their own, hidden, agendas, not yours, and not the ones they sound like they are promoting. They are masters of rhetoric and sophistry. I worked with a guy for several years before I realized that he had approached me only so that I would give his enterprise a veneer of professionalism and solidity; he loved it when I pointed out how "our" approach was solidly supported by pedagogical theory, but he himself didn't believe any of that shit and he couldn't have cared less, just as long as people bought the product.

I'm not a big fan of the "inspiring teacher" film genre. A friend once gave me Dangerous Minds to watch, but was taken aback when I told him I was more impressed with the apparent bankruptcy of a "system" that allowed such decrepit schools and dangerous environments to develop in the first place.

(Curiously, while many of these movies depict outstanding, strong-minded individuals [would you call Louanne Johnson a wilting bleeding-heart-liberal violet?], the kind of pedagogical approach many of the protagonists use kinda goes against the "student-centred, project-based, free expression" approach many enthusiasts seem to favour.)

Finally, here's a quote from Tom Englehardt which kinda sums up my position on this debate. If you're still here, thanks for reading:
Every now and then, I go to some event -- I covered the demonstrations in front of the 2004 Republican Convention and then the Republican delegates on the convention floor -- and essentially ask people why they're there. In our media, we almost never hear people speak in more than little snippets...
So we seldom hear their real voices or how they actually think, and they almost invariably turn out to be more eloquent and complicated than we expect.
(My emphasis).

(Related comment on Borderland)

1 comment:

Pissed Off said...

I've been referred to as many things, but never as a wimp. My problems with the administration are because I am anything but wimpy. I'm at the point of my career where I am working only for the kids. I've learned that you can't win every battle. So, I do the best I can to survive and help my kids get on--the good ones go on to great colleges, med school, law school, careers in education, etc. The others, at least I help them get a diploma so they can get decent jobs and become self sufficient adults.

Some of the administrators do care about the kids, but I think they care about their own agendas more.