Special needs M.D.
At what point does it stop making sense to make special arrangements for learning disabled students to demonstrate what they know? Where does the prerogative to be fair to the student collide with the obligation to measure competence as objectively as possible? Is there a point where a learning disability really does disable--and therefore disqualify--a student from progressing through a certain course of study? These questions are all at work in the case of Heidi Baer, a dyslexic second-year medical student at Drexel University who is having trouble passing the national examinations that would allow her to advance to her third year of study. Baer has failed the test three times; she is now petitioning for time and a half to take the exam for the fourth time. The National Board of Medical Examiners is not inclined to grant Baer the extra time, stating that to do so would undermine testing standards and could even "put patients at risk." Baer is suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act in the hope that a federal judge will order the board to give her the extra time. Drexel has already granted Baer special consideration in allowing her a fourth chance to take the exam; school policy dictates that students who do not pass the exam on their third try cannot continue in the program.
April 29, 2005
Be careful what you hand out
At the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, award-winning history professor Jonathan Bean has become the center of an impassioned controversy over the limits of academic freedom and the politics of balanced pedagogy. InsideHigherEd.com has the details:
...in the last two weeks, he has found himself under attack in his department --with many of his history colleagues questioning his judgment for distributing an optional handout about the "Zebra Killings," a series of murders of white people in San Francisco in the 1970s. His dean also told his teaching assistants that they didn't need to finish up the semester working with him, and she called off discussion sections of his course for a week so TA's would not have to work while considering their options.
Students and professors at the university are trading harsh accusations about insensitivity and censorship, talking about possible lawsuits, and assessing the damage. Shirley Clay Scott, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, sent a memo to faculty members warning that they could "easily self-destruct if we do not exercise restraint and reason."
Support for Bean appears strong on the campus, at least outside of his department and his dean's office, and several national groups that defend professors who get in trouble for their views have offered to help him.
The offending handout can be read in its original form at FrontPageMagazine.com; Bean handed out a condensed version.
Bean is receiving strong support from the campus paper, The Daily Egyptian, whose writers have expressed both support for professors' right to teach controversial material and faith in students' ability to differentiate among bogus and credible ideas. The staff editorial, "Feeling the Chill," is well worth reading--among other things, it suggests that the students at Carbondale have a stronger grasp of the principles of liberal education than many of their professors and certainly of their dean.
UPDATE: Ralph Luker has more.
AND ANOTHER 5/2: Writing for the Boston Globe, Cathy Young says Bean is the victim of a "witch-hunt", and accuses SIUC of engaging in "left-wing McCarthyism."
April 27, 2005
April is the cruelest month
Here's an excerpt from a poem written by a Southern Connecticut State University student and submitted for credit in his English class:
So in poetry class, a poem they read,
That made Gringos greedy, and Mexicans martyrs.
Juan Diego protested of this hatred that was fed,
"The Gringos just did things much better and smarter."
White called him a racist, her face went all red.
Juan thought of this challenge and how next he can smart her.
"She wants me to hate Gringos," thought clever Juan Diego,
"But tables will turn, Senora tan ciega!"
By well made chance , Juan Diego found out,
That in the same dorm and down just one door,
A beautiful girl, with a squishy round snout,
Slept every day. He could hear her snore.
One night she walked by, her blue eyes funned out.
She bumped into Juan, just a night shirt she wore.
"My name is Snow, my mother is White"
Juan's brown eyes widened, his pants grew tight.
It seems to be custom, here in the States,
That after a girl loves a boy for just one night,
She brings him to dinner, though her mother hates
The sight of new boys with smiles so bright.
So Juan was invited to the White estate.
He rang the door bell and held Snowy tight.
White opened the door and there was a great swap.
As one face lit up, the other face dropped.
Edward Bolles, the author of the poem, was barred from class after the professor complained that the poem amounted to a veiled sexual threat against her and her three-year-old daughter. Bolles claims that the poem is actually a meditation on globalization. He has also noted that the tension between himself and his professor arises from their differing political views--Bolles is a Mexican and a conservative; his professor--who figures in the poem as "Professor White"--is a liberal. The university investigated and concluded that no disciplinary action against Bolles was warranted.
April 26, 2005
In recent weeks, black and Hispanic students at Trinity International University, a small Christian school located just outside Chicago, have been the unhappy recipients of threatening letters. The letters targeted the students for racial reasons, and contained personal threats of violence. Last Thursday, after a black woman student received a letter that threatened to harm her with a weapon, authorities became so worried for the safety of minority students that they evacuated dozens of them from campus; they returned to classes yesterday. Today the rash of hate crimes at Trinity International has been solved. The perpetrator was a black female student who did not want to be at the school, and who created an elaborate hate crime hoax to try to convince her parents that the school was too dangerous for her to attend. Alicia Hardin is a nineteen-year-old Chicago native. After confessing yesterday, she was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and a felony hate crime; if convicted, she could do five years in prison.
UPDATE: Now she says she didn't do it.
April 23, 2005
I (heart) free speech
Last month, two Minnesota high school girls saw Eve Ensler's play, The Vagina Monologues. So impressed were they by Ensler's work that they purchased a couple of "I (heart) My Vagina" buttons and began wearing them to school. The trouble began when the school principal, Nancy Wondrasch, decided that the buttons were inappropriate and admonished the girls for wearing them to school. "We support free speech," she told the press. "But when it does infringe on other people's rights and our school policies, then we need to take a look at that." Wondrasch may not understand the First Amendment, but the ACLU does: It has offered to help the girls if the school attempts to punish them for wearing the buttons. A number of the girls' fellow students get it, too: More than one hundred of them have ordered his and hers t-shirts bearing the respective slogans "I Support Your Vagina" and "I (heart) My Vagina." Principal Wondrasch has threatened to expel both girls if anyone shows up at the school wearing one of the shirts.
April 21, 2005
Dress for success
Harvard president Lawrence Summers has become famous for attracting criticism, censure, and generalized antagonism; he has also, in the process, become famous for refusing to be beaten into rhetorical submission by his ideological opponents. In the past, Summers has taken flak for criticizing Cornel West, for disapproving of petitions for university divestment from Israel, and for being friendly to campus ROTC programs. Over the winter, the problem was his willingness to speculate about whether intrinsic differences between men and women may account at least in part for the comparatively small numbers of women to be found in engineering and the hard sciences; this week, the issue is whether he is insensitive to the plight of Native Americans. The Harvard arts and sciences faculty has voted "no confidence" in Summers, but he does have strong, vocal supporters. Some of them have created a t-shirt in Summers' honor. For $12 plus shipping costs, you, too, can be the proud wearer of a "Viva Summers" t-shirt. On the vivasummers.com website, which features a portrait of a grinning Summers accepting his own personal shirt, the creators note that no communist revolutionaries were harmed in the making of their product.
Racism in the classroom
From a fascinating and troubling anonymous post from the Writing Program Administration listserv:
Three undergraduate students came to me at the end of last term saying that they thought their teacher (a male, African American TA) was grading them down when they didn't agree with his position on topics he assigned. It seems the teacher had made clear his own point of view and engaged in arguments with members of the class who publicly disagreed with him. His assignments, despite the curriculum focused on textual analysis and critical argument, were all "take an opinion about x" or "agree or disagree with x" and he had told students that he couldn't help but read those essays that took a position counter to his own more critically because he "knew the facts" and had thought through the arguments. These students felt they were in a hostile, racially and politically charged atmosphere, and had already gone to the university ombudsman to complain. The instructor had spent considerable class time (the students claim as much as three weeks, the syllabus showed about a week's worth, the instructor eventually admitted to more than what was in the syllabus but denied three weeks) showing films about government conspiracies to keep inner city blacks addicted to drugs and about police brutality against blacks (none of these were named in the syllabus). The students had put up with it all until the term was over because they didn't think they had any power to make anything different happen, but when the teacher said to them on the last day of the class, "you should all just suck it up and take whatever grade I give you without whining about it because I'm the teacher," they had finally had enough.
When the university ombudsman called, she wanted to know what I (as the director of the program) was going to do about the situation, but she insisted that the "department is on notice" that this instructor has created an inappropriately racially charged atmosphere that is not conducive to learning and fair treatment. I went to my acting department chair with the information I had, including copies of the students' papers with comments by the instructor, his assignments, the syllabus he had turned in, and the discursive student evaluations that had already come in from the class in question. These student evaluations included lots of support for the students' claim that this instructor had not been teaching a writing class, had failed to provide clear explanations for his grading, and had conducted classroom discussions around the hot topics of race rather than around argument, writing or even reading assignments. The chair responded by a) questioning the motivations of the undergraduates who were complaining and b) expressing surprise that someone with my political views (I'm fairly easily identified as very liberal in my department) would question a teacher trying to expose students to racism in our country. The word on the street in the department is that he called me a "racist" to other members of the department and although some have come to my defense, I suspect that
label will be around for a while.
In trying to protect the TA from further accusations of unfair grading, I suggested that we not meet with him to discuss the problem until after he turned in final grades for the term. The ombudsman agreed with this plan, but the chair did not, and so he met with the TA alone, telling him in vague ways that there had been complaints about his teaching. When the grades finally were turned in and I met with the TA, he already knew enough to identify two of the three students by name even though I didn't tell him how many complaints had been filed or the gender of the students who had complained. In our discussions, it became clear that this graduate student couldn't see the difference between a textual analysis assignment and a position assignment. He was unable to articulate any grading criteria, had no explanation for showing so many movies (except that they were interesting), and expressed surprise over curricular objectives that he had supposedly been using for two years since he arrived in the department. When I offered that we make some plan for helping him to work with controversial material in a more appropriate way for a composition course, he said he would not co-teach with anyone because this would be "putting him in shackles." The chair finally agreed that the evidence of his not following the curriculum was pretty clear, and I said that it was difficult to substantiate the students' claims that they received lower grades because of the positions they took on topics without seeing the papers from all the students. As best I could tell, his grades, like his comments, were completely arbitrary. But, I did say that I didn't see how he could be in the composition classroom when he couldn't write an appropriate assignment and wasn't following the syllabus he submitted to the program office. The solution? He has been in the writing center this term, and will teach a literature course in the fall, but after that, who knows?
Now, why tell this story and why tell it anonymously? Some of the recent conversation about racism in the classroom has suggested to me that we believe that only students can be racists or have ill founded positions. I'm not saying that anyone has said that, and I don't mean to be accusing anyone here. I think accusations of racism are serious matters and shouldn't be thrown around lightly, and I think sometimes accusations of racism are used as another way of gaining power, especially when the usual balances of power have been upset (as they are when women serve as WPAs). And, I think that these issues are so difficult, so charged, that it's very difficult to tell the counter story - the ones where it is the teacher who is behaving inappropriately. Personally, I'm ashamed of my institution, especially my colleagues for the way they've handled this situation. But I'm also embarrassed to have been accused of being a racist, even indirectly. And, because I'm ashamed and embarrassed, as I suspect others in similar situations are, stories like mine don't get told and don't get the kind of professional scrutiny that the more typical "students are racists" stories get. I'm not brave enough to tell this openly, but I am trying to figure out how stories like this - the ones we're ashamed of - can be told, studied and learned from.
I could go on and on about this post--not only about how it speaks to the intertwined problems of poor graduate student teacher training and ideologically biased composition courses, but also about how it bears witness to how structurally and even philosophically ill-equipped academic departments can be for dealing with the kinds of problems this writing program administrator encountered when she tried to do the right thing in the proper institutional channels. But I won't. The post is powerful enough on its own.
The WPA archive makes for some interesting reading, and may be found here.
April 18, 2005
The 9/11 novel
The inevitable subgenre has been born--and credited with therapeutic powers:
As writers begin to bridge the divide between the very real events of 9/11 and fictional narrative, some readers may ask, What took so long?
In some ways, the answer is simple: It's all about timing. Novels, like any labor of love, take time to write, edit, and print. But less obvious factors - such as emotional timing - are also at play. As 9/11 becomes more distant, broaching the subject in a less literal way may be timely and appropriate for healing grief, some say.
Mental-health experts who have dealt with those directly affected by 9/11 give conflicting views about the ability of fictional accounts of that day to help people recover from grief.
Readers of the novels can "process the experience for themselves" if they have an opportunity to translate fictional accounts into a mode for assuaging grief, says Spencer Eth, medical director of behavioral health services and associate chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers in New York. He's one who believes it's appropriate for 9/11 to be "embraced creatively and artistically."
But can literary leaps of faith effectively decode the emotions of that day? And will readers be receptive to these sweeping, interpretational stories?
Some may be too receptive. Images of the attacks are so visceral and so integral to the nation's "collective consciousness" that fictionalized accounts may lead some readers to believe that the "realism of drama" is the truth, says Laurie Nadel, a psychologist at the WTC Family Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y., which provides counseling to people who lost family members in the World Trade Center attacks.
Still, there's a good chance that many people even now are trying to "metabolize the meaning" of life after 9/11, Dr. Nadel says. For them, she adds, fiction can allow them to explore that.
Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the 9/11 novel with the highest profile; Philip Beard's Dear Zoe is another; The Christian Science Monitor notes that half a dozen such novels have been published in the past year and says there will be five more in print by summer. Not quite another 9/11 novel, but a novel of closely connected topicality, is Ian McEwan's latest, Saturday, which is set against the backdrop of a mass anti-war demonstration that took place in London in February 2003. Saturday is in my bedside stack, to be read once I've finished with Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Jonathan Safran Foer's book is not in the stack, for similar reasons: after the wonder of Atonement, I'll read anything by McEwan; after the unreadable Everything is Illuminated, I'm not eager to get either extremely loud or incredibly close with its author (I realize I'm in the minority about Jonathan Safran Foer, and perhaps I should try again, but I found the book wholly off-putting when I began it a year ago and had to put it down). I'd love readers' thought on the phenomenon of the 9/11 novel, the concept of socially therapeutic fiction, or any of the writers or works mentioned here.
April 17, 2005
The making of an academic gadfly
People who follow the academic culture wars--which continue to rage despite reports that all those battles died away years ago--will know the name Mike Adams quite well. Left-leaning sorts may recognize Adams as one of those crazed thorns in academe's sides--a Christian conservative who regularly uses the media to trumpet the discriminatory failings of today's ideologically one-sided campuses. Right-leaning sorts will also recognize Adams as a gadfly, though less angrily; they may also recall that Adams' outspoken muckraking persona was forged in the crucible of his own unpleasant encounter with the campus thought police. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Adams offended a student by telling her what he thought of her practice of mass emailing members of the UNC community a missive that essentially excused the terrorists' actions as the inevitable result of U.S. exploitation; when the student complained, administrators at the UNC-Wilmington campus opened an investigation into Adams that included a plan to read his private email for incriminating (ideological?) evidence that would enable the student to sue him. Adams fought back, with the help of FIRE, and after being roundly shamed by the national media, UNC administrators backed down. Since then, Adams has been a prominent figure on the conservative opinion circuit; he's got a column at townhall.com, and he's even written a book entitled Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel. Today, the Raleigh News & Observer is running a long profile of Adams, explaining who he is, how he got to be that way, and what life is like for him as a professor who is now openly politically at odds with the vast majority of his colleagues. Well worth a read.
April 12, 2005
A Dickens theme park?
Why, yes. A staff editorial in today's New York Times has the details, and the disapproval. Noting that Dickens spent much of his boyhood among the Chatham docks in east London, the editorial deplores the South East Development Agency's decision to build an amusement park called "Dickens World" there :
Dickens is so various an author that it's possible to justify almost any excess done in his name. But "Dickens World" is really too much. Dickens himself might have seen it - and the $116 million, before overruns, it will cost to build it - as an enterprise worthy of Mrs. Jellyby, a case of good intentions run hideously amok. "Dickens World," its promoters say, will be a "family attraction." It will help revive a depressed area. And above all, they claim, it will bring new attention to Dickens. As the project leader put it - in curiously strangled English - in an interview with a British newspaper: "For a man who wrote 15 books and 23 short stories, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody under 30 who can name 5 of them."
There is a lot to fear here. There is the prospect that characters from Dickens's novels - Mr. Pecksniff and the Artful Dodger, Mr. Pickwick and Uriah Heep - will wander through "Dickens World" the way Goofy and Mickey walk the streets of Disneyland. There is talk of an Ebenezer Scrooge ride, which, unless it delivers a delirious redemption and the sudden desire to buy a prize turkey, will be a disappointment to everyone. No theme park can be true to Dickens unless it manages to terrify children - turning them into pickpockets and paupers - as well as delight them.
But the real fear is this. What if "Dickens World" is a moneymaker? After all, the poet Philip Larkin was a leading citizen of the city of Hull, also a naval town. "Larkin World," anyone?
It's hard to imagine, but what if Dickens World is a moneymaker? One pictures the Inimitable himself grinning from his grave, and quoting one of his own most famous utilitarian lines: "People mutht be amuthed."
April 10, 2005
Standing at attention
Among the more remarkable educational experiments enabled by the rise of school choice is that of the public military academy. Chicago has led the way in establishing such schools, and Philadelphia is now following: The Philadelphia Military Academy opened last September, and two more such schools will open in the next two years; there are already over 2000 applicants for the 125 spots that these academies will be opening to students in the fall. The New York Times has a really thought-provoking piece on the subject, noting that public military schools are becoming increasingly popular in poor urban neighborhoods populated by blacks and Hispanics:
Chicago now has three public Army-oriented high schools with more than 1,600 students, and officials plan to open a public naval academy in September. The city also has eight military academies within regular high schools.
"I'm the biggest fan of small schools everywhere, and the military academy option is very attractive," said Arne Duncan, chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools. "It helps to define a culture, and many students thrive in that culture."
In recent years public and charter military academies have also opened in California, Minnesota, Maryland and Florida, and officials say there is interest elsewhere.
"We get phone calls all the time from schools - I've had visits from Alabama, Texas, Atlanta," said Col. Rick Mills, director of the Department of Military Schools and the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps for Chicago public schools. "I've even received a call from London."
Current interest in public military schools is a marked contrast to the public's cool attitude toward private military academies, many of them boarding schools, after the Vietnam War. There were more than 270 private military secondary schools and colleges 40 years ago, but there are fewer than 40 today. The decline in the number of private academies has stabilized in recent years, but the growth is occurring in the public sector.
Those gains are fueled by the urgent desire of many parents and students for an orderly, safe academic environment, and by some funds from the Department of Defense.
"Most people take a look at today's political situation - Iraq and all - and don't want to come," said Louis Adams, 14, a student at the Philadelphia Military Academy who was hesitant when he first heard about the school. "They don't know this isn't a boot camp but a controlled environment, where you don't worry about the kid next to you pulling a knife on you."
But if supporters look at public military schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere and see islands of stability in chaotic urban seas, critics view them - and the Pentagon's material support for them - as little more than a means to market the military to poor and working-class minority children.
The schools themselves say they are not in the business of recruiting people into the military, but are, rather, creative mechanisms for delivering a solid college preparatory education to kids who might not otherwise have access to one. The Times reports that at the Philadelphia Military Academy, you must maintain a 3.0 average; 82% of seniors at Chicago Military Academy go on to college.
April 8, 2005
This takes the cake
Conservative provocateur David Horowitz is used to being shouted down when he gives talks on college and university campuses. He's also used to getting a lot of mileage out of the irony therein--usually he's talking about intolerance when the shouting down happens. Now he's got even more to work with. On Wednesday, while delivering a speech at Butler University, Horowitz was hit in the face with a pie. According to InsideHigherEd.com, this was the third time in ten days that a conservative speaker has been pelted with food while delivering a talk on a midwestern campus:
William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, was hit in the face with a pie during a speech at Earlham College and Pat Buchanan, the former presidential candidate, had salad dressing thrown on him at Western Michigan University.
Horowitz was at Butler as part of his campaign to encourage state legislatures to adopt the "Academic Bill of Rights," which Horowitz says will encourage a diversity of views in higher education, but that critics say is an attack on academic freedom. In a statement on the incident at Butler, Horowitz said, "It is ironic that these assailants tried to prevent me from delivering a lecture on the need for greater tolerance and respect for dissenting opinions in the academic community."
After the incident, Horowitz finished his speech.
Earlham suspended the student who threw the pie.
April 7, 2005
Wheels within wheels
Our Girl in Chicago has a question:
There are a lot of novels about writers. There aren't so many novels about writers in which the (real) novelist attempts to recreate his character's work. I can think of two off the top of my head, but both of them are somewhat anomalous: Nabokov's Pale Fire, of course, and A. S. Byatt's Possession (both featuring poetry, interestingly). Neither of these is, strictly speaking, about the writers whose work appears, however. There must be more out there. What am I forgetting--what, that is, that's good or at least well-known?
There are a lot of these, though my memory isn't behaving much better than Our Girl's at the moment, and it's not feeding me much. One title I can think of, and that I particularly like because of how well it builds the writer's work into the work about the writer, is Francine Prose's Blue Angel, which tells the story of a creative writing teacher with writer's block who is brought to his knees--literally, figuratively--by the prose of a twitchy, bitchy, skinny, creepy writing student. Here's an excerpt.
What else is there?
April 5, 2005
A high price to pay
Last year, it was the fashion among campus conservative groups to hold anti-affirmative action bake sales: In such sales, prices are calibrated by the buyer's race, with women and minority groups receiving discounts and white male students paying a presumably "full price" for the same cookie. It was also the fashion for administrators to try to prevent such sales, and, when prevention failed, to shut them down and punish the students who held them. The bake sales weren't great commentary on affirmative action--they convinced no one who was not already convinced, and they angered people who might have been open to reasoned argument. But, inadvertently, they were great commentary on the state of free speech on campus, as group after group succeeded in flushing out the censors in their midst. There is no question that holding such a bake sale falls within the realm of constitutionally protected speech--but administrators persistently refused to see this, and consistently cited their schools' anti-discrimination policies (with no sense of irony whatsoever) as justification for refusing to let the sales proceed and for disciplining those who were holding them.
Tales of anti-affirmative bake sales and the censors who hate them have been comparatively rare this year. There is a classic case brewing at Northeastern Illinois University, however. The College Republicans (it's always the College Republicans) are planning an anti-affirmative action bake sale, and the administration doesn't want the sale to take place. So the administration has threatened to punish the CRs if they hold the sale, even though a campus feminist group recently held an analogous "pay equity bake sale" geared to criticize inequality between the sexes. The other part of the pattern is typical, too--FIRE has stepped in to defend the group, and has today gone public with the details of NEIU's unconscionable refusal to recognize the expressive rights of students whose opinions do not reflect the accepted institutional orthodoxy. Read all about it at www.thefire.org.
UPDATE: FIRE reports that NEIU has agreed to allow the College Republicans to hold their sale. FIRE also reports that an analogous case is brewing at Grand Valley State University.
April 4, 2005
Ford funds academic freedom
The Ford Foundation is, apparently, impressed by what it sees as a declining climate of tolerance on American campuses. In the spirit of revitalizing a flagging spirit of free inquiry, it has announced a two million dollar grant program dedicated to supporting academic freedom:
Difficult Dialogues is a new, national competitive grants initiative in undergraduate education. The initiative will support the development of rigorous academic programs that engage students in constructive dialogue around difficult political, religious, racial and cultural issues. The goal is to help institutions create a campus environment where sensitive subjects can be discussed in a spirit of open scholarly inquiry and intellectual rigor and with respect for different viewpoints.
The initiative is part of a broader, $6.7 million effort by the Foundation to understand and combat anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry in the United States and Europe . Difficult Dialogues builds on the Foundation's history of supporting efforts by colleges and universities to foster more inclusive campus environments and to engage effectively with the growing racial and ethnic diversity of their student bodies.
This is a program that can and should be administered in a nonpartisan way. Though the stated rationale for the program does not mention a particular form of intolerance that has become quite common on campuses--intolerance toward conservative students and faculty--one hopes that they are included in the program's explicitly inclusive spirit and that they will benefit from it as much as more fashionable or sympathetic campus groups clearly will. Read more about the program at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Proposals for funding are due in mid-May.
April 1, 2005
Teacher in America
Two summers ago, I lived on the cheap in a tiny Donegal village. It was an immensely clarifying experience, in ways too personal and numerous to enumerate on this blog. One thing I did when I wasn't walking endlessly through bogs and around farms and across moors was to sit by the turf fire in our little living room, drinking cup after cup of milky tea, and ruminating about this strange thing--or cluster of things--we glibly call "education". I blogged a lot that summer, despite a slow dial-up connection that had a bad habit of cutting out in mid-post, and I also read a lot. One book I started, but did not finish, and which I find myself returning to now as I reflect on what this experimental boarding school year has been, is Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America, a tart, witty, and wise reflection on the American education establishment that is often as fresh today as it must certainly have been when it was published in 1944.
Barzun begins with two counterintuitive caveats: "Education is indeed the dullest of subjects" and "I am convinced that at any time brooding and wrangling about education is bad." He then proceeds to disregard the latter and to disprove the former. A classic early series of paragraphs:
At best the title of teacher is suspect. I notice that on their passports and elsewhere, many of my academic colleagues put down their occupation as Professor. Anything to raise the tone: a professor is to a teacher what a cesspool technician is to a plumber. Anything to enlarge the scope: not long ago I joined a club which described its membership as made up of Authors, Artists, and Amateurs--an excellent reason for joining. Conceive my disappointment when I found that the classifications had broken down and I was now entered as an Educator. Doubtless we shall have to keep the old pugilistic title of Professor, though I cannot think of Dante in Hell coming upon Brunetto Latini and exclaiming "Why, Professor!" But we can and must get rid of "Educator." Imagine the daily predicament: someone asks, "What do you do?" -- "I profess and I educate." It is unspeakable and absurd.
Don't think this is frivolous, but regard it as a symbol. Consider the American state of mind about Education at the present time. An unknown correspondent writes to me: "Everybody seems to be dissatisfied with education except those in charge of it." This is a little less than fair, for a great deal of criticism has come from within the profession. But let it stand. Dissatisfaction is the keynote. Why dissatisfaction? Because Americans believe in Education, because they pay large sums for Education, and because Education does not seem to yield results. At this point one is bound to ask: "What results do you expect?"
The replies are staggering. Apparently Education is to do everything that the rest of the world leaves undone. Recall the furore over American History. Under new and better management that subject was to produce patriots--nothing less. An influential critic, head of a large university, wants education to generate a classless society; another asks that education root out racial intolerance (in the third or ninth grade I wonder?); still another requires that college courses be designed to improve labor relations. One man, otherwise sane, thinks the solution of the housing problem has bogged down--in the schools; and another proposes to make the future householders happy married couples--through the schools. Off to one side, a well-known company of scholars have got hold of the method of truth and wish to dispense it as a crisis reducer. "Adopt our nationally advertised brand and avert chaos."
Then there are the hundreds of specialists in endless "vocations" who want Education to turn out practised engineers, affable hotelkeepers, and finished literary artists. There are educational shops for repairing every deficiency in man or nature: battalions of instructors are impressed to teach Civilian Defense; the FBI holds public ceremonies for its graduates; dogs receive short courses in good manners, and are emulated at once by girls from the age of seven who learn Poise and Personality. Above and beyond all these stand the unabashed peacemakers who want Kitty Smith from Indiana to be sent to Germany, armed with Muzzey's American History, to undo Hitler's work.
These are not nightmarish caricatures I have dreamed but things I have recently seen done or heard proposed by representative and even distinguished minds: they are so many acts of faith in the prevailing dogma that Education is the hope of the world.
I'll post more excerpts as I re-read.