Thoughts about schools and teaching

Our drop-in discussion this morning at First Universalist Church was on the topic of “Saving the Schools.” Here are some thoughts I took away from the discussion.

Almost any teacher can teach a student who is committed to learning.  Few teachers can teach a student who is indifferent or resistant to learning.  The best teachers that I and others remember from our own school days are the ones who got us interested in learning.

Some students will commit to studying subjects they don’t care about in order to achieve some other goal – to pass a test in order to get into college in order to get a better job, to pass a test in order to get a high school diploma in order to be employable, to maintain a “C” average in order to be eligible for high school sports, to pass a course of no interest in order to be able to take an interesting course – and so on.

One of the big incentives – the economic incentive – is missing or weak.  A high school diploma will no longer guarantee you a job.  A college degree will no longer guarantee you a good job;  the lede article in the Democrat and Chronicle business section today was on how to deal with the stigma of being “overqualified.”

The problem is not just poor black and Hispanic youth in big cities.  We all know highly intelligent middle-class people, with college degrees, who never read a serious book. I am sometimes shocked at the ignorance of basic facts of history and geography of supposedly educated people.  But then I am ignorant of things an earlier generation would have considered essential for an educated person to know – Latin, Greek and modern languages, higher mathematics, science above the grade-school level.  The erosion of what it means to be educated has been going on for generations.

I recall the science fiction writer William Gibson, lecturing in Rochester years ago in his languid Virginia accent, and saying you don’t need to be literate to function in today’s society, and literacy in the future may become a specialty, like computer programming.

Anti-intellectualism has long been a part of American life.  It is not just black youth who think studying is “acting white.”  It is not just religious fundamentalists who think scientific knowledge is a threat to faith.  In Mark Twain’s stories, we like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, who play hooky and shun book-learning, and despise Tom’s cousin Sid, who is the teacher’s pet.

Those who teach tell me young people today are more familiar with media than they are with books.  Students can’t be taught except through the use of media that are as compelling as commercial entertainment and advertising.  I’ve been devoted all my life to reading printed books, so I don’t know what to make of this – whether it is a symptom of decline, or whether something may emerge that is as good as what came before, just different.  Reading generates the capacity for linear thought; maybe the media give you something else, the ability to integrate disparate ideas simultaneously in a non-linear way – I don’t know.

Someone in our group wisely said that discussion of American education today consists of blaming the teachers, blaming the students or blaming the parents – never of trying to figure out specific ways to make things better.

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