Education Reading Update 2/9/2016

A. The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools is helpful, but largely in pointing at other works.  Archbishop J. Michael Miller, the author, distills wisdom from 5 papal documents on education that I will now need to track down. This reading project is getting completely out of hand, if that wasn’t already apparent. But worth it, so far. 

The most interesting part: the Holy See teaches that the state should financially support Catholic schools, since the schools educate the young to be good citizens of the state, and parents pay taxes. Whenever I read stuff like that, I remind myself that American Catholics make up a tiny portion of the world’s Catholic population, and it is best to see such teachings as universal – applying to Paraguay and the Sudan and Vietnam as much or more than the US. Catholics in the US, an extremely wealthy nation, are not under the same sorts of financial constraints as Catholic citizens of other nations, and so are in a better position, perhaps, to consider the inevitable trade-offs taking government money entails. But the principle remains. 

Other than that, as is so often the case with papal writings, the guidance is so general as to be not so helpful to my purposes. But I’ll need to read those 5 documents.

B. My reading of Parish Schools has slowed to a crawl as I try to digest the critical information concerning that period around the turn of the last century. The Catholic University of America was founded around then, followed by the National Catholic Education Association. Fr. Thomas Edward Shields and Fr. Edward Pace, professors at CUA, founded the Catholic Educational Review, which I’ll now need to at least peruse, since it is, in addition to being available free on line, the organ of the men considered the ‘progressive’ voices in Catholic education.

Here’s the frustration: Parish Schools, while helpful, describes what is going on in such a general way that I have no idea what changes or methods are actually being proposed. Thus, for example, a quick perusal of the first edition of the Catholic Educational Review reveals an essay about the “Playground Movement”. Good, bad, or indifferent?(1)

So I continue the slog, returning to A History Of Education In Antiquity when I need a palate-cleanser. 

Soon, I will add a Catholic Education References page to this blog, where I will note the various sources with brief comments on how they figure into the big picture.

  1. How could playgrounds be anything but good, the curious reader might ask. If they are intended to be a place where micro-managed kids can blow off steam during brief breaks from factory schooling. But I don’t know.

Weekend Bullet Points: Argument, Music at Mass, etc.

A. Arguing with me – putting Meekly Confronting the Beast and I Came Here for a Good Argument together, the ultimate irony or schizophrenia or disconnect: I’ll try to stay out of it, then, finally, when I decide to go for it, I come across as an attack dog. It is a matter of honor and respect to argue with vigor, and, conversely, a sign of contempt and condescension to go easy on an argument, as if your interlocutor were not worthy of your best shot. I must seem like I dropped in from another planet to most people, rude and mean or, at best, clueless. Add on top of that cultural differences – Latin Americans, Southerners and New Yawkers definitely do not argue the same way, nor see the same set of behaviors as rude or polite. I’m going to get even more reticent in real life if I think about this any more. Thank goodness I have a blog to vent on!

B. Today – oh, the humanity! – the little children were directed to come up to the sanctuary (if, in fact, one may correctly call, in this wreckovated building, the ill-defined “space” in which the altar resides a “sanctuary”) and sing a song as a communion meditation.  “Sing a song” turned out to mean, as is most often the case, mumbling along with a recording of some insipid piece it’s an insult to children to call childish, while some adult cajoles them. All was met with polite applause upon conclusion. God’s opinion was not solicited.

I can only imagine what this feels like for the kids. Do they enjoy it? It is so absolutely clear that they are being marched up and put on display so everybody can go ‘aaaw!’ and applaud. No part of this is an attempt to help them give glory to God, or to learn to sing or pray or to enhance their participation in the Mass. I imagine I would have passively gone along with it – I was a good little boy – but can’t imagine I’d have enjoyed it.

Further, the Mass is decreased whenever we lard it with things it is not – how could it be otherwise? People will inevitably lose sight of its true nature as the Eucharist – the Thanksgiving – and the Sacrifice, the source and summit of our worship and indeed salvation, if it is routinely turned into yet another ‘look at me!’ moment for the kids. That all the people involved are nice and well-intentioned doesn’t quite ameliorate it.

C. We also had a moment where our pastor, a good man, could not bring himself to say, during the Gospel, that Jesus told Peter he would be a fisher of men. Instead, Peter is envisioned as a fisher of humanity. Apart from the whole Lutheranish ‘I will make Scripture say what it should say’ vibe, there is, as my wife pointed out, an utter change in focus: if you said ‘fisher of people’, that, at least, has one fishing among human beings – among the species Man, one might even say. But ‘Humanity’ is another sort of noun altogether. Humanity is a trait shared, one fervently hopes, by men of all sexes and ages, and, perhaps by intelligent life on other planets, if they inhabit out moral universe. But it is only mankind metaphorically. Oh well, I’ve seen worse.

D. Was thinking of a distinction someone once made, probably John C Wright or someone in his comm boxes, about how it is characteristic for Liberals to want to be judged on the purity and rightness of their ideas, while Conservatives strive to develop ideas as conclusions reached by observing what actually happens. I don’t know if this observation can be accurately applied to all issues, but at least on a couple subjects, this description seems valid: Communism and health care.

Someone else observed that when modern Americans call themselves communists(1), they think of their college roommate or some admired professor or hard-working union organizer. When anti-communists say they hate communism, they’re thinking of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. It’s theoretical communist loved for the rightness of their ideals versus real communists despised for their murder and deceit.

Similarly, even questioning Obamacare got one labeled some sort of hater of poor people, so much so that I, for one, began to preface any remarks on the subject with ‘of course, I want everyone to have healthcare’ before launching into my doubts about how Obamacare, specifically, was supposed to work. But my ploy never worked – supports felt devotion to the *idea* of universal healthcare, so much so that questioning any one attempt at implementation of that idea was equal, in their minds, with opposing the whole idea in concept. The counter-argument, insofar as I ever got one, was always along the line of ‘it works great in Sweden!’ which is implicitly asserting that all universal healthcare plans are the same and work the same.  Then, after some research, I discovered that about 3/4 of the finance ministers in the EU believe that their country’s healthcare plans are not financially viable in the long run. Something about aging populations, no young people, spiraling costs. I would bet that the other 1/4 think this as well, but do not find it politically prudent to express those doubts out loud. Thus, the assertion that I should look to Europe to see how it is supposed to work backfired.

The point, however, is that none of this matters, if one is judging solely by purity of ideas. That those ideas don’t work, or don’t work in any simple, automatic(2) way, is just noise to the true believer.

  1. This is not an argument, just an observation: I don’t know, either personally or by reputation, and communists or sympathizers who are living happy, calm lives. Like Marx himself, every single one of them has a personal life that is chaotic and frankly miserable. Since misery isn’t all that attractive, the promise of revenge is the thinly-veiled hook. It is all somebody else’s fault, after all – capitalists, patriarchy, racists, something. All that personal misery couldn’t be due to personal failures, right?
  2. The most striking characteristic of Marx’s program to me was how automatic, even magical, it was supposed to be – History just makes it happen! We don’t need any discussion about *how* it works out, it just does! His followers, notably Gramsci  & Alinsky, were more pragmatic.


I Came Here for a Good Argument!

“An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.” “No it isn’t!”

Yesterday’s post about weird adventures in argument generated a brief exchange in the comm box with malcolmthecynic. Mr. Cynic points out that I paid my pound for a 5 minute argument, but all I get is gainsaying, because what I think we’re doing – dialectic in the Platonic sense – is not at all what the man in room 12A thinks he’s doing – “winning” using rhetoric.

And he’s right. Somehow, I keep thinking that other people are interested in the truth and honor-bound to follow the argument wherever it leads. Further, I just assume men of good will will go at the argument hammer and tongs, beat it up, turn it upside down, shake it around with all the vigor they can muster, and then part friends afterwards with no hard feelings, because a good argument presupposes a level of mutual respect that is not affected by the argument itself.

I suppose all this because my first, indelible experience of intellectual sparing (or, outside books, my first intellectual experience in any respect) was St. John’s College, where I spent 4 years in small classes arguing over every damn thing with 300 other people. In a tiny, isolated college like that, doing vigorous dialectic for several hours a day for 4 years with the same small group of people over and over, if you don’t learn how to not take it personally, pretty soon you won’t have anybody to talk with at all. ‘No hard feelings’ is as much a requirement as ‘go at it with everything you’ve got!’

And what a mix! In any given class, you’d find devout atheist Nietzscheans, Hegelians, Marxist Freudians, people who called themselves Existentialists (but could never offer any explanation of what that meant, other than ‘cool and ironic like Kierkegaard’)  and just about any other weird mix you could dream up – and people would change those configurations, or try on new ones to see how they fit, all the time. No matter what position you took, it was guaranteed that somebody in the room would think it utter foolish nonsense. You expect people to disagree with you vehemently. It was cool, and fun, and educational, and confusing and disconcerting all at once. Next to getting married and having children, it was the greatest experience I’ve had in this life.

I had no experience with real argument before St. John’s, and precious little since – but I still, somehow, expect that that’s what people mean when they try to talk something over. I expect people to be reasonable.

In other words, I am an idiot.

My father grew up on a farm and became a welder and then ran his own little shop. My mother grew up in east Texas among Czech immigrants. The kind of intellectual discussion we are here addressing would be as foreign to them as speaking Swahili. They were perfectly intelligent people, it just was not their world. I suspect at least some of my friends from college, those sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and professors, would have learned at home exactly how far one can push honest discussion among a more general population, and when to ratchet it back or avoid it all together. I never did.

Maybe a hundred years ago, one could get into a real argument with most any college grad, because you’d both share a large core of common learning, and, more important, share expectations of how an argument works. Maybe. It is what the legends say.

Now? After 150 years of Hegelians and Marxists running the schools? I should be pleasantly surprised to run across interlocutors who can string a couple good sentences back to back. Hardly anyone shares any common basis for discussion, unless one wants to count the more or less express Marxism that permeates all ‘education’ in America today. Even fewer share the expectation of how an argument should work. Unfortunately, Hegel and especially Marx set the standard for what passes for argument today – you either agree with me, and are among the enlightened elect, or you don’t, and are among the benighted, hopeless souls on the wrong side of History. Since you don’t get it, there is nothing you can say to me about the subject. Logical arguments are for little people, and so I need not hear yours.

Since the idea that enlightenment obviates argument is a necessary step to acceptance of Marx or Hegel – you sure as hell aren’t going to get to those positions by reasoning about it, as Hegel expressly acknowledged – the sort of thing I described yesterday will be found, necessarily, more among those who have more or less unconsciously accepted that premise. A Venn diagram of which would show a huge overlap with self-identified liberals.

Perhaps I should shoulder more of the blame myself (a good idea in many cases), for overstepping the bounds of polite behavior, when I’m the only one in the crowd actually interested in an argument. People just want to vent, mostly, and hear people agree with them. Maybe I should find ways to sow some doubt without actually seeming to jump on people? This might require a level of social awareness far outside my wheelhouse.

Nonetheless, even granting this, there will be occasions where standing up for the truth is the only morally viable path, where no amount of finesse or sidestepping will do. I just can’t expect a rational response in those cases.




Meekly Confronting the Beast

I’m not really very confrontational in person. Usually, only get into a shouting match if I like my interlocutor.  This is not because I’m brave or smart or anything, just chicken and slow on the uptake. Probably half my waking hours are spent imagining the witty and devastating things I should have said. You probably think I’m kidding. So I mostly stay out of it, exercising the wisdom of rabbits.

Except sometimes…

For about a year, I’ve been anticipating a confrontation that hinges on the habit of certain people – OK, liberals – to project their own attitudes and goals onto their enemies. On the national stage at the moment, people who see no problem in having the government seize control of all major businesses and throwing all ‘climate change deniers’ into prison claim to fear that a politician(1) who mentions Jesus in any positive light is going to impose a theocracy and do Bad Things, things that, historically in fact have ever been done by lefties. Sarah Hoyt is on it today.

Also, add in that my interest in primaries lies somewhere between ‘watching grass grow’ and ‘watching paint dry’, and I’m pretty disinclined to get worked up over the current meshugas. Living in California, I have even less say in who the parties run than even the tiny amount people in earlier primary states have, so I save whatever blood-pressure raising attention I’m going to spare on this until the elections themselves.

While avoiding politics when possible largely spares me from one type of dispute, other types are not so easily avoided. I almost always stay out of inter-Christian arguments, if possible. I try not to get into it with Evangelicals or more traditional Protestants in person, only because a.) they are my brothers in Christ, and b.) it almost never works, unless they are motivated by real curiosity. Unfortunately, my experience is that while I can (and have) read books by, say, Presbyterians defending Presbyterianism, and by Luther himself describing Lutheranism, and am quite willing to talk about ideas as found and expressed by the proponents of the ideas themselves, my interlocutors seem only willing to discuss what they understand to be Catholicism, and will not brook correction, even when all that is being offered is the official, stated, publically available position of the Church. Nope, they will tell you what they believe – and what you believe, too.

Of course, this is a generalization, and reflects not much on the personal sanctity and worth of the people involved, just on what I consider bad habits of thought. And of course there are exception – not that I’ve ever met any. But perhaps I just need to get out more?

There is a great mystery here. (At least, mysterious until one examines the logic and history of various positions. I touch upon this here.) in general (not always, there are exceptions.) arguments by our separated brethren and by liberals take the same form, and use the same approach. Namely – and this is my personal experience, and I hear it echoed by many, many people and see it in comm boxes, Twitter and That Ap That Shall Not Be Named (Facebook) All. The. Time. – that:

  1. I will tell you what your position is. If you dispute it, you are ignorant, lying or both;
  2. I completely understand your position so that I don’t need to incorporate anything you say into my understanding;
  3. If any bad people, as I understand bad, have ever supported your position, that’s conclusive proof you’re wrong. You pointing out bad things done by people who hold my positions just shows how stupid you are;
  4. Factual items that support your position are invalid, and I don’t have to tell you why;
  5. You have to defend every single act or word ever performed or uttered by anyone that I say shares your position, while my position is gloriously beyond such petty concerns, and represents a final state of enlightenment;
  6. Source materials say what I say they say.

Harsh? Maybe – but true. I could point to numerous examples. For example, no matter what you say about why you oppose abortion, no mater how many hours and resources you expend to take care of women in challenging pregnancies, no matter your ongoing friendship and care for those women and their children, you are TOLD that you oppose abortion because you hate women and want to keep them down. Right? That’s points 1 and 2 both. Or if you point out that the communists history has actually given us, as opposed to armchair communists who rail against Capitalism on their iPads over lattes, have been power-hungry sociopathic mass murderers, this point is immediately dismissed as irrelevant, as some sort of accident – or, worse, disputed! And they never offer any real reason why it’s not a logical inevitability that a system that seeks to concentrate all power and explicitly condemns its enemies to death (read Marx! Oh, yea, forgot about #5…) results in, you know, the concentration of power and the deaths of millions. Or why the Catholic child abuse scandal or the Church’s treatment of Galileo disprove Catholicism, but only an idiot would ask if Josef Mengele or the use of modern technology to slaughter hundreds of millions of people over the last century or so doesn’t likewise disprove science.

The last point about source documents is very interesting. I recently read someplace someone make the aside that the references Marx put into Capital are consistently wrong – that, when you look up the items in the sources Marx references, they don’t say what he says they say. Now, I’m unlikely to live long enough to perform this exercise myself, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. Be that as it may, here is a fan of Luther doing the same thing to an entry in the old Catholic Encyclopedia – railing against a position the writer of an article in an encyclopedia is asserted to hold, when a simple glance at the text shows that he didn’t actually say anything of the sort.

Last spring, I tried to talk down a young, enthusiastic Evangelical at a school campout who was doing, more or less politely, all of the things above. He was a nice kid, I liked him. But my attempts revealed one more aspect of such arguments: it’s sniper against city. What I mean is that I was having to defend an entire massive edifice of knowledge and history against an opponent who declares victory any time he can pick off a pedestrian from his lofty, hidden perch from *inside* one of *my* buildings, so to speak. For example, he had a whole bunch of zinger responses to any attempt to use Scripture to call his claims into question – just one sentence explanations of how one must read a passage. Compare that to making the case that any number of interpretations could be defended just as well using exactly the same sort of argument, and you see a one-sentence zinger on one side, and what would prove to be a fairly detailed (by modern standards) argument on the other. In other words, it takes many sentences to show why his one sentence isn’t the whole story – and by then, the argument will have moved on, particularly since any other Scripture I might call to my aide will more likely than not get the same zinger treatment.

Just a couple days ago I fell into an argument as I was walking out the door after work. Bad move. A couple of my coworkers were commiserating over how doomed the country was is certain candidates got elected, with the usual ‘impose a theocracy & lock people up’ doom seriously predicted. I had to pipe in that that’s just what people said about Reagan, and I believed them (hey, I was young, stupid and still in college) and voted against him, but that none of those things came true once he got elected. One of my coworkers brought up the covert war in Guatemala, and I responded that nobody at the time was talking about that, but rather how Reagan was going to destroy the world by provoking a nuclear war with the soviet Union – and that didn’t remotely happen, and so I learned my lesson and since then ignore political fearmongering.

It was like a small pebble had been tossed into a small pond – after a brief moment, there was no evidence the pebble ever existed, let alone made a ripple. We moved on from their to the claim that the Republicans would get us into wars like they always do. I pointed out that, maybe you could say Republican Lincoln got us into the Civil War, and the other co-worker jumped in and said no, it was the South! So I amended the story on the fly, and continued: So the Civil War, WWI – Wilson, who promised to keep us out of it – WWII – FDR – Korea – Truman – Vietnam – Kennedy and LBJ – were all started or entered into by Democratic Presidents.

Pebble. Pond.

Then, my most enthusiastically liberal coworker, my friend for almost 40 years, pointed out the stupid Republicans get all worked up over Communism, when it’s not so bad. I managed to not puke, but instead said: Kennedy was a rabid anti-Communist.

Tiny rock hits water and vanishes.

I then ventured that we anti-Communists are thinking of the mountains of the dead bodies of their own citizens racked up by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Che, which more than offsets for us any theoretical good theoretical Communists might achieve.

At that point the subject got changed. A minute later I was out the door.

Let’s just say that recent experiences have not emboldened me to leap into the breach if I can help it. But, alas! My strategy of cowardice masquerading as meek reserve and wise silence is, most likely, going to fail me, and I will soon be honor bound to speak up, among long-time friends and acquaintances to keep creeping Orwellian Newspeak from poisoning our joint project. While I would hope for at least a polite hearing, I fear it won’t go as well.

Nobody ever said defending the truth would be easy or fun.

  1. Unless that politician is Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton or even Barack Obama and every other Democratic president back to the founding of the party. I guess it is simply understood that their guys don’t really mean it? Or something?

Education Reading Update: Sparta and Another Book

A. Here’s what came in the mail today:


Goes immediately to the top of the pile. Only 80 pages long, counting end notes, which is about 15% as long as most of the books on the shelf! Hope it is as helpful as the title promises.

B. Along with Parish School, have been rereading A History Of Education In Antiquitya very interesting book. Early on, Marrou discusses Sparta’s schizophrenic place in the Greek mind – on the one hand, they are considered something like rubes or hicks, on the other as the model Greeks. Partly, this has to do with Sparta’s reinterpretation of Homer: while an Athenian, say, wanted personally to be excellent and as great and immortal a hero as those portrayed in the Iliad, Sparta developed the idea of a city of heroes, where the men collectively strove for immortality. Thus, other Greeks would seek glory and a glorious death to be counted among heroes, but a Spartan achieved immortality and glory as a Spartan, part of a group. Thus, the sort of striving by which great works of literature and art are created came naturally to most Greeks, but had no place among the Spartans. 

That would be the Spartans as they are more generally imagined. Something I didn’t know was that Sparta was a great cultural center some centuries before Athens reached its peak, full of artists and music and elegant festivals. Only later did the maniacal implementation of Lycurgus’ quasi-mythical design (as understood and interpreted by the current leaders) drive out all higher culture. Marrou attributes this to an attempt to consolidate power by a Spartan faction, not as any native patriotism for Spartan purity. 

Marrou dwells on what I think is a central notion of education – the telling of stories that give examples of heroic behavior. The Iliad is not just a piece of literature, it is the supreme teacher of Greeks. What Homer does – recount at length and in detail how the excellent man, the great hero, lives, strives and dies – is the sole means and and expresses the one goal of true Greek education. He even goes so far as to point to Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ as the Christian offspring of Greek Homeric ancestry, wherein the Hero we are to imitate changes, but not the process by which we learn. The anger of Achilles is replaced by the meekness of Christ as that excellence toward which all Christians should strive.

I’d add that the story-telling aspect of education is inescapable: that we humans make a story out of our experiences with our teachers, even when those experiences are sitting in a desk doing busywork. That’s what is behind Chesterton saying that children don’t learn what teachers think they are teaching, but instead learn what those teachers assume without saying. We learn that the heroes in our story are the ones who sit still, stay quiet, do as they’re told and hand in their homework on time. I think we should shoot for telling stories with a better class of hero in them.


Music at Mass: 1/31/2016 – a Tale of Two Children’s Choirs

From yesterday’s Epistle:

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.

After Mass, the principle of the parish school stated, in reference to this passage, that one main goal of Catholic schools is to help bring kids into adulthood.

This is National Catholic School Week, so the choir from the parish school sang at Mass. After the manner of their kind, they were quite good – they really sang, followed the director’s directing with clear, on-pitch voices. The kids were attentive and enthusiastic. Inevitably, it seems, they sang all third-rate modern music, mostly songs written under the assumption, evidently, that children don’t actually like music. (1)

Compare and contrast this children’s choir:


The kids at Boys Town were not any more special than the kids at any parish. In other words, the kids at your local parish school could sing like the Boys Town Choir, if the adults in charge were willing and able to put in the work.

Now very few parishes have a Fr. Francis Schmitt to direct its children’s choir. The difference is that, 60 years ago, the director of a parish children’s choir (did they even have those back then? And let them sing at Mass?)  would hear the Boys Town Choir and hear something to be aspired to. Now, the harried part-timer in charge not only falls far short of any fraction of Fr. Schmitt’s  musicianship and erudition, but doesn’t even want their kids to sound like that, singing great music. They, themselves, have probably learned to despise all that classical-type music as totally snobby, that having a good choir sing beautifully from the loft is just another way the mean old Church cut the people out of Mass.(2) Any attempt to have the kids do real music is met with grave suspicion.

Thus, the quality of music coming out of parish children’s choirs is roughly that of a grade-school talent show. Yesterday’s choir was better than that, for which I am thankful. The real damaging thing here is two-fold: to the people involved, it is a *virtue* that their kids march into the sanctuary and sing weakly along to goofy recorded music while some adult waves her arms like a stork and gives them cues – and then get a round of applause from the people in the pews. This would be called, I suppose, keeping it real. Second, this childish music and childish presentation and need for instant affirmation is not seen as one of those childish things St. Paul was talking about as needing to be set aside once we reach adulthood. On the contrary, from the adults’ perspective, not only would it be a real step back (on The Wrong Side of History, no doubt) to have the kiddies sing real music really well from someplace not distracting to the Mass itself,  it would be bad if the putative adults did it.

I had the honor of meeting Fr. Schmitt back in the early 80’s, even attending little classes wherein he attempted to beat a little music into our thick skulls. He really was a great man, one of a few people where I, now that it’s too late, wish I had just done whatever I could to just sit at his feet and learn whatever he wanted to tell me.

The sad thing: Fr. Schmitt had despaired of the church ever returning to good music as the standard. He had seen not merely neglect of good music, but concerted efforts to crush it out of existence (having people throw copies of the liber usealis straight into the dumpster or furnace, for example – sort of like that scene in That Hideous Strength, where Frost tries to get Studdock to desecrate sacred symbols as a way of breaking him down). If I could talk to him now, I’d tell him that, not only are there a growing number of chant and polyphony choirs springing up, we even get to sing at Tridentine Masses in, like, regular parishes without apology.

So, while the situation liturgically and musically is still borderline dire, it is not at all hopeless. Cheer up, Fr. Schmitt!

  1. When he was still little, introduced eldest son to Bach’s Little G-Minor Fugue. It became one of his favorite bits of music, despite (because?) being all intricate and grown up. I don’t think this outcome all that unusual.
  2. The typical behind in the pews may not think this on any conscious level, but I’ve almost exactly this said on more than one occasion, usually by some aged ex-hippy deacon or ex-nun. Even some of the better younger priests seem to be afraid to stick their heads into this particular lion’s mouth. Oh well: perhaps church music, like science, advances one funeral at a time.

Homework and the Galileo Trap

Here is an article from the New Yorker about one dad’s struggles with making his young grade school children do homework, and the elite college admissions bureaucracy that creates this mess. It’s worth reading the whole thing. A local school superintendent in Princeton, NJ (Ha!) is trying to tone down the cut throat culture of schoolkids competing to get into college. Predictably, people who have been trained for 12, 16 or more years that your schooling defines your worth as a person object, as well as first and second generation Americans who come from cultures (the Chinese, for example) who are *good* at competing in this way. Why dumb it down and get all touchy-feeling? It’s a version of the Campaign Reform problem: the people who win in a particular system are very unlikely to want to change it in any ways that reduce their chances of continuing to win.

This little tempest occasions some deeper thoughts about education:

My ideas about schooling are pretty old-fashioned. Unlike the Deweyan progressives who’ve long dominated American education, I think drill and memorization are not just effective but entirely consistent with deep, holistic understanding. The only thing I’m sure I learned in my desultory high-school years is the sonnet prologue to “Romeo and Juliet,” which a frightening ninth-grade English teacher demanded I memorize, or else. I can still recite it, and do. (For some reason, knowing it by heart has not prevented me from understanding it.) I think the rigorous teaching of academic subjects is teaching “critical-thinking skills,” and teaching critical-thinking skills without those subjects is nuts.

Well, while he’s at least heard of Dewey, which makes him much more aware of education history than 99% of Americans, he seems to be laboring under the impression Dewey was in favor of “deep, holistic understanding”. Nooo, that’s not what Dewey was after, at least, not for those students who aren’t going to get into those elite colleges. He was in favor of making sure the many didn’t trouble their little heads about issues that don’t concern them, such as getting a liberal education, and instead were prepared to get in line on the Right Side of History(tm) when their betters told them to do so. Critical thinking skills might be turned against what your teachers are telling you, so we can’t do that except in the Orwellian modern sense in which it means “following orders” – the way it’s used in colleges today.

Be that as it may:    Continue reading “Homework and the Galileo Trap”