Monthly Archives: September 2009

If I Ruled the School

The musical “Pippin” contains a song called, “If I Ruled the World.” I’m not crazy about the song, but I like the concept.  Thinking about utopian ideals is fun and valuable even if you don’t have the wherewithal to rule anything.

I think about the perfect school. A small part of my musing comes from chafing against institutions whose aims I can’t entirely support, but a much larger part is thinking that, after more than 25 years teaching, I know something about what education is and how it should work.

In The End of Education, Neil Postman wrote that most schools get caught up in physical and practical questions about how to run things—how to integrate technology in the classroom, how to create a schedule that rotates classes or allows for a longer lunch, how to improve faculty to student ratios (usually without hiring teachers).  They never get around to the metaphysical question of what students and teachers are doing there.

My perfect school starts with a metaphysical premise: education is impractical.  Anyone expecting to be specifically prepared for work life or hoping to gather some particular body of knowledge had better go elsewhere.  Schooling wastes all sorts of resources and can’t turn a profit (or even break even) because education is a fundamentally unreliable transaction.  Seek effective economies of scale and control everything a school offers and still so much rests on the students and whether they understand and absorb what you are serving.  Inputs and outcomes rarely match—sometimes the most inefficient and expensive way is nonetheless the best way.  Sometimes tremendous expense yields a result that might occur much more simply and cheaply.

And there’s no universal answer, no single magic that works on every student.  You have to keep the wand waving broadly and hope that somewhere someone feels charmed.

Which suggests to me that school should focus on training, mental exercise to develop, discipline, and generally groom brains.  While addressing future jobs seems impossible, we can predict students will need to use their minds resourcefully.

I know people hate warm and fuzzy pronouncements like these because they don’t translate into bricks, dollars, or payrolls.  They don’t answer how many desks are needed or how the school day times out.  They don’t assure every student a reliable product.

Yet my thinking does lead to some practical possibilities for my perfect high school:

  1. Scrap the subjects system: Right now nearly every high school has classes in English, Languages, Math, Science, Arts, and History, but some of the most dramatic and valuable learning occurs between the classes when students learn to apply the thinking skills they use in one subject to another.  We could offer classes with two concentrations—math and science, for instance, or art and writing.
  2. Cover less and uncover more: Why not have four required classes in high school instead of five or six?  As each could be a combination of two traditional subjects, we could still expect students to cover all the traditional subjects while minimizing the plate-spinning most high school students engage in now
  3. Teach students to speak and think in languages earlier: Youthful brains soak up syntax and vocabulary unconsciously, and if students learn language earlier, they might take a literature class in their second language instead of English.  If you wait until high school, they will have to muscle through, requiring grammar and drills to take in what they might have done more enjoyably and gently earlier.
  4. No grades: Grades encourage extrinsic motivation and academic bulimia inconsistent with learning. While grades allow schools to assess students in a nearly industrial way, marks often discourage enthusiasm.  The end and not the means can come to matter most.  As impractical and unwieldy as it may be, students deserve qualitative assessment. A student who is trying hard benefits much more from a conversation than an “C.”
  5. Look for teachers who are good at teaching: Combining subjects would require more flexible teachers, people more notable for their instruction than their knowledge.  Obviously, instructors must know their area well to answer the questions students ask, but they should also model learning by grappling with the same “in-betweenness” students will face.
  6. Add choices: Students might perform better if they could navigate by their talents and interests instead of by a chart of requirements.  We should reward students for pursuing their passions, not for their capacity to excel at tasks that mean little or nothing to them. The exposure we wish for students should be a wide range of mental activity: expressing, experimenting, decoding, figuring, explaining, solving, and other broadly applicable abilities. If every class addressed vital mental competencies, the subject would matter less.
  7. Make every class a laboratory: We often give students a thousand little pieces to assemble on their own time.  Instead, we might greet them with a task that requires them to identify, develop, and apply knowledge necessary to achieve that task.  Have a class stage a scene from Shakespeare or write an analysis of a recent event without any parameters at all.
  8. Less homework: Students don’t need more to do.  Brain research indicates that a good night’s sleep does more for education than an additional hour of drudgery.  While some homework may be a necessary evil, learning occurs in quiet moments of reflection too.  Students need time to mull over what they’ve encountered.  Drilling may be necessary and can’t always happen during class, but any homework should focus on relevance and, whenever possible, thinking comprehensively.
  9. Attend to surroundings: Learning can occur anywhere, but a warm and comfortable setting assures students that the school cares.  The corporate school communicates something else—that what’s needed is simply a place to hold classes rather than a place to enjoy community and the common purpose of learning.
  10. Explain everything: Many students feel acted upon, and resentment arises from any obligation, but some student diffidence comes from poorly communicated objectives and rules that, without justification, seem arbitrary.  Whenever and however possible and within limits, students ought to participate meaningfully in running the school.  Schools exist for them after all, and not the other way around.

If this blog had more readers, I might worry about attacks on my plans as unrealistic, vague, or just plain loony.  In case my proposal upsets anyone, however, I’ll put up one preliminary defense.  When school starts tomorrow, I will reenter my classroom enthusiastically and do my best to take advantage of all that’s good in our current system.

I’m just dreaming, and you can’t fault a person for that.


Filed under Education, Essays, Experiments, High School Teaching, Hope, Jeremiads, life, Teaching, Thoughts

Laughing at Our Own Expense

We have turned into hanging judges laughing all the way.  As evidence I offer a response to a new ad on TV.  It’s a minor example, but it will do.

In this commercial, a narrator caught in an uncomfortable close-up describes being depressed as feeling like a wind-up doll needing constant attention.  She spins the key in the doll’s back, and it stoops and fades.  She winds it up again, it lurches forward a few steps and dies, its head turned slightly in hope of another fix of kinetic energy.

On YouTube you’ll find a version where someone has inserted snarky speech bubbles saying things like, “Oh great.  This pill makes you walk like a total loser with a load in their pants” and a number of other comments LOLing and deriding the original as just as lame and just as funny.  One featured comment says:

Thank you [insert drug name here] for making me laugh my ass off all day. I haven’t seen anything this retarded on TV in a long time. This is one of the world’s worst commercial’s [sic] ever, in my opinion…

I understand.  The tight focus on the doll’s pained expression is a little creepy and weird, and her constipated walk would never remind anyone of any toy a child would want.  I understand why someone who has never experienced depression could find antidepressants and toys laughably dissonant.  The advertiser tried to make the doll depressed but instead may have turned depression into a toy… a profitable toy apparently.

Yet equally troubling is the reaction to the ad because—though I disapprove of direct advertising by pharmaceutical companies and have never been sure what to think about antidepressants—the metaphor seems apt.  The prop may be funny, but the idea that a depressed person requires constant winding, that being depressed means vigilance and a perpetual application of will to move forward, all that is vividly true.

And even if the ad is odious (and I can think of many ads no one notices that seem worse to me), the judgment of it is disproportionate.  Clicking on the “more info” line for the comment above reveals more observations:

If you are clinically depressed enough that this commercial is appealing to you, maybe there is nothing left for you, but to have a creepy wind-up doll version of yourself to cart around to family picnics and wiffleball games. Seriously, if this drug makes you this messed up, maybe you were better before. Now you have to worry about some Puppetmaster, Chuckie, voodoo doll homicidal doll action on top of your depression. This will surely lead to paranoid schizophrenia. So please people, do not take this pill.

In its appeal to humor, the extended comment transposes the figurative and literal.  The commercial isn’t really suggesting depression is a doll you have to cart around to family picnics.  But that isn’t my issue with it, nor are the pop allusions, nor are the mechanical errors in the comment or the quite unmedical and irrational advice to avoid the drug because the ad for it is dumb.

I may place myself at the dock for judgment, and I don’t want to answer disproportion with disproportion by using one comment on YouTube to indict modernity but, to use our ubiquitous expression, WTF?

Our world abounds with judgment.  Town Hall attendees equate Obama’s plan to help the uninsured with Nazis who systematically slaughtered millions.  A senator shouts “You lie” before the president has even has his say.  And, as funny as John Stewart and Steven Colbert are, we watch their sarcasm in place of actual journalism.  Their targets, the “news analysts” on other networks, may be even worse.

You can say I’m overreacting and that the extreme judgment of our age is more public than new, but I wonder if more is at stake now. When judgment takes the place of deliberation—when humor trumps empathy and wit passes for reason—we may suffer a much worse fate than being subjected to silly ads.


Filed under Advertising, Essays, Jeremiads, Laments, Opinion, Thoughts

Thinking of a Thing

There’s a machine as smooth and as monumental as cut marble, its face offering no buttons, dials, levers, or sliding knobs, no means at all to control its actions.  The machine is one monolithic thing, and, though many picture its face covering gold and jeweled innards moving with balletic precision, the best listener will hear and see no evidence, not a click, sigh, or squeak, no whirring or grinding or trembling.  If you could pick it up and shake it—you can’t, it’s too big—you wouldn’t find a speck of dust rattling inside. The internal atmosphere sealed in the machine could be just as solid as whatever workings it conceals.  In every way, it’s perfect.

Its purpose is also hidden.  Some people say they know what it does, and others believe them.  They claim to see its products everywhere, though no exit port or other means to emit or broadcast appears on any of its surfaces.  To all but a select and suspect few, its effects are invisible—no odor, no palpable movement, no echo or taste on the wind.  And, because no one entirely knows what he or she has felt (or trusts another to say what he or she has felt), people sometimes speculate the machine has no purpose we can understand, perhaps no purpose at all. They say expecting a function is underestimating the machine’s power. Doing is not the only reason for being, they state, and besides, “Must a machine have utility?”

The question often sets off shouting over definitions.  If we call the machine a machine, we have to expect something to come of it and, if nothing comes of it, we cannot call it a machine.  Heady reasoning spins in a perpetual whirl.  Some try to end the cyclone by renaming the machine, but we’ve called it what we have for so long, just about everyone rejects semantics. Sometimes they turn on those who dare to name it.  Presumption like that is hubris, they scream.

Though many try, no one has made another machine.

Where is the maker?  Who remembers back that far? A few meek voices try to assert it’s been around as long as we have because its workings are our workings, its face our face reflected back by its impenetrable and shiny surface, but the idea we invented the machine seems to pierce a pipe under pressure—the emotion jets.  You can’t hear anyone over the din of its spray.

Maybe the machine is broken, as some say. Maybe we stopped it with our stares.  Or maybe it’s time to store our perceptions of the machine in our imaginations—inexplicable factories themselves—and move on, living our lives with all the love we can muster.


Filed under Allegory, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, life, Meditations, Parables, Thoughts

The Value of Labor

The other day, I participated with a group of students in a day of service.  Our assignment was to add mulch to a newly created trail, and we pitchforked the stuff from a pile into wheelbarrows and then rolled loads some distance to where the trail needed it.

The day was hot.  The pitchforks were unwieldy.  The mulch was dense and smelly.  The distances we pushed these heavy wheelbarrows were great, and the terrain we pushed them over was thick with uncut and uneven grass.  It was challenging.

Within minutes, some students pawed the pile with their pitchforks like children faced with heaping helpings of spinach.  They paused more than they shoveled and soon it was time for a water break and another water break and a conversation with friends or with the nearest teacher about other jobs that weren’t as arduous and should have been spread around.

To be fair, the students didn’t choose this day of service.  It was required.  Part of me doesn’t blame them for recoiling from labor they didn’t seek and didn’t anticipate, but we just wanted them to know what service is, what it means to labor for a cause. We hoped they get a taste for it.

And some did. While some students shirked, others filled wheelbarrows and rolled them away, returning ready to do it again and again.  They smiled.  I worked beside them, filling wheelbarrows as fast and full as I could, trying to set a good example but also simply reveling in it. I walked away exhausted. I knew I’d sleep well that night.

Back on the bus, we teachers looked over our crew to decide whom we’d hire if we were real bosses.  The best candidates dug into the work and did their best without questioning why they ought to. They needed no motivation beyond the task itself. The worst considered the work beneath them, complaining how tired everything made them.

The older I get, the more confused I am about good-tired and bad-tired.  Cleaning the stove exhausts me and so does clearing out my work e-mails and sending piles of paper to their proper file folders. Sometimes everything makes me feel spent.

People say good-tired comes with a sense of accomplishment, but accomplishment is relative and I’m not sure how meaningful it is in the end.  No one with any sense can think rice won’t boil over again or that papers won’t re-gather on your desk.  Even a one-time event—the sort that ought to be an accomplishment, like a marathon or graduation—doesn’t end anything.  Your ambitions stretch until past accomplishments look like youthful flailing, not nearly as purposeful as you thought they were and not nearly as important as what’s next.  You have to do more.

Like everyone else, I sometimes find myself doing daily tasks that continue without question.  My to-do list includes jobs that contribute to bigger jobs that contribute to completing my capital-J Job according to standards I’ve set, but those standards don’t dominate my work life.  Little chores do.  I’m only dimly aware of my ambitions.  Most of the time, I just work.

And I have to look for enjoyment in it.  I feel sorry for anyone who can’t find pleasure in just working.

Oh, I occasionally feel like a mule and pull against my rope—sometimes tedium so overwhelms me I want to cry—but I can also find the simplest work satisfying.  When it comes to work, my best state of mind is doing, not ambition, worth, or even accomplishment.

That’s the only way I know to make exhaustion good.


Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, life, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts, Work