Future School

This summer, I’ve been battling myself—the firebrand in me who sees education as a vital route of innovation and change versus the curmudgeon who, after 25 years in the classroom, thinks we’re well off the path, have got education all wrong, and are going to hell in a hefty.

My dilemma boils down to a pretty fundamental question, “What are schools for?” or, stated more colorfully by my inner curmudgeon, “What the hell are we doing?”  Five weeks remain to declare a winner, and the outcome determines the spirit I’ll carry into the new school year.

I’ve been teaching a summer school class on film adaptations of literature, and, as I was nearing the third week, it occurred to me that, in our post-literate world, I could be teaching a course of the future.  Movies can take the place of books as a way of teaching analysis—students seem more interested in watching than in reading and, after all, analysis is analysis regardless of its object.

My revelation isn’t at all far-fetched. Both books and movies invite a person to venture into the minds of makers, addressing how the form of the object communicates intentions and implications.  Both teach that precise and discerning  observation creates insight.  What a person needs to know to “read” movies is every bit as vast as what students apply to reading.  More importantly, extensive exposure allows students to approach cinema with well developed curiosity and expertise.  Compared to their reading skills, their viewing skills are much further along, and they could, as a result, get further with film studies than with literary criticism, now the fetishistic interest of a few scholars.

And, increasingly, students are less experienced with reading.  Most don’t do much reading outside class, and those who do often read novels specifically marketed to them and written on reading levels at or below their present capacity. Many of my students aren’t equipped—or, more accurately, trained—to absorb the complicated prose I foist on them.  And many haven’t the patience to develop the disciplined habit of reading closely.  They do enjoy movies, though.  They might be more willing to scrutinize them.

I just get rolling with this vision of Future School, however, when the word “surrender” crawls across my cerebral cortex, and my inner crisis rears.  What is the purpose of school, to meet the students where they live—and maybe even anticipate where they are headed—or to preserve what, over time, civilization values as essential?  It’s a quixotic question—do we tilt at windmills or face the reality that only we care about windmills at all?

Neil Postman asked similar questions in two books, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) and Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979).  In the first, he wanted students who try the relevance of every assignment and ask of every fact, “Whose fact are you?”

In Teaching as a Conserving Activity, however, Postman recanted a little.  Students need to be engaged, yes, because pursuing curiosities determines how much you learn and want to learn.  But can students understand what’s essential for them to know?  Who gets to decide that?

He replaced his school-as-laboratory with a school-as-thermostat.  The society at large is the first curriculum, he said, endowing students with most of what they know and understand.  Schools are the second curriculum.  They provide feedback to the first.  If the first curriculum rises or falls too much, the second curriculum regulates it—like a thermostat—keeping civilization at a safe level.  In other words, when society says “Watch movies and television, listen to iPods, surf the web, Facebook, and text,”  school says, “let’s not forget that reading is a gateway to all that preceded you.”

Writing in 1979, Postman recognizes “A generation being raised in an information environment that, on one hand, stresses visual imagery, discontinuity, immediacy, and alogicality. It is antihistorical, antiscientific, anticonceptual, antirational.”  That bias toward ephemeral and sensory media suggests a need for school that might “help conserve that which is both necessary to human survival and threatened by a furious and exhausting culture.”  School, Postman suggests,

…is one of our few remaining information systems firmly organized around preelectronic patterns of communication. School is old times and old biases. For that reason, it is more valuable to us than most people realize, but, in any case, provides a clear contrast to the newer system of perception and thought.

Postman reminds me of the historical view of middle ages monasteries.  They preserved culture against an onslaught of aliterality and rescued legacies of Greek, Roman, and Arabic civilization.

I get queasy identifying with medieval monks—like every teacher, I want to be relevant and current—and so I’m torn.  I could be retooled to teach film, just as I’ve been retooled to teach with computers, smart boards, websites, and all the proliferating forms of edutainment. I wonder sometimes, however, if I’m ready to give up on methods of study that taught me. My skepticism at seminars entitled “Teaching New Millennium Students” or “Reaching Digital Natives” feels justified. If my students are as good at digital media as everyone says they are—and presenters are always telling me I will never catch up with them—then the first curriculum doesn’t need me at all.

I acknowledge literary analysis may already be irrelevant, may become irrelevant or may be relevant in unexpected ways, but am I ready to say it’s not worth being able to read challenging literature closely and appreciatively?  No.

My father grew more and more conservative in his later years, and I learned to dismiss his views as rationalizing.  From my point of view, he was protecting what he understood and appreciated best.  But now I am my father, and I’m wondering who will win this battle, the hip teacher keen to be where students are or the curmudgeon all too ready to serve up gallons of fortifying elixir just to help them appreciate a spoonful of Shakespeare.

I really don’t know.

1 Comment

Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Humanities, Laments, Neil Postman, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

One response to “Future School

  1. Brendan

    I think American education in the 20th century has over-emphasized traditional book-form “literature”, to the detriment of both other modes of expression and other disciplines. We are a story-telling species, and to have confined our “best practice” of this to wood pulp and soy ink fails to appreciate the power of other forms of communication and collaboration. There will always be some students who are naturally drawn to the written word on a paper page (I have a 12 year-old niece who reads for pleasure more than I do), but I don’t think we lose anything, culturally, if others her age only read one novel per year because they’re busy making YouTube videos or reading celebrity gossip on the web.

    Shakespeare, Bach, and Newton all lived in societies that were, generously, 30% literate, and I think they hold up just fine against Faulkner/Miller/Eliot, Schoenberg/Prokofiev/Williams, and Einstein/Edison/Hawking. To what end do we struggle? Universal appreciation of James Baldwin?

    As I said, I’m torn. I’m loathe to turn from my training and would not have studied literature if I hadn’t had a deep love for it. At the same time, nothing could be worse than explaining why jokes are funny. I enjoyed teaching this course because the students came to the task with so much more background.

    At the same time, I sometimes wondered how they regarded the subject matter. They are accustomed to regarding films as entertainment and often resisted digging deeper. Though I also run into resistance when I teach literature, they try a little harder because they must.

    Perhaps we can find a compromise, but the biggest challenge may be transforming entertainment into art. Or art into entertainment–I’m not sure which.

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