Monday, March 02, 2009

`Difficult Achievements'

A reader in Canada writes:

“I wonder if your more pessimistic post recently about the future of literacy in our society can be linked to your experiences in the classrooms of the twenty-first century. I know that encountering some of [his niece’s] teachers, who think proper spelling is bad for children's self-esteem and knowledge of parts of speech is unimportant, provokes in me at times a sense of despair.”

I draw one conclusion from my recent return to the classroom: I prefer working with grade-school students to their older, angrier, less attentive brothers and sisters, and the differences are rooted only partially in hormonal surges. High-school students have had more experience of popular culture, lousy teachers and indifferent parents, and it shows. When expectations are minimal or non-existent, and self-esteem is judged more important than working after knowledge, it’s only human to be lazy, self-centered and contemptuous of learning, authority, tradition and civility. More than 50 years ago, in “On Being Conservative,” Michael Oakeshott calmly diagnosed the problem:

“To rein-in one’s own beliefs and desires, to acknowledge the current shape of things, to feel the balance of things in one’s hands, to tolerate what is abominable, to distinguish between crime and sin, to respect formality even when it appears to be leading to error, these are difficult achievements; and they are achievements not to be looked for in the young.”

Oakeshott’s virtues are absent not only in most students but in parents, teachers and the rest of the body politic. The centrality of a right sizing of one’s self in the world is unacknowledged or held in contempt. I watched a high-school boy push three chairs together, lie down across them and fall asleep. When I pointed this out to an English teacher, she shrugged and said, “Well, at least he’s not causing any trouble.” Another kid in the same class put his head on the desk and slept. A third visited a Hooters web site.

The first difference I observed in contemporary classrooms from my own experience decades ago – after tattoos, cell phones, mp3 players, male students with earrings and females dressed in streetwalker chic, I mean – was their decentralized nature. The teacher is just another member of the mob. Seldom is he or she in charge, the object of attention and at least putative respect. Education, the acquisition of knowledge, is a dim, mirthless joke.

The only pleasure in books I’ve witnessed in school has been among students in fourth grade or younger. Of course, the curriculum calls for high-school kids to read tripe – Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. No wonder they and most of their teachers associate literature with tedium. For years I’ve meditated on the final sentence of Oakeshott’s “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (also collected in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays). I’ve concluded it applies not only to poetry in the strict sense but all literary work:

“Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.”

A sort of truancy our schools ought to encourage.


Leslie Marsh said...

Always a pleasure to read you.



R. T. Davis said...

Your observations about students remind me of one reason why I teach at the university instead of in elementary or high school levels. For the most part (though it can be argued otherwise), students in the university classroom want to be there. Therefore, a teacher can begin by presuming certain levels of commitment and motivation. University instructors are not, I think, members of the mob against whom the students are culturally programmed to rebel. Having said that, every now and then a student in one of my classes will destroy my presumptions.
At any rate, I enjoy your blog, and must now dash off to the library since you have whetted my appetite for Oakeshott.

Fran Manushkin said...

The tantrum-throwing and whining on New York City streets are not to believe! But I spoke to an audience of Russians and Asians and their kids in a big school auditorium in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, last week, and they were very attentive. It could be that these recent emigres are our only hope!

Rosin said...

re: When expectations are minimal or non-existent, and self-esteem is judged more important than working after knowledge, it’s only human to be lazy, self-centered and contemptuous of learning, authority, tradition and civility.

Enjoying the Oakeshott and the commentary. As a teacher I have to admit that you have a point, but I also have a feeling that you're oversimplifying. It's interesting that you identified Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird among the holes/swamps in our curricula, because my experience (although I teach mostly older kids now) is that those texts aren't the things that bog down our readers. In fact, many of them count those books among their favorites.

I'm more in line with your suggestion about the ironically deleterious effects of self-esteem and the concordant unwillingness to subordinate immediate desires to...well, anything.

Don't get me wrong -- I teach many, many terrific young people. But there is a shift that I think happens in middle school, and it's about the nature and pace of reading, not about the specific texts in place. Experimenting with self-definition tends not to be compatible with sitting still and processing intellectually, at least in our modern world.

When the post-modern era removed a big chunk of the locus of authority from society and placed it in the individual, that seems to have aided overall justice while simultaneously dooming many of the the things that our society actually used to do well. I love post-modernism, but it seems to have opened a Pandora's box.

Don McArthur said...

Hmmm..maybe the printed word evolved to make up for the deficiencies of the oral tradition. And maybe those deficiencies have been ameliorated by digital technology. And maybe your preferred technology is simply another of an endless shifting chain of technologies who's time has come and .. gone?