The Accidental Teacher
The good composition teacher should be an ignorant man. Not merely profoundly ignorant. He should also be superficially ignorant. He should not only lack wisdom; he should lack information. He needs his students' help. Because he needs their help, he gets it. The courses he teaches reach him. The students he teaches teach him. He should not know--and should not care to know--who in his classroom the teacher is.
He is a selfish man. He is curious, and his intent is to gratify his curiosity. He teaches by accident.
He believes in the question. He does not believe in the merely relevant question. He believes in the question that has the power to excite an answer.
THOSE are the words of S. Leonard Rubinstein, of whom you have almost certainly never heard. He is a retired professor of English who taught at Pennsylvania State University, and the author of several books, one of them called, much to our interest, Writing: A Habit of Mind (William C. Brown Co., Dubuque Iowa, 1972).
We came to hear of him only by a strange accident. In an interview with a surprisingly thoughtful young man who writes essays on education and schooling for the New York Times, our Associate Circulation Manager said that he made it a rule in his classroom never to ask the students a question to which he already knew the answer. And, by simple justice, he forbids the students to tell him, in their essays, anything that he already knows.
His methods have not gained wide approval from the teaching profession. So he was delighted to hear from Rubinstein, who had read the piece in the Times, and, probably out of loneliness, could not resist sending along some of his own work. He included a couple of pages from W:AHOM, the beginning of a chapter called "Honesty is a Skill." The title is enough to provoke much useful reflection, but a marked passage was even more provocative:
How does my voice as a teacher--how is my voice teacherish?--affect your voice as a student--how is your voice studentish? Do you believe that I, as a teacher, ask genuine questions: that is, questions to which I do not know the answers? Or do you believe that they are only tests or tricks? How does your answer affect your voice?
We wonder: is there in this land a teacher academy where the art of teaching (is it an art?) is actually considered, or is it, as we suspect, everywhere described? When a teaching teacher asks a teaching student, "What is teaching?" is it a genuine question, or does he already have an answer, so that he may the more easily grade the test?
The school people seem content, and perhaps they should be, to understand teaching as the imparting of information and the demonstrating of skills. Not bad things. But in the gathering of information and learning of how to do things, a teacher is more an accessory than an essential. If information is to be gathered, one teacher will usually do as well as another, and a book or two will do even better than a thousand teachers. In the learning of skills, the best teacher in all the world can not do the work of an hour of practice, although he may well have some good ideas about how to practice.
There is something, well, minimal, about the understanding of teaching in the schools. It is show and tell, but, in the teachers' case, for pay.
To tell your students four principal causes of the French Revolution, and then to test their memory of what you have told them seems an empty exercise, meager. For that we need a teacher, and a school? But, if there must be diplomas, there must be schools; if schools, grades; if grades, tests; if tests, false questions asked by people who are not curious about answers. A sad business.
But teaching and learning did not come into the world with the invention of schools. In fact, in our time and place, a plague of schools, all claiming highly technical and arcane powers, has brought us to the day in which there is surely less teaching and learning among us than among the cave-painters of Lascaux. To their children, and to each other, they had no end of information to impart, and perhaps information every bit as important as the principal causes of the French Revolution. They had skills to teach, and to learn, and to keep teaching, and to keep learning. If they had had a system of public schools, they would have, like us, been told to see themselves as mere laymen, and would have handed the young over to the "professionals" to teach them everything from good manners and hiding from tigers to cave-painting. The good manners, and the cave-painting, would soon have ceased among them. Hiding from tigers would have continued.
Teaching and learning are not professions or trades. They are conditions, or estates, to which all persons are open. They are the perpetual exchange of our wonder and all its fruits. They are like mourning or rejoicing, or thank you and please, or falling strangely silent when the moon shines on the snow. They happen.
Dewey said it (you'd think they'd know): "The mountains do not stand on the earth; they are the earth." If there are human beings, teaching and learning will happen among them; they are, all of them, teachers and learners. And they are only incidentally divulging information and imparting skills. The good father teaches the son to mix the red ochre not that it might be mixed--the son is a learner, not a tool--but because it is right to teach, and because there is a right way, and because the son must know it to teach his son. The father does not say, I teach, and you, down there, you learn. He says, Let us do what is right. And should the son do it better, the father will learn.
Teaching and learning are two of the many "natures" possible to all persons. And, like our other natures, they are subject to disease. Consider the teacher, in school or anywhere else, who will not learn. An ugliness. And the learner, in school or anywhere else, who will not teach. A curse. You know them. Be thankful. There is justice. In countless shabby, stuffy rooms, they exchange with each other empty questions and answers, all stored up, long ago, in the back of the book.
But, to speak carefully, there can be no teacher who does not learn, or learner who does not teach, any more than there can be people who breathe only in, not out. Who will not do both will do neither. And that, of course, is precisely the melancholy condition of multitudes. Can that have something to do with our strange belief that teaching and learning are what they do in the schools, and that the rest of us had better stay away from them?
Maybe teaching and learning are like loving. Perfectly natural, but still, always accidental. Not to be planned. We teach and learn because we happen to be living here with each other, and trying, once in a while, to live right.
The Fourth Learning
The National Assessment of Educational Progress has shown that only 20 percent of graduating high school students can write a decent letter to a supermarket manager to convince the manager that he or she should get a job. Only 12 percent can arrange six common fractions in size order. Only 4.9 percent can figure out which bus or train to take from Philadelphia in order to get to Washington, D. C., on a given day at a given time. And remember, these are the "successful" students who are still in school after the dropouts are gone.
...Will better teacher training, attracting even better teachers, and getting better textbooks--all of which are important--be enough to increase the percentage of students who learn the above skills from 4.9 percent and 20 percent up to 65, 70 or 80 percent? Can it be that only 4.9 percent of us were created smart enough to read a timetable and 20 percent smart enough to write a good letter?
I think the answer... is "no." It's more likely that we're getting such poor results because schools are organized in a way that prevents most kids from learning. For example, we all know that each and every person learns at a different rate. ... [And here begins a pitch for an infinity of alternatives to teaching, including, but not limited to: "video tapes, audio tapes, computer programs, individual or small group coaching, peer tutoring, simulation games and actual trips to various places to get direct experiences," the latter, no doubt, from Philadelphia to Washington.]
ALL of that is from one of Albert Shanker's agitprop columns in the New York Times. We're sorry to give you so much of it, but we had to. Think of it as a test. If a siren went off in your head in the second sentence of the second paragraph, you pass. If not, pay better attention.
"When a man, especially a man who has something to sell, uses the phrase "we all know," check for your wallet. He is up to no good. And what we all know, says Shanker, is that everyone "learns" at a different rate. Wouldn't it be useful to know which of a multitude of popular meanings of "learning" he has in mind, and exactly how precisely he can measure differences in rate?
If your child has not yet "learned" to walk by the age of 17, will Shanker say of him that he just happens to learn at a different rate, and that what you need for him is a few more members of the AFT? Marvin and Matilda have been told to "learn" by Monday the prepositions that take the dative. Matilda does it; Marvin does not. Can you think of some other reasons than relative "rates of learning" for the astonishing fact that only Matilda can recite them? John Stuart Mill has told Albert Shanker to "let no fallacy or incoherence, or confusion of thought step by unperceived." Is it "rate of learning" or something else, a reluctance to perceive, perhaps, out of which Shanker will not learn?
Although we have only the one word, learning to walk, learning a list of prepositions, and learning to notice and judge what is hidden in the language in which we must think, are not the same process. They are not even similar, for no one of them will serve, even approximately, to do the work of the others. It is only in the first one that the idea of "rate" makes sense, and even here it permits of only very limited differences; it is not because of some natural variation in rate that a 17-year old has not yet learned to walk.
In the third sort of learning, the idea of "rate" is ludicrous. Many will never learn that; many will learn it often. And the sure teaching of it, no one has ever known.
Judging by the examples that send him off, Shanker must be talking about the second learning, about Marvin and Matilda. Matilda may well have failed to learn the valences of the elements as quickly as Marvin did, but then again, maybe not. In either case, however, to speak of their "rates" of learning is not to speak of a cause, but of what is, in schools, the only visible effect of numerous causes.
The first learning comes with the territory, the nature of the beast. The second and the third do not. They call not only for the deed, but for the will. No person can "teach" another the prepositions that take the dative. Or the valences of the elements. Or, in an interestingly different case, the principle by which to discover whether one fraction is greater than another. Such things can, of course, be told, but never taught. Who would learn them must do it; and who won't, or can't, do it, will never learn them. This is not a value judgment, or a condemnation, or a "grade" of any sort; just a fact. If you don't eat, you will not be nourished.
The second learning requires will, and action. Will is none of a teacher's business, and the teacher who sets out to cajole Marvin into wanting to learn his prepositions is not a teacher but a molester. And Marvin can see that. But the action is a teacher's business. If you put yourself forth as a teacher of German, or of anything else, and find yourself uncomfortable with the idea of requiring your students to learn what is to be learned, and of enforcing upon them the discipline that they have not within themselves, then: a), you have our sympathy; and b), you will have nothing but our contempt, and indeed, the contempt of all thoughtful people, if you stay a day longer in that business.
Schooling is coercion. There are no volunteers on the students' side of the desk. And even the students who don't much mind can see it for what it is.
How many reasons might there be by which to account for the fact that Matilda has learned her prepositions while Marvin hasn't? They are beyond counting, for they must include even the possibility that Marvin's hamster took sick and had to be rushed to the vet. Among that swarm of reasons, is the possibility that Marvin is unable to learn prepositions. What would so disable him, except some extraordinary dullness or disorder of mind? But a mind so disordered would have troubles far greater than the inability to learn prepositions, would be, in effect, "a clear case." Only another disordered mind would require it to learn prepositions. Which then is first to be considered: a sick hamster, a stupendous disorder of the mind, or an absence of will? In ten million Marvins, what proportions will fall into what categories? And, where there is absence of will, what would you try: the enforcement of deed, or an "actual trip" to Heidelberg for some "direct experiences" of prepositions?
Now consider what Marvin tells us about the scores that have given Shanker another weapon in what he thinks of as an "argument" for the endless multiplication of gadgets and union members in the government schools.
So, only twenty percent could convince a supermarket manager to hire them, eh? How many supermarket managers were consulted in the matter, do you suppose? Might it be possible that supermarket managers will look for things that have nothing to do with what schools teach, or, for that matter, should teach? Such things as honesty and earnestness, and even some sign of active will? Who the hell are these NAEPers to tell us, and hosts of children as well, what supermarket managers want? That statistic we will find useful only when the apparatchiki who made the test go away and leave the work to those who know how to do it.
But there is another point. The students to whom this "instrument" was "administered" were, in simple fact, not writing a letter to the manager of a supermarket and hoping to be hired. As to how well they might do the real thing, one guess is as good as another, but anyone who cares to think straight can see that this "instrument" provides no evidence. The portentous NAEP assessment, as the students well know, "doesn't count." It is exactly one of the dippy devices that Shanker wants to multiply, a "simulation game." Our guess would be, since we happen to know some of those students, that many of the mock-letter writers gave the task what it deserved.
How else could you account for the score on the third question? Shanker, of course, pretends that this is the result of an inability to "read" a timetable. ("Read" is another of the words that educationists always leave unexamined.) There is no "reading" of a timetable, unless by "reading" you mean telling the letters and numerals one from another. If that were the cause of the failure of 95.1 percent of high school graduates, we would be delighted, for it would be the last piece of evidence needed for the execution of Mencken's proposal for the improvement of education in America: the burning of the schools and the hanging of the teachers. But, alas, many high school graduates can distinguish the letters and numerals from one another. And, that being so, and hardly anything more being needed, you can be absolutely certain that at least 95.1 percent of Philadelphia high school graduates with tickets for a rock concert in Washington would have no trouble at all getting there on time. The NAEP instrument is a ticket to nowhere.
We know what they did. You know what they did. It takes an educationist not to know what they did.
And so too, probably, with those wretched fractions. Come on. School is out. Hell, even Albert Shanker says I'm one of the "successful" non-dropouts. So who needs this?
In one way, we're with the students on this one. They are simply presuming, and correctly, that this is more of the Mickey Mouse of high school, the tedious game that only wimpy guidance counselors, much to their discredit, take seriously. They've had hardly any homework, they have passed German without learning the prepositions that take the dative, and physics without learning much math, and countless courses in rapping and relating without learning anything at all. And as to the snooping instruments of a bunch of educationists in Washington, they just don't give a damn.
In another way, though, we're not on their side. And we are sorry, not about them, but for them. Maybe there is another learning, a fourth learning every bit as much to be distinguished and pursued as the others.
What might we say of him who is content to leave his work, any of his work, and without regard to its reward, ill done? Has he not something yet to learn? What, exactly, is that something? Where and how is it to be learned? From the schoolteachers who will not demand and require of their students even so little as the prepositions that take the dative? From multimedia direct experience, and slides?
And now we see that our numbering is backwards. Who lacks the fourth learning can never have the others.
Sapristi, Lisette! Ce n'est pas l'Underground
Grammarian de Monsieur le Baron que tu lis?
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A Tiny Anthology