Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A Classical Education

Stanley Fish in the NYT on the need for a return to the old model of secondary school curricula. Like most people, I've been struggling with pinpointing the problem with current practices in education, other than "teaching to the test" which I find vague and unhelpful by itself. Unpacking it a bit, there's the problem of students learning strategies of test-taking rather than the content of their classes, which Fish mentions, but the failings of the educational system extend much further than that. Many, many students arrive at college campuses and are woefully unprepared, so unprepared, in fact, that colleges are having to increase the size and number of remedial classes available to make up the slack. There are problems with testing, as many allege, and problems with the curriculum, as Fish argues, as well as problems with overexperimentation, social promotion, imbalanced funding, and other problems.

There is also the problem of the internet. Nicholas Carr talks about the difference between reading books and reading on the internet in his book The Shallows, where he alleges that the easily distracted, multitasking nature of internet reading doesn't train the mind in reflection and in holding attention and ideas for extended periods of time that book reading does. Consequently, students get to college and have great difficulty reading more than 10-20 pages at a time, and are virtually incapable of the abstract thought necessary for philosophy and literary theory. The frequent reading of internet drivel instead of books combined with neglect in teaching grammar also means students get to college and cannot write. They have no sense of spelling or punctuation on the one hand, and cannot sustain an argument through multiple pages on the other. This may be another byproduct of "teaching to the test" if, as some allege, the need to spend more time on test stuff has cut into reading assignments.

I'm not sure if returning to a classical education is a panacea, but I do agree with its proponents that students may not be doing anywhere near enough reading and writing, and that may lie at the core of the problem.


Charlie said...

In the last couple of days, I have had people getting REALLY excited in job interviews when I tell them I have a Bachelor of Arts in Physics. Why? Because a Physics program's sole purpose is to teach people how to deconstruct problems and find solutions (or at least solution spaces to explore). Bachelor of Arts in Physics is unusual (compared to Bachelor of Science in Physics) in that I had required foreign languages, history, writing, and electives (Art mostly, for me) and I had just a class and a project shy of a Mathematics degree.

What all of that means is through fluke of happenstance and stubbornness, I was taught how to problem solve and write and some context of history and exposed to a foreign culture and a lot of other things that 'fit' a classical education. I hope my kids can find their way into an education as diverse (no matter the field). I ask them questions about their homework that 'But, Dad, I don't have to know that. . . the teacher won't ask us that.'

I ask them those difficult questions to make sure they understand the bits and pieces they are supposed to memorize and how that knowledge can be used. They hate it when I make them show their work when I check their homework. I would have hated it too, but I can see when they are guessing or don't know why the answer is what it is and I want them to know so they have a good foundation to build on.

Best homework project of the fourth grade, in my opinion, was building terrarium/aquariums and trying to get a living ecosystem in each. Terrarium is more or less dead, but the aquarium is still going strong, without any intervention for several weeks.

I know my questions are helping them learn, because they can explain books to me better and better. Sometimes they even make a good case for me or my wife to read them, so we do so we can discuss them with them. Division and fractions make more sense than they used to, because now they can convert between them.

Ramble ramble ramble. I'm sure I had a thought behind all of this, but it is time to go read stories to my three year old.

Rene said...


critical thinking skills trump all - especially now.

In math - no one has any reason to memorize multiplication tables anymore. What needs to be stressed are word problems, where the most difficult part is setting up the equation.

Ditto most other sciences - who cares if you can memorize anything really? What matters more now is whether you can go quickly to the most relevant info and evaluate what it means in relation to the problem that you are trying to solve.

Critical thinking and problem solving.

el ranchero said...

I don't know about the denigration of memorizing. Sure, no one's planning on making students memorize poems like in the olden days, but memorizing, say, multiplication tables does make more complicated mathematics easier. The more you can do in your head, the better. Similarly, kids have to do all sorts of memorizing, but we just don't think of it that way. That's all you're doing in a foreign language class, for instance! Furthermore, grammar rules have to be memorized, mathematical laws and theorems have to be memorized, not to mention the parts of a cell, physical laws, the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights, and a basic timeline of American history. Memorization is just learning something "by heart" so you don't have to look it up every time you need it. Not having to look stuff up every minute means more brain power spent on analysis and therefore more complex thinking, as well as less time wasted doing menial reference work.

In most subjects, I would argue that there's a lot of basic information you need to just know before you get to the point where you can focus on critical thinking and problem solving.

Rene said...

I get that memorization can help with deeper understanding of specific subjects, but IMO much memorization should happen as a result of the pursuit of a deep enough understand of a problem to solve it. Chicken and egg, I know, but in my own experience I've learned tons in language and maths by just interacting with them everyday and constantly looking things up when I don't know them.

Its when I divert from practicality into theory that I spend time memorizing stuff.