Nature and Practicality

The only thing more foolish than being impractical is being a Pragmatist (i.e. making practicality the ultimate thing).

The demand for practical applications is the most perfect way to avoid having to hear or think about what is inconvenient or undesirable. The demand for relevance is the ideal way to avoid what matters most.

And yet…

If it is not practical, it does not matter. The tension arises, not over the question of whether we ought to be practical, but over what we consider practical.

For example, in the comments on the health care post, the question arose over contemporary success literature, which, thanks to Norman Vincent Peale and his ilk, has become a rather dominant element of contemporary Christian media. But is it Biblical? And does it fit human nature?

I argue that the sermon on the mount is the ultimate statement of how to succeed if you are a human being. But is it practical to turn the other cheek? To go the extra mile? To be persecuted?

Only if there really is a Kingdom of God and if that God is righteous. Only if there is a resurrection.

But I’m not sure I can see how those factors affect the curriculum, modes of instruction, and means of assessment in our schools, all of which, I assume, would be somehow oriented toward the child succeeding in some domain (after all, the schools are the ultimate “success coaches”).  If anybody can explain that to me, I’d be grateful as the links are not obvious.

My fundamental point, to repeat, is that the demand for practical applications is a great way to avoid hearing what needs to be heard. Consider, for example, a steward on the Titanic after they hit the iceberg. If he is practical, he wants to know how to do his job better, how to deal with a particular problem that is troubling him right now.

The last thing he wants to hear is how to deal with something he hasn’t been trained for, for which there are no known techniques, like how to survive in the freezing waters of the north Atlantic.

Or consider the cancer patient (which may be more germane to my point). Cancer is, like Naturalism, a direct assault on the living nature of the person or animal that carries it. It is an excess, a cell gone out of control, eating up the things around it and draining the life of the “system” that it has glommed onto.

But how does the person who has cancer respond to it? My parents both died of cancer and it was, shall we say, interesting to watch how each responded. I know that many people choose to ignore it; to pretend they don’t have it, to live a normal life.

To some extent this is prudent. One needs to continue to do useful, productive things to maintain one’s sense of balance and dignity. Nature demands work of us.

But it can go too far. The person can pretend he doesn’t have cancer, deny the symptoms or explain them away, try to function as though everything is as it should be.

These people find themselves very unhappy.

It is not practical to deny reality. I believe that much of what happens in the American schools is the reality denying behavior of a fourth stage cancer patient.

Let me turn from the metaphor to an explanation and a practical application of my point, which, to repeat, is that the demand for practical applications is a great way to avoid thinking about inconvenient truths.

At the conference, I led a roundtable discussion about assessment in light of the nature of things. It was, necesssarily, much too short.

As an aside, I fully admit that the CiRCE conference is known for raising as many questions as it answers. I find that when you are in the early stages of a project (like recovering the Christian classical tradition) it is best to ask a lot of questions and not to rush forward doing things the old way.

In any case, this discussion was too short. Many things that need to be discussed could not be because of time. But afterward, somebody told me that it was more relevant to the home school parent than to the school teacher.

This comment can be taken a number of different ways, and I did not have the time to pursue it with the person who said it, so I don’t want to assume anything about what he meant.

However, I did take it a certain way, and I want to respond to the way I took it, not necessarily the way he meant it.

The way I took this comment was that the discussion about assessing students and their work according to the nature of the child, lesson, and “subject” can be done better at home because of the circumstances, but at school there are all sorts of obstacles and diversions, so assessing according to nature at school isn’t really a practical thing to do.

I am happy to report that I am quite confident that I have caricatured my interlocuters position. However, that is because he is more thoughtful than most people.

But I believe that my expression of the position is precisely what most people would mean if they brought their reactions to the level of conscious thought. I hope not, but on the assumption that it is so I want to reply to that formulation.

First, think about the implications of that position. The argument is, the school setting is not natural, so it is not practical to assess students and their work according to nature, i.e. with standards derived from the nature of the student, the lesson, the subject, etc. (i.e. from reality).

Since, then, we are teaching children in an unnatural way, when somebody suggests an assessment that arises from a natural way of teaching, we can’t be troubled to bother with it.

Let me reiterate that I know this is not what the person who commented to me meant.

But it is precisely the normal practice of most schools, public or private.

Let’s think about this. 

First, the school is not a natural setting. In its present formulation, it does not arise from the needs, desires, and aspirations of human nature. Martin Cothran presented a talk on “The agrarian nature of education” that I am very, very anxious to listen to.

For most of its history, education patterned itself on the agrarian household, which was an amazingly flexible structure, adaptable to circumstances, and submissive to the environment in which it grew.

But with the late 19th and early 20th century, schools increasingly patterned themselves on the inflexible, unadaptable, irrresponsible structures of industry. The fulness of this madness arrived with the so-called Gary Plan that John Dewey celebrated in his Schools of Tomorrow. That was where the 52 minute classroom with bells and five minute breaks was introduced – and soundly rejected by the parents.

In addition, schools came to be run by the principles of scientific management, then by the rather arbitrary standards established by the IRS for not for profits. The agrarian community’s patterns of leadership were replaced by those of the industrial capitalist and the socialist.

So the school as presently constituted is not “natural.”

Like the cancer patient, we can ignore this fact or we can recognize its awful implications. They are, after all, all around us.

If we use a structure that is not Divinely or naturally ordained, we are going to have just the sort of problems we do have.

Second, a question: If the modes of assessment that arise from the needs, desires, and aspirations of human nature work at cross purposes with the school setting, which should give in to the other?

I would appeal to every school that seeks to cultivate wisdom and virtue in its students simply to engage in the discussion. I know that you can’t change everything right now.

I know that discussion is anxiety producing.

I know that you have too much work to do while you and your parents are being accredited, certified, college admissioned and otherwise controlled and intimidated by the forces for chaos, anxiety, and despair.

Believe it or not, I am tremendously sensitive to those issues. I have three college age children. My wife teaches in a classical and Christian school. I have started three myself. I consult with dozens every year. I am in no way trying to be glib.

What I’m begging you to do is simply to start the conversation. Rise up and begin to assert your freedom to mentor free people.

I don’t know how far this cancer has advanced. Maybe you are part of the cure.

But only if you begin the discussion.

Third, an assertion: If we are to respect the nature of things (a position that seems self-evident to me), and if the home is the more natural setting for the child and for education, then our schools ought to do at least two things with regard to the home (I would be very interested in other things the school needs to do):

  1. Model itself more closely on the household than on the “Gary Plan” that brought the industrial model into the school
  2. Treat home schoolers with great respect. After all,the reason home schooling works so well is because it more closely aligns with human nature. So schools should honor home schooling parents instead of seeing them as a threat and instead of making them feel inferior because they have not learned the artificial techniques that enable a teacher to succeed in an unnatural setting.

Again, please start the discussion. Act only on what you discover. Implement only what you believe in. But start the discussion. And include the local home schoolers in that discussion.

You have to live in the world that you live in. That is where God will transform and sanctify you. But you don’t have to be ruled by it.

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Recommended resources:

  • 2009 Conference CD’s; especially the roundtable on assessment and Martin Cothran’s Agrarian Nature of Education
  • CiRCE Next Step Teacher Training with James Daniels, Andrew Kern, or Debbie Harris
  • Charlotte Mason’s writings
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