Marking Readiness

In her newest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch outlines the primary causes behind today’s deterioration of our schools, and prescribes four vital courses to generate education reform.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), according to Ravitch, largely contributed to the problems plaguing today’s schools.  The vine that sprouted from this federally mandated reform was accountability.  Students must acquire a certain level of knowledge, and teachers must be held responsible for getting their students to that place.  The rat race had begun.

The fruit from this vine spoiled on at least three accounts.  When the primary objective is to produce immediate results, what more efficient model exists in our culture than the modern management networks applied in the business world?  Ravitch notes that business model management may work well in the corporate world, but education is not a business.

As school districts from NYC to San Diego adopted business models of management, teachers and principles went into survival mode in order to secure their jobs.  The single mark of concern rested with student test scores.  NCLB instituted the use of standardized testing in order to measure student progress.  The quickest and surest way for educators to succeed was to teach toward the test.  The test became king and determined the educational success or failure of our schools.

The problem with testing is that it has chipped away at the heart of education and produced illusory knowledge.  However, Ravitch does not entirely oppose the use of testing.  She devotes a small amount of time briefly tracing the short history of testing (roughly a hundred years) and the benefits it can yield when appropriately administered and evaluated.

Yet, the form into which testing has evolved seeks to measure knowledge according to prescribed standards.  Were these prescribed standards those carved by nature they would be appropriate for the human child and unalterable.  But they are not.  They are standards that continually flex to the ungrounded values espoused by temporal notions of progress.

For what end do we covet such notions of knowledge?  Readiness?  Readiness for what?  Is it possibly for a pre-scripted part that contributes not to what it is to be a Man or a Woman, but to the progress of an economic ideal upheld and valued in our current culture?

The purpose for testing in today’s educational institutions boils down to producing a readiness for either adulthood or employment.  The two are not the same, nor do they go together.  The one attends to the meaning of our humanity, the other to the product of our labor.

Before I became an educator I used to start colts for a world champion reigning cowhorse trainer.  My job was to take an unbroken colt (2 year old) and get him ready for the next phase of his training.  Sometimes that could take six months, three months, or sometimes one month.  It all depended on the horse.

At some point during a colt’s training (education) my boss would ask me, “Is the filly ready?”  He never asked me if she passed the test.  There was no test. Yet there were various indicators that marked her readiness.

Before she could work on a real cow she had to be able to turn, stop, backup, know her leads and how to change leads, relax her neck, lower her head, position her shoulders, ribs, and hips, pivot on her inside rear foot, tuck, spin, and leap – among other things.

Some horses were always better than others with these things, but none of these things were exercises foreign to the nature of a horse.  Any horse could learn to do these things because they were things that a horse does naturally.

As a trainer I was teaching the horse when to do them and how to perfect them, or rather to execute them with greater precision and finesse.

As the trainer I was the only one who knew where the horse was in his training and what he needed to learn.  When I was asked if a horse was ready, I was asked with a very clear and defined image of what a “finished” horse looked like.  That was the goal I worked towards in every horse I trained (hundreds of them in my career).

The question of readiness was not the same as that of passing a test.  In fact, there were days when a horse would perform well and then the next day act as if he had never learned a thing.  Others could go through all the exercises physically, but were still not ready mentally.

We always trained a horse with a view to developing him both mentally and physically, and only the one working with the horse every day knew “where” he was in his training.

A horse’s readiness was not the measurable result of a day’s set of tested exercises.  Their readiness was a state of presence that emerged from days, months, and years of training.  The mark of readiness was set upon the backdrop of a horse’s entire training and not upon the result of a single test.

Do we misread our students by looking to their test scores rather than to their education as the mark of their readiness?  Perhaps what we should be doing is asking a student’s teacher, “Are they ready?”

Hamlet:             the readiness is all.

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What were you thinking, Mr. Coleridge?

I’m driving up to PA today for the Orthodox Classical Home Schooling Conference at Antiochian Village. Along the way I’m going to listen to some Louis Markos tapes from the Teaching Company in which he describes, in an introductory way, literary theory “From Plato to Post-Modernism.” I’m particularly interested in his lectures on Kant and Hegel for two reasons:

  1. When Coleridge was trying to describe the creative process he encountered a problem not unlike the one I’m dealing with right now. The Augustan age, the age of the Enlightenment, left him dissatisfied with the language and terms they gave him. They were too mechanical and immediate. As a result, he looked to Kant, Shelling, and Hegel for language to describe the organic and transcendent side of the imagination. I run into this problem, not so much because the language of description isn’t available, but because the language of harmony isn’t there. In other words, we are expected to approach things from a naturalistic materialistic set of assumptions when we do science. If literature aspires to recognition beyond the domain of personal feelings it feels a need to use scientific language. Even worse, so does teaching. So analogy, parabolic thought, common intuitions, the inner life of traditions, etc. are all “thrown under the bus” as it were. Which marks the end of literary and pedagogical theories as creative forces.
  2. Because Kant, Schelling, and Hegel are, in my view, essential forces on the way to totalitarianism in Europe, so I need to understand what Coleridge was doing with them. Was he adopting their views? Or was he using their language and ideas to lift his own thoughts to a higher level of harmony than they had attained previously while avoiding those elements that laid the groundwork for an expanded tyranny.

I don’t think I’ll have much time for blogging over the next few days, but when I get a chance I’ll try to report on what I discover. Of course, to receive the refined, reflected on, edited, careful report, you’ll need to come to the CiRCE conference this summer and engage in the discussion!

If you are wondering, yes, I do recommend the Markos set for people teaching or studying or, better yet, loving literature. I would also recommend reading the old Encyclopedia Britannica article on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. If you are up for it, his Biographia Litteraria is quite interesting, but don’t anticipate an orderly discussion. He has shorter essays, like his Art of Poesy that are, if only becuase they are shorter, easier to read.

Germany, Austria, and the Beginnings of Hitler (Part II of a series)

I mentioned in my previous post that my great-grandfather came from southeastern Austria (actually, as my brother Nate reminded me, the Austro-Hungarian empire) in 1910, 100 years ago this year, and that my mother came from Germany a couple generations later.

Austria and Germany are both Germanic people’s, but their history and their characters are very different indeed. I was born in Germany in 1963 and we lived in a very small town in the foothills of Austria until 1966 or 67. I remember nothing of it except perhaps a sound from an air conditioning unit over some nearby building, but I’ve never been clear on that.

In the summer of 2005 I finally went back to that little town, called Hague am Ausruck. It was the epitome of quaint. One street runs up the hill on which the town is located, and on that street are all the shops that fed the town and, I suspect, the hill dwellers nearby. Each was painted a clean pastel, giving the street the characteristically Austrian cleanliness and harmony. Everything about the country seemed musical to me.

Running to and from that main street are three or four tributaries that take you to the houses, none of which were particularly large, but as I recall they were all affectionately tended.

This was 2006. In 1964 it was not so. In 1964 Austria was still recovering from the dual catastrophes of WWI and the ensuing Anschluss and WWII. The once great Empire of Charlemagne had ended in 1918. The rump endured the primal insult of Nazi aggression in the 1930’s.

This National Socialist Germany was the cradle of my mother’s childhood. She lived in Pottsdam, near Berlin, almost an epicenter for the Nazi juggernaut.

For all these reasons, I can’t help but take the story of Hitler’s rise to power personally. I confess that I still love the movie A Sound of Music, if only for the scene in which Max says to Captain Von Trapp that they should be grateful that the Anschluss happened peacefully. Von Trapp jumps at Max with a searing  accusation: “Grateful! Max, I don’t believe I know you.”

Clearly it gave him no sense of gratitude at all that his people made no effort to defend themselves against the invasion. He would rather have died himself.

When Max tells Maria that she should talk to the Captain, Maria’s answer is priceless: “I can’t ask him to be less than he is.”

How Von Trapp would have scoffed at the empty sentiment of a “global citizen!” What do we do, he would have asked, when the Globe determines to oppress us? What do we do when it won’t let us worship at our family altar and won’t let us sing Edelweiss?

The great question of the 20th century has to be, “How did regimes as cruel as the Nazi’s in Germany, the Fascists in Italy, the Communists in Russia and China, find acceptance among the people’s they ruled?”

To be honest, though, the Nazi question is more important for two reasons. First, the Chinese and Russians came to power through a ruthless cruelty that involved a great deal less acceptance by the people they dominated. Second, we are much closer to the mindset of pre-Nazi Germany than we are to the mindset of pre-Bolshevik Russia or pre-Maoist China.

The disturbing thing about Nazi Germany is that Hitler was not only elected democractically (in a parliamentary system), but that he was elected under circumstances that allowed plenty of time for reflection.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how it came about that Hitler was able to lead the German people with so little opposition.

Coming to a Republic, But Can You Keep It?

The late 19th century and early 20th century saw a dramatic acceleration of immigration into the United States from Europe. In 1910, my great-grandfather came from what was then Austria and settled in Milwaukee, WI.

He was one of a multitude.

I don’t know if I possess the creative capacity to exagerrate the signficance of what that wave of immigration meant to American society and politics.

At one level, that is an obvious point. Of course, it will lead to changes if Italians, Germans, French, Spanish, Scandinavian, and other diverse European peoples are all thrown together into a single pot.

So you could say that this is an exercise in stating the obvious. But I’m OK with that. I really like obvious things.

Here’s a particular obvious fact. Not one single immigrant from any country I listed above came to America from an established republic.

Try to absorb that fact.

Remember when Benjamin Franklin left the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, and someone asked him, “What have you given us?” His answer: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

What a very interesting statement. Why would he put it like that? Nobody would say, “A monarchy, if you can keep it.” But Franklin knew, and his confederates knew, that a Republic is a precarious form of government, for human nature always tends toward some sort of collectivism.

Either people turn toward populism, which always leans on the monarch or the Fuhrer or the Messiah or the dictator to protect it from the ravages of the plutocrats.

Or they turn straight to the One to be protected from the uncertainty of life and the market.

But few people want to be free for the simple reason that freedom requires hard work, wisdom, and risk.

So Franklin knew that the republic bequeathed to the American people led a tenuous life that would require hard work, wisdom, and risk. Fortunately, most Americans accepted those terms and determind to preserve the republic as long as they could.

As a result, when my great-grandfather, Jan Polak, joined this Republic in 1910 he came at the tail end of a vast attempt to ensure that the immigrants would understand what it meant to live in a Republic.

Think about this. When he came from Austria, he was leaving the formerly Holy Roman Empire ruled by an Emperor and gathering within its boundaries a whole series of smaller kingdoms and dukedoms. I doubt very much that the idea of voting for any ruler beyond, perhaps, his local church, ever entered his mind.

Now he was called upon every four years to elect his own president, every two years to elect representatives, and constantly to elect aldermen, mayors, governors, etc. etc.

It must have made him dizzy, and while not everybody was an almdudler from the mountains of Slovenia, far from society and culture, many, many immigrants needed these new responsibilities explained to them.

This was the impulse behind the growth of the public schools in the late 19th century. The American people had a Republic and they wanted to keep it.

It didn’t require racism or white supremacism or ethnicism or even political snobbery to realize that unless these people were taught about our system of government they wouldn’t know how to function within it. They simply weren’t accustomed to it.

The locals strove to teach my ancestors the contents of the constitution as well resources allowed. They were taught how to vote. They were taught what a republic is and how it differs from a monarchy or empire. They were taught the basic story behind our revolution. They were taught the constitution.

Having left old, decaying systems behind, mostly tyrannical, you can imagine what a breath of life this was to so many of them. It’s no wonder to me that my grandfather and my father regarded this country with awe.

Back in those days, when they spoke of the American way of life, they didn’t mean a conspicuously consumptive and wasteful desperation, they meant a place where the people chose their servants and they had a job description that described their servants’ roles. That job description was called the Constitution of the United States of America. And each state had one of their own as well.

I mentioned earlier that my great-grandfather came from Austria. Three generations later, my mother fled Russian controlled Germany and landed in Milwaukee too, having married my father.

People still came to America seeking freedom in those days, but things had already changed a great deal.

I’m going to explore some of those changes in my next post.

An Introduction to the History of Classical Rhetoric

I find it fascinating to read the development of rhetorical practices from the time of, say, Homer to the time of, say, Basil the Great or St. Augustine.

This period gives us the pre-historic Greeks, like Odysseus; the philosophical Greeks of the Pre-Socratic period, like the Sophists; the Socratic/Platonic response to the Sophists; Aristotle; the Stoics and Epicureans and other minor schools that preceded Christ, the Romans who adopted the Greek traditions and created both schools and handbooks to teach it; and the Christian response to the Roman practices adopted and adapted from the Greeks.

You cover pretty much the whole spectrum of possible approaches to rhetoric in that 15oo year span, which is one of the great benefits of a classical education.

Lately I’ve been quite intrigued by the handbook tradition. It developed in Rome after they were converted to the Greek conviction that you master an art when you come to know its nature and align yourself to the nature of the thing you want to do.

The Greeks were speculators and the Romans were practical people, or so goes the bromide, and it is not without validity.

The Greeks thought about the nature of language and rhetoric. But they thought about it in action. Thus, Aristotle’s Rhetoric is the seminal work in what became the handbook tradition.

The Romans had no Aristotle, Cicero being perhaps their best attempt. But they had plenty of public speakers. In fact, if you wanted to matter in Rome, you pretty much had to master the art of speaking.

As a result, the Romans adopted and developed the handbook tradition and we have benefited enormously as a result.

From what I can tell, the purpose of a handbook was to lay out first principles and basic practices for a given art. Thus, Dionysius of Thrax wrote a grammar handbook that was the first to lay out the eight parts of speech.

During the first century BC, Rome was in a state of continual turmoil at the top. Generals had begun to pay their own armies, which freed them from the Senate and put them in conflict with each other.

From 135 BC to 31 BC, they experienced a continual stream of revolutions and civil wars, finally ending when Augustus Caesar defeated Marc Antony and established what we now call the Roman Empire.

I mention this because I want to talk about a rhetoric handbook and because rhetoric handbook are effected by politics. It was during this 100 year period that the perhaps best works of rhetoric were developed by Roman teachers (the exception is Quintilian).

The rhetoric handbook I want to talk about is called Ad Herrenium, De Ratione Dicendi, or To Herrenius, On the Theory of Public Speaking.

Nobody knows who wrote it, though for a long time it was thought to be a work of Cicero. While it is written to Herrenius, it is a popular book and was intended to be used by anybody who wanted to speak in public.

While it’s debt to the Greeks is obvious by its very existence, nevertheless its populist tone is revealed on the first page, where he scoffs at unidentified “Greek writers” who, “from fear of appearing to know too little, have gone in quest of notions irrelevant to the art, in order that the art might seem more difficult to understand.”

And yet, he is on to something, for it is not uncommon for teachers and theorists, especially those who are quite impressed that they have begun to study an art but have not yet mastered it, to want that art to appear mysterious and difficult.

“I, on the other hand,” he continues, “have treated those topics which seemed pertinent to the theory of public speaking.”

Totally irrelevant aside: I love this Latin word that seems to mean “seemed to be”: sumpsimus. We have to Anglicize that word somehow.

He further demonstrates his populism with this hollow claim: “I have not been moved by hope of gain or desire for glory, as the rest have been, in undertaking to write, but have done so in order that, by my painstaking work, I may gratify your wish.”

OK, let’s get on with it then, shall we?

“I shall now begin my subject, as soon as I have given you this one injunction: Theory without continuous practice in speaking is of little avail; from this you may understand that the precepts of theory here offered ought to be applied in practice.”

From this point forward, he offers some quite sound advice on pubic speaking, much of which I have applied to writing.

Having identified three kinds of causes (epideictic or ceremonial, deliberative, and judicial), he explains that a speaker needs to master five faculties to successfully deliver any public speech: Invention (coming up with something to say), Arrangement (ordering your thoughts), Elocution (adapting expression to the matter), Memory, and Delivery (“the graceful regulation of voice, countenance, and gesture”).

We master these faculties through three means: theory (rules and method (certam viam)), imitation, and practice.

He then lays out the parts of a speech and explains that each of the parts has its own invention. Then he explains how to invent an introduction.

Which is why I started writing this blog and is the point at which I must pause with this note.

I started public speaking very young and was generally well-received when I did it. However, my talent was raw and undisciplined. Some people consider these handbooks to be overly formal and even restrictive. I agree, if they are studied without practice and imitation.

But it was not until I studied classical rhetoric that I came to understand how to speak and found the tools by which I could bring the art under control.

This is the theory. It is essential. It is not enough. But it is essential.

Matthew Arnold, France, and Prussia

Nice bit in the Guardian about Matthew Arnold’s influence on English education. If you are interested in the history of education and the roots of the modern approach, this is a good place to start.

I particularly like the Aristotle quote about 1/4 of the way through.

Grammar Lesson 2: The Parts of Speech: Noun Side (with a little historical introduction)

What a funny term – parts of speech. Aren’t there other parts of speech besides the written words? Like gestures.

Well, not strictly speaking. Speaking is, strictly speaking, using words.

Do you know where the parts of speech come from?

Trick question. The come from language.

Do you know who discovered them?

Isn’t that an interesting question? Did you know that Aristotle would not have been able to name the eight parts of speech? I would like to develop this further in another post, but for now let me answer the question I started this paragraph with.

In fact, David Mulroy provides the answer in his The War Against Grammar:

“The individual responsible for dividing words into eight groups is known to posterity as Dionsius Thrax (“the Thracian”)…. He studied under Aristarchus, the head of the library of Alexandria and the greatest of literary scholars in the second century B.C. Later he taught grammar and literature on the island of Rhodes [ed. Note, does that make him a Rhodes Scholar or just a Rhode Islander?], another center of Greek intellectual life. There he did the usual thing for a professional scholar, publishing a number of treatises on language and literature. Of these, only a very brief one survives, Techne Grammatike (“The Grammatical Art”). Despite its brevity, it is reasonable to list Dionysius’ Techne among the most influential books ever written, for it was the work that introduced the eight parts of speech to the world.”

No small achievement!

As an aside, next time a fundamentalist Christian type asks you why you are wasting your time on “pagans” give them a one word answer: “grammar.” All the other answers are contained in that one.

Mulroy continues so we can see the context and magnitude of this accomplishment:

“Before Dionysius’ time, the classification of most words was up in the air. Aristotle and his successor spoke of nouns, verbs, and everything else; various more detailed systems of classification were proposed without catching on. Dionysius’ swept away the competition. His book became a standard textbook for centuries. His system was adopted by Syrian, Armenian, and Roman grammarians. Via the last, especially Donatus and Priscian, his influence pervades the grammars of modern European languages.”

Do you agree that there are eight? Do you agree that an article is an adjective?

Let me turn to the immediately practical: children need to learn the parts of speech as early as possible. Adults find it much more difficult to find the time and mental flexibility to learn them in their dotage (i.e. their twenties).

Notice that, from Aristotle to Dionysius, subject and verbs were clearly understood. It is worth pointing out that the parts all relate to subjects and predicates. Maybe he saw that.

A subject is going to be a noun, even if it is some other part of speech converted into a noun. Only a noun can have something predicated of it.

A predicate will usually be a verb. Can you think of any exceptions?

As soon as I have a noun, I’ll notice (often) that saying the noun is not enough to rightly express my subject. I could say, “X does this” but that would not tell me very much, unless the context tells me the rest.

So I’ll look at that noun and I’ll want to change it, to modify it. The most obvious change to make is to add an adjective.

Adjective comes from the Latin and it means literally “thrown near or next to”. This is, of course, a very concrete definition and doesn’t describe its verbal function, especially not in English. But if we think metaphorically, we can see the point.

An adjective is “thrown next to” the noun because the noun itself needed help or it needed to be modified. So we threw a word at it.

Logically or formally speaking, the attention goes to the noun, and that’s an important point.

There are exceptions. Sometimes the writer wants the attention to go to the adjective. Yet an adjective cannot exist without a noun to contain it, so even if you highlight the adjective, you’ll unavoidably highlight the noun it was thrown near, towards, or next to.

That point is important for some who want to argue that traditional grammar is all wet because some things are so hard to define.

Sometimes they claim that an adjective is a subset of the verb if we extend the meaning of a verb to include what the noun is or is doing.

Verbs and adjectives are remarkably similar. But the difference seems to be that an adjective can exist only “in” a noun, while a verb has an external relationship to the noun.

The other difference was pointed out by Aristotle. His explanation of a verb is probably more reliable than that in most contemporary grammar texts. A verb is difference because it has tense (past, present, future, etc.). Adjectives don’t.

As a speaker you might have another question you need to answer about a noun: are you talking about a particular noun or just any old noun of that kind.

In other words, are you talking about fish generally or the particular fish you want people to look at? Or maybe you are talking about a single fish, but not the specific one that somebody else might have talked about.

If you are talking about a specific fish, you will often use the definite article.

Talk about any old fish: no article.

One fish, but not a particular one: the indefinite article.

So in English we have two kinds of articles.

You could, of course, get sick of the noun you are talking about (I mean, of course, the sound-symbol, not the thing itself) or there might be so many of them that you can’t refer to them all particularly. In those cases, you’d use a pronoun, like “those” or “they.”

You remember “They” don’t you? They’re the ones who always know what to say and everybody knows what They say. I call them, “the Immortal They” and recognize that They rule the world.

There are different kinds of pronoun as well, but we’ll hold that off for another day.

There you have it: The Parts of Speech: Noun Side (not, please note, subject side).

Nouns, adjectives, articles, and pronouns.

Eacho f these helps us to better grasp the subject of our thought in most sentences. Therefore, they enable us to better understand the nouns included in our thoughts and, often, about which we are thinking.

If we know the parts, we can start thinking about the forms they take. That will come later.