What’s a Teacher To Do?

At least one of the goals of eduacation must be to understand. That seems self-evident to me – bound up in the act of education itself. So I’m always intrigued and part of me is always puzzled by the antipathy among educators and parents for reading and thinking about profound and compelling ideas. American society seems to have a self-deluding concept of itself as being very practical. It’s hard to accept that when you read about how much time is spent watching television, playing video games, and piling up debt. In fact, American society is quite driven by immediacy. That isn’t practical; that’s just selfish and childish.

And that, in my opinion, is the real reason the vox populi doesn’t appreciate references to great literature, encounters with deep thinkers, and challenges to their children in school. The pretext is, “What will my children be able to do with this?” or, quite often more hypocritically, “Why should a Christian read pagan literature?” The real reason is, “I dont’ want to have to deal with the challenges you are introducing into my child’s mind; I don’t want to appear ignorant in his eyes; I resent the suggestion that my child can do better than I am doing.”

Financially, these are habits of poverty. Raise your children with these attitudes toward financial education and your children will live in the same poverty you live in. It’s the same intellectually and spiritually. When a parent undercuts his child’s development for fear the child will outgrow the parent, he has condemned the child to layers and layers of poverty.

That is what we are doing as an educational society. What we call school in America is an abomination and we need a prophet to expose it for what it is. The discussion led by Ken Myers to which I refered in yesterday’s post underscored this for me once again. Ken’s daughter was home schooled through high school and now attends William and Mary. One of the great jokes the Vox Populi plays on itself is the ridiculous and scurrilous suggestion that home schoolers risk not being well socialized (yet another of the abstractions that stands for an argument among contemporary opponents of common sense), as though learning to relate to your parents and to other people in small and humane groups somehow undercuts your development, while being age-segregated, broken into cliques, and treated like a number and a slave is better for your soul.

When Ken’s daughter arrived at William and Mary she was put in a dorm with a group of class presidents. She expected them to be interested in things worth thinking about, to be able to converse intelligently about a wide range of interests. In fact, she told Ken that they were unable to carry on a conversation for more than three minutes and that those conversations functioned at a very low level. My son David says such conversation is dominated by gossip because people simply don’t care about each other.

The most important thing a school teaches is the ability to communicate. The most important thing. There is nothing more important. The college transcript is a sin against the Divine Image in man if it looks impressive for a child who cannot communicate. If I can blow up Kurdistan, build bridges to span the Atlantic, create and then solve global warming, but cannot communicate, I am not educated. I am not human. I am a very sophisticated machine. But I am not human.

Communication is rooted in community. Knowledge is impossible outside of community. Being itself is an act of communion. When a school allows anything to displace the power of communication as its vital force and unifying principle, it has wandered from the path of wisdom.

And yet, every day, teachers in classical and Christian schools, not to mention state schools and vanilla private schools, strive to complete a curriculum that by its nature undercuts the child’s ability to communicate. We simply don’t have time to talk. Not with our neighbors, not with our teachers, not with our classmates. Not unless we are scheming to do something. We are the most schooled society in the history of the world, but we might be among the worst communicators and thinkers ever to walk the face of the planet.

But we can carry on with the illusion because we always have the news and print media putting a white wash of intelligence over the whole stinking sepulchre.

Please, parents, sit around your tables at home and talk to and listen to your children. Please, teachers and administrators, set aside the goal of appearing to educate your children by covering material that sinks in to the depth of a hair follicle. Replace it with the goal of really educating your students. Please talk about and listen to them as they discuss great ideas embodied in great texts and great works of art. Please engage them in a continual stream of Socratic discussions. The outcomes are not predictable, but at least they matter. At least they are real. At least they have an actual, practical point.

I know that this approach raises fears about standardized tests and other appearance based assessments. There is no need to fear. If you have the courage to actually educate a child, he will get into the college he needs to go to. College just isn’t that hard to get into. There are 1500 or more colleges in America and about 50 of the smaller ones (and maybe 3 or 4 of the larger ones) are pretty good. You only need one. And a child who can communicate will have a great shot at a good college.

The whole world changes when people talk to each other. Please do it.

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