Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Building A+ Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green

I saw this book, Building A+ Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green, discussed in a newspaper article. It seemed to fill a need I had expressed several times in my teacher credentialing program. Nowhere in the program do they teach you HOW to teach. It's all theory and celebration of diversity, but they never give the nuts and bolts - the "do this" that I longed for.

This book seemed like it would address that lacuna. 

She begins noting a common notion that teachers are "born" not created. This leaves the ability to teach well up to chance and charm. Green states, "I have come to think that this is a dangerous notion. By misunderstanding how teaching works, we misunderstand what it will take to make it better -- ensuring that, far too often, teaching doesn't work at all." (p. 9) With close to four million teachers, it simply cannot be true that they must come pre-packaged with the attributes of a great teacher. If teaching cannot be taught, we, as a nation, are in trouble. This idea gave me hope that I was on the right track with this book.

In the late 1940s a few bold individuals sought to determine what makes a great teacher, what practices actually lead to learning. It rapidly became clear that great teachers definitely had an impact on student learning. The question became what exactly was it that made these teachers great? They looked at a behaviorist model as well as cognitive learning processes. 

Eventually, two teachers, Deborah Ball and Magdalene Lampert began to pull together examples of great teaching, starting with math. They called the patterns they were seeing "This Kind of Teaching" (TKOT). They set about to infuse the educational community with what they had found.

Originally, teachers were trained in "lab schools." These were schools connected to Teachers Colleges in which the student teachers would observe master teachers, and then be given a chance to try out the principles for themselves under supervision. Eventually, universities pushed out the practical Teacher Colleges and replaced the training with educational theory. As Ball and Lampert, along with others convinced by their methodology, sought to reimplement a kind of lab school to teach TKOT, they faced strong opposition from an entrenched bureaucracy.

While TKOT failed to scale in the United States, it was happening in Japan. As the purveyors of TKOT began to notice that Japan seemed to be spontaneously doing what the TKOT women had struggled to implement. The Japanese called it "jugyokenkyu" and it involved a complex system in which the teachers worked together to constantly improve themselves and their lessons. When the Deborah Ball was watching the Japanese put into practice the very ideas she had advocated, she noticed that the interpreter was struggling. Simply put, the Japanese had developed an educational language that had no counterpart in English. "Of course Americans struggled to improve their teaching. When they tried to talk or even think about it, they suffered a fundamental handicap: they had no words." (p. 149)

Soon "no-excuses" charter schools came into being. They, too suffered from the "no words" phenomena. While they did a good job of raising test scores and parental involvement, they still had no idea what made a good teacher. Eventually Doug Lemov created what he called a taxonomy. It was a set of procedures teacher could incorporate that actually improved their teaching abilities. Unfortunately, in creating something outside the educational establishment, he had no access to the kinds of reforms the TKOT people were desperate to implement within the system.

Eventually the "no-excuses" schools were able to get their systems down and see real behavioral improvement, but there seemed to be something missing in the highly structured and regimented environment. They called it "rigor." 

Part of this missing ingredient was central to all of American education. There was no "educational infrastructure." This was defined by David Cohen as a common curriculum, common testing, and common teacher training. In short, the American school system is a schizophrenic collection of institutions, federal, state, local, with no one entity wholly in charge. This leads to various reforms and new programs constantly surfacing, often with conflicting advice or directions. Teachers have learned to quietly nod, close the classroom door, and think, "This too shall pass."

The charters and other reformers began to define "rigor" as four things:
1. Adults couldn't do all the talking 
2. The students had to talk about the academic idea at hand 
3. They had to use academic vocabulary 
4. They had to use evidence: quoting the text, citing a primary source, reasoning through a proof, using experimental evidence.
This was the "Holy Grail." 

Moving up to today, there is cause for optimism. Three components of the educational infrastructure are poised to be in place, Common Core and the testing designed to go with it. Now we need the rigorous teacher training. Unfortunately, Common Core is under attack. While the attacks on the specifics of it may be justified, the most common line of critique is the commonality of it - a top down mandate. Yet it is this feature that make it so necessary. America needs a common core. If not this one, another. But right now, our educational standards are a hodge podge, varying from state to state. Not all of the curriculum should be top-down. There should be room for local concerns, but without a common body of knowledge and skills required of all students, teachers are shooting in the dark. The tests are another issue. For the teacher training part, a brand new entity has been given birth, Teacher Works. We will see if it comes to fruition.

In summing up what she learned in the course of the book, Green gives some insights as to what makes a better teacher. They... 
1. are as curious about wrong answers as they are about right answers -- and they encourage students to make mistakes 
2. override accepted social codes. 
3. ask questions to encourage reasoning not regurgitation. 
4. make their thinking visible. 
5. are supported by solid educational infrastructure.
Unfortunately the book didn't deliver exactly what I had hoped for. It certainly pinpointed the problem and detailed efforts to solve the problem, but it didn't really tell me WHAT to do. I guess that's what the newly created Teacher Works is for.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Why Knowledge Matters by E.D. Hirsch

I love E.D. Hirsch, and I think I have read just about every book he has written. I truly believe he is onto something with his focus on content over skill acquisition in education. This, his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, continues to make that case, especially in light of the Common Core. 

After stating, "I am still chiefly motivated by the social injustice of our domestic theories and their unwitting destruction of the American dream," he begins by discussing "The Tyranny of Three Ideas." (p. 1) He states the three misguided ideas as:
1. "Early education should be appropriate to the child's age and nature...
2. Early education should be individualized as far as possible -- to follow the learning styles and interests of each developing student.
3. The unifying aim of education is to develop critical thinking and other general skills." (p. 7)

He believes we should replace these ideas with:
1. "Early education should be chiefly communal -- focused on gaining proficiency in the language and the conventions of the public sphere.
2. Every child in each locality should study basically the  same early curriculum
3. The unifying aim of early schooling is autonomy and equality of opportunity..." (p. 7) 

He summarizes thusly, "I will argue, with support from developmental psychology, that equating early education with the metaphor of individual 'development' is misleading; that so-called 'unnatural' social impositions are the most natural things in the world; that school systems with so-called 'lockstep' curricula in the early grades (Finland, Japan) have very child-happy, effective schools that score near the top in international studies. Indeed, international studies have shown that a differentiated curriculum is harmful to achievement and equity. To make the emphases and content of the child's early schooling largely dependent upon the child's uniqueness is an idea unsupported by developmental psychology. The evidence for individual learning styles is weak to nonexistent." (p.11) Basically, we need a strong, content-based system of standards, taught to each student. This is straight up heresy in the educational world. 

In chapter one, he moves onto the invalidity of testing of students, especially in the language arts. In fact, he believes the tests actually cause lower test scores because they emphasize the wrong things. Since language art standards, even Common Core standards, unlike math standards, are content-free, the test makers must test the skills demanded instead. Yet research has shown that after learning basic decoding skills, generalized how-to skills don't exist and therefore cannot be tested. It is the students with the most content knowledge that do best on these "reading comprehension" tests. Relevant vocabulary and knowledge, not skills, determine the score. Of course the real danger is that schools will spend time trying to teach these skills, rather than the more productive content. "Those wasted hours ought to be spent on far more interesting and rewarding subject matters that will build up knowledge and vocabulary, and therefore induce greater reading competence." (p. 32) Yet he admits that this is "an outcome that will require greater courage and scientific insight than has been shown in the recent past." (p.33)

Chapter two deals with "The Scapegoating of Teachers." While acknowledging that our teacher colleges do a horrible job of preparing teachers to actually teach, Hirsch believes that even great teachers will underperform when given a bad curriculum. "In a system with a specific and coherent curriculum, the work of each teacher builds on the work of teachers who came before. The three Cs — cooperation, coherence, and cumulativeness — yield a bigger boost than the most brilliant efforts of teachers working individuality against the odds within a topic-incoherent system." (p. 37) He encourages teachers who want to be effective to "rebel against the skills delusion... [and] insist on coherent and cumulative multiyear content...then cooperate and consult." (p. 41)

Next he moves onto the "fadeout" we see of abilities garnered in a high-quality preschool. This is not universal, but it is certainly a characteristic of American education. In fact, the fadeout and achievement gaps increase as time goes on. He blames the elementary curriculum. Even very effective elementary programs like Direct Instruction and Success For All experience fadeout. He again points to the lack of a coherent knowledge-based curriculum in otherwise stellar programs. Our primary schools are saturated with "Reggio Emilia," the theory of letting children naturally develop. It emphasizes projects and hands-on learning. He looks to the high quality French preschools and the eventual fadeout seen once the students have progressed through the naturalistic primary schools. 

Because of falling test scores and the recognition that education is in trouble, various reforms like No Child Left Behind have forced schools to put all their emphasis on on language and math skills. Other subjects have been largely pushed out. Yet as he has repeatedly shown, language arts skills do not exist. It is content knowledge that determines the language arts abilities of a student. Yet teachers feel forced to teach skills because that is what will be tested. 

Hirsch states, "It is widely conceded that the high-stakes testing introduced by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002 caused a reduction in the knowledge students have gained in history, civics, music, visual art, literature and science." (p. 61) He bemoans this "dilution of the elementary curriculum" because the impact on low-income communities has been devastating. He believes rich curriculum would solve many, if not all, of the educational ills we face. In fact, he states, There is a growing body of evidence that many practical differences in students' ability to learn the academic content are differences in the topic-relevant knowledge that they already possess." (p. 72) 

One belief of modern education is that we need to develop "Twenty-first Century Skills" in our students. Remarkably these skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, teamwork and communication, are the same skills that were called "Nineteenth Century Skills" and "Twentieth Century Skills." In short, these are the skills education is always supposed to produce, but we have short-circuited the hard work of imparting knowledge and believe we can skip directly to imparting the skill. Repeatedly, Hirsch states that there is no such thing as a skill apart from content. There is no general "critical thinking" skill. This focus on building skills has led to an incoherent and fragmented curriculum in which topics do not build on and support other topics. 

Critics argue that some topics are "developmentally inappropriate" at certain ages. Hirsch argues that this is patently false. Even Piaget, of the famous developmental stages, recanted at the end of his life and admitted that developmental stages owe far more to knowledge than chronological age. Inappropriateness of a topic comes from the unfamiliarity a child has with the relevant knowledge, not the age of the child. Certainly there are some things a child shouldn't know at a certain age, and wouldn't understand because he does not have an understanding of the other, related knowledge. But that doesn't make the child developmentally unable to process all kinds of information.

Leaving no dogma stone unturned, Hirsch addresses leveled, independent-reading programs. He states, "There's no evidence that the individualization of leveled-reader bins develops deep student interest or makes better readers. On the contrary, it neglects systematic knowledge building -- the key to high reading ability." (p. 73) This idea that students should read books they choose as long as they are at their reading level is sacrosanct in education. But Hirsch argues that there is no good way to level books because the publishers have no idea of the background knowledge a child has in the subject. Plus, letting a child choose his own book is not a systematic way to gain that background knowledge. It all becomes a hodgepodge. But it is favored by those preferring an individualized, child-centered approach, which Hirsch has demonstrated time and again, doesn't work. Consider the example of a doctor. He can read very high level dissertations on medicine, but he is helpless as a reader when confronted with an equally high level paper on engineering. It's content knowledge that makes him proficient as a reader. The only way to become a competent reader is a well-rounded education. 

But what about the argument that skills are more valuable than content knowledge because someone could always just "look it up." Well it turns out that it is not that easy. Just looking something up can be very disorienting without having some idea of what you are looking for. It is very easy to find information that an expert would recognize as misleading, wrong, or not credible. "Google is not an equal-opportunity fact finder; it rewards those already in the know." (p. 83) He calls this the Matthew Effect. Basically to those who have more will be given. To those with little, it will be taken away. 

What Hirsch is most concerned with are the achievement gaps we see in education that particularly hit the disadvantaged students. While no system can completely overcome the disadvantages a student might be born into, a good education can certainly help close that gap. The best part is, a good school can actually benefit the poorer student more than the great ones, in effect, reversing the Matthew Effect. Especially if we start with the youngest students when the gap is the smallest, low-income students can catch up and keep up if they get a systematic well-rounded education year after year. 

Next Hirsch weighs in with his thoughts on the Common Core. Even though he has advocated a "small-c" common core for decades, he is somewhat dismayed with what is being done now. He laments the fact that, although it does recommend a systematic, rich curriculum, that part is not emphasized. And certainly those implementing it are not emphasizing that. He cites their fear of recommending a specific core of knowledge required in K-12. Any recommendations are certain to followed up with howls of protest for what was not included as well as what was. But this thinking has left a lacuna in the knowledge held by students as they graduate from high school. While he believes there IS a cannon of knowledge that all American students should be well-versed in, he believes the most important thing is a systematic study of content with each topic building on the next. Multi-culturalists have weighed in demanding the curriculum be all-encompassing, highlighting the achievements of the neglected and disenfranchised. Ironically, this hurts the children they are purporting to help by depriving them of the standard body of knowledge necessary to succeed in the larger society. But until tests stop testing "skills," and start testing for specific content, he doesn't foresee a switch happening.

In addition, he attacks the idea of "close reading." He has seen elementary students try to "close read" and it results in nothing more than completely highlighted texts and random words pulled out. Once again, he returns to his idea of content knowledge stating that only those already fluent in the content can close read. It is another manifestation of the Matthew Effect. Unfortunately, most students are not well-versed and therefore are hurt in their efforts to "close read" because they end up missing the main points being made. 

As an example of all he is saying, he uses the school system in France. They are a perfect laboratory experiment for his views. Up until 1989, they had the kind of educational system he advocates for. Then they abruptly changed to a model based on the progressive U.S. schools. After more than 20 years, the data is in. It is clear that the experiment has failed. And yet, like the U.S. they are impervious to the ramifications. Like the United States, they have doubled down on progressive, child-centered pedagogy. Sweden did the same thing with the same results. However in Sweden, it was the right, not the left, pushing for the changes. He does not believe that the educational theories so widely espoused today are necessarily conservative or liberal, but simply pervasive. 

Finally, he ends with a discussion of what he is seeing the schools that have implemented his version of a common core, called Core Knowledge. He has seen reading gaps all but disappear rather than increase. He has seen the development of creativity by moving away from individualistic education and towards a communal-based education. Once children have a base of knowledge, they can soar. To the critics, he states that the Core Knowledge series follows the six key features endemic to all successful elementary curriculum:
1. Field-tested - "The need for field testing is obvious."
2. Topic-specific - ""...topic specificity is probably the most important characteristic to insist upon in the United States, since it makes everyone -- teachers, students, and parents -- aware of the level of expertise that students will have gained at each point, and what will need to be learned in the future."
3. Well rounded - "... breadth of knowledge and vocabulary (including proper nouns!) is critical to high reading skill and other communicative skills. Broad knowledge is also critical for ameliorating class distinctions..." 
4. Coherent - "Topic coherence within a grade level is particularly important in the language arts class, where topic in the United States are currently individualized, fragmentary, and disconnected." 
5. Cumulative - "Designing a multiyear cumulative sequence of topics is important technically to make sure that students are ready for each subject over the sequence of grade levels."
6. Selective - "...the topics of the curriculum should convey the most enabling knowledge withing the national context. " (p. 179-180)
Critics, however, continue to call it untested and ignore the studies that show it being successful. Hirsch acknowledges that all of this "contradicts the child-centered, skill-centric doctrines that are still an intellectual monopoly in our education world." (p. 182) But until the wider public understands that thinking skills like "critical thinking" and "problem-solving" are not in fact productive aims because there is no such thing as a general skill, it will be hard to make the necessary changes. In addition, there is push-back from conservatives who fear a "national curriculum" will inhibit our long-standing tradition of local control. The problem with this view, however, is that for most of American history we did have a type of national curriculum that was common to all or most schools. It is the Romantics that pushed for more local control over content in order to individualize education to the child. Conservatives should be at the forefront of pushing for a national common core of knowledge to be taught in the elementary schools in order to created citizens with a common heritage and store of knowledge. However, I understand the justified fear that what constitutes the common core can be manipulated by groups with an agenda. Yet what we are seeing now is clearly not working.

Teachers, parents, and students balk at Hirsch's ideas. It sounds like a lot of work on everyone's part. And yet that is exactly the prescription we need. "There are no significant shortcuts to intellectual competence." (p. 190) As Dr. Arnn of Hillsdale is fond of saying, "Strap your boots on. It's time to get to work."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

At the urging of a fellow teacher, I bought the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. These brothers had been working in different fields, one developing computer-based curriculum and the other teaching at Stanford, when they individually become interested in what made certain ideas… stick. They put their minds together and wrote up their findings in a very interesting and quick read.

Somewhat, ironically, I think I had already read this book before. I guess not everything in it stuck, because this second time through was definitely enlightening. 

They started by looking at things which are very sticky, urban legends and click-bait stories on the internet. They determined 6 principles which seemed to be found throughout what stuck.
1. Simplicity: Find the core and turn it into a proverb. 
2. Unexpectedness: Generate interest and curiosity by opening and filling knowledge gaps. 
3. Concreteness: Eschew abstract language for concrete images 
4. Credibility: Let people “try before they buy” to see if your ideas are true. 
5. Emotions: Tap into the relevant emotions to get people to act. 
6. Stories: We are naturally built to tell and enjoy stories which provide “a kind of mental flight simulator.” (p. 16-18)
Together these form the acronym SUCCESs. See what they did there? Simple, unexpected, concrete… they are using their own formula to help us remember their formula. Brilliant. 

But there is a villain in this story, the Curse of Knowledge. Using an experiment involving people tapping out songs to uninformed listeners, the tapper could always hear the song but the listener just heard meaningless taps. Too much knowledge can lead to the sounds of a symphony in the head of the instructor and random noise to the student. But the teacher cannot unlearn what he knows, so he must be intentional in his methodology of teaching to best communicate the information. 

While this can be discouraging to people who do not consider themselves naturally creative and able to massage the message to fit the SUCCESs formula, the Heaths swear you don’t have to be super creative. They point to research that shows that effective commercials follow six basic formulas. (p. 260)
1. Pictorial Analogies: Extreme analogies rendered visually.
2. Extreme Consequences: Unexpected, exaggerated consequences of a product’s attributes.
3. Extreme Situations: The product is shown performing under unusual circumstances.
4. Competition: The product is shown winning a competition with another product.
5. Interactive Experiments: Listeners interact with the product directly.
6. Dimensionality Alteration: Time leaps to show long-run implications.
When comparing the well-done ads to less effective ads, they found there are infinite ways to fail, but apparently only six ways to succeed. 

In expounding upon the “S” in SUCCESs, they discuss a military concept known as “Commander’s Intent.” (CI) The CI lets the men on the ground know what absolutely must be accomplished. Since no plan survives contact with the enemy and “no lesson plan survives contact with teenagers,” (p. 27) we communicators must determine what MUST be communicated if all else fails. We must find the core. It’s not about dumbing down, but “about elegance and prioritization.” (p. 30) In a section called “Punch Line,” the brothers advise, “Avoid burying the lead. Don’t start with something interesting but irrelevant in hopes of entertaining the audience. Instead, work to make the core message itself more interesting.” (p. 41) They repeatedly warn against “burying the lead” and neglecting to make the core of your information stand out. One way to develop the simple core of a lesson is to use analogy. This “pins” the new idea to an old one and brings with it all the information the student already knows. And then layer simple idea upon simple idea to build up to a complex set of ideas. 

Making an idea “U”nexpected refers to the ability to supersede an existing “schema” and cause a listeners “guessing machine” to fail. In short, try to produce an, “I did not see that coming.” (p. 67) This jolts us to attention as we desperately want to know WHY we did not see it coming. To be effective the surprise must be “post-dictable.” That is, after the secret if revealed, you can think, “Oh, now it makes sense.” To do this, we must try to figure out what is the unexpected implications of your core message. Make use of mystery and knowledge gaps to keep the audience interested. We are creatures who are desperate to know the answer to a question which confounds us. Use that. “To make our communication more effective, we need to shift our thinking from ‘What information do I need to convey/‘ to ‘What questions do I want my audience to ask?’ “ (p. 88)

“ ‘C’oncrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of the expert.” (p. 104) We must work to develop a “universal language” in order to be understood, and that language is always concrete. Props can be especially helpful her. Let people see in concrete terms what you are talking about. The problem here is that it is too easy to slip back into abstractspeak because of that old villain, the Curse of Knowledge. 

Next, an effective message much be “C”redible. High level, credible spokespeople work for this, but are rarely available. But we can use “anti-authorities.” These are people who have no stake in the message, a smoker who says, “Don’t smoke” or a friend who recommends a product. While statistics can add credibility, overuse actually inhibits it. Try to make the statistics powerful using easily visual, concrete analogies and physical objects. Try to demonstrate the relationship you are trying to convey with statistics and describe that instead. Make sure to fill your information with memorable details. We can also tap into the audience as a source of credibility by asking them to test us. Challenge the audience to prove us wrong. They also refer to the “Sinatra” test based on his hit song declaring “If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere.” Prove to your audience that you have performed in such a way, that their relatively smaller needs are easy to fill. To add credibility, it’s hard to know whether to defer to an expert, use vivid details and analogies in describing statistics, use an anti-authority, tell a “Sinatra” story, or ask the audience to test it for themselves. Sometimes we have to try them all before finding what will work.

We are “E” motional beings. “If we want to make people care, we’ve got to tap into the things they care about.” (p. 176) One thing people care about the most is themselves. We need to appeal to self-interest. Tell people what’s in it for them. Have them imagine themselves after using your product or learning your information. How much better will it be for them? But don’t use this to excess or your risk offending them if the ploy is too crass. Try to appeal to Maslow’s higher order needs. Appeal to their identity or desired identity describing what “someone like you” would do/say/believe. Appeal to their sense of transcendence. Show them how to be a better person.

S”tory can become a mental flight simulation, meaning that we immerse ourselves in stories and imagine we are a character within. By doing so, it is the next best thing to being there. Stories invite us to wonder what we would do in that situation. As we mentally try out different strategies, and then hear what actually happened, we absorb the information in a much more memorable way. “Stories can almost single-handedly defeat the Curse of Knowledge. In fact, they naturally embody most of the SUCCESs framework. Stories are almost always concrete, most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure they they’re Simple — that they reflect your core message. It’s not enough to tell a great story; the story has to reflect your agenda.” (p. 237) And we don’t have to be super creative, we just have to develop the abilities to spot a great story. 

This wonderful book is such a joy to read. It follows its own prescription, telling story after story to reinforce its points. I hope it “sticks” and makes me a better communicator. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Churchill's Trial by Larry Arnn

My goal this year is to focus on books that are 100 years old or older. BUT, I also have a bunch of books that I own, that I want to read as well. For Christmas, Tim bought me Churchill’s Trial by Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale. I’ve been wanting to learn more about Churchill AND he would be over 100 today, so… it kinda counts. 

What exactly IS Churchill’s trial. Well, Arnn defines it as War, Empire, and Peace. In each of these environments, Churchill faced a trial, a trial we can learn from. “There are practical reasons, then, to know the story of Churchill. There are lessons to be learned, both positive and negative, that can help us live our lives, cope with our problems, and serve the cause of our country as it appears today.” (p. xv) “Churchill believed that powerful trends at home and abroad were running against him. His trial was to face them and prevent the evils he believed that portended.” (p. xxxiii) The purpose of Arnn’s book is to show the reader how and why Churchill stood up to existential threats. 

Churchill knew what war was. He covered the Boer War in South Africa as a journalist and saw up close what war looked like. He was traveling on a train that was ambushed and derailed. After delivering many to safety, he was eventually captured and held prisoner. He strongly believed in the mission of the British, which was to alleviate the suffering of the natives at the hands of the Dutch. Through this experience, he learned there are things worth fighting for. 

Earlier in his life, Churchill had fought as a soldier in an obscure battle in the Sudan called The Battle of Omdurman. He saw the horrific carnage a superior force could wreak on backward group of people. Churchill began to worry “about the character of modern war, the immense destructiveness it implies, and the moral problem it presents. He understood this moral problem beyond the common way most of us see it: a very large number of people can die. Churchill hated that aspect of it, but worse than this deadly arithmetic is the severance of the moral virtues, particularly courage, from the achievement of victory.” (p. 26) He feared that “a European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heart-rending struggle, which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentrating to one end of every bill energy in the community.” (p. 33) In short, Churchill foresaw total war. Man’s capacity to kill was beginning to exceed his wisdom.

“War being so terrible, it stands to reason that it takes special qualities to manage it. Churchill had a lot to say about the kind of person capable of this, the qualities he possesses, and the station that he occupies.” (p. 51) Churchill definitely saw himself in this kind of a role. According to Churchill, a good statesman could help guide his country through “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” He knew the stakes were too high and catastrophe would result in countries “ill-directed or mis-directed by rulers.”  (p. 53) Churchill held the statesman to a high calling. “The statesman is the guardian of things that supply the end of all action. Those principles cannot protect themselves against the likes of Hitler, unless someone as strong and fierce as he fights on their behalf.” (p. 68) 

Therefore, Churchill knew he must also be a strategist if he was to avoid the catastrophe of war he saw looming on the horizon. For Churchill, strategy, politics, and economy all went hand in hand. The best strategy protects the political needs because it is done economically. “In protecting the ground of economic strength, [good strategies] protect the foundation of free politics and also the ability to fight wars with strength.” (p. 72) 

But even the best statesman and strategist is limited when it comes to areas outside his control. What to do then?  Proclaim freedom. “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.” (p. 85-86) It was up to the free nations to spread their gospel and protect what they could from tyranny. “The free nations must understand, value, proclaim, and practice their freedom. They must bind together to constitute overwhelming force. They must keep the most potent weapons to themselves as far as they are able.” (p. 93) They must fight the battles they can win, and continue to spread their values. 

When it came to the Empire, Churchill was an unashamed Empiricist. He believed that the values the British brought with them to countries all around the world were so superior, that it was in the best interest of the colonies to be a subjugated part of the empire until such a time as they could claim the values as their own and self-govern. This decidedly non-politically correct opinion definitely garnered him opprobrium, even in his lifetime, but he stuck to his principles. He saw the Empire as a way, not only to give Western values to non-Western peoples, but also to spread those values all over the globe. This, he felt, would lead to more peace and stability and help to avoid the total war he dreaded. While his opinion seems to us moderns to be chauvinistic, in reality, Churchill saw himself as a statesman, dealing with reality as it was, preaching and imposing the values of freedom, in an effort to avoid tremendous bloodshed. 

The time of Peace brought Churchill a new trial to navigate. After World War I, Churchill had to contend with the Socialists and the Fabians. They believed that History and God were on their side in their efforts to remake society. As such, they worshipped at the altar of “change.” They believed in unlimited experiments, thinking that even failure would only get them closer to their goal of an egalitarian society. Churchill feared this kind of program, claiming that eventually, the Socialist would have to turn to a secret police in order to remake society in their image. He saw them growing the government bigger and bigger with each failure. 

After World War II, Churchill continued to sound the alarm, even when it was extremely unpopular. “I declare to you, from the bottom of my heart, that no Socialist system can be established without a political police. Many of those who are advocating Socialism or voting Socialist today will be horrified at they idea. That is because they are short-sighted, that is because they do not see where their theories are leading them.” (p. 137) Churchill lost that election in a landslide to the Socialists, but did not stop decrying their ultimate destination. 

Churchill understood the Socialists' chimeric search for equality as not just misguided, but dangerous. It went against human nature and the facts of human society. People are inherently unequal, whether because of the circumstances of their birth or their talents. Churchill “thought this pursuit of complete or perfect equality, even of opportunity, would produce not equality but inequality, not justice but injustice, not freedom but grinding tyranny.” (p. 143) Churchill believed that essential human rights like the right of speech, prayer, assembly, and voting could not help but be violated under the Socialist’s program. “He thought that the equality for which socialism aimed was unnatural. He thought that it could not be achieved except by suppressing nature, including human nature, which would require the suppression of humans.” (p. 150) 

Churchill believed the Socialists would usurp the bureaucracy in order to further their ends, thereby creating civil servants with are neither “civil” nor “servants.” He stated, “It was a principle of our Constitution not to employ experts, whether business men or military men, in the highest affairs of State.” (p. 170) Government was to rely on the will of the people in order to govern. He feared an army of experts establishing their programs in areas over which the elected statesmen were supposed to be presiding. The administrative state, staffed with so-called “experts” diminished the humanity of the citizens to mere cogs in the machine. In addition, he believed “the Socialist bureaucracy would become an aristocracy, but without the limits inherent in the old aristocracy, defined by birth or lineage and necessarily small in number. The course of action open to the new aristocracy would be unbounded: how many industries were to be nationalized, how perfectly incomes were to be equalized, how extensive were to be regulations on private life — all of that was to be decided along the way.” (p. 177) While he never abandoned hope, he worried about what was to come as the Socialists gained power. 

Churchill’s plan to stave off the allure of the Socialists was various social insurance programs which people would pay into. He definitely felt for the poor working family that was playing by the rules, yet could be devastated with one unfortunate event. He saw the need for a social safety net. Yet he did not want to undermine the free market which he believed the greatest source of prosperity for the most people. He saw insurance programs, that people paid into while working and drew from when tough times hit, as an answer to the problem of wealth redistribution. He wanted to encourage work and discourage idleness, even among the rich. He saw the debilitating results of a hand-out to the incentive to work, so he wanted to reward hard workers by providing a minimum below which they could not fall. 

“The difference between Churchill’s social reform and socialism was of both kind and degree. Of kind, it was a difference in understanding of human nature, and this involved a difference about the purpose and operation of government. Churchill regarded this difference as fundamental. He thought it would reduce ultimately to the difference between just and unjust government, between freedom and tyranny.” (p. 204) He knew his program could still lead to dependency, but he was willing to trade that for the insidiousness he predicted with a Socialist win.

Churchill was a strong believer in both the British and the American Constitution. He saw the advantages and disadvantages of both Britain's own unwritten Constitution and the American written one. He held strongly to the belief that a free market and limited government were essential to human flourishing. Churchill regarded a Constitution as just if it enabled the citizen to speak, think, and act freely under well-established, well-known laws. If the citizen could criticize the government, sue the State and know the processes for changing the law, it met his standard. Churchill believed the administrative state a direct threat to a Constitutional republic. “It could not debate and decide the endless details that administrative government regulated an decided. Only cursory oversight would be possible. As we have seen, Churchill thought the sheer numbers of regulations alone would destroy respect for law.” (p. 229)

Churchill had some core beliefs we can learn from today. He believed war is increasingly dangerous. He trusted the people to ultimately do the right thing, and he believed them to be courageous when faced with an existential threat. He believed in free markets and the constitutional rule of law. He felt the administrative bureaucracy infringed upon the constitutional activity of debate in the legislature. He believed in powerful statesmen who must work within constitutional limits. These constitutional limits are the guarantee of civilization itself. And in the face of extreme opposition, Churchill repeatedly made the case “that people are not to be regarded or used as instruments or merely as factors of production. He taught that the discipline, self-restrain, courage, and charity that make a nation civilized and strong must be located in the people and if the people have these things, they can and will care for themselves and for their nation, including their fellow citizens who suffer misfortune and privation.” (p. 252)

Arnn finalizes his book with, “Churchill’s trial is also our trial. We have a better chance to meet it because we had in him a statesman.” (p. 255) He certainly makes the case that Churchill is a thoughtful man to be emulated and listened to. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Begin Here by Jacques Barzun

Begin Here by Jacques Barzun begins with this wonderful quote to school superintendents in 1967, "To remove ignorance is the sole duty of the school. To fail in that battle when the enemy is by nature inactive, when your troops are numbered in the ten thousands, and when you have spent billions on equipment is to suffer a stupid defeat." 

This book was written in 1991 as a response to the decade-long attempts to "reform" education. In fact that was what was happening. Education was being re-formed. Re-formed into something it never should have been. An ephemeral concept of "Education" as a purveyor of social good had replaced actual teaching and learning. Therefore, at this point in history, neither education nor teaching and learning was taking place. 

Barzun has collected a series of lectures and essays concerning the state of education and put them all into this book. He introduces each with a few words of his own. This made for an interesting book, but it felt a bit disjointed as it moved from thesis to thesis. But the overarching theme of the book was the sorry state of education and the various explanation and prescriptions offered. I do not summarize each piece here. That would be an undertaking similar to re-writing the book. But I do attempt to summarize a few that piqued my interest. 

One issue that had cropped up by this time was the failure to properly teach reading. Society began to notice the illiteracy of the population. "The general anxiety is fit retribution for the 50-year folly of the look-and-say method of teaching reading, coupled with the assumption that the children of the poor, the black, and the Hispanics cannot learn... This is criminal nonsense." (p. 16) The normal desire of all children to learn had been quashed by non-teaching and the notion had been allowed to take hold in the vacuum that actually learning was below the dignity of students now addicted to the opinions of their peers. Somehow, educators developed the notion that humans can learn without reading. We began to value doing over reading in our pursuit of egalitarianism. 

Another essay decried modern testing. The ease of multiple-choice tests has led to scatter shot learning of random facts. Banesh Hoffmann attacked these kinds of test. "Leaving to one side the errors of fact and misleading wordings that he came across in sample tests, he found that this mode of testing suppresses the natural diversity of minds, penalizes the more imaginative, and perpetuates conventional opinions." (p. 36)  "Knowing something -- really knowing it -- means being able to summon it up out of the blue; the facts must be produced in their right relations and with their correct significance. When you know something, you can tell it to somebody else. It is these profound platitudes that condemn mechanical testing and its influence on the learning mind." (p. 34) "Of course, teachers in most schools today would be appalled at the idea of giving only, or mainly essay examinations. Large classes and the load of extraneous paperwork make it impossible to read and correct several batches of papers each  time a test is appropriate. This obstacle cannot, indeed be got over. But what it means is not that objective tests are good; it means that present school arrangements are bad." (p. 35)

In a chapter titled, Ideas versus Notions, Barzun introduces the idea that schools have lost their mission, attempting to do what it was never intended to do. "Educational nonsense always comes from zeal displacing soberness and flouting the conditions of the two fundamentals: teaching and learning. To be a school means to teach some few well-known things, for only certain things can be taught." (p. 49) "Schools are not intended to moralize a wicked world but to impart knowledge and develop intelligence, with only two social aims in mind: prepare to take on one's share in the world's work and, perhaps in addition, lend a hand in improving society, after schooling is done. Anything else is the nonsense we have been living with." (p. 50)

The next section of the book deals with Curriculum.

He begins with an essay on a subject near and dear to my heart, history. Properly taught, history should "come alive" as described by students bored with "dates and dead people" enthusiastically support. It should challenge the learner and broaden the mind. "A good teacher will so present, relate, and discuss with the class the facts to be learned that he or she will steadily stir up the imaginations of the listeners. History is not dead and does not need resuscitation; it lives in our habits of thought and our institutions, our prejudices and our purposes, and what the history course does is to tell how these things and thoughts came to be as they are." (p. 71-72) "The teacher who conducts a discussion on readings in history should start out with a definite historical question, and it should never be, who was right or wrong, but what was possible at such and such a juncture? What could so-and-so have done, or refrained from doing, to achieve this purpose? Was the purpose really in the interests of the group he or she was leading? Were other choices open? -- and so on.... All assertions other than factual reminders must be accompanied by reasons: What is the evidence for what you say? What reasoning leads you to conclude as you do?" (p. 77) What a delightful way to teach history!

He moves onto The Art of Making Teachers. This is right up my alley! Barzun states, "Up to now teacher training has been done by people unfitted for the job, by temperament and by purpose. By temperament they have no interest in Learning or capacity for it; by purpose they are bent not on instruction but on social word. They care little about history or science or good English, but they grow keen about any scheme of betterment." (96) Here we find my favorite quote in the book, "What then are the native qualities to look for in the person who, though not one of those born to the task, would make a good teacher? And what sort of training should such a person get? As to the first requirement: brains enough to feel bewildered and revolted by the educationist language -- and courage enough to admit it. Next, a strong interest in some branch of learning, meaning any one of the genuine school subjects." (p. 98)

This leads to an essay called, "Occupational Disease: Verbal Inflation." "For the last fifty years, American Education has pursued a policy of overstatement about its role and substance; it has lived by continual exaggeration of what it is for and what it can do. The medium naturally is words, words misunderstood and misapplied -- it is verbal inflation." (p. 104) Meaningless words mucking up the meaning and purpose of education.  "What then is the remedy? It is obvious, in plain sight, staring us in the face. We must sober up; give up getting drunk on hope and verbiage: stop writing committee reports, guidelines, objectives. Mimeographed paper is the hard drug of the educational world. All those words ending in  -tion and -ive are narcotics that break down the mind permanently." (p. 109) "The sole justification of teaching, of the school itself, is that the student comes out of it able to do something he could not do before." (p. 112) How refreshing!

Finally, Barzun moves onto another subject near and dear to my heart -" Western Civ. or Western Seive." The irony of the attacks on the teaching of Western Civilization is that the critics are not the unrepresented in the curriculum, but those who are over-represented. Yet they hate their own institutions and heritage because it fails to live up to its own ideal. Rather the push is for multiculturalism and a celebration of all that is other than the West. However, "the provincialism of the West is a myth. It is the West, and not the East, that has penetrated into all parts of the globe. It is only the West that has studied, translated, and disseminated the thoughts, the histories, and the works of art of their civilizations, living an dead." (p. 131) 

So how to teach Western Civilization? Through a study of the Classics. Classic books establish a live link with the past and teach students how to really read, intelligently and thoroughly. Classics are hard and "thick" because they open up another, wider world to the reader. They provide a set of cultural touchstones so necessary in a pluralistic society. We need a common language and familiar ground over which to interact with each other. As the classics can help shape and mold character, they can help shape and mold our disparate nation, providing a place to unify. 

This book was an interesting read. But the format made it a little difficult to follow. Just as I was beginning to understand one author's thesis, we moved on to another. I understand the value in collecting essays, adding in a bit of commentary, and uniting them in one place. But as a cohesive book, it kind of threw me. Maybe I should read it again now that I understand its format.