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. 

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