Teaching Magic: Why I Am No Longer A Liberal

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The other day, my sister, a staunch Democrat, asked me why I became conservative. I started as a liberal Democrat. Lyndon Johnson was the first presidential candidate I voted for, followed by Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Jimmy Carter (twice). The first Republican I voted for was George H. W. Bush, and I have voted for Republican candidates in every election since. I admit that I found it very difficult to vote for Trump, but I could not vote for Hillary, not so much because of her long history of lying and deceit; rather, because of what the Democratic Party has become as a result of the Obama administration and the candidacy of Bernie Sanders – a far left European-style social democratic party.

In addition to voting Democratic until Bush ran against Dukakis, I was strongly against the Vietnam War and “marched” in a number of anti-war demonstrations. Even though I was a “child of the 1950’s,” I bought the entire 60’s ideology of drugs, sex and rock’n roll, although my actual participation in these activities was moderate.

Getting back to my sister’s question of why I became a conservative, I would say the primary reason is because after college I started teaching school (frankly) to dodge the draft and avoid Vietnam.

In college, I read a number of books written by former teachers and education professors. The only one I remember is Death at an Early Age by Jonathan Kozol who described what, he said, were his experiences teaching public school in a poor section of Boston. What he found was a school of eager-to-learn young students and racist teachers and administrators, who not only failed to teach their enthusiastic pupils, but sought also to destroy their spirits.

What I found when I taught in a neighborhood similar to the one where Kozol taught was 180 degrees different from what he described. Far from being eager to learn, the students I first encountered seemed to be in a perpetual state of hysteria. Most appeared incapable of talking to each other in a normal tone of voice; instead, they yelled, and much of what they yelled was profanity. The idea of behaving with respect for teachers  the principal, or other students was alien to them.

At the same time, the teachers and administrators were nothing like those Kozol described. Everyone I encountered in my first school (and every school thereafter) was either a dyed-in-the-wool liberal or radical leftist. They would do anything to make the students, parents and the many school activists happy. Very slowly, over a number of years, I grew to distrust the left. If Kozol and most of the left could be so wrong or dishonest about the schools, what other aspects of society could they be wrong or dishonest about?

I taught high school English for thirty-five years in the Philadelphia public schools. When I began teaching in the mid-1960’s, a movement to radically change teaching methods dominated teacher education and revolutionized teaching practices. Traditional teaching methods like lecture and teacher-led discussion were deemed a waste of time as well as harmful to students.

The radical educationists of the 60’s started the ball rolling with the belief that promoting a student’s “self-esteem” should be the purpose of education. They derided what they referred to as “mere knowledge.” From the 60s on, teaching became a form of cognitive therapy.  Teachers evaluated student work by searching for anything “positive” to praise and by never mentioning anything that was incorrect or incomprehensible, for that would be destructive of self-esteem. I attended many “workshops” where education professors would tell us, for example, not to bother teaching students how to read and write.  English grammar, punctuation, usage, and organization only frustrated students and made them unhappy. If a teacher couldn’t find anything positive to say about a student’s work, he or she should praise the student for “effort.” Student grades were thus based on effort and anything the teacher could find that could be considered positive in a student’s work. The students would learn “mere knowledge” on their own once they had high self-esteem.

It was understandable that radical ideas in education took hold in the 60’s. The students in urban schools, in particular, came from much less stable environments than their predecessors. Many had only a single woman in their homes: a mother, aunt or grandmother who could not (or would not) control children or teenagers.

Those who ran the schools and the education professors in universities searched for some new way to effectively teach these difficult students, a search for what the late Columbia professor Jacques Barzun called a “‘teaching magic’ that relieved the student of the burden of wanting to be taught.”

The quest for a teaching magic produced one change in educational methodology after another. When it was discovered that the self-esteem movement produced the phenomenon of the illiterate high school graduate, the educational establishment proclaimed a “back to basics” movement. But back to basics turned out to be more talk than reality.

The powerful educational ideology of the sixties was overwhelmingly seductive. But the word self-esteem had to go when moderate and conservative critics  began to make fun of it. So it was “re-branded” as the “student-centered classroom,” not unlike, in politics, the reincarnation of liberals into “progressives.”

Child-centered education meant that the students sat in groups, and each group worked on a project. Any teacher who employed traditional methods was likely to receive a reprimand from an administrator, who, was always happy to see a classroom of students in groups. Ultimately, the goal was to reduce and eventually eliminate the teacher’s role in learning. Usually, one or two students in the group actually worked on the project, but everyone in the group received the same grade. Although I haven’t been in a classroom in years, I believe that teachers are still expected to arrange their classes into groups in which students, it is hoped, “teach each other.”

Another 60’s influenced theory that gained prominence was that students had different “learning styles” ( supported by “research”). The learning style theory required that lessons should be directed towards each of the senses – sight, sound, touch, and even smell and taste. Again many moderate and conservative education critics considered the whole idea and its “research” to be fraudulent. I don’t know whether that theory is still considered gospel in the schools, but I haven’t read or seen anything about it in the media recently, so I assume that learning styles is less fashionable than it used to be.

The most recent educational fad might be labelled the computer-centered classroom.  A friend of mine who retired a few years after I did regularly substitutes in the Philadelphia schools. He often used to do long-term work where he would cover a teacher’s class who was on sabbatical or out on some other leave for half a year. He tells me that now he is not able to take those jobs because he isn’t sufficiently “computer literate.” Teaching nowadays requires a relatively high level of computer skill. I am told that there are many things you can do with a computer and a “smart board” that are amazingly entertaining, but I have not heard that the technology has improved student performance. Hardly anyone these days, for example, knows the difference between its and it’s or your and you’re or therethey’re, and their. And how many college graduates know how to use lie and lay?

An acquaintance recently asked me to read and edit a long essay he has been writing. I found that almost all of his writing was awkward and incomprehensible, and it wasn’t because he was using jargon specific to a particular profession. What was really shocking is that he graduated with honors from a prestigious Ivy League university and received a Phd. from what is reputedly the most demanding university in the country. How could he get through these schools, with honors and a doctorate no less, without being able to write clearly? I mentioned this to a professional writer and editor I know, and he said that he wasn’t surprised because “They don’t teach students how to write anymore.”

Some say it all started with John Dewey in the 19th Century with his “progressive education” theories that gave birth to the education fads of the past fifty or more years.  The schools will never abandon the quest for a teaching magic.. And it has now infected higher education:  Another acquaintance who teaches history at a well known liberal arts college explained to me recently that “you just can’t teach today’s students the way we were taught.” That and the widespread use of student evaluation of professors in decisions concerning tenure and promotion have resulted in the grade inflation that has so trivialized much of American higher education.

So how did a once liberal (progressive) become a conservative? It slowly became clear to me that the schools weren’t working and that liberals were responsible. As I said in the beginning: If they are so wrong about education, they must be wrong about and responsible for many other failures. When it comes to politicians, I am a bi-partisan skeptic, but I am much more skeptical of those on the left. My experience in the schools made me think about and question the ideas I had grown up with. I have found that most people never think about the validity of their political views. As someone once said, perhaps Jonathan Swift:  “You cannot reason people out of something they were not reasoned into.”

 

 

 

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