About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, July 30, 2007
Teaching as a subversive activity
The book was actually written in 1969 (I was five at the time!), so it isn't surprising that some parts of it are dated. However, the substance of it is still debatable today in a fruitful manner, as education – unfortunately – is pretty much in the same sorry state of affairs that Postman decries, and pretty much for the same reasons.
The state of education is abysmal because teachers are not well trained, not well paid, and not well respected. Too often, teaching (especially at the so-called “lower” levels, when it is most crucial because of the impact on the young mind) is the last resort of people who can't manage to do anything better with their lives. Education departments in colleges throughout the country are the disgrace of modern academy, populated by insane theories about how one ought to teach regardless of the subject matter, while at the same time ignoring that teachers ought to know what they are teaching before they can teach it. The overarching reasons for this situation are also well diagnosed by Postman and his co-author, Charles Weingartner: it is simply not in the interest of government and big business to raise a generation of critical thinkers, which goes a long way toward explaining why – although education is usually near the top of the agenda in people's minds at every electoral cycle – nothing is actually done to reform it by whoever gets elected, on behalf of whichever of the two political parties.
All of the above notwithstanding, I think Postman's recipe would be a disaster, and I'm glad that in the intervening four decades nobody seems to have taken it seriously. A major point of “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” is that there are, in fact, no subject matters at all, that teachers really shouldn't be teaching, but rather concentrate their time in finding out what the students are interested in and let them develop such interests in a completely open fashion. This is, essentially, one version of the so-called Socratic method, the misguided one (I'll get to the good one in a minute).
You see, the fact of the matter is that teachers (when they are good) really do know more than their pupils. A lot more. Moreover, although one could reasonably argue that the world isn't naturally divided into philosophy, science, literature and other such “subjects,” it turns out that human beings simply cannot make sense of the world unless they are allowed to categorize it in one fashion or another. Some categories may in fact turn out to be not useful, or even positively pernicious, in which case by all means, let's revise them. But there are real important differences in the history, methods and outcomes of, say, logic and anthropology, which means that it makes perfect sense to teach them as (somewhat) separate “subjects.”
The Socratic method according to Postman originates from Socrates' own explanation (through the pen of Plato) of what he was doing. He likened the philosopher (and, by extension, any teacher) to a midwife, whose goal is not to create or implant knowledge, but rather the opposite, to get it out of where it already is, the mind of the pupil. Except that there is a better interpretation of the Socratic method, one that any astute reader of Plato's dialogues evinces by actually observing (so to speak) what Socrates does, rather than buying directly into what he says. Socrates clearly leads his pupils toward certain conclusions, by repeatedly showing them that what they think they know is, in fact, wrong. The teacher here plays the role of a subtle but always attentive guide, with a clear goal in mind. Postman is correct that simply telling people what to think won't work (“I taught them X, but they didn't get it” is a classic Postmanian joke), but he is wrong in assuming that the student ought therefore simply to be in charge.
There is a modern equivalent of the Socratic method, used in several schools (mostly private, but even some public ones) across the world, including the United States: it's the Montessori method, articulated by the Italian educator Maria Montessori. The idea is that education is a complex, individualistic process that cannot follow simplistic standards, and most certainly cannot be evaluated by standardized tests (so much for “no child left behind” kind of nonsense). Rather, Montessori thought that teachers should behave like an army of Socrates, engaging students in small groups (yes, class size does matter!), leading them to learn through a positive (as opposed to passive) approach, which will work through a different path for each student.
The Montessori method requires not only much smaller class sizes than any current politician in the US is willing to pay for (how? How about by cutting the military budget to about 1/10th of what it is now?). More importantly, it's based on the truly subversive idea that teachers ought to know what they are doing, being capable not only of mastering various subject matters and their interrelationships, but also having a flexible enough attitude that they can truly and comfortably treat every child as a different person with her own individual needs.
Despite my profound disagreement with Postman on teaching, however, I'm about to start another book by him, “How to watch TV news.” That ought to be entertaining, stay tuned for more!