Monday, November 8, 2010

School of the Mundane

            It has been perpetually snowing and I have been thinking about writing for four days now. Aquinas is on my mind and I can’t help but wonder how we have disadvantaged children in our public school system in terms of our epistemology. This is no doubt a reflection of our own discouragement and our disconnection from wonderment and beauty. Is there a way to move beyond a utilitarian and capitalistic scope? In a sense we are preparing our children to offer us services rather then their minds, their creativity and their dreams, which will in the long run benefit our society both economically and socially.
             A sense of wonder and mystery is devoid in our schools and we deliberate over why children are bored, dissatisfied and failing miserably. Although Aquinas’ philosophy of education had theology at it’s core, it was inclusive and his natural theology as expressed in Summa Thelogicae allowed for reasonable debates via the questioning model. His point of view was that you did not have to be religious or conjure up esoteric equations to contemplate mystery or things unknown. Through this I see a return to more classical forms of learning (if not natural theology) as effective in schools in terms of meta-cognition and drawing children outside of themselves. 
            Should our curriculums be adapted to suit specific professions and industries as Spencer suggested? Is the study of beauty or “otherness” trumped in a technological world? Should we be strictly utilitarian in our goals for our children? Plato and Aristotle certainly did not see the contemplation of mysteries and beauty as a threat to human kind, nor has the wisdom of Arabic and Nigerian proverbs lost its efficacy. I am thinking of a formal dialogue of universal values--This discipline would lead children to be unbiased and contribute in these discussions. They would learn from others and grow in their own logic and discourse and develop a voice that is their own, conscientious and respectful. What am I thinking? This is not new. Natural theology challenges the mind and requires openness to “otherness” that I believe children are craving in a narcissistic, entitlement-driven society. Through reasoning, children discover, synthesize and learn how to formulate arguments and questions about their world. How much more interesting, engaging and fitting is this kind of discipline within a diverse classroom?
             I believe Spencer was right in his prediction that public schools would become mediocre, not in terms of catering to the average but in terms of offering average curriculums. Have we asked children why they are unhappy in school? Have we sat down with them and asked them what is happening and what would restore their motivation in school?
            I am fully aware that my background in liberal arts has shaped my thinking and made me perhaps biased towards a more classical curriculum. Nevertheless, I am trying to connect the missing pieces, some traditional, others as Dorothy Sayers coined, “retrogressive-progressive” (The Lost Tools of Learning, Sayers, 2006). Plato’s Trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) for instance, is foundational and came about through diligent observation of developmental psychology, as we would see it today. These fundamental rubrics of learning are either missing in our curriculums or they are quickly being replaced by an invasive spirit of pragmatism. Where is the poetry? Where is the philosophy? Where is the art of learning? The twofold application of subjects, both material and philosophical, is being lost on our young. “Although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects”, we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything but the art of learning” (Sayers, 2006).
            Unless we embark on a rigorous debate over the pros and cons of progressive pedagogy, the general public will continue to conclude that progressive curriculums possess the only contemporary and relevant solutions for learning. I hope however to consider and identify the good of both a classical curriculum and a progressive alternative to avoid any unnecessary polemic.
            The first oversight made by progressives was to mistranslate the language of a classical or traditional education. They codified it as a sterile reading and drilling method without seeing the cognitive purposes of memorization, linguistic discipline and what I call embedded instruction. This kind of instruction (which I will further develop), offers a rich pedagogy while on the outside seems cold and factual.
            Many attempts to research the two contrasting pedagogies for comparative outcomes seem counter-productive. I see no validity in comparing student performance in differing pedagogy, when each curriculum calls for a different set of assessment strategies and grading rubrics. There are, however, striking differences in students who learned grammar, logic and rhetoric as their foundational studies. They are better able to handle a job market in constant flux and they are more likely to improvise in times of crisis and find creative ways of problem solving.
             Implied in the classical curriculum is the notion that education is the gentle unraveling of knowledge, whereas progressive curriculums insists on immediate response to experience which is not always productive for a child. The emphasis on teaching based on needs and interests is equally problematic when at a young age; children don’t always know what their needs or interests are. It is often the case that a skill must be developed prior to formulating an interest and not the other way around.
            The progressives will speak of constructionist learning as if an entirely new way of thinking when most traditions see it as a necessary process. Guilds and craftsmen equally understand the ‘learning by doing’ mantra. For example, the architect who studies classical architecture must first hand draft the Orders to grasp scale and proportion and kinesthetically acquire an aesthetic disposition.
            There are nuances in traditional programs that progressives have not recognized because they are embedded in the ‘subjects’ themselves. For instance, the subject of Mathematics has within its scope a multitude of cognitive attributes that prepare the student for further development of logic, which is the prerequisite for problem solving. This is not some antiquated subject that needs to be “updated” for the times. It is an archetypal learning measure, which will later enhance the understanding of music and philosophy.
            Dewey’s prized claim over the scientific method has been long applied in the classical curriculum. The Logic portion of the Trivium requires that a child use scientific methods in order to find solutions to problems. Sound familiar? The emphasis, however, on language is stronger and has more validity in the classical curriculum. Although Dewey understood the importance of language, metaphor and symbol, he was more concerned about the initial experience of them and not a collective agreement on the power of their usage. The deficiencies that we will find as more and more progressive schools move away from a language-based pedagogy are found in terms of social acquiescence. As fewer students develop linguistically, they will have difficulty socially and will have been disconnected from what Mortimer Adler calls “The Great Conversation”. They will on a very basic level lack the skills to have meaningful conversations as their reference points will draw closer and closer together. Their metaphors will only go as far as the latest comment from twitter or a micro-blog.
            Although I appreciate and agree with the variety of learning strategies to keep children focused on learning objectives, there is no substitute for quality time spent on a particular study. It is imperative now, in light of the speed at which children are exposed to information, that extended periods of time be dedicated to a child’s single focus. “The beauty of the classical curriculum, is that it dwells on one problem, one author, or one epoch long enough to allow even the youngest student a chance to exercise the mind in a scholarly way: to make connections and trace developments, lines of reasoning, patterns of action, recurring symbolism, plots, motifs” (David Hicks). This is life-saving in a hyper-digital world and will expose in a tangible way, the adverse affects of rejecting traditional forms of learning.

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