The Limits of Education Debate

I haven’t been writing much on education lately, except when talking about literature or things happening at Varga. The reason is not at all a loss of interest. Rather, I see limits to the general debates. There’s no way to determine whether the curriculum should be more or less demanding, or whether there should be more or less group work, etc., except in relation to what already is going on. If you have a vapid or nonexistent curriculum, then there’s good reason to fight for something more substantial. If you have a substantial but overpacked curriculum, then you might instead call for more flexibility. If students do nothing but listen to the teachers all day long, then you might call for some different kinds of activities in the classroom. But if the classroom and school day are already frenetic with social activities, then you wish for more focus, listening, and quiet. Now, not all education views are reactive and relative. Some principles and practices are good more often than not. But many arguments can be resolved through simple attention to the context. What is the current situation? In what ways does it go to extremes? What counterbalances might be needed?

When I first started writing critically about education, I was responding to a particularly dogmatic “philosophy” that had taken over the NYC school system: the notion that students should be working in groups nearly all the time and that “teacher talk” should be kept to a minimum. Even teacher-led class discussions were looked down upon as being too teacher-driven. This is ridiculous; yes, it’s good to bring students to a point where they can lead a class discussion or initiate a group activity, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with teaching them things, posing questions, showing what it means to go farther into the subject. Moreover, there is no reason why students should have to work in groups in every lesson. Some group work is fine. But not all learning takes place in groups, with others talking around you. Sometimes you need room to think on your own, sometimes to listen to an extended presentation.

The Hungarian system has plenty of problems of its own. But at Varga I have found it possible to strike a combination of instruction, class discussion, and other activities. No one has a problem with that; to the contrary, they support it. I also enjoy a combination of specificity and flexibility in the curriculum: there are things I am required to teach, but I generally find room and time to include works of literature, creative writing, and more.

Many people here, students and teachers alike, believe that the system needs to be modernized. But they would balk at the idea of arranging the desks in pods and requiring small-group work in every lesson. The idea that students should be initiating the activities would likewise strike them as absurd, even though some of this would come welcome. It’s understood that students have things to learn from their teachers, and if these teachers hold discussions in which they hear and welcome different points of view, then that in itself is “modernization.”

It is easy, within a school and culture that values subject-matter knowledge, to have lively lessons, because all you have to do is open up discussion, and the students have lots to say. They speak thoughtfully, with attention to the text and the questions at hand. You can ask them to do this in small groups, and often this will also work well. But in systems where basic knowledge and self-discipline is lacking, then these same activities can go awry. In those cases you have to give a lot of attention to basic knowledge and basic habits. That doesn’t mean that’s all you can do, but you need to do it, and this needs to be understood and supported.

I suspect that good education has to do with a combination of opposing principles: receiving instruction and asking your own questions about it; thinking on your own and working with others; following the curriculum plan and making room for other things. The right combination is not easy to find; once found, it cannot be propagated very far. A school can have it; sometimes even a school district can have it. But educational ideas and methods tend to degrade when spread too zealously; someone takes them to extremes, another person reduces them to something banal, someone else misunderstands them entirely, and someone else insists on them (or resists them) no matter what the context. For the ideas to work well, they need to be taken in proper measure, with an understanding of where they came from and why.

I think back fondly on the schools where I taught in NYC: especially Columbia Secondary School (where I taught and led the high school philosophy program), but also the middle school where I taught for my first three years and the elementary school where I taught for a year (after which I left teaching for two years to write my first book). In all of these places, I found ways to help my students both learn essential material and do interesting work. But the elementary and middle schools were under great pressure from the system; even though the principals liked and supported my work, there were continual mantras (in training sessions and elsewhere) about being a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” To this day I don’t understand why you should have to be just one or the other.

Speaking of sages on stages, I have often marveled at my colleagues’ eloquence here. When they have something to say—for instance, at a faculty meeting or in a presentation—they deliver complete, polished speeches (without referring to any notes). I have noticed this in other contexts too. Why are Hungarians such good orators? (Not all are, but the tendency is striking.) I suspect that part of it comes from heaing so many lectures throughout their lives. They understand what it means to say something substantial and cohesive. This is comparable to people who spend a lot of time listening to classical music and jazz (or other long forms). They develop an ear for the long form.

Now, brevity has its virtues too. There’s no need to speak at length all the time. Nor should all lessons be filled with lecture. But if you don’t hear people speaking beyond a few sentences at a time, then you might not know what it means to do so, or to listen to it. Few consider how the lecture can actually prepare students for the time when they, too, will need to make an argument or give an explanation. The turns of phrase, the rhetorical rhythms, the movement from part to whole or vice versa—all of this can help students in the world.

And yet it’s possible to overdo this, or to do it poorly; lectures are not “the answer.” No single thing is. In fact, there isn’t an ultimate answer to these education conundrums. It’s better that way; if there were an ultimate answer, education itself would go to sleep.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

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