Neither Crystal Palace Nor Underground

Last week I had the joy of publishing an article featuring three students’ pieces. Each piece has distinct ideas, approach, and personality; none of the three would fit a rubric exactly. All deal with philosophical ideas and texts; whether witty, serious, or both, all grapple with something substantial.

Call it spark, verve, or individuality, I hope my students never lose this quality. Our schools and workplaces live by the rubric. Even when a school sees beyond the rubric, as mine does, it must prepare students for the rubrics of tests. Students know exactly what is expected of them and learn to fulfill it exactly. They know they will get five points for doing this, ten points for doing that.

What rubrics offer is predictability and fairness. A student who receives a B knows why, and knows what to do to get an A. (There should always be some degree of that; grading should not be haphazard.) Yet rubrics take a great deal away. They come across as supreme judges, when they are mediocre ones; they miss what really matters in a piece—the genuine grappling, among other things. I do not mean they should be abolished; of course they have a place, but they should not be ultimate arbiters.

I have scored tests and have seen how students who follow the directions exactly (but say very little) can score higher than students  who have a great deal to say but fail to follow all of the directions. Indeed, when one follows such rubrics, one is forced to disregard what a student says.

In many ways the world of rubrics is analogous to the very crystal palace that Dostoevsky’s Underground Man criticizes. Here is the telling passage (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael Katz):

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Don’t you see: if it were a chicken coop instead of a palace, and if it should rain, then perhaps I could crawl into it so as not to get drenched; but I would still not mistake a chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude, just because it sheltered me from the rain. You’re laughing, you’re even saying that in this case there’s no difference between a chicken coop and a mansion. Yes, I reply, if the only reason for living is to keep from getting drenched.

Today’s students live in a chicken coop of rubric after rubric. They learn to be well-rounded superstars—leaders, go-getters, initiators, networkers, and, sure, students with GPAs of 4.0. They build up digital portfolios and resumes. They know what the colleges want and plan years in advance to achieve it. A wise person remarked to me this week, “They not only have no room for eccentricity; they have no room to pause.”

You need to pause in order to write an interesting piece, to have a good friend, to understand a piece of music. You need it to find a way of living that is neither crystal palace nor underground, a chant or song with lilts and cracks and silences. Yes, you need to learn to survive and compete, but you need not bow to the terms of such demands.

My birthday is a week from Thursday. I dedicate it to such a way of living, and to the hope that my students will find it on their own terms or, having already found it, not lose sight of it.

What Makes Man Human, and Where Was the Teacher?

It is difficult to interpret one’s childhood events correctly. There’s the danger of distorted memory, superimposed details and meanings, admixtures of other people’s interpretations, and so on. So I haven’t commented, so far, on the “What Makes Man Human?” uproar I started in fourth grade, even though I have thought about it often. (Actually, I wrote about it once—and then deleted what I wrote.)

My school had adopted the MACOS (Man: A Course of Study) curriculum. We learned about the Netsilik Inuits and their way of life. We studied various animals: salmon, baboons, and so on. Parts of this were quite interesting. But then the teacher posted a piece of chart paper on the wall with the question “What Makes Man Human?” Students were to list their answers below the question. As I remember it, this list generated some excitement.

I found the exercise silly, so I added No. 20 to the list: “Nothing—human is just another word for a person.”

My classmates reacted with outrage; several took it upon themselves to chide me and erase my entry. Just where the teacher was at this time, I don’t know. I wrote about the incident; it’s the only writing from that time that I still have.

Afterward, I was encouraged by adults to pursue this matter further: to demonstrate that humans were not as distant from animals as we commonly assume. I took on this challenge for a little while, but that was not my original point. At the most obvious level, I was pointing out the redundancy of the question. If “man” and “human” are synonymous or close to synonymous, then it makes no sense to ask what makes man human.

At another level, I think I wanted to shake things up. I realized that the answers would be predictable, so I wanted to throw in a justified surprise. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, but I remember the desire to break through the humdrum predictability of it all.

I understand, looking back, why my classmates were so upset. They had taken this assignment seriously and were offended that I had not. Beyond that, they may have taken my response as an insult to humanity itself. They may have thought I was saying that there was no such thing as a human being. They had every reason, in that case, to be ruffled.

But the irony is that they responded by erasing my words. One human attribute is the ability to challenge common assumptions and to break from the norm. (Animals have this ability too—take, for instance, the lone penguin in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World—but it’s more pronounced in humans, or so it seems.) My classmates decided that my response was not acceptable and therefore had to be obliterated. If they thought I had demeaned humanity, well, they demeaned it doubly.

I recognize that I was being provocative on purpose. I recognize, also, that my classmates had good intentions; they took the assignment seriously and were trying to do it well. The problem lay in the posing of an important-sounding question that was supposed to evoke humdrum responses. When, under the pretext of “critical thinking,” you squelch that very thing, you create a mental trap. The only way to think critically, under such conditions, is to criticize the very undertaking—and the student who does so will not be thanked by peers.

Where was the teacher? That is my lingering question. The school had a cozy and lax atmosphere; we wandered around and did what we wanted, more or less, as long as we completed certain activities. I was somewhat miserable, not because I needed to be told what to do, but because I missed the exchange with a wise adult. Peers were not good judges of each other or of subject matter. Their judgments were often based on what made them comfortable or uncomfortable as a group.

I see similar problems in schools today. Students need an adult’s guidance; they need to be lifted above their immediate judgments and preferences. Teachers offer perspective, among other things; they help students see the value of things that fall outside the norm. If anything makes man human, keen questioning does, and this takes vision, practice, and gumption.

The Need for Eccentricity in Education

Good teachers are eccentrics. This does not mean that they have quirky habits and mannerisms or that they stand out in any obvious way. This eccentricity is often quiet; it comes from diving into the subject in order to grasp its essence, then bringing it to the students in a form that they can understand. The teacher acts as a messenger and undergoes transformations. Now she sits absorbed in a book, oblivious to her surroundings; later she bursts into recitation, waking students up into a poem. The teacher’s mind keeps working and playing at odd moments of the day—during walks down the hall, lunch breaks, and the waits beside the photocopy machine.

Education reform doesn’t honor this eccentricity. Instead, it pushes teachers and students toward a norm that it then tries to lift. You can’t lift a norm. Norms are just that: normal, average, unlifelike, heavy. To make schools better, you have to honor education’s spark and wit. At their best, teachers and students work in slightly unusual ways.

Many believe fervently in judging teachers by their students’ test scores. In their view, nothing could be fairer. Let teachers teach in the way they deem best, and judge them by their results. But what is the upshot of this? Teach for America has been working on a formula to identify, in advance, the teachers likeliest to bring test score increases. So far, their most robust findings are that prospective teachers with high college GPAs and demonstrated leadership skills (such as experience running a club) tend to bring about higher test scores in their students. This points to a dubious conclusion that we should give preference to prospective teachers who were presidents of clubs and got 4.0 GPAs.

Imagine the consequences. If you’re an introverted student who loves to dwell on a passage in a story or novel, or who enjoys proving a mathematical theorem in different ways, then you will be set on edge by a cadre of teachers who view education as a means to a material end—who emphasize getting the scores, getting the resume, getting elected president. Some of my most brilliant teachers had roundabout and zigzag lives; they probably did well in school, even spectacularly well, but their GPA was in many cases a side effect of what they did. They had some kind of spirit of leadership, but often it wasn’t overt; they might never have run any club.

Of course it’s fine to bring about test score gains, as long as that is not the primary goal—but it’s folly to identify and favor the personalities who can do so. There’s a fuzzy space where students who show good but not stellar test score gains may actually be learning more than those whose scores excel. Their long-term learning may be greater; their progress may be steady and strong. Their teachers may leave them with things that they remember years later. (This may also not be the case, but the possibility is there.)

Well, say the reformers, that’s why we have holistic teacher evaluations. They balance things out. The teacher is judged not only on the test scores, but also on her lesson planning, classroom atmosphere, and more.

Yes, this is so. But the “holistic” teacher evaluation rubrics favor the well-rounded teacher who has all the recognized components of good teaching. It does not favor the teacher with outstanding, overriding strengths—for instance, the teacher who has exceptional knowledge of her subject but is not especially involved in community events, or the teacher who gives memorable lessons but does not emphasize group activity. Oh, and woe on the absent-minded teacher. Rubrics such as Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching give the highest rating to teachers who set and achieve concrete goals for the lesson, who emphasize small group work, whose classrooms are highly organized, who collaborate frequently with colleagues, and who engage in approved professional development activities.

Test scores and teacher evaluations  can tell us a great deal. But we should be wary of a world in which everyone does everything just so. Education is full of bumps and gleams. Here’s to the teacher who wants students to do well but, even more than that, wants them to walk away with something. That means spending some days hitting the stone with the pick and getting nothing from it. It means bringing students stories and lessons from other times and mines, so that they will know that their work is not a waste. It means releasing oneself from petty pressures, letting oneself be with the work and nothing else. And it means—for teachers and students alike—not worrying too much about what others do and say, or what one’s instant rating might be.

  • “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

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    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.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    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.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    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.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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