Why Imagination Matters

poets walk park

Our schools have vacillated between adulating and dismissing imagination; neither attitude suffices. Imagination involves forming things in the mind; education cannot do without it. Yet to employ it well, one must understand it correctly and combine it with actual learning.

In his bracing book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, E. D. Hirsch Jr. explores the origins and consequences of our schools’ emphasis on “natural” creativity and imagination at the expense of concrete learning. He points to the destructive effects of this trend, both in the United States and in France (which moved from a common curriculum to a child-centered mode of instruction). In addition, he offers wise commentary on standardized tests, the teaching profession, and the Common Core initiative.

An admirer of Hirsch’s work and of Core Knowledge schools, I object to just one aspect of his argument: By opposing creativity and imagination to specific training and instruction, he limits both. Recognizing this possible pitfall, he acknowledges that a school with a strong curriculum can still encourage imagination—but he does not treat the latter as vital and endangered. Imagination, in his view, has been overemphasized; the necessary corrective lies in specific, sequenced instruction.

He writes (on p. 119): “I am not, of course, suggesting that it would be a good idea to adopt the in-Adam’s-fall-we-sinned-all point of view. Imagination can certainly be a positive virtue when directed to life-enhancing goals. But the idea that imagination is always positive and life-enhancing is an uncritical assumption that has crept into our discourse from the pantheistic effusions of the romantic period.” I dispute nothing in this statement but the emphasis (and the take on Romanticism–but that’s another subject). I would proclaim: “Imagination has been wrested apart from subject matter and thus distorted—but properly understood, it permeates all intellectual domains.”

What is imagination? It is not the same as total freedom of thought; it has strictures and structures. To imagine something is to form an image of it. Every subject requires imagination: To understand mathematics, you must be able to form the abstract principles in your mind and carry them in different directions; to understand a poem, you must perceive patterns, cadences, allusions, and subtleties. To interpret a work of literature, you must notice something essential about it (on your own, without any overt highlighting by the author or editor); to interpret a historical event, you may transport yourself temporarily to its setting.

Civic life, too, relies on imagination; to participate in dialogue, you must perceive possibility in others; to make informed decisions, you must not only know their history but anticipate their possible consequences. Imagination forms the private counterpart of public life; to participate in the world, you must be able to step back and think on your own, as David Bromwich argues in his essay “Lincoln and Whitman as Representative Americans” (and elsewhere).

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the cultivation of the imagination. The uneducated mind, the prisoner in the cave, accepts the appearances of things (as manipulated by others); once embarked upon education, it slowly, painfully moves toward vision of true form. People are quick to dismiss Plato’s idealism as obsolete—but say what you will, it contains the idea of educating oneself into imagination, which could inform many a policy and school.

Schools and school systems have grievously misconstrued imagination; drawing on Romantic tendencies, as Hirsch explains, they have regarded it as “natural” and therefore good from the start. If imagination is best when unhampered and untouched, if it is indeed a process of nature, then, according to these schools, children should be encouraged to write about whatever pleases them, to read books of their own choice, and to create wonderful art (wonderful because it is theirs). Some years ago I taught at a school where we were told not to write on students’ work but instead to affix a post-it with two compliments and two suggestions–so as not to interfere with the students’ own voice.

This is silly, of course. Serious imaginative work—in music, mathematics, engineering, architecture, and elsewhere—requires knowledge, discipline, self-criticism, and guidance from others. You do not learn to play piano if your teacher keeps telling you, “Brilliant, Brilliant!” (or even, in growth-mindset parlance, “How hard you worked on that!”). To accomplish something significant, you need to know what you are doing; to know, you must learn. Mindset aside, you must be immersed in the material and striving for understanding and fluency. You must listen closely; you must acknowledge and correct errors.

Learning draws on imagination and vice versa; a strong curriculum is inherently imaginative if taught and studied properly. Students learn concrete things so that they can think about them, carry them in the mind, assemble them in interesting ways, and create new things from them. On their own, in class, and in faculty meetings, teachers probe and interpret the material they present. This intellectual life has both inherent and practical value; the student not only comes to see the possibilities of each subject but lives out such possibilities in the world.

Hirsch objects, commendably, to the trivialization of curriculum and imagination alike: for instance, the reduction of literature instruction to “balanced literacy” (where students practice reading strategies on an array of books that vary widely in quality). Conducted in the name of student interest, creativity, initiative, and so forth, such programs can end up glorifying a void.

Without strong curricula, creative and imaginative initiatives will lack meaning, especially for disadvantaged students who rely on school for fundamentals. You cannot learn subjects incidentally; while you may gain insights from a creative algebra project, it cannot replace a well-planned algebra course.

But imagination belongs at the forefront of education, not on the edges; it allows us to live and work for something more than surface appearance, hits, ratings, reactive tweets, and prefabricated success. Imagination reminds us that there is more to a person, subject, or problem than may appear at first. It enables public, social, private, economic, intellectual, and artistic life. Without it, we fall prey to shallow judgment (our own and others’); within it, we have room to learn and form.

 

Photo credit: I took this picture yesterday in Poets’ Walk Park in Red Hook, NY.

Turning Our Attention Toward Interesting Things

This blog has been slow lately for two reasons: first, I have been unusually busy with school; second, I am in the midst of my happiest teaching year yet. Why is it going so well, and what does this say about the possibilities in the teaching profession?

First, I teach at a wonderful school–but this kind of thing can happen at many schools, under the right conditions. These include curriculum, which I’ll bring up later.

Aside from that, perhaps the most important factor is that I have time to think—and lots to do with the thinking. I teach part-time; thus, there are days in the week when I am planning lessons and correcting student work but not running around. Last year, I also taught part-time but had an enormous challenge: 270 students and three new philosophy courses that I had designed. It took all I could do just to keep up with the grading, and I was generally exhausted. This year, other teachers took over the ninth-grade philosophy course. I provide them with the materials, but they teach the classes. I teach the tenth-grade ethics course and the eleventh-grade political philosophy course. Reading the students’ work is a delight (as it was last year).

These great conditions come at a cost: the half-time salary. If I were teaching full-time, I would have more classes, more assigned duties, and less room for the intellectual and creative work. I would also be better off financially. Weighing the two options, I would rather have less money and more intellectual space—but it’s sad that I have to choose. Teaching should be treated as a thinking field. Teachers’ schedules should not be crammed and hectic, nor should every moment of the day be programmed.

That leads to another point: about collaboration. I have written on many occasions about our misconception of the term. In many districts around the country, there is something of a group work mandate for students and teachers alike. It is presumed that students and teachers should spend a great deal of time in small groups, working with others on a task. In reality, the best collaboration involves substantial independent work and thought. For example, when an editor and author work together, rarely do they sit down together at a table and revise a piece. Rather, the editor provides some suggestions, and the author thinks about them, determines which ones to accept, finds alternatives for the others, and revises the work. When scientists work together on a project, it often happens that each one works alone on a substantial branch of it. They come together for the intersections of their work.

This year, I have great collaboration without the group work. I attend very few meetings, since they do not fall within my official schedule. However, I am frequently in touch with colleagues and am alert to their work We have discussed many ways to join efforts. Also, I am the faculty adviser for the school’s new philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE—and have the honor of working with two outstanding editors-in-chief (both juniors) and a large and dedicated editorial board (sophomores, juniors, and seniors). This, too, involves a great deal of independent work and just a few meetings. The meetings are all the more fruitful because there’s so much  to bring to them.

This suggests to me that “collaboration” should be reconceived. It is essential to education and most fields, but it should involve and not drive out solitary thought. The practice of thinking alone should have honor, not stigma. (That’s the subject of my book, Republic of Noise.) I would go even farther: a certain kind of solitary thought inspires collaboration, and vice versa. If you strike the right relation between the two, you allow for an abundance of ideas and accomplishments.

The other difference from last year is that I am doing more things of my own outside of school. I don’t have enough time for substantial writing (I would need to take some time off again from teaching in order to write my next book). Nor do I have enough time for books that I choose to read; I already have so much to read for my teaching. On the other hand, I have been giving talks, participating in projects, and taking some classes. All of this feeds my teaching but is distinct from it; it is not “professional development,” but rather the development of something internal.

The moral of this, if such there be, is that teachers need room for their own lives and interests, even if they devote most of their time to school. Schools and policymakers should recognize that those outside pursuits enrich lives and translate into better teaching. Studying a language out of interest is much more important than attending some professional development workshop on how to scaffold a complex text. In truth, if you are studying a language, you are probably developing insights on “scaffolding” that no workshop could give you.

That leads to the final point. Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.

So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.

I recognize that what makes me thrive is not what will make every teacher thrive. Yet most teachers would agree, I think, that the work should be less frazzling, with a focus on the intellect, imagination, and spirit. In addition, most would agree that a teacher’s intellectual and spiritual life affects that of the students. Lifting the quality of life for teachers–“life” in the rich sense of the word–serves not only the teachers themselves, but the students, the school, and the endeavor.

Clearly it would be expensive to do some of the things I recommend here. But some of it could be done at no extra cost—by turning our attention toward interesting things and defending them against encroachments. It is not that simple, and yet it is.

Accuracy of Imagination: Part 1

duff

Catarrhally clogged and dizzy, I am enjoying the slowness of these first few days of break. Yesterday I read William Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767) with excitement. I was drawn to it by David Bromwich’s book A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (1989). I will not discuss the latter at length, as I would not do it justice. Duff’s essay I will discuss today.

In the second chapter of A Choice of Inheritance, Bromwich examines the changing meanings of “genius” over the centuries—from Edward Young’s conception of genius as complete and natural originality, to Wordsworth and Darwin’s intertwining of genius with interpretation and history, to a more specialized sense of the word, and then back to a sense of genius as something mysterious, separate, and natural. Despite this seeming reversion, what matters is the “displacement of the idea of nature by an idea of history” (24).

Bromwich devotes an intriguing paragraph to Duff, drawing attention his phrase “accuracy of imagination.” According to Bromwich, Duff retains some of Young’s idea of original genius but stops short of denying genius’s link with tradition. Duff perceives “accuracy of imagination” (a phrase he appears to have invented) as the gift of philosophical genius; Bromwich sees this as a “hint of a convergence between the ideas of genius in science and in art.”

The idea of “accuracy of imagination” interested me so much that I wanted to find out what Duff meant by it. His essay consists of two parts; each part, of five sections. The first part examines the ingredients, indications, and modes of genius; the second focuses on original genius and its various manifestations—in poetry, art, music, oratory, architecture, and philosophical science. Genius, according to Duff, need not be wholly original; yet the most sublime genius, poetic genius, is marked by originality.

At the outset, Duff associates genius unequivocally with invention: “To explore unbeaten tracks, and make new discoveries in the regions of Science; to invent the designs, and perfect the productions of Art, is the province of Genius alone” (5). Yet, as we find out later, such invention can take many forms.

Genius, according to Duff, has three ingredients: imagination, judgment, and taste. They exist in different proportions, according to the nature of the work, but imagination assumes primacy, and none of the three can be absent. If genius were to consist of imagination alone, then “there is scarce any means left us of distinguishing betwixt the flights of Genius and the reveries of a lunatic” (23-24).

In poetry, according to Duff, imagination comes first, then taste and judgment; in philosophical science, imagination still comes first, but judgment follows as a close second. Because imagination, judgment, and taste influence each other, the philosophical imagination is different in nature from the poetic imagination. The former is distinguished by “regularity, clearness, and accuracy”; the second, by “irregularity, vehemence, and enthusiasm.”  They need not always be separate, though; Duff regards Plato as both philosopher and poet (104):

Of all the Philosophers of antiquity, Plato possessed the most copious and exuberant imagination, which, joined to a certain contemplative turn of mind, qualified him for the successful pursuit of philosophical studies, and enabled him to acquire an extraordinary eminence in those various branches of Science, to which he applied his divine Genius. He is the only prose writer, who in Philosophy has dared to emulate the sublime majesty of the Mœonian Bard. He was indeed animated with all that ardor and enthusiasm of Imagination which distinguishes the Poet; and it is impossible for a person, possessed of any degree of sensibility, to read his Writings without catching somewhat of the enthusiasm.

This is indeed what has drawn me to Plato over the years—the combination of exuberance and reason. One might also find a combination of poetic and philosophical imagination in the poetry of John Donne (whom Duff does not mention) and the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.

When it comes to “accuracy of imagination,” Duff has two contrasting things to say. On the one hand, as mentioned before, he regards it as the gift of philosophical genius. On the other hand, he concurs with Longinus, who maintains that sublimity is inconsistent with accuracy of imagination—that (in Duff’s words) “native grandeur of sentiment which disclaims all restraint, is subject to no certain rule, and is therefore various and unequal” (164). It is not only that genius must risk error in order to rise high; it is that the very freedom of genius brings inconsistency. (I will comment more on this in a later post.)

But Duff makes ample room for genius that is not original, or not entirely original. For one thing, even poetic geniuses begin by imitating their predecessors: “one who is born with a Genius for Poetry, will discover a peculiar relish and love for it in his earliest years” and “will be naturally led to imitate the productions he admires” (37). The other arts definitely rely on predecessors: “There never arose an eminent Painter, Orator, Musician, Architect or Philosopher, in any age, completely self-taught, without being indebted to his predecessors in the art or science he professed” (263). Thus original genius in these fields is not independent of the past. Poets, by contrast, are better off, according to Duff, if they don’t have much of a past; he gives reasons for this toward the end. (This, to me, is the least convincing part of the essay, though parts of it make sense.)

Duff allows, likewise, for genius that is not so much inventive as interpretive or even imitative. Here, on p. 74–75, is one of the most striking passages of the essay:

We may farther observe, that Genius may, in a very considerable though much less proportion, be displayed in the illustration of those truths, or the imitation of those models, which it was incapable originally to discover or invent. To comprehend and explain the one, or to express a just resemblance of the other, supposes and requires no contemptible degree of Genius in the Author or Artist who succeeds in the attempt. Thus we allow Maclaurin, who has explained the Principles of Newton’s Philosophy, and Strange, who has copied the Cartoons of Raphael, to have been both of them men of Genius in their respective professions, though not men of original Genius; for the former did not possess that COMPASS of IMAGINATION, and that DEPTH of DISCERNMENT, which Were necessary to discover the doctrines of the Newtonian System; nor the latter that fertility and FORCE of Imagination, that were requisite to invent the design, and express the dignity, grace and energy, displayed in the originals of the Italian Painter.

Duff goes on to say that genius can be found in the mechanical arts—that a watchmaker and carpenter show genius when they bring special elegance into their work. “So diversified are the forms of Genius,” says Duff, “and so various its modes of exertion” (75).

What I find remarkable is that Duff allows for many kinds of genius without treating them as equivalent. He does not say that everyone is a genius; genius, no matter what form it takes, stands apart from ordinary life and production. Even so, he makes fundamental distinctions between various kinds and degrees of genius. These distinctions are not absolute; “original” genius often relies on tradition, and the acts of interpretation and imitation may involve genius.

There’s a hidden paradox in Duff’s argument: this very diversity of genius may encumber it and bring it down. At the end of the essay, Duff argues that the poetic genius (in particular) fared best in ancient society, where it was unfettered by manners, criticism, distractions, tradition, and so forth. He admits that he has no proof for this, yet he offers Homer and Ossian as evidence. If this is so, then the great abundance and multiplicity of genius may trample down certain kinds of genius. Ah, well, some may say, but new kinds may come forth. Yet if the highest form of genius suffers (and Duff appears to regard poetry as the highest), what happens to genius as a whole?

I will leave that question aside for now and return to the phrase that first drew me to Duff: “accuracy of imagination.” What is it? Duff perceives it as a requirement of philosophical science, where “allocations of ideas will be perfectly just and exact” and “no extraneous ones will be admitted; it will assemble all that are necessary to a distinct conception and illustration of the subject it contemplates, and discard such as are no way conducive to those purposes” (33–34).

I would say that such “accuracy of imagination” has a place in poetry as well, though there it’s a different kind of accuracy, or rather, an illusion of accuracy. (I return here to Bromwich’s idea of a “hint of a convergence between the ideas of genius in science and in art.”) When reading a poem, one wants to sense that it could only be that way, that nothing in it is makeshift, extraneous, or compromised. In my next post, I will discuss that kind of “accuracy of imagination” in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.

A Sense of Tuning and Timing

In Book VIII of the Republic, Plato explains how the beautiful city, the kallipolis, succumbs to decay as anything else does. First, the leaders start having children at the wrong times; then the children, who are not raised properly, mature without a sense of poetry and music. Lacking this sense, they also lack a sense of proper governance.

Why might this be so? I asked my students. Why would good leaders need education in music and poetry?

The answers they offered said a lot about our times. “Music allows you to be creative,” said one.

“It’s self-expression,” said another.

“This is true, but is there more? What does it mean for Plato?” I asked.  They were momentarily stumped.

I directed them to a passage in Book III:

Aren’t these the reasons, Glaucon, that education in music and poetry is most important? First, because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite. Second, because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since he has the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of the kinship with himself.

Now they understood that Plato saw music education as a conduit to good taste and judgment—because, having learned to discern good craft in one sphere, one can recognize it elsewhere as well.

One can dispute this, of course. There are plenty of examples of people with musical prowess who show poor judgment in other areas of life. Nonetheless, there’s something to this idea of timing and tuning. When you learn to play or sing in tune and in rhythm, you do become more alert to form and detail. You come to sense the relationships between different parts of a work, whether it’s a sonnet, an opinion piece, or even a sentence. You may even notice when your mood is out of tune or out of step.

None of this transfer of sensibility is guaranteed. It’s possible to perform a sonata splendidly and then get into a needless argument. It’s possible to sense a flaw in a sestina but not in a policy proposal. Nonetheless, music and poetry can make a person more alert to tunings overall.

But of course music isn’t only tuning and timing. There’s tension between control and release, between discipline and abandon, between form and departure from form. You need both, but in what proportion? There’s no final formula. That’s where keen sense comes in.

Young people do not lack that sense. It’s just that many of them haven’t thought of music in that way. Why not? Much of it has to do with a popular belief in self-expression. It needs a counterbalance, and a strong one. Self-expression of a kind is important, but it’s the shaping that makes it interesting. It’s the shaping that allows works to speak to each other and to seep into the memory. It’s the shaping that allows us to carry a sensibility from one sphere into another.

This shaping, of course, requires knowledge; you must listen to many sonatas to understand what a sonata can be, or to depart from a sonata. Beethoven’s Opus 111 arises from the earlier sonatas; it could not have been composed in a void.

A good curriculum would include many works that help students understand form and shape. It would involve a great deal of listening to poetry, music, and speeches. It would not preclude self-expression, but it would lift that expression, enriching it with literature, history, mathematics, languages, and more.

Update: For more on self-expression and its pitfalls in the classroom, see Robert Pondiscio’s piece in the Atlantic.

Tetrahedra and Truth

Let’s say you have a tetrahedron (a polyhedron consisting of four conjoined triangles). You project each of its points onto a flat surface, along lines perpendicular to the surface. Depending on the tilt of the tetrahedron in relation to the surface, you will end up with either a triangle or a quadrilateral.

Now, both the triangle and the quadrilateral tell truth about the tetrahedron, but neither one tells the complete truth. However, if you rotated the tetrahedron and captured enough projections along the way, then you could determine the tetrahedron’s shape from the projections alone (if you already knew that it was a convex polyhedron). In other words, by considering the changes of the projections in time, you could see beyond the projections’ two-dimensional aspect to the tetrahedron’s three-dimensional shape. (You can try rotating a tetrahedron here.)

To even begin this project, you have to suspect that there’s something beyond the flat shapes that you see. You think: “Yesterday it had four sides. Today it has three. Something’s up with that.” Without such suspicion, you’re a prisoner in Plato’s cave, believing in the shadows on the wall because you’ve seen nothing else.

Now, suppose the tetrahedron were not stable in shape. Suppose it were crumbling or melting. Then you could not determine its shape from the projections. You could only approximate it—that is, by observing projections very close to each other in time and trying to spot abnormal changes. A sort of calculus would come into play. The more regular the tetrahedron’s disintegration, the more accurate your calculations would be. The projections would only pick up certain kinds of changes; they wouldn’t show concavities, for instance, if the edges were still intact.

Things get even more complicated if time itself is unstable: if it slows down, speeds up, loops around, breaks apart, or comes to an end (in relation to some other measure). We won’t get into that.

Imagine, now, that the phenomena in our lives are (at their very simplest) tetrahedral. Our instant impressions are limited, as they don’t capture the full shape of the phenomena. It takes time, knowledge, and insight to perceive their shapes.

We should not, then, place much value on the instant update or newest thing (the quick projection of part of the tetrahedron onto paper), except insofar as it adds to our knowledge and understanding. The latest projection is in itself no treasure; we must look to the old ones as well and—since we can’t spend all our time observing projections of tetrahedra—to other people’s interpretations of these shapes.

This is why we study history, literature, science, history of science, mathematics, philosophy, and music. It’s also why our current drive to collect instantaneous data on everyone (where we are, who our friends are, what our emotional reactions are to every possible product or classroom gesture) will do more harm than good. The purposes of such data-gathering are limited, even crude; the point is not to build wisdom or understanding, but to boost sales, test scores, and other quick results.

For example, developers and marketers have been considering the use of biometric bracelets not only in classrooms but in everyday life. Your bracelet will tell some subset of the world where you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re responding to that activity. Marketers and customers, then, can respond to you accordingly. But what happens, then, to friendship, which depends on voluntary disclosure and voluntary reserve?

Suppose I meet with a friend for dinner; what I do not say is as important as what I do, and both are my choice, to the extent that we choose such things. I learn about my friend through the things she chooses to tell me and the things that make her pause or stay quiet. Biometric bracelet data would ruin this. (“I see you were at the doctor’s office earlier today. Is everything OK? … Oh, is that so? I know you had a brain scan there. Why a brain scan, of all things?”) 

We can gather all sorts of data about people, but such data are little more than flat projections. Take that in stride, and those flat projections, maybe, can tell you something. Treat them like the real stuff, and you send your brains rolling down the hill.

Is Personalized Learning a Good in Itself?

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced its new criteria for Race to the Top. Whereas in the past only states could apply for federal RTT money, now the competition is open to “local educational agencies” (LEAs). Each applicant must demonstrate a commitment to “personalized learning”:

RTT-D will reward those LEAs that have the leadership and vision to implement the strategies, structures and systems of support to move beyond one-size–fits-all models of schooling, which have struggled to produce excellence and equity for all children, to personalized, student-focused approaches to teaching and learning that will use collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready. 

I have a visceral reaction to jargon such as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools.” Beyond that, I question the value of personalized learning, especially as described here. Accorded top priority, it will likely open the gates to fads and gimmicks: mandatory “individualized learning goals,” aggressively marketed learning software, and more. Personalized learning should be a means, not an end, and should be defined carefully. (I discuss “mass personalization” and its pitfalls in the eighth chapter of my book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.) 

How could personalized learning not be good? some might ask. How could anything be better than a flexible curriculum tailored to the needs of each child? 

Common subject matter, at its best, takes students beyond their current understanding and preferences. When I taught Book I of Plato’s Republic this year, I saw how it woke certain students up intellectually—students who, if given a tailored curriculum, might not have encountered the Republic at all. Who was to know that they were ready for it or would appreciate it? A good common curriculum offers students things that they would not necessarily choose on their own. Students should have opportunities to choose some of their readings, and courses, but common curriculum can open up a surprisingly individual experience. 

What do U.S. Department of Education officials have in mind when they speak of “personalized learning”? Somehow I doubt that the Republic figures in their plans at all. They are more concerned with skills. In their ideal environment, teachers will meet frequently in “data teams,” analyze student work, and determine how to help each student progress. (We do this already, but they’d say we should do even more.) Since it is impossible for a teacher singlehandedly to address the needs of 100 or more students, schools will likely purchase products, such as software that captures and analyzes student discussion, producing graphs of students’ speaking patterns, or clickers with which students may answer multiple-choice questions. The use of such devices will count as personalized learning, simply because each student will have a progress chart. 

Good software can help immensely with certain kinds of instruction. Online language laboratories, quizzes, and even lessons can supplement what students are learning in the classroom. The key word here is “supplement.” Students should use any and all tools that truly help (and not replace) their learning—so that they can come into the classroom fully prepared for the instruction and discussion. In other words, students, generally speaking, should take care of their own personalization, and teachers should take care of the common part. Yes, there is overlap, but it should not stretch too far. 

Of course, teachers personalize the learning to a large degree. They review student work and adjust the lessons accordingly; offer choices on certain assignments; and provide additional help to those who need it. Such personalization, though, is subordinate to the larger goal of teaching something important, lasting, and beautiful. Subordinate it should remain. 

Now, the grants are only for LEAs where at least forty percent of the participating students quality for free or reduced lunches. One might argue that disadvantaged students need a more highly individualized approach than others do. However, such an assumption has dangers. Schools with a moderate or high poverty rate (especially grant applicants) would likely focus on skills, whereas schools with more affluent students would be at liberty to teach substance. In addition, the high-poverty schools would endure clamor over personalization; it would come up in their meetings and memos and appear in large font on their websites. They would have to show evidence of personalization at all times, whether or not it made sense. We would see curricular bifurcation, as before.

What are we trying to do, ultimately? Have students create shiny portfolios? Data-driven “look how I’ve grown” slideshows? Or do we want to bring students into a larger conversation about something? Granted, this is a false opposition. The best education attends to the individual, but not at the expense of common learning. Latin might be an elective at a school, but everyone taking Latin will learn the same grammar and and read the same literature, for the most part. Otherwise it could not be taught in much depth. A composition course might indeed be tailored to the needs of those present, but other courses would require students to learn specific material. Any good course makes room for both the individual and the common, but not necessarily in obvious ways.

The most unsettling aspect of this call for “personalized learning” is its neglect of the subtly personal: the private encounter with subject matter. A student may be individually transformed by Augustine’s Confessions, but this doesn’t count; the individuality that matters here is the kind that looks like the others, the kind with buzzwords and graphs. In the name of personalized learning, the U.S. DOE rewards conformity of a sort. It favors schools that show off students’ growth charts and portfolios, like teenagers in a schoolyard sporting their brand-new clothes.

The Problem with Outcomes

In education discussion, the word “outcome” bombilates around us. Educators remind themselves a thousand times a day that student results will tell them how well they’re doing. Not only every unit, but every lesson, every activity must have an outcome. Whatever isn’t productive should be tossed.

The “outcome” movement began around 1990, when Chester E. Finn, Jr., and others argued that schools and school initiatives should be judged by concrete results (including but not limited to test scores). The movement hit some political snags but eventually took hold; today, test scores in particular determine which schools and teachers stay and which ones go, which policies have succeeded and which ones not. Paradoxically, such focus on outcomes can limit the outcomes themselves. We start acting like cartoon bees, producing honey that won’t feed us but that looks good on the screen.

In his 1990 article “The Biggest Reform of All” (Phi Delta Kappan 71, no. 8, 584–592), Finn defined education itself as outcome:

Under the old conception (dare I say paradigm?), education was thought of as process and system, effort and intention, investment and hope. To improve education meant to try harder, to engage in more activity, to magnify one’s plans, to give people more services, and to become more efficient in delivering them. 

Under the new definition, now struggling to be born, education is the result achieved, the learning that takes root when the process has been effective. Only if the process succeeds and learning occurs will we say that education happened. Absent evidence of such a result, there is no education—however many attempts have been made, resources deployed, or energies expended.

Granted, this makes sense at first. A focus on results seems tough-minded, rational, and practical. It appeals to those who tire of wishy-washy talk (which abounds in education discussion). But when we start talking outcomes, outcomes, outcomes, we empty the room of sense all over again. In giving results so much clout, we neglect their substance. I will explain in a moment how this can happen.

I am not about to argue, as many do, that much of education is unmeasurable. That’s true but insufficient as an argument. The problem lies not in measurement, but in measurement hype and jargon. It is crude and trumpeted measurement, not measurement overall, that weakens our schools and curricula.

Outcomes are no new concept in education. In the United States and abroad, for centuries, students have been required to pass tests in order to enter selective high schools and colleges. But educators, parents, and students assumed that some would do better on the tests than others, and that a student might to better in one subject than in another. If you didn’t do so well on the math portion of the SAT, well, maybe you just weren’t a good test-taker, or maybe you weren’t strong in math. Tests had consequences, but we also took them in stride.

Today, we frown on tolerance of poor performance. Students can do much more than we often assume. Ability counts for something, we admit, but hard work and good instruction count for much more. Thus, according to reformers, schools must raise student performance no matter what it takes. No excuses. If they don’t, they are showing their incompetence or lack of will.

Performance of what, though? When we speak of performance in the abstract, we make little sense. We lose sight of the discrepancy between the subject matter and the standardized test. Reformers often assume that the tests are testing what students should be learning; often this is not so. In fact, the more advanced the instruction, the more remote it will be from standardized tests (excluding Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests), and the more remote it should be.

I currently teach philosophy at my secondary school. (My roles there include advising, observing, and teaching.) My tenth-grade students just finished reading Book I of Plato’s Republic. They learned to trace the steps of Socrates’ arguments and evaluate both the logic and the conclusions. I have asked them to identify Thrasymachus’s initial definition of justice and to explain (a) how Socrates challenges it; (b) how Thrasymachus revises his definition; and (c) how Socrates refutes him. These are outcomes, indeed, but they don’t match what’s on the ELA test, and they don’t come in a single lesson.

“Wait,” someone might object. “Aren’t these the very skills that the ELA test measures?” Not quite. For one thing, analyzing Plato is different from analyzing a test passage. Second, the New York State ELA test does not always reward good thinking. One of the sillier tasks is the “critical lens” essay, in which students must interpret a quote, agree or disagree with it, and substantiate their opinion with details from any two literary texts. The task is difficult precisely because of its incoherence; for this reason, schools spend a great deal of time preparing for it. If I were teaching ELA instead of philosophy, I might have to spend time on it too.

“Come on,” someone else might say. “Aren’t you setting up a straw man? We have kids who struggle with basic reading and writing. Tasks like the ‘critical lens’ essay are really for them, to see whether they can put a paragraph together and cite details. Let’s worry about Plato later, once we get this much taken care of.” But there’s part of the problem. If we consider Plato a luxury, then we probably regarded Stevenson, Milne, Carroll, and Grahame as luxuries, too. If the “critical lens” essay is high priority, then so are low-level texts and strategy lessons. In the name of results, we promote banal topics and skills.

Now, tests have limitations even at their best. Even if they reflect superb curricula, they do not capture all that has been learned. The more challenging the course, the more uneven the performance may be, especially at the outset. If students don’t do well, it may be that they’re facing new challenges. Moreover, not all learning happens within the course’s time frame; I have learned a great deal from courses long after they were over. In addition, not all good work on tests gets rewarded. Scoring rubrics rarely credit the exceptional insight or unusual approach. So, even if we have near-perfect tests, we should not cede our judgment to them.

The best policy would be to exercise discernment. We should develop fine curricula and accompanying tests. We should scrutinize results and adjust instruction as needed. All along, we should remember what matters: the works, ideas, and problems that students encounter; the long pursuit of excellence and virtue; the practice of skills into grace; and the turning of problems in the mind.

Finn may be right in a sense. Education may indeed be the result achieved—but only if we are trying to achieve something worthy. We must not get too worked up over fireworks and fries. The best results may not be the ones we see right now, and the ones we see right now may not be worth the clamor.