TBT: Sailer and Spotted Toad on Education

The grand experiment in online learning continues apace, although it is (somewhat thankfully) reaching its summer-bound conclusion.  Unlike many colleagues and teachers I’ve spoken with about the hasty transition, I have thoroughly enjoyed the distance learning experience, but I am thankful for the advent of summer.

Recording lectures can be a marathon effort, not unlike actual classroom teaching, requiring rapid shifting from one topic to the next.  I try to record “horizontally”—that is, I try to record multiple lectures for the same class or subject at once—rather than “vertically”—recording for each day’s classes—as “horizontal” recording allows my mind to stay fixed on a single track, but this week I’ve been a “vertical” recorder.  Yesterday I recorded a review lecture on Jefferson’s presidency (with a dash of Madison and the origins of the War of 1812), then a review lesson on Congress, then a Music lesson about the Phrygian mode.  I call myself a “Renaissance Man” in the post below; I might be right!

Of course, almost all of teaching is, as one colleague recently put it, “rebuilding a plane while it’s in mid-air.”  A beautiful, gleaming craft takes off confidently in August; by Labor Day, you’re buffing out the first spots and adjusting the navigational systems; by October, you’ve replaced the entire fuselage.  Christmas is a lonely island in the South Pacific where you refuel and make calculations for the next leg of the journey, which feels like flying over 6000 miles of ocean with no land in site.  From January to Spring Break the plane pretty much gets rebuilt entirely, until it’s no longer properly the plane you begin with.

By summer, you’re flying the glider the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, and not the F-16 or B-52 or 747 you started with for the year.  Not only that, but your canvas wings are punctured and your tail-fin is missing.  You’re not even worried about saving the plane at this point—you’re just trying to land somewhere without killing yourself or anyone else.

But I digress.  It’s been, overall, a pleasant experience since day one, for reasons detailed elsewhere, and my Kitty Hawk glider is looking more like an F-16 at this point in the year than it usually does.

In casting about for this week’s edition of TBT, I stumbled upon this post from nearly a year ago, a look at Steve Sailer’s review of blogger (and former NYC science teacher) Spotted Toad‘s book 3 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: Stories about Teaching and Learning, which I read shortly after writing this blog post.  The book is a short read, and quite good, as it details the challenges a young Toad faced in adapting to the chaos of an inner city Middle School Science classroom.

With my own summer vacation approaching, and the blog focusing more and more lately on education, I’m kicking around the idea of putting together an eBook with my own reflections on teaching, with some unorthodox proposals about what the field could look like in the future.  Spotted Toad’s work could be a source of inspiration.

Regardless, here is May 2019’s “Sailer and Spotted Toad on Education“:

Demographer Steve Sailer has a review on Taki’s Magazine of a new book from blogger Spotted Toad.  The book, 13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: Stories about Teaching and Learning, is a narrative memoir detailing Toad’s decade teaching in public schools in the Bronx.

Sailer, a dedicated statistician in his own right, lauds Spotted Toad’s statistics-laden blog, but points out that his memoir eschews statistics in favor of narrative.  This focus on narrative, as Sailer points out, does not detract from the book’s insights about education, but makes them more viscerally real for the lay reader.

Based on Sailer’s summary of the book (which I plan to purchase and read soon), Spotted Toad’s teaching experience led him to insights similar to my own; that is, that administrators and school boards spend too much time chasing education fads and pushing a romantic narrative about teaching, rather than just getting out of the way and letting teachers… well, teach.

Toad was hired as part of the once-fashionable Teach for America program, which placed young, enthusiastic idealists into poor school districts, usually in tough inner city schools.  The theory was that bad or lazy teachers weren’t engaged enough, so schools needed an injection of Dead Poets’ Society-inspired young’uns who would bend heaven-and-earth to reach urban youths.

Sailer speculates about why Teach for America was so popular in the latter part of the last decade, and suggests that it’s because upper-middle class New York Times readers forwarded glowing articles about TFA to their out-of-work, overly-educated kids.

That somewhat comports with my own experience, as I briefly considered joining TFA upon finishing graduate school at the height of the Great Recession.  I think it’s even more accurate to say it was popular because it promised work during a time when few people could find it, and didn’t require lengthy additional years of education and training.

Sailer pooh-poohs the idea that TFA could create qualified teachers, and he’s not entirely wrong—the program was certainly overly optimistic about its own efficacy—but I think the apprenticeship model of “learning on the job” is one of the better ways to learn the craft.  Most education classes are a joke, and other than a few useful pedagogical insights, my impression is that many of them are indoctrination camps for the latest progressive educational fads.  I’d much rather have a “pure” young teacher learning the ropes with the assistance of battle-hardened veterans in the trenches than to have that teacher languish away in a series of Two-Minute Hates for another couple of years.

Indeed, that’s been my big complaint with the State of South Carolina’s alternative certification program.  We have a teacher shortage, but you want me to shell out cash and three years of my time to teach in a crummy public school?  No thanks.  How about adopt my proposal to grant automatic certification to any private school teacher with three years of teaching experience and a Master’s degree in a relevant field, or with five years and a Bachelor’s?  That would solve the problem more quickly, and would bring a number of qualified teachers into public schools quickly.

My premise is that credentials don’t make a good teacher; classroom experience does.  I’m generally anti-guildist, as I fancy myself a bit of a Renaissance Man.  Of course, that comes from my personal experiences professionally:  out of necessity, I’ve taught a slew of social studies courses, as well as music at different levels, for nearly a decade.  I would have benefited from some education classes to learn solid pedagogical methods in some areas (particularly music education), but I’ve picked up many of these methods through trial-and-error, and sheer force of will.  When you have to get twenty inexperienced middle school musicians to play a Christmas concert, you figure out how to make it work (and sound good).

Regardless, Spotted Toad’s experiences hit upon some common problems in education, particularly education policy.  Toad writes of the coming-and-going educational fads and programs, some supported by big-wigs like Bill Gates, that are championed, implemented hastily (and at great profit to the companies that market and develop these programs), and then abandoned in five years when some new, shiny trend emerges.

Take a moment to read Sailer’s review this morning, as it offers some interesting insights into the push-and-pull of education policy, and an interesting, if sad, retrospective on the bungled federal efforts in the Bush and Obama Administrations to address education in the United States.

That said, for all the doom-and-gloom surrounding discussion of education in America, Sailer ends on a positive note:

For example, as I’ve pointed out over the years, on the international PISA school tests, Asian-Americans do almost as well as Northeast Asian countries, white Americans outscore most white countries other than Finland and few other northern realms, Latino-Americans outperform all Latin American countries, and African-Americans beat the handful of black Caribbean countries that even try the test.

We Americans do spend a lot to achieve these educational results, but our outcomes by global standards are much less terrible than most Americans assume. (In particular, Indian states that have tried the PISA bomb it, scoring at sub-Saharan levels.)

At least we’re beating our peers in other countries—usually.

SubscribeStar Saturday: Moral Outrage about Moral Outrage

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Teaching is a profession that attracts complainers.  Teaching requires some risk-tasking, but it’s fundamentally a job for folks that want great degrees of stability.  When that stability is disrupted, teachers, being creatures of habit and order, get ornery.

That might explain, in part, the high turnover in the teaching profession.  We live in an increasingly disordered world, even in the classroom.  Part of that disorder is the assumption that children are somehow wiser and more morally pure than their elders.

That’s a notion that goes back at least to the counterculture movement of the 1960s (not to blame, pedantically and predictably, all of our problems on that misguided, suicidal decade):  the youth a moral vanguard, crusading against the long-established order and its absurdities.  The outraged shrieking of a youngling carries with it, the culture suggests, greater weight than the elderly master with decades of experience and accumulated wisdom.

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SubscribeStar Saturday: The Tedium of (Teaching) Slavery

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A major part of American history was, of course, slavery.  As I typed that sentence, I nearly wrote “the unfortunate legacy of slavery,” though we’re still living that, just not in the way the race-baiters and social justice warriors claim.

But phrases like “the unfortunate legacy of slavery” have become incredibly cliched.  It and similar phrases (“slavery is our great national sin”) act as magic talismans, incantations that, when invoked, protect the speaker (presumably) from the ultimate curse, the label of “racist.”

Of course, slavery was wrong, and slavery is immoral.  It was our great national sin (paid for, as Lincoln pointed out in his Second Inaugural Address, with the blood “drawn by the sword” in the American Civil War).  It continues to have an “unfortunate legacy,” in that race-baiting charlatans continue to blame it for virtually every pathology in black American culture.

Dang it… I screwed up the incantation with that last bit.  I’d better kiss my job goodbye right now.

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Hump Day Hodgepodge: Testing Reflections

It’s a busy week here in the world of yours portly.  The end of the first quarter is approaching rapidly, so every spare moment has been dedicated to chipping away at a mountain of history quizzes and tests.  Needless to say, it’s slow going.

As such, school is on my mind—as it is pretty much every waking moment of August through May.  Fellow teachers will understand that teaching is a profession that consumes your mental energy constantly.

Today the school is undertaking the pre-administration of the PSAT, the l’il brother of the SAT, which I proctored this weekend.  Pre-administration is the process whereby students bubble in all of the sensitive personal information on an elaborate Scantron so they can receive their scores—and send them to the gaping maw of the academic-industrial complex.

Read More »

SubscribeStar Saturday: SATurday

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Continuing with a recent theme, today’s SubscribeStar Saturday post is all about what I did this weekend—well, at least this Saturday.

After a long, productive week at school—which saw my team of super nerds win their Quiz Bowl regional competition on Thursday—I woke up before the dawn to head back to school.  I signed up to proctor the SAT, the dreaded standardized test that is part of the grand kabuki theatre of higher education admissions.

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TBT: Lincoln on Education

This week’s TBT feature was also in last Sunday’s “Lazy Sunday XXIV – Education.”  With the school year in full swing, it’s always enjoyable to look back at the benefits of education—a reminder of why getting education right is so important.

Abraham Lincoln was largely self-educated, and he was motivated, it seems, by both a desire to improve his condition in life, and by a genuine love of learning.  As an avid reader myself, I can related to the anecdote (relayed below) of young Abe walking around with “a book in his hand or in his pocket.”

This little piece was an “Historical Moment,” a monthly feature for the Florence County (SC) GOP’s public events.  If I recall correctly, the FCGOP Chairman skipped over my segment in the program (presumably by mistake, but perhaps to save time), so while I wrote this brief talk for the September 2018 meeting, I did not deliver it publicly until the October meeting (it was published on this blog in September).

I hope you’ll find this adaptation of my talk enjoyable.  Here is “Lincoln on Education“:

We’re gathered here tonight to hear from members of and candidates for School Board; in that spirit, I’d like to speak briefly about education, particularly the education of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln.

From what I’ve read, Lincoln’s entire formal education consisted of around a year of schooling.  He would have a week or two here and there throughout his childhood in Kentucky and Indiana, and then return to working on the family’s farm.

Despite little formal education, Lincoln taught himself throughout his life.  He loved to read, and would read deeply on a variety of subjects, obtaining books whenever and wherever he could.  One of his contemporaries commented that “I never saw Abe after he was twelve that he didn’t have a book in his hand or in his pocket. It didn’t seem natural to see a feller read like that.”  When he sat for the bar exam, he’d read law books on his own time to prepare.

Lincoln also believed in education as a source of patriotism, morality, and self-improvement—what we might call “upward mobility.”  He was not a man who wanted to stay on the farm, and his self-education was a means to escape poverty.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to quote Lincoln at length from his 1832 speech “To the People of Sangamo County”:

“Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the scriptures and other works, both of a religious and moral nature, for themselves. For my part, I desire to see the time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present, and should be gratified to have it in my power to contribute something to the advancement of any measure which might have a tendency to accelerate the happy period.”

Here we can see Lincoln’s belief that education lays the foundation for patriotism—we understand our freedoms better when we understood what they cost, and that others lack them.  We see, too, the power of education to teach us the virtuous and the good.  From that morality flows, as Lincoln said, “sobriety, enterprise, and industry,” the tripartite tools to improve our material conditions.

Patriotism, morality, and industry—these were the three benefits of education Lincoln espoused.  Coming from the man who wrote the Gettysburg Address, I think we should take Lincoln’s views on education seriously.

Lazy Sunday XXIV: Education

The school year is back in full swing, and I am already beat.  It looks like it’s going to be a good year, and I have some very bright students, but my teaching load is substantially busier than last year, and my private lesson empire continues to grow.  Those are all blessings, but it means a lot more work for yours portly.

That’s all to say that I thought this Sunday’s edition of Lazy Sunday would be perfect for looking back at my education-related posts:

  • Lincoln on Education” – a little post consisting of remarks I made to the Florence County (SC) Republican Party back in September 2018 (actually, it may have been October—one of my “Historical Moments” was skipped in the program accidentally, so I reused it the following month).  I looked at the education—and the views thereon—of President Abraham Lincoln.  He was an avid learner, and saw education as the means by which he could improve himself.  Apparently, it worked!
  • Teachers Quitting in Record Numbers – Reflections on Education” – this lengthy post outlines my own observations about why teachers quit the profession—and some of its major problems.  My main idea was “flexibility”:  in pay, in lesson plans, and in certification.  Public education is a great deal for bad teachers—they coast along, cashing a paycheck no matter how well they do—but a poor one for good teachers.  Private education is great, but it can’t compete, at least in the rural South, with public education in terms of teacher pay and benefits.

    But the biggest concern is what I elegantly dubbed “administrative bullcrap.”  Teachers get loaded down with all of these duties that are only distantly related to their alleged jobs:  molding young minds.

  • The State of Education” – this post details the travails of a New York City French teacher, a good teacher whose experiences in multiple schools illustrate how public education is a bad gig for good teachers.  The stories are jaw-dropping, but hardly surprising now:  zero administrative support for discipline, a “talent show” that nearly devolves into a sweaty orgy, violent outbursts from animalistic students, etc.  Terrifying stuff.
  • Sailer and Spotted Toad on Education” – this post was a bit “meta”—it’s an overview of a review of a book.  That makes my post tertiary commentary at best.  The post looks at demographer Steve Sailer’s review of blogger Spotted Toad’s book 13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: Stories about Teaching and Learning a narrative memoir detailing Toad’s decade teaching in public schools in the Bronx.  I’ve picked up the book but still haven’t read it (I’m working through Milo’s Middle Rages: Why the Battle for Medieval Studies Matters to America; review coming soon), but it looks to be an interesting read.
  • SubscribeStar Saturday:  The State of Education Update” – this post is an update of “The State of Education,” written nearly on the eve of my return to this present school year.  As SubscribeStar Saturday exclusive, you’ll have to subscribe to my SubscribeStar page for $1 a month or more to read it.  Tantalizing, no?

So, there you have it.  Now to fulfill my obligation to my wonderful SubscribeStar subscribers and get their delayed post done.

Happy School Year!

–TPP

Other Lazy Sunday Installments:

McClay & Sheaffer on American History

It’s been a history-packed week for yours portly.  Tuesday morning my History of Conservative Thought students and I continued our examination of Edmund Burke, the great Member of Parliament and godfather of Anglosphere conservatism.  Burke foresaw the radical nature of the French Revolution well before the guillotining began.

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to substitute a colleague’s summer course, Terror and Terrorism, a popular course he’s run for several summers now.  Students in that course read excerpts from John Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (PDF, the same one the students read, in part), a political philosophy perhaps the polar opposite of Burkean traditionalism.

Rousseau’s theory of the “general will” is, I would argue, responsible for the radicalism of the French Revolution—which wrought the Bolshevik (Russian) Revolution, the Maoist revolutions of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and on and on.  There’s a reason one of my Conservative Thought students claims that “the French Revolution was the first Communist revolution,” by which he means it contained within it the collectivist ideals of Rousseau’s general will.

But I digress.  In the spirit of all that historical musing, I thought I’d recommend two pieces I’ve read recently about the historian’s craft, and the dangers of applying a progressive lens to our understand of the past.

The most recent piece is a post from Practically Historical, entitled “Expunging Our Past.”  Gordon Sheaffer‘s pithy historical posts are enlightening and engaging, and fits with an argument he makes in this post:

“History should be popular.  Our past must be understood by the citizenry- historical studies targeted only at academics cannot be how we measure the discipline.  There is a way to make history insightful and enjoyable.”

Amen!  One of my great frustrations while in graduate school was the ponderous relativism inherent in the jargon-laden, hyper-focused monographs we were forced to read.  I certainly acknowledge the usefulness and necessity of thoroughly researching a small corner of our historical experience, but what happened to the grand, sweeping histories of the eloquent generalist?

When I was a younger man, I relished reading accessible (but, nevertheless challenging) works of history, especially broad overviews of a time period or nation.  It’s fascinating to learn about the minutiae, to be sure, but a good historian should be able to give the broad strokes and the colorful details.

But the real point of Sheaffer’s piece is that the progressive revisionists are attempting to reduce American history to a Marxist (and Manichean) story of class struggle.  That trend dates back to Progressive Era historian Charles Beard, who famously argued that the Constitution was merely an economic arrangement that benefited the wealthy Framers, protecting their wealth and privilege at the expense of the common man.

Archfiend (and political scientist, not historian) Howard Zinn continued that theme in the popular-but-inaccurate A People’s History of the United States, which has sadly been adopted in many school districts across the country as an American history textbook.  Zinn presented American history as a procession of plutocrats exploiting the working people and racial minorities for personal aggrandizement, rather than the rich tapestry of hard-working yeoman and laborers who really built the country under the protective auspices of the Constitution.

Just as Burke was the antidote to Rousseau, so historian Wilfred McClay serves as a corrective to the partisan excesses of Zinn.  He’s written a new textbook, Land of Hope, which strives to be a “well-written and appealing history of the United States that, while being informed by the best scholarship, does not lose sight of the big picture about our nation’s admirable and exceptional history.”

McClay argues that without a proper foundation in our own nation’s history, we are unable to govern ourselves.  Quite true:  I would argue that a large part of our current national discontent and brutal culture war is that we have two very different visions of America.  The one is an America that is strong, liberty-loving, fair-minded, and great; the other is of an America that is exploitative, prejudiced, greedy, and callous.

That’s why I’ve long argued that simply requiring students to take an American history course to graduate from high school and/or college isn’t enough to move the needle.  It does no good if the course is a collection of progressivist pabulum or a crash-course in victim studies.  There’s no guarantee your high school history teacher—likely certified from a progressive education program—will actually teach American history fairly or accurately, much less your community college adjunct.

There are a ton of choice tidbits in this interview McClay gave to Encounter Books, the publisher of Land of Hope, but here’s a good excerpt on Zinn:

Encounter: Howard Zinn said that his goal in writing A People’s History of the United States was to create a “quiet revolution” in our understanding of American history. Did he succeed in that endeavor?

McClay: Yes and no. He succeeded in unsettling many aspects of the consensus in which American historical writing was embedded. He did this to an astonishing degree, particularly since he was not himself a historian. But he did not succeed in providing a substitute account of American history that goes beyond simplistic melodrama. Most honest historians will acknowledge that, even if they are sympathetic to Zinn’s leftist politics.

Encounter: Why was Zinn’s account so popular?

McClay: It is engagingly written, and gives a simple-minded, moralistic, account of the past as the struggle between the white hats and the black hats, the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. For some people, including many Americans who have felt disillusioned by our national flaws, this has been irresistible.

He also rails against the AP US History exam, which used to the “gold standard,” as he puts it, but which has suffered due to constant “tinkering with the exam, and interjection of themselves into what teachers actually teach in AP courses.”  I teach APUSH, and what McClay writes is absolutely true.  It’s bad enough teaching to a test every year—you don’t have the opportunity to luxuriate in the warm waters of historical detail—and it’s worse when the College Board tries to alter the exam every five minutes.

To close, one more powerful quotation from McClay:

Students should learn that history is not merely an inert account of self-explanatory details, but is a task of reflection that calls to our deepest sense of our humanity. And learning our history, the history of our own country, is part and parcel of learning who we are, and learning about the society of which we are already a part.

Again, I say, amen!

The Price of Freedom: A Good Attorney

A common observation on the Right is that the process is the punishment.  Leftists understand this premise well:  the power of an accusation and an attending lawsuit is that, even if the allegation is ultimately untrue, their opponent has endured costly legal battles.  That battle can cost them even more, including their livelihoods and their families.

Few people are able or willing to pay the costs, both financial and psychological (and, increasingly, physical) of Leftist attacks.  Those that do can look forward to years of grueling court appearances and legal fees, as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case demonstrated.

Conservatives know that story well:  the Christian owner of the Colorado bakery refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission trampled all over his religious convictions.  Rather than knuckle under to the social justice tyrants, the owner won a case in the Supreme Court after years of litigation… only to return home and have a man request a cake for a “gender transition” party.  The CCRC pounced on Masterpiece Cakeshop again.

The Left, in this regard, is relentless, as we saw last week with the Carlos Maza incident.  There is no pretext of fair play beyond the flimsiest, airiest of rhetoric—and, increasingly, the Left doesn’t bother with that.

Case in point:  a small, family-run bakery, Gibson’s Bakery, in Oberlin, Ohio, won a three-year suit for $11 million in damages against ultra-progressive Oberlin College.  The bakery was robbed the day after the 2016 election by three young black men, students at Oberlin.  The owner reported it to the police, and the three men were arrested.

But, because the burglars were black and the owners white—and, as the Breitbart piece reporting on the case implies, the progressives of Oberlin wanted to vent their tear-soaked anger at Donald Trump’s presidential victory on some unsuspecting white folks—the arrests soon became about race.

Not only did students protest—their professors and administration gave them time out of class to do so (and snacks)!  A college vice president, Meredith Raimondo, distributed flyers denouncing the bakery as racist, and which recommended other bakeries in the area.  The college also severed its business relationship with the bakery.

Like a medieval pope demanding criminal bishops be tried in ecclesiastical courts instead of civil ones, Oberlin further demanded that “first-time” offenders who are students at the college be turned over to the school for punishment.  Ignoring the glaring problem of how a shopkeeper is supposed to intuit if thugs in his store are first-time or repeat-offenders, that move to skirt the law through extralegal college tribunals smacks of the campus “rape” scare and its kangaroo courts—young men found guilty on flimsy charges of “retroactive rape” and the like.  Of course, in this situation, we all know that the college “courts” would sweep the criminal indiscretions of its students under the rug.

The result:  Gibson’s Bakery laid off most of its employees and nearly went out of business.

Justice was served in this instance with the much-deserved settlement (which has the potential to triple in value, pending a further hearing), but to quote commenter “mercury” on the Breitbart piece:

Unfortunately, there are probably 1,000,000 other cases that didn’t end so well for urban grocery stores, gas stations, convenience markets, clothes stores, and so on. This is where the perps got away with the theft, harassed or stole from customers, or shot the owners for resisting the theft.

Consider, too, the thousands of establishments that sucked it up and took one on the chin to stay in business.  Freedom, sadly, isn’t free.  Gibson’s Bakery defeated the Goliath of Oberlin College, but many Davids wither before progressive dominance.