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· Jacques Barzun "Takes On" Wayward Educationists ·

Newsweek's issue of 9/30 featured a fine "My Turn" essay called "Forget the Fads — The Old Way Works Best." A colleague dropped a copy in my mailbox yesterday, and after reading it on my way to class and then reflecting on it overnight, I thought more seriously about it: "Where," I thought, "have I seen these ideas expressed before?" Then bingo: Jacques Barzun, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, the sanest, shrewdest collection of education essays ever.

But to Newsweek first. Author Evan Keliher, author of Guerrilla Warfare for Teachers: (A Survival Guide), takes on the likes of Walter H. Annenberg and others in it, who, with private, sometimes public funds, have endowed Projects, Programs, and Policies aplenty while forgetting, of course, the fourth, most important "P": People (classroom teachers especially).

What's the result of their work? Mostly meetings. In fact, while making my slow way to Barzun overnight, I think I was put on track by chancing to read one such teacher, Naomi Chana, in her fine weblog Baraita.

We do not have a faculty meeting this week [she writes, in Two Texts Over Easy]. This is exciting, because for the past seven weeks we've had meetings every week — a spot of curricular reform, some mission-y stuff, a few searches to get underway, all things that needed doing. I, of course, got accustomed to the weekly meetings because I'd never known anything else. But this week we are meeting-free, and — in further proof that all's well with the academic world — . . .

Do you sense the relief here? Bored? Call a meeting, all educationists say, their answer to every curricular ill. And their question? Why, as Keliher explains, it's ever the same, a variation on the one Pharoah put to his geometry teacher Euclid — "Isn't there a short-cut hereabouts?" "No," Euclid rightly replied, "there is no royal road to geometry."

Obviously I'm not on it. So on to Barzun. In one essay, "The Art of Making Teachers" prefacing "Occupational Disease: Verbal Inflation," Barzun defines the problem by taking a bee-line to the heart of Keliher's complaint and of Chana's relief: the style road. He simply fixes on the chronic disjunction between educationists' words and deeds, on all educationese — powered by big bucks and small ideas — that turns teachers like Keliher into Survivalists and those like Chana into Dutiful-but-Duly-Relieved Skippers.

By temperment they [educationists] have no interest in Learning or capacity for it; by purpose they are bent not on instruction but on social work. They care little about history or science or good English, but they grow keen about any scheme of betterment; one recent proposal is: teach the importance of washing the hands.

The result of half a century or more of this world-reforming attitude may be seen in the language in which educationists think and talk. A fair sampling appears in the discussion of art teaching . . . : It[s] characteristics are: abstraction instead of direct naming; exaggeration of goals and results; seeing the student not as an individual but as an example of some psychological generality; taking any indirect means in place of the straight one; and finally: mistaking words for facts, and intentions for hard work.

Such is the educationist mind everywhere. Jacques Barzun, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, The University of Chicago Press, 1991, 96-97.

That's enough to make one educationist like me ashamed, for here I am today (October 11th), dutifully heading off to a meeting to hear talk about "mission-y" things (love that word) — having not yet learned to "wash my hands" of the stuff (in deed at least). But Listenin' to the Talk ain't Talkin' It, is it?

Or is it?


Twilight-Zone Department:

Hand-washing actually came up at the meeting.

I fear, as they say, I'm being "observed."

Posted by
Styles on October 11, 2002 02:57 PM

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