Category Archives: Education

What happened?

It’s a bad week. Polarization has lead to a federal truth commission (thank you Dems) and the likely removal of federal protection for reproductive freedom (thank you Reps). Neither of these, so far as we know, is popular. A working democracy of Americans would be unlikely to bring about either. But we don’t seem to have that—or at least not to the extent that we might have thought. In part, this is because of the way discourse in our society has deteriorated. Discourse in our society is, to say the least, strained.

Given how strained our discourse has become, some would prefer to have less of it, walking away from those they disagree with and encouraging others to do the same. In Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, finds it encouraging that roughly 56 percent of Americans seem to believe it “better for people to have good manners” than to “express what they really think” (76) and claims that civility suggests meals are “not the best venue for political debate” (79). On my view, by contrast, people too frequently censor themselves rather than engage in conversation with someone they think wrong about an issue. I think this horribly unfortunate, even if understandable. I think it is understandable because of the way many of us are raised. I think it unfortunate because it leads predictably to a loss of discourse that would promote a more civil society. When people don’t engage in civil discourse with each other, it’s too easy for people to live in ideological bubbles, too likely that people will be unable to even engage with those they disagree with, and too easy for those with power to ignore the wishes of the rest. I want to suggest one cause and possible corrective of this situation.

As children, when we visit extended family or friends, many of us are told not to mention religion or politics, Uncle Bill’s drinking, Aunt Suzie’s time in prison, or any number of other family “secrets” or disagreements. Those subject to these parental restrictions learn not to discuss anything controversial, including serious social issues and our own values. The lesson many seem to take from this is that it is impolite and disrespectful to disagree with others. It is hard for me to think this has not contributed to the polarization and rancor in our society. Because we are trained, from an early age, to censor ourselves and repress conversation about a wide array of topics, it’s not surprising that many are shocked when someone disagrees with them—we are taught not to disagree or even suggest a topic of conversation about which there is likely to be disagreement, so people are naturally surprised when others do precisely that. They think it rude. Given the surprise, moreover, many make no attempt to provide a reasoned response to someone who says something they disagree with or find distasteful. This is a mistake.

The problem may be worse than simple parental limits. As a culture, we seem committed to social separation. Not only do we actively and explicitly discourage children from having honest conversations (which join us with others), but we also seek to set up our lives so that we have more distance from each other—even our immediate family members. People complain about the rising cost of homes, but in real dollars, the cost per square foot of a home has not increased that much (see this). Home costs have increased largely because we insist on larger homes—homes where we have our own bathrooms, our own bedrooms, our own offices. With all of that space, we are away from our loved ones, leaving us able to avoid difficult conversations with even our closest intimates. We don’t have to negotiate for time in the shower, for use of the television, or much of anything else. We don’t have to discuss things we disagree about. (And, of course, Americans tend to think that once a child graduates from high school they ought to move out—again, allowing that those almost-adult children can avoid dealing with their parents, learning how to deal with them when they disagree. And when they “talk,” they now do so by texting—furthering the distance from what would be allowed by face to face, or at least, phone, conversations.) In all, we insist on and get more—more space, more privacy, more isolation. We also sort ourselves—moving to neighborhoods and jobs where others that agree with us live and work. We spend less and less time with people we disagree with And then we are surprised that we don’t know how to deal with such people.

So much for the social criticism. That is, I submit, one of the causes of our current lack of civil discourse (and thus increased polarization). If that is right, the solution should be straightforward: stop taking steps that discourage children from engaging in honest discussion. Make children share a bathroom so that they at least have to negotiate its use with a sibling. Maybe have them share a bedroom too! Really importantly, stop telling children not to discuss certain topics with others. Let them learn from others, let others learn from them. (And obviously, those of us teaching in college should seek to promote discussion of ideologically diverse views, even views that some find offensive.) We need to be offended when young so that we don’t refuse to engage with others we find offensive when we are adults. We would then be prepared for honest civil discourse.

Discourse and Attendance in College Classes

Many of my posts on RCL have been about discourse. None has been directly about discourse in classrooms, but I do try to make my classes sites of civil discourse. This is both because student dialogue is what makes the classroom fun and exciting for me and because I believe it is an essential part of college. (See this.). The discourse that occurs in classrooms and elsewhere on college campuses is an invaluable part of the college experience.

As I’ve discussed previously, I think there are 2 basic reasons to engage in discourse: to maintain or nourish a relationship or to convey information. (See here.) In college classrooms, I will simply assume, the latter reason is paramount. That is also hugely important elsewhere on college campuses—students learn a lot from each other—but the first reason is also hugely important as students make connections with others, some of whom will be life long friends and some of whom will be business associates.

This post is primarily about classrooms, so it’s the conveying of information that is relevant here. In particular, its what is relevant when asking whether attendance should be required in college classes. My own view about this has changed over the years. In the past, I’ve marked people down for poor attendance or multiple tardies or made class participation—for which attendance is a necessary prerequisite—a separate and substantial part of students’ grades. At a certain point, though, colleagues convinced me that making participation a part of a student’s grade was unfair to those students who have significant psychological issues with speaking in class. At first, I responded to that by allowing the “participation” to be outside of class—either in office visits or email. Eventually, I dropped it as a requirement and instead made it only a way to improve one’s grade. I’ve never stopped believing, though, in the importance of attending and participating in class.

Over the years, I’ve had students approach me about taking a class without attending. Some had very good reason they could not attend courses during the day when the course was offered—needing to work full time to support their family, for example. My standard reply was always something like “no, attendance is required” or “you can’t pass this class without attending, so no.” More recently, I have been questioning the wisdom of that. The issue has to involve consideration of the sort of information that is conveyed in classes.

As a philosopher, I am not at all concerned that students learn biographical facts about philosophers and only somewhat concerned that students learn even basic facts about different theories. My main concern is in getting students to see how to do philosophy. What that means is that I want students to learn how to think clearly, check assumptions, make valid inferences, and engage in both verbal and written discourse about arguments and their premises, inferential moves, and conclusions. I want to convey to them how to do this well.

Given what I want the students to get out of my classes, my question becomes “is attendance necessary for students to think clearly, check assumptions, make valid inferences, and engage in both verbal and written discourse about arguments and their premises, inferential moves, and conclusions?” Another way to ask the question is to ask: “do individual learners need professors to learn how to do those things?” I think most do.

Classically, education has three stages: grammar, logic, rhetoric. I prefer to think of these in terms of mimesis, analysis, synthesis. The idea is that young children must memorize information, imitating language and such, and until they have some minimum amount of knowledge, they can’t be expected to do anything else. Once they have that, though, they can move on to the second stage wherein they can use logic to analyze things, figuring out what goes where and why. They can even question—analyze—the bits of information they previously learned. Only with mastery of analysis can they move on to the third stage wherein they can make something new, synthesizing something from the parts of what they have analyzed.

Teachers are clearly needed for mimesis—someone has to provide the student what it is that should be learned (memorized, imitated). Perhaps teachers are also needed for the beginnings of the second stage, pointing students in the right direction as they begin to do logical analysis. One needs to understand basic rules of deductive logic to do analysis well and I suspect most of us need someone to teach us that. But does everyone? Frankly, I doubt it though I suppose how much teachers are needed here will depend on how much of logic is innate to our reasoning abilities. It seems even less likely that teachers are necessary for the third stage, though clearly someone to give us direction can be useful and I think it likely that most of us learn best in dialogue with others. If that is right, attendance in class would clearly be useful. So perhaps that is the answer to my question: most people need direction, they can only get that in class, so attendance should be required.

What, though, if some want to learn without professors? Some certainly can do so. Whether they should be allowed to do so when in college is another question. After all, if they are able to do so, why should they enroll in college at all? If they do enroll, the college can simply say “you are enrolling here and that means accepting that we know best how you will learn (or at least recognizing that we get to decide), and we deem it necessary for you to attend courses.”

Some will no doubt think that the sort of view just attributed to a college is overly paternalistic. On the other hand, some people will be unfortunately wrong when they think they can teach themselves collegiate level material. Some people, after all, read great books and completely misunderstand them. I have met people who thought themselves erudite for reading Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and others, but whose comprehension of those authors was abysmal. Such people would be well served by a policy requiring course attendance. Without it, they would lack comprehension and thus do poorly on any assessments.

Still, presumably some can read those materials and do well. (In other systems, after all, attending classes is—was?—not expected; one studies a set of materials and then is examined.) Others might not do well, but do well enough for their purposes. They may, that is, only want some knowledge (or some level of skill)—happy to have read the texts even if their comprehension is limited—and be happy to get a C or C- in a course. They may have reason to want a college degree independent of learning well. (In our society, after all, many seem only to go to college to get a degree to signal to employers that they are worth hiring. It’s hard to blame them for this given how our society works.)

So a student may have good reason to enroll in a college, register for a course, and not attend. But what should we think about this and what should professors do? Some professors, of course, may be annoyed or insulted if students are apparently unconcerned to attend regularly or show up on time. I was in the past, but no longer am. I still, though, have a hard time tolerating feigned surprise at grades from students who obviously did not prioritize the class. I would prefer a student who says “its not worth my coming to class; I’ll just try to pass without doing so” to one who lies about how hard they are trying to do the work. Frankly, I am coming to think that if they pass, the former simply deserve congratulations. (If they don’t pass, they can’t expect me to be upset. I can root for their passing, without being surprised if they don’t.) But, honestly, I’d be hugely surprised if they did at all well without attending. That is the main concern—the best pedagogy.

Why would I be surprised if a non-attending student passed? Frankly, I think that the vast majority of people learn better in a class with a professor than they can without. If nothing else, in philosophy and other humanities classes, they learn something very important—how to engage in good civil, honest, and productive discourse. That does affect how they perform on exams and papers. What I expect in all of the writing my students do—whether on a short essay exam, longer essay exams, or papers—is well-written and well thought out, honest and civil responses to whatever prompt is provided. I want them to do philosophy after all, not sophistry or fluff. Attending class means being in an environment designed to help them learn. If they participate as I hope they do, they can also help improve that environment. That makes for better outcomes for all in the class. Even if they don’t participate—and, again, I realize doing so is honestly hard for some students—they are likely to do better simply because they hear the sort of discourse I seek to promote. If they hear others practicing good discourse, they are likely to pick up on what it is. Attendance helps.

The whole point of classes is that for most students, they promote learning—for those attending. Why, then, would someone want to register for a class if they don’t plan to attend? One answer is that the current system mainly doesn’t allow them to get the credentials of college without doing so. Mainly. We do have fully asynchronous online classes for which one does the work on one’s own time so long as one completes it by the required deadlines, including finishing it all by the end of a semester. (But why insist on a time limit?)

While we don’t have a system conducive to students not registering for classes and yet getting credentialed, that isn’t reason to require attendance in the classes we offer. Perhaps we ought to make it possible for students to take a syllabus, learn the material on their own, and sit for an exam when they feel themselves ready, without imposing a schedule on them. If they pass, great. If not, perhaps they try actually taking the class (i.e., including attending). That may be what we should do. Until then, some of us will require attendance and some will not.

Open for comments and discussion. What do others think?

Schools, Teachers, Parents, and a Bad Assumption

In my last post, I discussed the problems surrounding opening schools and, importantly, how we discuss them. In this post, I want to raise an issue about schooling more generally that is rarely discussed at all. I want to show how our current system encourages a false belief about parents and teachers that has pernicious results.

I begin by noting that my wife is a public school teacher and, given how Georgia is handling the pandemic, I have a clear preference for her to not teach in her school building. I also have a school age child who was, until a month ago, in a private school. The administration of that school is, I think, approaching the situation far better than most, but we still worry about both health and pedagogical risks. Thinking about both returning (or not) to school has me once again wondering about fundamental social problems—especially regarding schooling and parenting.

I think most of us are pretty bad at parenting. (Philip Larkin understood this well, but I should be clear that I think there are a huge variety of ways that we are bad at it—some are overbearing and some are entirely too loose, for opposing examples.) Worries about increased child abuse with school closures are therefore not at all surprising. On the other hand, I also think most K-12 schools are pretty bad at educating. Having served on committees for two charter schools and volunteered and watched at my son’s schools, I’ve been amazed at how unwilling school administrators can be to make use of evidence about best educational practices. (This is sometimes true even when they clearly know the evidence—in such cases, they tend to point out that they are constrained by budgets, politics, etc.) Schools don’t, in my view, offer enough music or art or time to relax, run, and breath outside. They also tend to start too early in the morning, foolishly insist children sit still and at desks, force students to maintain logs of reading, and even penalize students that read unassigned books at the wrong time. Worries about children being stifled and losing their innate curiosity because of school rules are therefore also not surprising.

Many parents are aware of problems with their children’s’ schools. Some even work to correct them. Most, though, seem to “mind their own business”—as if the education of their children were not their business. Indeed, many parents seem to think that because schools are provided and mandatory, they are themselves absolved of the responsibility for educating their children. (As schools feed and medically nurse children, parents may feel absolved of even more responsibility.) Even the best of parents tend to assume their children are being well taken care of at school. Unfortunately, too many parents assume their children are the school’s responsibility during the day. Interestingly, the pandemic helped some see that their school was not working for them. (See this interesting NY Times piece.)

I do not think any of this is surprising or unexplainable. We live in a society wherein government has encouraged parental abdication of educational responsibilities. Parents often rightly feel that they cannot opt out of government run schools. Where they can, they usually are constrained to choose either the local government school or a nearby private school. Only in some locales is there a simple and straightforward process through which you can legally educate your own child. (The option is, I think, available everywhere in the US, but with more or less red tape involved.) Encouraged is a belief that I suspect drives the problems that beset schools: that parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct and must be kept separate.

Our system of K-12 education relies on the idea that parents are not teachers. Indeed, some homeschooling parents have been condemned for thinking they could teach their own children. Parents, on this view, are supposed to feed, clothe, love, and maybe socialize children. Schools, on the other hand, provide teachers to educate children, too often including moral education (and might also provide food and healthcare for the children). And schools—or the administrators thereof (or, worse, politicians)—decide where a child will learn and how. A parent that tries to send her child to a better public school than the one closest may face jail time—because the school system decides, not the parent. (See this and this.) Parents, after all, don’t know about education.

Two problems emerge when people believe parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct. The first, I’ve discussed above: schools operate with a variety of problems and parents don’t work to change them or do so but face insurmountable difficulties in the attempt. When they don’t try, it is likely at least partly because thinking that parents aren’t teachers makes parents think teachers have an authority they do not. And, of course, they assume teachers run schools. The second problem is a corollary: because parents are led to believe schools and teachers have an authority they do not themselves possess, parents don’t think they need be active participants in their children’s education. In short, parents take less responsibility for raising their children, leaving more and more to schools. What society gets, too often, is school graduates who learn to do as they are told, conforming to societal requirements. If parents were more active, we’d get more diversity in how children are educated, resulting in many benefits (though admittedly also costs in terms of equity). I think we are seeing some of this already and hope to see more. We’d get more people contributing in more and more varied ways to society, creating more and more varied benefits for all.

In short, the all too common belief that parents and teachers are necessarily distinct lets parents off the hook for too much and grants schools too much leeway. Challenging that belief would encourage parents to challenge their children’s schools, thereby either improving the schools or having the schools lose students to other alternatives.

The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate many things. Hopefully, one positive outcome will be a healthier view of the relationship between parenting and education–one that emphasizes parental responsibility and acknowledges the limits of career educators (especially those in what might be called “educational factories”). One might even hope that this would help make parents better at parenting.

(Conversations with my wife and with Lauren Hall, JP Messina, and Kevin Currie-Knight inspired, and helped me with, this post.)