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19th of November 2018

Moral Values

The Thanksgiving Turkey Theory of Education - Crisis Magazine

I’m a teacher of some apparent merit and a philosopher of very little. I am decidedly not an educationist. I don’t know, let alone employ, novel theories of education or tricks of the modern pedagogical trade. I read philosophical books with students, talk to them about those books, ask them questions, and attempt to answer their questions. This method appears to have the desired effect of promoting the students’ learning, sharpening their thinking, and improving their ability to read and speak well. I periodically judge, perhaps too harshly, students’ writing and their recollection of the things I teach. I don’t use presentation software or alternate delivery methods; I don’t flip classrooms; and I’ve never gamified anything in my life. Frankly, I’m not sure I know what any of that really means, though I’ve heard plenty about it.

This doesn’t mean I don’t think about and read about teaching and learning, but I prefer to spend my time with classical texts: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, and St. Augustine’s The Teacher. I don’t mind reading more recent books, but the ones I care about are quite likely to be judged old-fashioned and stuffy by our educationists and their followers: Gilbert Highet’s The Art of Teaching, Jacques Barzun’s Teacher in America, Antonin Sertillanges’s The Intellectual Life, and just about anything Fr. James Schall has written—though I’m partial to, in part because of its splendidly funny subtitle, Another Sort of Learning. I’m not at all opposed to learning more about learning, and thus improving as a teacher, but I prefer what has been tried and tested (for millennia) over anything supposedly progressive and innovative.

I’ve done the math. Life is short and I’m about half way through mine, yet I remain woefully ignorant about many things that really matter. I simply don’t have the time to bother with learning more about pedagogical theories and best practices, even if there is a remote chance that I might benefit from them. It boils down to risk and reward. The risk of lost time far outweighs the possibility that my effort might be rewarded with some improvement in my students’ retention of information or test scores. I suspect that my students, who seem genuinely grateful that I actually know my subject, would prefer instead that I continue rereading the material I already teach. This is all to say that I don’t know education theory. And, in case it hasn’t been made clear yet, I don’t care to.

Nonetheless, I have some sense of the kinds of pedagogical images that operate in our world, particularly in universities. Motivated by this vague and admittedly mostly uninformed sense of the contemporary state of educationist literature, let me offer my own metaphor, spelled out in three stages, to describe contemporary education. Let me call it the Thanksgiving Turkey Theory of Education.

Theory of Education: Turkey StuffingFirst stage: stuffing the turkey. Students are like Thanksgiving turkeys, ready to be stuffed. Some turkeys have bigger cavities than others and the stuffing can be more or less nutritious and flavorful, but the practice of filling the cavity to the brim is the same in all cases. The only condition required of the turkey is the capacity to receive the stuffing; the cavity must be intact and free of necks and innards (especially those sneakily stored in plastic packaging). The rest is up to the cook. The cook, and not the turkey, decides what is and is not appropriate stuffing. The turkey—i.e., the student—is entirely passive.

There’s much wrong, of course, with this model, but let’s start by noting something that isn’t entirely off the mark. There is indeed something passive about learning. Learning requires docility, and by this I mean an openness to the stability of the knowable world. Moreover, the student-learner must trust that the one imparting knowledge is worth listening to and following. If the teacher knows something non-trivial about the world and if the student wants to know it, the latter must make an effort to receive that knowledge. Of course, our poor turkey is far too submissive, with no agency whatsoever, and thus no capacity to prevent itself from being stuffed badly. Unlike the turkey, students might be motivated to reject bad teachers when they meet them—though my experience is that the student insightful and brave enough to do so is rare.

Passivity isn’t the real problem here—it’s the stuffing. We might concede that there are things worth knowing that are somewhat analogous to stuffing. Learning has something to do with the acquisition of information. And, like stuffing, there is probably a limit to the amount of information one can receive and retain. Stuffing falls out, and so does information, sometimes very soon after writing a final exam. But surely not all of learning is like stuffing; indeed, the things most worth learning are utterly unlike stuffing. Even if I could provide my students with every possible true proposition about human virtue, and even if my students memorized all those propositions perfectly and were able to repeat them word for word on a test, they would not have learned virtue; they’d have information about virtue, which is not without worth, but they would not, for all that information, be virtuous. Some information is worth knowing, but not everything worth knowing is information to be crammed into an empty and passive mind.

Theory of Education: Eating TurkeySecond stage: eating the turkey. Students are like Thanksgiving dinner guests, ready to eat the turkey. (If nothing else, this is much more flattering than calling them turkeys.) The cook, who has knowledge of cookery, prepares the dinner, but the guest is the arbiter of its success. The guest is active, not passive; he eats and judges. Silly as the metaphor may be, this model is no doubt familiar: the student as consumer. The student, like the guest, consumes the stuff of education and judges its merits, which also means that prudent teacher, like the prudent cook, will give the customer what he wants. The teacher flatters the student because the customer is always right.

This model has even more obvious and serious flaws, the most glaring of which is that the standard of appraisal is worse than misplaced; it is altogether wrong. Dinner guests are presumably experienced enough with eating to have some grounds to judge; students, who are by definition ignorant of the content of education, are less well positioned to make judgments. But this isn’t the worst of it. The travesty is that the measure of assessment is subjective and not objective; the standard is now preference, and not quality of ingredients, or nutrition, or truth, or anything objectively meaningful. I’d rather a judge be experienced, but, if applying an objective standard, inexperienced judges may be tolerable. In contrast, applying a subjective standard to assess an objective thing invalidates the judgment no matter how experienced the judge is. The second stage of the turkey model of education adopts the most obnoxious standard of assessment possible: me like, me no-like.

There is, nonetheless, something defensible here, however deeply buried it is beneath subjectivism and self-entitlement. The thing being consumed is objective and the “expert” who made it has some value. Someone must roast the turkey, and this is objective. Some cooks do this well, producing a moist and flavorful dinner, while some produce something out of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. “Me like, me no-like” is no genuine standard of appraisal, but even this standard will mean that the former will tend to be preferred over the latter. There is some reason to hope that at least some will come to prefer genuine education over trivial nonsense—maybe not a lot of reason to hope, but at least not none.

Theory of Education: Turkey SubstitutionThird (and hopefully final) stage: substituting the turkey. The student is no longer the turkey to be stuffed, preferably by someone with some knowledge of ingredients and techniques. Nor is the student any longer the dinner guest, eating and judging the turkey, preferably one prepared by someone who, in addition to having knowledge of stuffing, has knowledge of proper roasting techniques (as well as knowledge of mashing potatoes, creaming corn, and rolling biscuits). The student is now an innovator and creator. Who needs turkey anyhow, let alone the knowledge of its proper preparation, which takes much time to acquire? Let’s replace the turkey with its inexcusable simulacrum: “tofurkey.”

Let me be fair to tofu-eaters: I’m not interested in tofu, but I don’t mind if someone else is. However, our innovator hasn’t merely prepared tofu; he has prepared tofu as if it were a turkey. His lack of taste is unfortunate; his audacity, unbearable! I would much rather have a turkey dinner, but I’m no ingrate. I’ll gladly eat the tofu I’m served, even as I suffer while doing so (not unlike Clark Griswold). What I cannot do is accept the lie that it tastes like turkey, if not better.

If the student is like the person trying to pass tofurkey off as a fine Thanksgiving dinner, there is no more standard to speak of other than the student’s self-satisfaction. Gone are the turkeys and objects of knowledge; gone are the cooks and teachers. We are left with the student as producer or inventor, making whatever he likes, calling it knowledge, and even insisting that it is as good as or better than the things we had before, such as roast turkeys and a genuine knowledge of the stable order of things. To make matters worse, the teacher becomes something of an enabler. The teacher’s job is no longer to teach, but to create the conditions in which the student can make things up.

I hope the silliness of my model doesn’t go too far in distracting us from the seriousness of the issue. I’ve seen each stage. There is the strict passivity of education as nothing but the acquisition of information; then there’s the view of the student as the consumer, the one who deserves to get it his way because he has paid for it; in recent years, we’re seeing this last and most pernicious version: the student as producer, making knowledge, not discovering it. Within this model, the student doesn’t learn existing knowable things, but rather creates some supposed knowledge that has been hitherto unknown, and which was unknown because it isn’t knowledge of something that existed before he made a claim to knowing it. After all, as contemporary insanity has it, everything is socially constructed. Whereas the student as learner apprehends some portion of the stable order of things, the student as knowledge producer inventively and proudly rejects the stability of that order in favor of the fluidity of endless and purposeless possibilities. The learner might not, in the end, learn anything, but he accepts that there is something to be learned—even if this means he is a turkey. The producer cannot learn anything because there’s nothing to be learned. There are skills to develop and opinions to assert. But learning? That’s too old-fashioned. This student is almost the exact opposite of the humble and docile student who recognizes his ignorance.

I don’t mind metaphors, but maybe it’s time to stop trying to devise new ones for very old things, like education. Instead of images, let’s realize that students are human beings—bodies and souls—who don’t yet know much, but who can come to know something about the real world and whose souls are nourished by such knowing. Similarly, let’s admit that teachers, if they are real ones, have some of that knowledge and that it is their moral and intellectual responsibility to share it, to guide the students to nothing more nor less than the truth. We don’t need clever educationists and their clever theories; old-fashioned knowledge, common sense, and humility will do just fine.

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