Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mortimer Adler on teaching ('Firing Line' 1988), pt. II

Toward the end of Mortimer Adler's discussion with William Buckley and Midge Decter, the conversation turned to teachers and their preparation--or lack of preparation--for leading seminars and discussions of great literature and ideas. At Veritas this year we are focusing training for secondary teachers on using the Harkness method, which is essentially a seminar approach, so this part of the program is especially interesting to me.

I particularly appreciate Dr. Adler's comments on  the value of seminar teaching for both students and teachers. Also, his criticism of reliance standardized tests to measure learning and of the over-emphasis on vocational priorities to the detriment of a well-rounded, liberal education for all is extraordinarily relevant today. Many parents--I think unwisely--make 'practical use' their reason for choosing a particular school for their children, as if there were anything more useful than a classical, Christian education that gives children the ability to thoroughly understand, appreciate, and live wisely in the world God has made.

[The discussion below is taken from the transcript of 'Firing Line' taped May 6, 1988, and telecast a few weeks later. The transcript is copyrighted by the Southern Educational Communications Association.]

Dr. Adler:...When the great books are well taught in a seminar, they are not taught as antiquities, they are not taught as objects of art, they are taught as raising moral and political problems which are just as pressing today as when they were written.

Mr. Buckley: May I--

Ms. Decter: You and Allan Bloom and William Buckley, I presume to say, and I, are all in agreement on that point, I think. The real question is what to do with this total chaos we face here.
Dr. Adler: What we do, Mrs. Decter, what we spend all our money doing and all our time and effort is retraining the teachers. They don't have the faintest notion what a seminar is, they don't know how to conduct them. We go to schools and take--We have seminars for the teachers, we have them conduct seminars, we have them in seminars. They come out of schools of education, out of college totally untrained and fro the most part totally uneducated. The reason why I just said to Bill earlier today that it will take 50 years at least to get the Paideia Program installed in our schools is that we have to have a new generation of teachers. Our retraining of the present teachers is slow and cumbersome and not very successful because they are too old. Only when the teachers come through the Paideia schools, come up, and then we get a better corps of teachers, you. It's going to take a lot of time.

Mr. Buckley: Well, let me ask you this. Is there reason to anticipate resistance by the teachers or quite the opposite?

Dr. Adler: The interesting thing, Bill, is that wherever we have done this effectively--and sometimes we don't do it effectively--the teachers applaud it, and the reason why they applaud it is that teaching as they do--

Mr. Buckley: It enlivens their life.

Dr Adler: The dull lives that they lead, it enlivens their life and it wakes their minds up--They begin to think, they begin to learn, and in my judgement, only a learning teacher is a good teacher. Only the teacher who learns by teaching really teaches. The others are just reciting lessons, not teaching at all.

Mr. Buckley: What is he learning, technique?

Dr Adler: Thinking. His whole mind, shall I say, is at work.

Mr. Buckley: Well, if he comes in knowing that Antigone is by no means the principal victim in the story, how does that teacher go on to learn through a seminar?

Dr. Adler: Well, in the course of a seminar I've seldom had a seminar where--

Mr. Buckley: Is it refinement of the arguments?

Dr. Adler: --the students don't raise questions that are difficult to answer, where their objections aren't worth considering, where something that I don't get an insight that I didn't have before because of the movement of the discussion, you see? And most of the teachers that we expose to seminars, as you say, their minds are enlivened, they find the seminar process as interesting teaching experience and a learning experience for them as compared tot eh recitation of lesson plans they do in other kinds of classes. So we have very little resistance--if there is any resistance to the Paideia Program, it doesn't come from teachers and principals, it comes from colleges of education. I will tell you that the greatest opponent of the Paideia Program in the United States is Secretary Bennett. His model high school I regard as a complete surrender to all the wrong things--

Mr. Buckley: Because of the elite factor?

Dr. Adler: Elite, because it depends on these lousy, silly test scores as a measure of what's going on, and they don't measure anything worth bothering with, because he has a core curriculum with many electives, because he allows vocational training for those destined for labor rather than destined for leisure and learning...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Mortimer Adler on teaching ('Firing Line' 1988), pt. I

While boxing up books this past week in preparation for new carpeting,  I came across a transcript of 'Firing Line', the William Buckley program that ran for many years on television. In this particular episode Mr. Buckley interviewed Mortimer Adler (editor of the Great Books of the Western World, and promoter of the 'Paideia Proposal' which was designed to encourage democratic, liberal arts education in K-12 schools) about the Great Books program. As a public school teacher at the time I had become very interested in the Paideia plan (as had some of my administrators) and had taken the Great Books discussion leader training, as well.

I had ordered the transcript of the interview because of some of things that Adler had to say about reading and teaching great literature. Re-reading the interview this week I was struck again--as I had been in 1988--by the vision Adler holds out of what education really is all about. While not a Christian approach to education, the classical methods and goals he and Buckley discuss are often very consistent with what we're trying to do. And the cautions, as given below, are worth hearing, as well.

In the part of the program I'll quote below, Mr. Buckley and Dr. Adler were joined by a Ms. Decter, an 'author and editor'.  They were discussing the seminar (discussion) method of teaching great books.

Ms. Decter: One of my children happened to go to St. John's, where there are these great seminars about the great books for four years. And I visited for a weekend, and we sat in a seminar discussing Antigone. And they all sat together in this great seminar form which had been refined to the point where they all sat together with two seminar leaders discussing with one another Antigone for an hour, and at the end of it I thought I was going to go right out of my mind. And I walked out of there and said, 'Will no one tell these kids what Antigone is about?' Because they didn't know what it was about, and they were telling one another--they were having a seminar. It was the most pretentious, empty thing I had ever seen.

Dr. Adler: Many of the St. John's seminars, I am sorry to say that you're right. I have the same criticism. A good seminar--and they are hard to do--one not only that is enjoyable in itself but where everyone's understanding, the teacher's as well as the students', increase. If no one's understanding increases, it is a terrible waste of time. It's endless chat. And I have conducted Antigone with fifth graders and sixth graders, not with college students, with marvelous results. But you have to ask the right questions. Some of the young instructors at St. John's think that they should not ask leading questions. That is wrong. They should ask leading questions. They think they are only to be used as chairman of the conversation which is not correct. I am as critical of some of the St. John's seminars as you are. But don't hold the seminar down. Those are bad seminars, and I agree with you about that. 

Mr. Buckley: These are accretions on a curriculum that in the '30s was very good...

Ms. Decter: But surely this is an elitist form of---
Dr. Adler: No. I beg your pardon.

Mr. Buckley: I'm glad you asked that question. [laughter]

Ms. Decter: ...I didn't mean socially elitist. I meant intellectually elitist.

Dr. Adler: Not even intellectually elitist. The tragedy of Antigone, the problem that Antigone raises is a problem that every human being faces. The question I want to end up with in any discussion of Antigone, is, is that kind of problem with faces Creon having to change his mind about a difficult decision about his son and his fiance is a problem that can happen to any human being, and the children--young children of any age are very, very sensitive to the possibility that tragedy can enter anyone's life. The seminar on Antigone must end with their being conscious of the fact that tragedy can befall anyone.  It isn't for the kings and captains and statesmen only. The great books are not worth a darn unless they touch you and your life right now. I'm interested in their raising problems for you right now.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Are electronic media making our thinking shallower?

 A recent article in The Daily Telegraph (6/28/10) includes a brief review of a new book, The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, in which he "argues that new media are not just changing our habits but our brains".

Some selections from the article:

"When we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning."
"Deep thought, the ability to immerse oneself in an area of study, to follow a narrative, to understand an argument and develop a critique, is giving way to skimming. Young users of the internet are good at drawing together information for a school project, for example, but that does not mean they have digested it."
"This tendency to skim is compounded by the temptation of new media users to 'multi-task'"...Modern management tends to laud multi-tasking as an expression of increased efficiency. Science, on the other hand, does not. The human brain is, it seems, not at all good at multi-tasking--unless it involves a highly developed skill like driving.

David Meyer, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, says: 'The bottom line is that you can't simultaneously be thinking about your tax return and reading an essay, just as you can't talk to yourself about two things at once. People may think otherwise, but it's a myth. With complicated tasks you will never, ever be able to overcome the inherent limitations in the brain'". 

Having just re-read John Milton Gregory's The Seven Laws of Teaching, the following passage in the Telegraph article struck me as especially relevant to teachers and parents:

"Paying attention is the prerequisite of memory: the sharper the attention, the sharper the memory. Cursory study born of the knowledge that the information is easily available online results, say the worriers, in a failure to digest it. Perfect for our soundbite culture, but no so good for producing an informed, subtle-minded electorate. In addition, the brain needs rest and recovery time to consolidate thoughts. Teenagers who fill every moment with a text or Tweet are not allowing their minds necessary down-time."

[Gregory, in the chapter on the law of the learner, says something similar: "Teacher and textbook may be full of knowledge, but the learner will get from them only so much as his power of attention, vigorously exercised, enables him to shape in his own mind."]

Research into the impact of electronic media on learning is still on-going. But its effects are clearly not all helpful. Classical education emphasizes thoughtful and deep engagement with ideas and words, not the superficial, randomness inherent in much of the electronic media students use so frequently. While technology can be a helpful tool, there are potentially devastating dangers that we must be alert to.

Below is a link to the article: