Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Closing of the American Mind and Catholic education

The most recent number of The Intercollegiate Review, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, features a symposium marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Has it really been that long?

Bloom's book was a real sensation and a surprise bestseller. Looking back, I can see why. The Closing was more than a highbrow attack on contemporary academic careerism (a la Jacques Barzun), a middlebrow defense of great books (a la E. D. Hirsch), or a populist expos‚ of tenured radicals and puerile campus ideologues (a la David Horowitz). The gist of Bloom's polemic-and the book was nothing if not a long, erudite, and hyperbolic polemic-was a brief against the cultural revolution of the 1960s. He said out loud what liberal elite culture could only regard as heresy: The supposed idealism of the 1960s was, in fact, a new barbarism. Whatever moral and spiritual seriousness the long tradition of American pragmatism had left intact in university life, the anti-culture of the left destroyed.

The result? Higher education has become, argued Bloom, the professional training of clever and sybaritic animals, who drink, vomit, and fornicate in the dorms by night while they posture critically and ironically by day. Bloom identified moral relativism as dogma that blessed what he called "the civilized reanimalization of man." He saw a troubling, dangerous, and soulless apathy that pleasured itself prudently with passing satisfactions ("Always use condoms!" says the sign by the dispenser in the bathroom) but was moved by no desire to know good or evil, truth or falsehood, beauty or ugliness.

I remember reading Bloom in 1987, feeling as though he was describing what I was experiencing as a young graduate teaching assistant. Bright, energetic, ambitious Yale students could master material with amazing speed. They could discuss brilliantly. They could write effective, well-researched papers. But they possessed an amazing ability to understand without being moved, to experience without judging, to self-consciously put forward their own convictions as mere opinions. On the whole, they seemed to have interior lives of Jell-O.

I have since learned that students are often not as they appear. Quite a number have steely souls and passionate convictions, but they have learned that the proper posture of higher education is either soft diffidence or its counter-image, snarky critical superiority. At times, a cultivated moral passion is OK, even desirable, especially if it is sincerely felt, unconventional, and asserted as an imperative of personality. An urgent vegetarianism expressed with a vehemence bordering on taboo, for example, can be quite acceptable. What is positively discouraged, however, are reasoned, principled commitments. So students who have real and serious moral or religious convictions hide them and cordon them off from their educational experience.

The need to hide convictions, and the tendency to separate conviction from education is especially true for students who have traditional beliefs. Nearly all faculty stand at the ready to critique and correct. The guillotine of professorial intervention need fall only once or twice before students realize that all truths are relative, and some are more relative than others. Usually, this has already happened in secondary school, and students come to college wise to the logic of multicultural "inclusion."

Bloom helps us see that, whether students lack convictions or disguise them, the educational effect is pretty much the same. The most important question in peoples lives-that is to say, the question of how they should live-remains largely unconnected to the sophisticated intellectual training that continues to take place in the classroom. I can often get students to "share" their moral "opinions," and often with a certain warmth of conviction. I can also get students to analyze classical arguments for or against various accounts of the good life. But I find it difficult to induce students to take a passionate and rational interest in fundamental questions. Students are either soulless creatures, or they recuse their souls from any contact with reason and argument. This phenomenon was what troubled Allan Bloom, and this is why he wrote The Closing of the American Mind.

Leaders in Catholic education should revisit Bloom's spiritual diagnosis. To a large extent, a similar worry about passionless, commitment-free inquiry dominates John Paul II's teaching on education, philosophy, and the dignity of reason. In Fides et Ratio, the late pope expressed a great concern that contemporary intellectual culture has lost touch with "the search for ultimate truth," and as does Bloom, John Paul II evokes the danger of relativism. We should beware "an undifferentiated pluralism," he writes, for an easy celebration of "difference" undermines our desire for truth and reduces everything to mere opinion.

Over the years, I have observed that most Catholic deans, provosts, and presidents ignore or even contribute to the slide of higher education into soulless relativism. Most take the integrity of reason and the truth claims of the Catholic Church for granted, even as it slowly declines into the standard, amoral, post-cultural agenda of secular education. Some actively undermine the relationship of the university to the Church in order to deploy the university as part of the liberal Catholic resistance to the conservative trends in the larger Church. Others imagine that multicultural educational ideologies rightly express a Catholic commitment to social justice and the preferential option for the poor.

Every Catholic university has its own story. But the basic dynamic tends to be the same. For all their good intentions, most Catholic administrators are hopelessly confused and inconsistent when it comes to the goals of education. Just talk to a Catholic dean or college president. They do not want non-Catholic students to be "uncomfortable," and they want everyone to feel "included." Then, not a minute or two later, the conversation shifts, and the very same proponents of inclusion will insist that we need to challenge our students with critical thought and diverse perspectives. Hello! You can't have it both ways-making students comfortable and challenging them.

Of course, what most Catholic educators usually mean is that a professor should challenge the traditional beliefs of Catholic students and challenge any conservative political or economic beliefs that students are foolish enough to expose. This critical project, which is conveniently well-coordinated with the agenda of secular education, has the desired effect of making administrators and faculty feel good about their great vocation as critical educators while-miracle of miracles-making anybody who disagrees with the teachings of the Catholic Church feel comfortable and welcome.

The students are not stupid. Those with traditional and conservative convictions quickly realize that the deck is stacked against them, and they learn to separate their religious and moral and political convictions from the classroom. They remove their souls from the university. The non-Catholic students realize that few faculty create a pedagogical environment where Catholic teaching can make a claim on their intellects and lives. They relax, gratified that they can get an education without having to put any energy into arguing against and resisting. Their souls are left quiescent and unchallenged. What Bloom feared becomes the atmosphere of Catholic education: the question of how we should live fails to enter into the center of university life.

Maybe I'm simple-minded, but I don't think the solution is all that difficult to understand. Catholic universities should challenge students-with the full force of the Catholic tradition. A truth that presses us toward holiness is a far greater threat to naive credulities and bourgeois complacency than anodyne experiences of "difference" or easy moves of "critique," which bright students master and mimic very quickly.

I don't think that the lectern should be turned into a pulpit, but the soul of Catholic education requires classrooms haunted by the authority of the Church and the holiness of her saints. That was the actual, experienced effect of the old system, when large numbers of faculty were priests and nuns.

Every culture demands and prohibits, encourages and exhorts. The desire to have a university free from demands, a classroom sanitized and unhaunted, is nothing short of desiring an education free from culture. Many professors and administrators today desire this kind of education. For multiculturalism, "diversity," and disembodied "critical thinking" add up to an imaginary, spectral meta-culture that is, by definition, no culture at all. And as I have said, students are not stupid. They realize that an education free from the commanding truths of culture is an invitation to live as clever, well-trained, and socially productive animals; and like all good students, they live up to the expectations.

Today the single greatest goal of Catholic universities should be to withdraw this debasing invitation. All students are well served by an educational atmosphere shaped by the demands of Catholic culture, demands that bear down upon us with the frightening force of divine commandments. For the dangerous commitments of truth and not the cool dispassion of critique open minds.


California school revives segregation

With schools under increasing pressure to improve test scores, Mount Diablo High School has resorted to a new way to motivate students: by race. The Concord campus on Friday held separate assemblies for students of different ethnicities to talk about last year's test results and the upcoming slew of state exams this spring. Jazz music and pictures of Martin Luther King greeted African-American students, whereas Filipino, Asian and Pacific Islander students saw flags of their foreign homelands on the walls. Latinos and white students each attended their own events, too, complete with statistics showing results for all ethnicities and grade level.

"They started off by saying jokingly, 'What up, white people,'" said freshman Megan Wiley, 14. Teachers flashed last year's test scores and told the white crowd of students to do better for the sake of their people. "They got into, 'You should be proud of your race,'" Wiley said. "It was just weird."

Several parents later told the Times that the meetings smacked of segregation resurrected. "Why did they have to divide the students by race?" said Filipino parent Claddy Dennis, mother of freshman Schenlly Dennis. "In this country, everybody is supposed to be treated equally. It sounds like racism to me."

Principal Bev Hansen said she held the student assemblies by ethnicity this year and last year to avoid one group harassing another based on their test scores. The 1,600-student campus, one of the most ethnically diverse high schools in the Mt. Diablo school district, is roughly half Latino, 30 percent white and 15 percent black, with Asian nationalities rounding out the mix. Last year, the school improved its academic performance index score, largely based on test scores, to 613 out of 1,000. Among the races, Asians scored highest. Whites earned a 667. African-Americans scored a 580, whereas Latinos earned a 571. "I don't want students being teased," Hansen said.

Ultimately, however, Hansen said she did not know why parents seemed so concerned. The state has reported scores based on race for years. The school assemblies simply reflected those same categories in reporting the numbers to students, she said. "In this country, race is a very uncomfortable topic, and it's time we got over it," Hansen said.

Jack Jennings, president of the National Center on Education Policy, a leading education research group, called the racially divided meetings potentially illegal and dangerous. "It's segregation by race, whatever the motivation," Jennings said, noting that he had never heard before of a school or district doing such a thing. He described the assemblies as a unique byproduct of the intense focus on testing. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools, school districts and states must report and are accountable for scores in reading and math for specific races, English learners, special-education students and economically disadvantaged students. All statistically significant groups must show continuous test score improvement. "It shows that there's so much pressure to raise test scores that teachers and administrators are trying to do anything they can," Jennings said. "Sometimes what they choose is not very wise."

Last spring, California High School in the San Ramon Valley pulled Latino and black students in for pretesting pep talks but not white students. The principal apologized after parents flooded the mayor's office with complaints.

Mount Diablo sophomore Hector Rivera, 15, said he enjoyed the speakers at his Latino student assembly. "The way they were speaking, it was intended to make people feel good," Rivera said. "I guess it was to inspire everybody, like you can do better." Hispanic students made a 50-point gain on the state's 1,000-point achievement scale. White students improved by 46 points, whereas English learners posted the greatest rise, more than 80 points.

"There's nothing negative about these assemblies," said school secretary Arnetta Jones, who is African-American and helped organize the assembly for African-American students. "It wasn't, in any way, to put people down." African-American students raised their score on the state academic performance index by 61 points. "We showed an incredible amount of improvement on our test scores," Jones said. The event also celebrated black culture, Jones said. Two students performed a dance with choreography by African-American dance visionary Alvin Ailey. A black pastor from Bay Point delivered a message. One student read a poem that is the mantra of a black fraternity from UC Berkeley. "That kind of set the tone," Jones said.

However, some African-American students interpreted the school's messages differently. Freshman Jason Lockett, 14, said he saw the pictures of Martin Luther King and the words, "Black Power" projected overhead. But the scores, despite being an increase over last year, still lag other races'. "It was to compare us and say how much dumber we were than everybody else," Lockett said.

Principal Hansen said although some students were upset, they deserve to know the truth about lower test scores. "We need help in closing the achievement gap," Hansen said. "This is one tiny step."


Teach the teachers

Comment from Australia

When a friend asked at a school meeting a few years ago what were the key concepts her child would be learning that year, the beginner teacher couldn't answer. In an age when at some schools you can take a course in text messaging it seems even teachers no longer know what our kids are meant to be learning.

Whole terms are wasted on themed units about the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. After six years in primary school, my daughter could recite to you the entire history of the Olympics -- but she has only a very patchy knowledge about the history of her own country.

The push by both major parties to have a national curriculum is long overdue but it will only be welcomed by parents if it unites the states behind a higher standard rather than the lowest common denominator. And it will only work if the people delivering that new curriculum are well trained to deliver it.

A report out this week found the training and morale of the teaching profession is just as big a problem as the curriculum they teach. The House of Representatives inquiry Top of the Class found one in five beginner teachers leaves the profession within their first five years of teaching. More disturbing for parents is that the report highlighted the worrying fact that the people teaching our kids may often have no command themselves of maths and literacy. Only four of the 31 universities that carry out teacher training require their students to have Year 12 maths.

Melbourne University told the inquiry it would have to disqualify half its student teachers if it required them to have Year 12 maths. That's why the House of Representatives committee is calling for trainee teachers to have their literacy and numeracy skills tested when they start their degree.

Having a good grasp themselves of what they should be teaching our kids is one thing, but knowing how to get that message across is another. In my job I get to question prime ministers and I've performed in front of television cameras and on radio. However, none of these jobs has scared me as much as the time I had to give a talk to the 25 kids in my daughter's class. Trying to hold the attention of 25 nine-year-olds, keep them under control and try to get a message across is no easy feat.

That's why you'd think our teacher training courses would be chock full of practical teaching experiences for our teachers. But they're not. In NSW, a person who graduates with a one-year Diploma of Education will have spent just 20 days in front of a class. Someone who does a four-year teaching degree will get 80 days in front of a class during their university training. In the ACT, the requirement is just 30 days teaching practice.

The inquiry found that very often this very important practical component of a teacher's education is not supervised by universities or assessed because they don't have the staff or the money. All the educational and psychological theory lessons in the world won't help when you've got to control a class of 30 kids, one of whom tries to use the Bunsen burners to set the science lab alight or throws a chair through the window. That's the sort of behaviour my cousin had to deal with in her first year of teaching.

It's when they leave university that the teacher training system really cheats new teachers. The inquiry found very few of them got any help at all settling in or learning to apply the theory they'd learned at university in the classroom in their first year out. In fact, nearly three out of four of them don't even get a permanent job so the schools who take them on have no vested interest in building up their skills.

A Department of Education, Science and Training survey of recent graduates found 57 per cent were engaged on short-term contracts. Fifteen per cent were stuck with the graduate teacher's nightmare of relief teaching work and only 28 per cent were in permanent jobs. The inquiry warned the teaching profession was rapidly ageing and over the next seven years we would be facing a serious shortage of teachers. Just having a warm body in front of a class will be the priority. No parent will be satisfied with this sort of system. Every parent wants their kids to learn the basics.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

Comments? Email me here. For times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site (viewable even in China!) here. My Home Pages are here or here or here.


No comments: