Archive for February, 2020

Crafting a Literature Program

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020

The liberal arts are, to great measure, founded on written remains, from the earliest times to our own. Literature (broadly construed to take in both fiction and non-fiction) encompasses a bewildering variety of texts, genres, attitudes, belief systems, and just about everything else. Like history (which can reasonably be construed to cover everything we know, with the possible, but incomplete, exception of pure logic and mathematics), literature is a problematic area of instruction: it is both enormously important and virtually impossible to reduce to a clear and manageable number of postulates. 

In modern educational circles, literary studies are often dominated by critical schools, the grinding of pedagogical axes, and dogmatic or interpretive agendas of all sorts — social, political, psychological, or completely idiosyncratic. Often these things loom so large as to eclipse the reality that they claim to investigate. It is as if the study of astronomy had become exclusively bound up with the technology of telescope manufacture, but no longer bothered with turning them toward the stars and planets. Other difficulties attend the field as well.

We’re sailing on an ocean here…

The first is just the sheer size of the field. Yes, astronomy may investigate a vast number of stars, and biology may look at a vast number of organisms and biological systems, but the effort there is to elicit what is common to the diverse phenomena (which did not in and of themselves come into being as objects of human contemplation) and produce a coherent system to account for them. Literature doesn’t work that way. There is an unimaginably huge body of literature out there, and it’s getting bigger every day. Unlike science or milk, the old material doesn’t spoil or go off; it just keeps accumulating. Even if (by your standards or Sturgeon’s Law) 90% of it is garbage, that still leaves an enormous volume of good material to cover. There’s no way to examine more than the tiniest part of that.

…on which the waves never stop moving…

Every item you will encounter in a study of literature is itself an overt attempt to communicate something to someone. That means that each piece expresses its author’s identity and personality; in the process it inevitably reflects a range of underlying social and cultural suppositions. In their turn, these may be common to that author’s time and place, or they may represent resistance to the norms of the time. Any given work may reach us through few or many intermediaries, some of which will have left their stamp on it, one way or the other. Finally, every reader receives every literary product he or she encounters differently, too. That allows virtually infinite room for ongoing negotiation between author and reader in shaping the experience and its meaning — which is the perennially shifting middle ground between them.

…while no two compasses agree…

I haven’t seen this discussed very much out in the open, though perhaps I just don’t frequent the right websites, email lists, or conferences. But the reality — the elephant in the room — is that no two teachers agree on what qualifies as good and bad literature. Everyone has ideas about that, but they remain somewhat hidden, and often they are derived viscerally rather than systematically. For example, I teach (among other things) The Odyssey and Huckleberry Finn; I have seen both attacked, in a national forum of English teachers, as having no place in the curriculum because they are (for one reason or another) either not good literature or because they are seen as conveying pernicious social or cultural messages. I disagree with their conclusion, at least — obviously, since I do in fact teach them, but the people holding these positions are not stupid. In fact, they make some very strong arguments. They’re proceeding from basic assumptions different from my own…but, then again, so does just about everyone. That’s life.

…nor can anyone name the destination:

Nobody talks about this much, either, but it’s basic: our literature teachers don’t even remotely agree on what they’re doing. Again, I don’t mean that they are incompetent or foolish, but merely that there is no universally agreed-upon description of what success in a literature program looks like. Success in a science or math program, or even a foreign language program, is relatively simple to quantify and consequently reasonably simple to assess. Not so here. Every teacher seems to bring a different yardstick to the table. Some see their courses as morally neutral instruction in the history and techniques of an art form; others see it as a mode of indoctrination in values, according to their lights. For some, that’s Marxism. For some, it’s conservative Christianity. For some, it’s a liberal secular humanism. For others…well, there is no accounting for all the stripes of opinion people bring with the to the table — but the range is very broad.

is it any wonder people are confused?

So where are we, then, anyway? The sum is so chaotic that most public high students I have asked in the past two decades appear to have simply checked out: they play the game and endure their English classes, but the shocking fact is that, even while enrolled in them at the time, almost all have been unable to tell me what they were reading for those classes. This is not a furtive examination: I’ve simply asked them, “So, what are you reading for English?” If one or two didn’t know, I’d take that as a deficiency in the student or a sudden momentary diffidence on the subject. When all of them seem not to know, however, I suspect some more systemic shortfall. I would suggest that this is not because they are stupid either, but because their own literary instruction has been so chaotic as to stymie real engagement with the material.

It’s not particularly surprising, then, that literature is seen as somehow suspect, and that homeschooling parents looking for literature courses for their students feel that they are buying a pig in a poke. They are. They have to be wondering — will this course or that respect my beliefs or betray them? Will the whole project really add up to anything? Will the time spend on it add in any meaningful sense to my students’ lives, or is this just some gravy we could just as well do without? Some parents believe (rightly or wrongly: it would be a conflict of interest for me even to speculate which) that they probably can do just as well on such a “soft” subject as some program they don’t fully understand or trust. 

One teacher’s approach

These questions are critical, and I encourage any parent to get some satisfactory answers before enrolling in any program of literary instruction, including mine. Here are my answers: if they satisfy you, I hope you’ll consider our program. If not, look elsewhere with my blessing, but keep asking the questions.

In the first instance, my project is fairly simple. I am trying to teach my students to read well. Of course, by now they have mastered the mechanical art of deciphering letters, combining them into words, and extracting meaning from sentences on a page. But there’s more to reading than that: one must associate those individual sentences with each other and weigh them together to come to a synthetic understanding of what the author is doing. They need in the long run to consider nuance, irony, tonality, and the myriad inflections an author imparts to the text with his or her own persona. Moreover, they need t consider what a given position or set of ideas means within its own cultural conversation. All those things change the big picture.

There’s a lot there to know, and a lot to learn. I don’t pretend to know it all myself either, but I think I know at least some of the basic questions, and I have for about a generation now been encouraging students to ask them, probe them, and keep worrying at the feedback like a dog with a favorite bone. In some areas, my own perspectives are doubtless deficient. I do, on the other hand, know enough about ancient and medieval literature, language, and culture that I usually can open some doors that students hadn’t hitherto suspected. Once one develops a habit of looking at these things, one can often see where to push on other kinds of literature as well. The payoff is cumulative.

There are some things I generally do not do. I do not try to use literary instruction as a reductive occasion or pretext for moral or religious indoctrination. Most of our students come from families already seriously engaged with questions of faith and morals, and I prefer to respect that fact, leaving it to their parents and clergy. I also don’t believe that any work of literature can be entirely encompassed by such questions, and hence it would be more than a little arrogant of me to try to constrain the discussion to those points.

This is not to say that I shy away from moral and religious topics either (as teachers in our public schools often have to do perforce). Moral and theological issues come up naturally in our conversations, and I do not suppress them; I try to deal with them honestly from my own perspective as a fairly conservative reader and as a Christian while leaving respectful room for divergence of opinion as well. (I do believe that my own salvation is not contingent upon my having all the right answers, so I’m willing to be proven wrong on the particulars.)

It is never my purpose to mine literary works for “teachable points” or to find disembodied sententiae that I can use as an excuse to exalt this work or dismiss that one. This is for two reasons. First of all, I have too much respect for the literary art to think that it can or should be reduced to a platitudinous substrate. Second, story in particular (which is a large part of what literature involves) is a powerful and largely autonomous entity. It cannot well be tamed; any attempt to subvert it with tendentious arguments (from either the author’s point of view or from the reader’s) almost invariably produces bad art and bad reading. An attempt to tell a student “You should like this work, but must appreciate it only in the following way,” is merely tyrannical — tyrannical in the worst way, since it sees itself as being entirely in the interest of and for the benefit of the student. Fortunately, for most students, it’s also almost wholly ineffectual, though a sorry side effect is that a number find the whole process so off-putting that they ditch literature altogether. That’s probably the worst possible outcome for a literature program.

I also do not insist on canons of my own taste. If students disagree with me (positively or negatively) about the value of a given work, I’m fine with that. I don’t require anyone to like what I like. I deal in classics (in a variety of senses of the term) but the idea of an absolute canon of literature is a foolish attempt to control what cannot be controlled. It does not erode my appreciation for a work of literature that a student doesn’t like it. The fact that twenty generations have liked another won’t itself make me like it either, if I don’t, though it does make me reticent to reject it out of hand. It takes a little humility to revisit something on which you have already formed an opinion, but it’s salutary. It’s not just the verdict of the generations that can force me back to a work again, either: if a student can see something in a work that I have hitherto missed and can show me how to appreciate it, I gain by that. At the worst, I’m not harmed; at the best, I’m a beneficiary. Many teachers seem eager to enforce their evaluations of works on their students. I don’t know why. I have learned more from my students than from any other source, I suspect. Why would I not want that to continue?

Being primarily a language scholar, I do attempt to dig into texts for things like grammatical function — both as a way of ascertaining the exact surface meanings and as a way of uncovering the hidden complexities. Those who haven’t read Shakespeare with an eye on his brilliant syntactical ambiguity in mind are missing a lot. He was a master of complex expression, and what may initially seem oddly phrased but obvious statements can unfold into far less obvious questions or bivalent confessions. After thirty years of picking at it, I still have never seen an adequate discussion in the critical literature on Macbeth’s “Here had we now our country’s honour roofed / Were the graced person of our Banquo present (Macbeth 3.4.39-40).”  The odd phrasing is routinely explained as something like “All the nobility of Scotland would be gathered under one roof if only Banquo were present,” but I think he is saying considerably more than that, thanks to the formation of contrary-to-fact conditions and the English subjunctive.

My broadest approach to literature is more fully elaborated in Reading and Christian Charity, an earlier posting on this blog and also one of the “White Papers” on the school website. I hope all parents (and their students) considering taking any of my courses will read it, because it contains the essential core of my own approach to literature, which differs from many others, both in the secular world and in the community flying the banner of Classical Christian Education. If it is what you’re looking for, I hope you will consider our courses. 

[Some of the foregoing appeared at the Scholars Online Website as ancillary to the description of the literature offerings. It has been considerably revised and extended here.]

To teach, or not to teach….to the test

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

In the last few weeks, I’ve spent considerable time updating my course websites for the 2020 summer session and academic year. This has been more complicated than usual, since I’ve decided, after considerable thought and inward turmoil, not to seek Advanced Placement recertification for the biology, chemistry, and physics courses I’ve taught for the last decade as formal “AP” courses.

A little background….

The College Board owns the “Advanced Placement” name and designation. Beginning in 2012, it required that anyone teaching a course designated for AP credit submit a syllabus for review by university faculty to ensure students were being prepared adequately for second year college work. Over the last eight years, the College Board has revised their syllabus requirements several times, remaining fairly flexible about how the course was offered and giving teachers latitude to emphasize areas or approaches as they saw fit. Curriculum suggestions and standards were minimal, and the AP examination remained largely a validation of adequate student preparation for advanced college work.

So what changed?

In 2018, the College Board announced that its program was radically changing in response to teacher and student feedback. The resulting syllabi revisions for biology, chemistry, and physics are quite specific in dictating course content and performance expectations. Teachers have fewer options to organize materials according to their own priorities. In particular, the syllabus for biology eliminates requirements for any instruction on human anatomy and plant physiology in order to focus on microbiology, evolution, and ecology, apparently assuming that students will cover physiology and anatomy in other courses. The chemistry syllabus increasingly focuses on professional level instrument use and the algebra-based physics syllabus has been broken into a two-year sequence that pushes modern physics topics to a seldom-taken second year. All three syllabi restructure the course schedules to eliminate any topics not covered on the examinations.

For biology in particular, I think this is a disastrous move for the students, however much lighter it makes the burden of instruction for the teacher. I believe that human anatomy and physiology should be taught in the context of cellular biology so that students understand how all levels of living systems work together. Many students, especially home-schooled students, attempt AP Biology without a previous course in high school biology. The new curriculum leaves them without a detailed appreciation of how their own bodies work at a time when this information is vital to help them make responsible choices for their own health.

There are implications for chemistry and physics as well. Most students won’t be going on to technical careers in chemistry; it is often a prerequisite for medical training at many levels. Performing basic chemistry investigations with limited equipment to experience fundamental principles of chemical reactions provides a better learning experience than when students perform cookbook experiments with equipment they don’t understand. Since most high school physics students are unable to take a second year due to time constraints, the current AP syllabus deprives them of exposure to the unity of field theory applications and the ramifications of modern physics: relativity, quantum mechanics, and nuclear energy.

When the exam is the focus, where’s the joy?

The College Board now requires that students register by early September for the AP test given the following May. This shifts the emphasis of the entire course from learning the subject to “teaching to the test”. Since Scholars Online courses are intended to provide our students with mastery of a subject, this runs counter to our teaching philosophy. I want my students to focus on exploring concepts and playing with ideas at the risk of making mistakes. It is difficult to experiment with possibilities when you are panicking about achieving a high score on an exam or to engage with the material joyfully instead of apprehensively.

The new AP program also heavily encourages the use of the College Board’s own website materials for unit testing throughout the year. While teachers no longer need to devise quizzes for their own students (a sometimes painstaking and onerous task), the feedback promised from the AP program will allow them to see how their students are doing (and collaterally, how they are doing as teachers) in preparing for the exam. The emphasis again is on exam performance, not on the subject matter.

There is another, more subtle issue with AP-provided online course support materials. It has been my practice to contain performance data for my students on the Scholars Online servers, rather than allow others to gather detailed information about my students’ ideas. I have not used publishers’ homework websites or quizzes that would identify individual students, and I refuse to change that practice when I do not know how personally-identifiable student data will be used in the future. The AP program has made no real assurances about the data they will be collecting this way.

I am very uncomfortable with the expanded level of content control by a major testing organization, many of whose directors are textbook publishers, and I’m not the only one. A number of prestigious private schools have dropped their AP courses to allow their teachers to teach creatively, rather than surrendering control of their courses to the College Board. Reluctantly, because it reduces an option for our students to gain formal AP course credit for their work, I have come to realize it is best to join them.

Participation in a formally certified AP course is not required for students to register and take the exam. I will continue to monitor AP course requirements so that the courses I am offering will prepare students to perform well on the AP exam if they choose to take it, and provide an equivalent lab experience. Students taking the non-AP versions of these courses have routinely achieved scores of 3 and 4 on the chemistry and physics AP exams, and 4 or 5 on the biology exams, so I do not believe this decision will put my students at a disadvantage, but that a unique approach to content and experiments will help them stand out instead.

If you have any questions or concerns about this decision, please let me know.

Causes

Saturday, February 1st, 2020

The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought widely and deeply on many subjects. Some of his ideas have proven to be unworkable or simply wrong — his description of a trajectory of a thrown object, for example, works only in Roadrunner cartoons: in Newtonian physics, a thrown ball does not turn at a right angle and fall after it’s run out of forward-moving energy. The force vectors vary continuously, and its trajectory describes an arc. We can forgive Aristotle, I think, for not having calculus at his disposal. That he didn’t apparently observe the curvature of a trajectory is a little bit harder to explain.

Others of his ideas are rather narrowly culturally bound. His views on slavery are rightly repudiated almost everywhere, and many others are not very useful to us today. I personally find his description of Athenian tragedy in the Poetics far too limiting: the model of the hero who falls from greatness due to a tragic flaw is one model (though not really the only one) for describing the Oedipus Rex, but it doesn’t apply even loosely to most of the rest of surviving Athenian tragedy. This curiously Procrustean interpretive template is championed mostly by teachers who have read only one or two carefully-chosen plays.

Some of Aristotle’s ideas, though, remain quite robust. His metaphysical thought is still challenging, and, even if one disagrees, it’s very useful to know how and why one disagrees. His logical writings, too, remain powerful and compelling, and are among the best tools ever devised to help us think about how we think.

Among his most enduringly useful ideas, I think, is his fourfold categorization of cause. This is basic to almost everything we think about, since most of our understanding of the universe is couched, sooner or later, in terms of story. Story is fundamentally distinguished from isolated lists of events because of its reliance on cause and effect. 

There are, according to Aristotle, four different kinds of cause: material cause, efficient cause, formal cause, and final cause. This may all sound rather fussy and technical, but the underlying ideas are fairly simple, and we rely on them, whether we know it or not, every day. For an example, we can take a common dining room table.

The material cause of something is merely what it’s made of. That can be physical matter or not, but it’s the source stuff, in either case. The material cause of our table is wood, glue, perhaps some nails or screws, varnish, and whatever else goes into its makeup (metal, glass, plastic, or whatever else might be part of your dining room table). 

The formal cause is its form itself. It’s what allows us to say that any individual thing is what it is — effectively its definition. The table’s formal cause is largely bound up in its functional shape. It may have a variable number of legs, for example, but it will virtually always present some kind of horizontal surface that you can put things on. 

The efficient cause is the agency that brings something about — it’s the maker (personal or impersonal) or the causative process. That’s most like our simplest sense of “cause” in a narrative. The efficient cause of the table is the carpenter or the factory or workers that produced it. 

The final cause is the purpose for which something has come into being (if it is purposed) — in the case of the table, to hold food and dishes for us while we’re eating.

Not everything must have all four of these causes, at least in any obvious sense, but most have some; everything will have at least one. They are easy to recall, and remarkably useful when confronting “why?” questions. Still, people often fail to distinguish them in discourse — and so wind up talking right past one another.

Though I cannot now find a record of it, I recall that when a political reporter asked S. I. Hayakawa (himself an academic semanticist before turning to politics) in 1976 why he thought he’d been elected to the Senate, he answered by saying that he supposed it was because he got the most votes. This was, of course, a perfectly correct answer to the material-cause notion of “why”, but was entirely irrelevant to what the reporter was seeking, which probably had more to do with an efficient cause. Hayakawa surely knew it, too, but apparently didn’t want to be dragged into the discussion the reporter was looking for. Had the reporter been quicker off the mark with Aristotelian causes, he might have been able to pin the senator-elect down for a more satisfactory answer.

Aristotle wrote in the fourth century B.C., but his ideas are still immediately relevant. While one can use them to evade engagement (as Hayakawa did in this incident), we can also use them to clarify our communication. True communication is a rare and valuable commodity in the world, in just about every arena. Bearing these distinctions in mind can help you achieve it.