Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Waiting for Robin

I am flying back to America later this morning, where I’ll be occupied on business for a couple weeks. This means I’m a little pressed for time just as “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche” approaches a possible crisis. I long ago sensed that I would be dipping into the danger zone if the number of blog postings overtook the number of registered Followers. That is just about to happen. Furthermore, the blog has not elicited any readers’ comments for a month. It’s one thing to lecture to students you suspect are not listening, quite another to write essays for readers who aren’t there. Maybe it is true, as one trusted friend tells me, that the blog is such a debased form that its only audience is one whose favorite genre is the political rant. I don’t really believe that, but as ranting requires little time and less thought, I’ll rant away.

One of my birthday presents was a copy of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read. Perhaps I’ll have something to say about it when I’ve read it, but just holding it in my hand has empowered me. I now feel confident about talking about a film I haven’t seen: Waiting for Superman. It’s a little hard from abroad to tell what is really big at home in America even from faithful visits to a few trustworthy websites, but Waiting for Superman pretty clearly is or ought to be big. As I do not know from experience, Waiting for Superman is about a group of kids trying, by lottery, to get out of their dreadful public schools and into supposedly much better charter schools.

I spent a career in education, with more than forty years of classroom experience. I am well aware that one size does not fit all, but I do think I know how our schools could be improved. I have three suggestions. But only one has to do with Superman (the teachers), the other two with Robin (the pupils).

My suggestion about teachers is this. Teachers ought to be real experts in an actual field of study: mathematics, biology, physics, English language and literature, Spanish, whatever. If teachers are going to be required to have advanced degrees, let those degrees be in a real subject and not in “Education”. During its golden age, the old German Gymnasium was staffed mainly with Ph.Ds. Lord knows we need all the thoughtful and innovative education experts we can get; but actual teachers ought to know a lot about what they teach, and they ought to have the opportunity to continue to learn more throughout their careers. Everybody knows that deep knowledge of a subject matter is not a guarantor of good teaching. Unfortunately many educational administrators seem to think it is an impediment.

In my career I taught many well-received special seminars for high school teachers, and it was clear to me that what the teachers most appreciated about them was their serious scholarly content. Naturally this evidence is valueless to the educational establishment because it is impressionistic and anecdotal. The only evidence worth having is evidence supported by “research models” and “studies,” most of which will then “show” something counter-intuitive. When the anecdotal strays across the frontier of the politically correct it becomes the stereotypical.

Thus if an academic sociologist publishes a book full of tables showing that 82% of Middle-Patagonian speakers live in mud huts, that 73% of them are functionally illiterate, that 78% eat Pringles at least four times a week, that 92% percent wear sarongs, and of that number 98% percent wear them back to front, that is a work of social science. If an observant novelist creates a fictional Pringle-chomping, sarong-wearing Middle Patagonian speaker who lives in a mud hut, that is a negative stereotype. And if Middle Patagonian speakers were in any way to be a racial group—instead of being, as they are, entirely imaginary--it would then be a doubly damnable racial stereotype. Someday I may write an essay on the utility of stereotypes, but not today.

Having established the first pre-requisite for high-achieving teachers, let me eschew both anecdote and stereotype in proposing in abstract terms the two first pre-requisites for high-achieving students. They both involve the necessity of distinguishing what is a reasonable role for the public schools and what is not. The first is that the student before he or she ever steps across the school threshold be provided with two loving parents with whom they live in reasonable tranquility and regularly take their adequately nutritional evening meals, at which occasions they frequently hear and/or participate in conversation of a general nature, often including words of three and four syllables. Let there also be a few books, magazines and newspapers around, and let the children see their parents reading them from time to time. These conditions should prevail throughout the entire period of primary education, and indeed beyond. There will always be exceptions to an ideal norm. But if on a massive scale it proves impossible to provide such conditions, we have indeed discovered a grievous and heart-rending social failure, but it is not a failure of the school system, and certainly not a failure of those children’s teachers; and it will not be remedied by any conceivable policy or program emanating from the Department of Education. Heroic teachers will do their level best to overcome such huge obstacles, but they will succeed only very rarely and, so to speak, anecdotally.

The second and closely related pre-requisite is that Robin really has to want to be Superman’s sidekick. Students from an early age should really want to learn, to do well in school, and to work hard to do so, both in and out of the school buiding. They should be encouraged, directed, and indeed disciplined by their parents toward high-achieving goals. Any good teacher will try to be “engaging” and make a serious effort to “meet the students where they are”; but contrary to anything you might have picked up from The Dead Poets’ Society, teachers are not actually entertainers, shamans, or thaumaturgs. We have so greatly “defined deviance down” in Pat Moynihan’s fine phrase, that student laziness, vulgarity, chronic indiscipline, recalcitrance, physical and intellectual slovinliness, and general yahooism have become the accepted platform upon which our teachers are expected to work in many of our urban schools. Many teachers have known no other context. These are not, however, features of a universal human nature, but socially learned and socially tolerated behaviors. You will not find schools or school children like ours in Iceland or South Korea. You didn’t find many of them here fifty years ago.

There is a great deal of talk these days about unfairness and inequality in our society. The alternatives as I see them are to embrace the truly failed efforts that the last century came up with to establish a fictive equality of results, or to work to restore the means of a genuine equality of opportunity. The great engine of social mobility in America is education and the opportunities that flow from it. I know this from intimate experience. Those who are sincerely concerned about the grievous problems we face will start by talking frankly about the chronic ailments of which our failing schools are merely grotesque symptoms.

At a rally against violence, Chicago IL




Math Olympians, Dayspring Christian Academy, Attleboro MA



  1. Professor Fleming, please do not be discouraged by the small number of registered followers. I believe it reflects the relative unpopularity of "Google Friend Connect," a tool of which I do not recall having previously heard.

    I would venture that the vast majority of your readers, like me, are not listed among the followers. I subscribe to your blog using Google Reader. Other loyal readers may simply have bookmarked the blog. At any rate, I can say with certainty that your readership is by no means limited to the registered followers.

    I am reminded by your current post of one of my all-time favorite epigrams, from your 11/8/2004 column in the Prince: "And before you tell me that this evidence is merely 'anecdotal,' I'll tell you that 'social science data' is merely anecdote made pompous with graph paper."

  2. Dear SMW:

    Thank you sooooo very much. How pathetic of me to go fishing!

  3. I want to comment on every post, but held back for fear that you would feel stalked. I share most of your posts on Facebook--and this one will be no exception.

    Like SMW, I use Google Reader.

  4. I read almost all your posts by nature of MomVee posting them to FB. Thank you for sharing your essays with us.

  5. Dear Professor,

    I faithfully read all of your commentaries every week. Indeed I look forward to them.

    Rarely do I have anything useful or ornamental to add.

    Usually it is only to disagree. That may be disagreeable, but when I agree with you, I don't seem to have anything of interest to add.

    In the present instance, although in general I think it a bad practice to comment on books I haven't read or films I haven't seen (we used to say, j'ai pas lu, j'ai pas vu, mais j'ai en entendu parler . . .) I think you have hit the nail on the head.

    Although your envoi may seem as counter-intuitive as the study results you disparage, it is quite true:

    "The alternatives as I see them are to embrace the truly failed efforts that the last century came up with to establish a fictive equality of results, or to work to restore the means of a genuine equality of opportunity."

    The effort to impose the fictive equality of results has resulted in our ridiculously expensive and shamefully inadequate public school systems.

    In order to allow for a genuine equality of opportunity, we have to permit the apparent inequality of a much more open system of choices.

    We have been dumbing down the teachers and the pupils for long enough. Really tackling real content is not for everyone, but it should be available to those who want it. They will become the producers who will carry our society forward.

    As President Garfield said, all you need for your ideal educational system is a wooden bench, with Mark Hopkins at one end, and a student at the other.

  6. I also read through Google Reader. Please keep writing!

  7. Please keep blogging! We're reading!

  8. I have no desire to register for yet another web connection through Google or otherwise. But rest assured that you are bookmarked, awaited with anticipation, read, and shared with my family. Keep up the good works, and keep blogging about it. You remain a precious jewel in the PU commuinity's crown.

  9. Dear Professor Fleming,

    I have your blog bookmarked and greatly anticipate it's weekly posting. The week you did not post due to travel I felt as though it was Lent or I was on a diet. As stated in a previous comment I feel as though I have nothing to add. If you discontinue the blog I do not know what my husband I will discuss in the evening. Thank you for what you add to our home.

    When I access you blog I feel like the richest person in the world. Thank you. Sally

  10. I was "late" this week reading your blog and was horrified to think that you may stop blogging. Felt compelled to also add that I wait in anticipation of your posting each week. So as someone already said "please keep blogging, we are reading". Thank you.

  11. I have bookmarked your blog as soon as I was introduced to it through A brooklynite on the ice. I have stolen your pictures of your wall and share them with my family. I try to follow your diverse family through your blog. I did not write to tell your how jealous I was that you had such a great tour guide in Israel. This discussion about education is very dear to my heart and I am looking forward to seeing the movie. I do agree with you that if education and discussion is important in the home it is more likely to be important to the child. I am amassed that a child learning to read in one language in school is also able to learn to read in another at home. I give credit to the culture in the family that makes learning like that possible. I hope there are schools and gifted teachers in that child's life to encourage the continued discovery. Thank You for the the chance to look forward to every Wednesday, Joan the other one.

  12. John,

    I read and enjoy your blog every week. Keep at it!

  13. Dear Professor Fleming,

    If my message makes it through to you, please know that it's the sub-standard commenting tool, not a lack of interest in your views, that causes me and others rarely to proffer our feedback. Your bastion anticipates the receipt of your wisdom each week.

  14. Professor Fleming,

    I also read via Google Reader, and I implore you to keep writing here. It is a gift!

    I am staying home with three young boys at the moment, and I try to play the role of Robin by volunteering in their public school as much as possible. It is amazing the insight one gains from being in the classroom.

    Thank you for letting me be your student a bit longer...

  15. Dear Professor Fleming/John,
    I must apologise for my failure to register as a follower until now. I have now remedied the situation, and ask for forgiveness. I also ask for clemency as I do, however, read every post and look forward to the next one, and as I have bookmarked GLGT and linked to it on my own blog as vital reading for any self-respecting medievalist. (And I'll also email you properly soon!)
    Keep the rants up, too. They're splendid.
    Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

  16. P.S. I wouldn't be surprised if one reason for a lack of responses is that readers simply agree with you. Or have learned something from your Words of Wisdom and/or Wit, and are digesting it. Or both.

  17. John,

    They're right: I suspect that you have many readers, most of whom don't like to sign up...as I don't. Your blog revivified (or perhaps initiated) Zoe's faith in the internet.

    Vi nce

  18. Once upon a time, it was relatively easy to keep track of who visited your site... and, more important, who linked to it. Alas, the Internet Toolkit no longer functions as well as it used to in these regards.

    I used to subscribe to your site on Bloglines, but as that service is about to become defunct, I have switched over to Google Reader. It is not a happy change, but that is neither here not there as it relates to "Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche."

    It is an entirely too rara an avis to have a blog that is both erudite and interesting, one that covers a wide range of topics with a somewhat scholarly bent. I am all for the Poop Joke, but it's nice to have a little respite... and to remember crisp fall days at the Grandest Place of All.

  19. My one nit-pick with your glorious post is that Robin was, in fact, Batman's sidekick, and through the years (and despite the many young men and women who have filled out the costume) never seems to have indicated an interest in hanging out with Superman. That said, I think that referencing Krypto the Super-Dog in Robin's stead would not have had quite the same impact.