Friday, September 7, 2012

Five Paragraphs On Imprecision

Over these first couple of days of school, I keep thinking about the phrase "the fog of war".  I feel the way I always do the first week back: in the classroom I'm energized, but I keep worrying that I'm missing something.  Out of the classroom, I'm exhausted.  My colleagues, brilliant and amazing, all seem to know exactly what they're doing; I feel lost and kind of scared.  Overall, I need a pep talk.  Luckily, our incoming freshmen got a pep talk at their assembly, so I get to chew on that a bit, and see if it nourishes.

In fact, pep talks and cultural initiations have been happening all over the place during these first days.  I don't think I've ever realized how much our school indoctrinates its students, how thoroughly we try to educate them in the norms and values of the school, and of a decent society.  The freshmen were urged, among other things, to take care of the building, to balance freedom and responsibility, to bring their best selves to school every day, to work hard over time, to ask adults for help when they need it.  This pep talk was pretty similar to a lot of the others--they were almost none of them about efficient procedures, almost none about nuts and bolts.  We were dealing with the freshmen not only as students, but as people.

In our classes, too, most of us have started off with acculturation.  My department chair's advice was: "Relationship before task!"  One of my students told me that my class was the only one in which she actually did anything--but that, too, was acculturation, since I wanted to impress upon the kids that reading and writing would be our primary activities.

With a close relative being treated for cancer this summer, I've been thinking a lot about medical care, about how medical care is becoming more and more standardized, impersonal, mechanical, algorithmic.  For cancer care, this is probably a good idea. But a lot of people are pushing education in the same directions that medicine has been taking--greater standardization, increased central planning, attempts to be "data-driven" or "research-based"--and I'm much less sure that it's a good idea in education.  Instead, what we need is more of what we've been doing over these first days: creating a culture of learning; helping our students learn to be calm and centered in themselves; helping them with their extracurricular trials and tribulations; providing a safe space for them.

I'm feeling foggy, but maybe that's okay, at least for now.  In medical care, the doctor needs to try to be precise.  In education, the teacher can't even try to be perfectly precise--that's the student's job!  The teacher needs to leave room for the student to move, to change, to learn.  But maybe this is partly true of doctors, too.  Think of that line from Kafka: "To write prescriptions is easy, but to come to an understanding with people is hard."


  1. "My colleagues, brilliant and amazing, all seem to know exactly what they're doing; I feel lost and kind of scared. "

    I don't know if this will make you feel better or worse, but I feel the same way you do in comparison to my colleagues (including you) and each one of them probably feels exactly the same way in comparison to us.

    Maybe that's why standardized education gets a foothold -- teachers are so relieved to be (temporarily?) free of that lost and scared feeling. Someone is telling them what to do.

    Right before school started, I had to read Why Read? by Mark Edmundson again (for the third time, always in August). It is the peptalk I need, as it turns out, every year.