a short rant
[A recent column by Colman McCarthy in the Washington Post Sunday Education section described a high school course, taught by the author, in which grades, tests, and homework were abolished. This is my response.]
Something really bothers me about this piece, not least of all its self-congratulatory tone. It seems to me that what Mr(?) McCarthy is bragging about is irresponsible in the extreme, and not because it refuses to 'foster and enhance' students' hoop-penetrating skills. Rather, Mr. McCarthy's self-portrait as a teacher gives the impression that he aspires to absolute detachment from his students. He might as well be the host of one of those achingly difficult (because achingly boring) educational television programs.
I agree -- who would not? -- with his condemnation of externally motivated education. But education is an institution, with boards and administrators and all manner of other hangers-on, whose primary job it is to keep the institution strong, to extend its reach, and to consolidate its position in this society by wheeling and dealing with the politicians and the bureaucrats who feed the institution money and prestige. Education is a profession, like law and medicine, and as a highly visible cultural edifice must expend most of its energy making sure that things look good to the zillions of outsiders who have a say in its future.
Teaching is not a profession. It is a calling. There are plenty of people, endowed by the institution of education with the title 'teacher,' who are no such thing -- and everyone of us has had these fakers in school. A real teacher doesn't need this calling to be validated by an institution, either by bestowing the title in the first place, or by providing a hidebound example of what education shouldn't be.
I don't wish to be snotty, but it's rather easy to get away with experimenting when you're a volunteer teacher in an elective course for seniors. Grades, homework, tests -- all are irrelevant to real teaching, which is half of Mr. McCarthy's point. But irrelevant doesn't exactly mean unnecessary. Everything that goes on in a class is its subject, not just the information in 'instructional materials', and the students' social imperatives are no less important than the teacher's philosophy of teaching.
What matters is the way the teacher handles the discourse of the class; more precisely, what matters is what kind of man or woman the teacher proves him or herself to be. If a test must be given, a real teacher will explain that we live in a society that conducts most of its intercourse on the basis of credentials, and credentials are amassed by getting good grades on tests of various kinds. A faker will shrug and say, 'They're making me do it.'
What lesson is Mr. McCarthy imparting to his students? That grades are unimportant? False prophet! They are -- how practical would it be for those students to apply that lesson in their other classes, or to the evaluation they will certainly undergo once they get a job? What Mr. McCarthy seems to be confusing, and is passing this confusion on to his students, is their value as performers in the education circus and their value as human beings one to another. For good or ill, these are two quite separate ways of regarding life: what you do and who you are. The institution of education can only control the first; the second is the province of the teacher.
We are all students, all our lives long. We learn from everything that happens to us, from everything we do, and from beholding the triumphs and sufferings of others. The first priority of a real teacher is to be real; the first thing to be taught must be an honest and courageous attitude toward life, not that every once in a while, under special circumstances, you may have to be your own judge. You always have to be your own judge. And this lesson can only be taught by example. Mr. McCarthy has abdicated his responsibility here.
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