Category Archives: Commentary

Attacking the past for failing to live up to our contemporary notions of virtue.

How much should we hold onto the past? How much should we try to forget the past? And how much should we try to make those pasts that we’re not happy with disappear?

It’s common to frame discussions of societal transitions by focusing on the new skills… [new statues… the new becoming essential]. But instead of looking at [the new}… perhaps we should consider the obverse: what becomes safe to forget?
Gene Tracy, Aeon, 2019

Protesters gathered in Emancipation Park Saturday morning, August 12, 2017 in anticipation of a noon rally to be held by “Unite the Right” in protest of the projected removal of a statue from Lee Park honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Members of Unite the Right, by and large white nationalists, are met by a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 12, 2017.
Joshua Roberts / Reuter

Later on the same day, a car driven by a member of the alt-right plowed into a group of counter-protesters. A 32-year-old woman crossing at an intersection was struck and killed, and the suspected driver was arrested.

Instead of coming to blows the  question that the marchers and counter-marchers ought to have been addressing, without violence, was should the statue of Lee be removed?  And how should the past, in the form of monuments, and yes ideas, and in this instance statues, be protected and preserved?

Some of you may remember reading George Orwell’s book, 1984  (first published in June of 1949). In that book Orwell, while describing the conditions in 1984, wrote that, every book had been rewritten, every picture had been repainted, every statue and street and building had been renamed, every date had been altered. And that the process of redoing and actively forgetting was continuing day by day and minute by minute, with the result that history had been stopped.”

I’m pretty sure that Orwell’s words were not at all in the minds of the counter-protesters, the Antifa or anti-fascists, or in the minds of the white supremacist members of Unite the Right, those who were defending the Lee statue.

While the counter protesters may have been looking to clean house in the South, doing away with some of the worst parts of our history, in particular slavery and the monuments to the murderous war between the states, they were certainly not looking to do away with the past, they couldn’t, only some parts of that past.

But when you think about it, about cleansing the past of some of the terrible things some of us really don’t want to remember, there is really no end to the process. Once you start it’s likely that the process won’t be stopped. Might it not be better to keep the past, in this instance the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Park in Charlottesville?

For who among us do not have things that we would rather make disappear, such as in this case when the Antifa would make the statue of Robert E Lee disappear? Yes the South was mistaken and has been and is still being corrected. But who among us has not made mistakes, terrible mistakes in some instances, but the mistakes of the ones are not the mistakes of the others, and by allowing the statues, memorials for many of us to an ugly past, to remain aren’t we doing what we should be doing, allowing the past to remain and history to be?

Without the defending the white supremacists, and without defending the Antifa or anti-fascists there is, it seems to me, a legitimate difference of opinion in respect to what should be done, if anything,  with General Lee’s statue in the Robert E Lee Park in Jacksonville, Virginia, also the home of the Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

Probably what should have happened is something other than what happened in Orwell’s 1984, and is still happening in today’s world where ISIS members are gleefully destroying the antiquities of past civilizations that they no longer accept let alone believe in.

But in both instances, in the antebellum South and in Dur Sharrukin, a former capital of the Assyrian empire in Nineveh that dates back to the 8th century BC, the pasts are real, involved thousands of people. Shouldn’t both pasts be preserved, and no matter how terrible they may have been for the lives of many who were there and lived through them shouldn’t we remember them, not forget they ever occurred?

What we choose to remember, and not to remember, demands a certain kind of wisdom that we no longer seem to have in great abundance. And if there had been wisdom present that day on August 12 in Charlottesville, what did happen may never have happened.

So as with so many things that are happening today we need wise leadership, and instead we have Donald Trump who about Charlottesville, did say there was blame and there were good people on both sides. Regarding what of the past should be defended, what should be if not treasured held on to, he had nothing to say. So without presidential leadership Charlottesville has become whatever the various opposing sides what it to be.


And it continues, the attempt to have the past live up to our notions of virtue. Read this from the Boston Globe this morning: –Parents and supporters of children lost to opioid epidemic urge Harvard to change name of Sackler museum.  Early Friday morning they marched in front of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and the Fogg Museum early Friday afternoon, holding photos of their children.CAMBRIDGE, MA - 04/12/2019 Nancy Tobin, far right, walks ahead of national advocacy groups made up of parents who have lost a child to opioid overdose as they march outside of the Arthur M Sackler Museum at a protest to demand removal of the Sackler name from any public space. Tobin lost her 22-year-old son, Scott, to an overdose in 2017. (Erin Clark for The Boston Globe)


Homeschooling brings talented teachers, engaged students, and a challenging curriculum together.

David Kirp does have a point, a good one, that “it’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships,” that is, around what we call public schooling, whether the “end run” be a particular innovation such as the invisible hand of the market or the transformative power of technology, or anyone of a number of others that have been tried over the years. Also he’s correct when he says that “the essence of a good education is bringing together talented teachers, engaged students, and a challenging curriculum.”

But he ends up where he should have begun, which is how to do this, how to bring together the talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum. Does he really believe that this same essence of a good education is not in the minds and the intentions of the reformers? Kirp too easily puts down the business, charter, and voucher reform models, too flippantly says they have failed, that the Gates and other monies thrown at them were thrown away.

But why does he seem to assume that all these (even if unsuccessful) efforts were not also very much trying to bring the elements of a good education together, by different means, that’s all?

But it’s really not so much that our reform efforts have failed, although they have. It’s more important that the schools themselves have failed to fulfill the original promise of Horace Mann, before, after, or even while undergoing seemingly endless reforms.

MannWhat was that promise? Mann argued that the common, or free, universal, non-sectarian and public school was the best means of achieving the moral and socioeconomic uplift of all Americans, of creating the virtuous republican citizenry needed to sustain American political institutions, of producing the educated workforce required to expand the American economy, and with all that the disciplined generation necessary to forestall the social disorders so common in American cities, in his time before the Civil War, but still no less prevalent in our own time today.  [from Horace Mann and the Creation of the Common School]

Does anyone doubt that our schools during their nearly 200 year history have totally failed to accomplish these goals? The obvious failure explains the endless reform movements. But rather than putting down the reform movements as David Kirp does in his Times op ed piece shouldn’t we question both the original structure of the common school, that in most regards is the same today as in the 1830s and 40s when it began in Massachusetts —that is, the single monolithic school building as the place of education, the compulsory attendance requirement, the classroom of students of the same age and therefore possessing much the same level of knowledge or ignorance, the single classroom teacher, and all the rest.

And shouldn’t we no less question Horace Mann’s goals for the schools, clearly set too high and probably impossible to achieve in a lifetime let alone the 12 or few more school years?

Although there have been many who have questioned both the goals and structure of the public schools, there has been only one significant attempt to undo them, the so-called free school movement of the 1960s and 70s, led by A. S, Neil, Paul Goodman, and John Holt among others. But the Free School model remained an outlier, and was never adopted by the educational establishment. The free schools that did survive never become a real alternative to the public schools.

Instead free schools were replaced by homeschooling, this also the brain child of John Holt, and that which today is very much alive and the only real and complete alternative to the public school, affecting probably many more children, nearly 2 million at last count, than the reforms that David Kirp mentions. The homeschooling movement, with no common structure, and no goals other than to allow and then help the individual child to follow and develop his own interests and talents, ought to be the model for, if not the essence of all schooling.

Anatolievich Navalny, John Holt, and John Edward Huth

Putin not the Main Problem

From, TNR, July 18, The Most Dangerous Blogger in the World

But this wasn’t Navalny’s main asset. (Alexei Anatolievich Navalny, Russian lawyer, blogger, and political activist, rival to Putin). Unlike every other person in opposition politics during the Putin era, Navalny understood that Putin was not Russia’s main problem. Rather, the problem was the post-Soviet culture of greed, fear and cynicism that Putin encouraged and exploited. Navalny carefully distanced himself from the shrill, old-guard Western-friendly liberals—“hellish, insane, crazy mass of the leftovers and bread crusts of the democracy movement of the eighties,” he called them—who simply participated in Putin’s cult of personality in reverse, for it is also cultish to believe that one man is responsible for all the evil in your country.

That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse

The words are John Updike’s while replying to Holt’s question about what he meant by “God’s boredom.” From Holt’s 2012 book Why Does the World Exist.

Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe… an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.

How we Misperceive the World Around Us

From an op-ed in today’s NYTimes Losing Our Way in the World, by John Edward Huth, professor of Physics at Harvard.

A number of years ago, the documentary “A Private Universe,” about how we misperceive the world around us, was filmed at Harvard’s commencement. Twenty-three faculty members, alumni and graduating seniors were asked, “Why is it warm in the summer and cold in the winter?” All but two answered incorrectly, saying the Earth was closer to the sun in the summer than in the winter…One “correct” answer has to do with the tilt of Earth’s rotational axis with respect to its orbit. But a Neolithic farmer might cast his arm in an arc across the sky and explain that the sun was low in the winter and high in the summer. The farmer’s explanation would be perfectly correct, rooted in experience.

Another ’email exchange’ with Mike Goldstein

From Mike’s new blog, Puzzl_ED, I take this from today’s posting: Deeper Learning Gets Deep Sixed 

Mike writes:

As a public policy grad student 15 years ago, I had Tom Loveless.  He was great.  Basically, he called b.s. on a ton of ed policy fads.  This didn’t always endear him to other ed policy folks, who promoted the fads.
Tom is at it again.  This time he takes on “Deeper Learning” in a blog he wrote for Brookings Institute:
My hope is that readers of this Chalkboard post will be skeptical when encountering deeper learning in the future.  I will describe two examples of deeper learning that readers should find troubling.  I will not offer a thorough critique of deeper learning or its philosophical kin.  For that, I urge you to read E.D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them.  Published in 1996, the book pre-dates today’s deeper learning fad but convincingly rebuts its twentieth century ancestors, showing not only that these anti-knowledge movements lack anything resembling evidentiary support for their claims, but that they also, in disparaging academic content taught in public schools, exacerbate social inequality.  The premise is simple.  If public schools don’t teach algebra or chemistry or history or great literature or how to write well—the old-fashioned learning that has been around for centuries and remains high status knowledge in most cultures—rich kids will get it somewhere else.  Poor kids won’t.

And I reply:


I guess I’m getting to be an awful scold, curmudgeon, grouch, kvetch (all those words because I can’t seem to find the right one for me, cynic may be best) perhaps I’ve become (perhaps I always was) just someone who puts down most of what he reads of others (except of course my beloved classics). That was my reaction to Tom’s piece (as earlier to that of your friend, Jal, also at Harvard).  
But when Tom writes, this as one example (I could give many more!)

[Hirsch’s] premise is simple.  If public schools don’t teach algebra or chemistry or history or great literature or how to write well—the old-fashioned learning that has been around for centuries and remains high status knowledge in most cultures—rich kids will get it somewhere else.  Poor kids won’t.

I really do have to smile to myself, poor Tom, that he and others (you?), people who should know better, still believe this sort of thing. First of all there never was/nor is there such a thing, at least as he describes it, as “old fashioned learning,” and certainly nothing that is centuries old. In respect to our schools nothing’s been around for centuries. It was hardly one century ago that most kids even started to go to school for as long as 12 years. The modern school movement, if there is such a thing as opposed to the “old fashioned” one, is mostly the way it is, not because we’ve abandoned something, but because now for the first time we do have most kids in school through high school (well not quite, as more than one quarter of them drop out before finishing) and we’re obviously painfully struggling (witness the number of so-called reforms during the past 50 years or so) while trying to find our what we should be doing with them. We still don’t know (other of course than your “no-excuses” schools in the inner cities!). Do you really think that algebra, chemistry, history, literature et al. are the answer? Hirsch. and evidently Tom and I’m sure others, imagine, I guess, a past “golden age” when kids did learn algebra, chemistry, history, great literature, writing et al. Well as I have said over and over again (hence scold, grouch etc) there never was such a age. Most kids never did learn these things in school. Private schools may have taught these sorts of subjects to the privileged few, perhaps even for a couple of centuries, since the founding of the country, and they’re still doing it today. That’s exactly what they fed me at private school in the forties. In my own case what I probably needed was some “deep learning,” whatever that may be, something that took me and what I was with all my warts and deficiencies and very few talents and abilities, into account and helped me to find something good within myself, a potential on which to build. That never happened in school, but I sure got a lot of algebra, chemistry, history etc. all of which I forgot as soon as I left the class or school environment. If I know any history, American history, now, today, it’s all in spite of the American history course in high school, which was not “deep” but the most shallow of all the learning that I’ve ever encountered. And the irony is that it was taught by Doc Howe who went on to become a beloved and well respected professor at the Harvard Ed School, who wrote great books about education, and one who, perhaps (I don’t know this) became a promoter of that particular form of deep learning called “learning for understanding,” that one being the child, was it? of Howard Gardner?

About the public schools, a couple of things that still need to be said and heard

You may not believe it but there are a couple of things that still need to be said about our public schools. Things that while they are being said, not just by me, but by many other blog voices on the internet, are not widely listened to, and certainly not heard by the educational establishment.

First that the educational establishment needs to welcome an injection of common sense into their discussion, that which is not always present when they talk about the schools. For example it needs to be said and heard by the establishment that the schools will significantly improve, student proficiency, student achievements will rise, only when the students themselves simply work harder at their assignments, when they become more responsible for their own learning.

For common sense tells us that student learning, in particular students being held accountable for their own learning, ought to be the centerpiece of all our conversations about the public schools. Instead we talk about other things, much less important, about money, common core standards, the curriculum, testing and student data keeping, and lately, perhaps, most of all, about the importance of the teacher in the classroom.

It’s true that our best and brightest do not go into teaching (if they had we might have avoided Vietnam, and Iraq?). It’s true that the quality of our teachers is not up there with that of the other professions. Why is that?

Is it because teachers are not paid enough? I don’t think so. I would say, much more, that it’s because too many students, and in particular too many of those in our inner city schools, show little interest in classroom learning.

I say “classroom learning” because these students, like all young people are learning all the time, probably most of all out of class and out of school. And, because of their minimal participation in classroom learning, the teacher loses his or her interest in being there.

I know I left the public school classroom myself because my students showed little interest in what I would teach them. At best the best of them wanted to know what they had to know for the test. The others, well if obliged they did for the most part attend my class. Although when I gave them a choice they didn’t and I lost my position in the school.

The other thing, or things, that needs to be said about our schools is simply that the present structure neither corresponds to what society needs, nor to the way kids best learn, and should be abandoned.

I read this early on in my own career in the brilliant writings of Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, John Holt and many others, who were not at the time, and are still not, alas, listened to by the educational establishment.

I read it again just yesterday in comic form in a Blog piece by Frank J. Fleming, entitled: Why Every Kid in America Doesn’t Need to Be Educated.

Here is the gist of what Frank Fleming says, leaving out much of the humor, and the exaggeration, but with, I hope, the substance of his message:

Why do we spend so much money on education? I think a lot of people would answer, “Because educating our kids is important.” Really? Why? ….

We have 7.2 million teachers in this country and about 76 million students. Children are taught for 13 years in grade school, and many people want everyone to get at least 4 years of college on top of that. And what exactly do we get out of all this? ….

What is our goal? …. The future still needs people to cook, clean, and manufacture goods — and it doesn’t take a decade of education in math and science to be able to do those things. So why are we spending hundreds of billions of dollars to make sure every fry cook at one point in his life knew what a gerund is?

Is there a benefit to educating everybody regardless of actual need? We keep hearing that we’re falling behind the rest of the world in our average math and science scores, but let’s look at some of the countries ahead of us: Finland, Lichtenstein, the Czech Republic. I’m sorry, but did I miss all the huge technological innovations that came out of these countries? ….

Now, obviously some people …need education…. But is the most efficient path to that really to teach absolutely everyone and hope a small percentage actually retain some of what they’re taught? …. why don’t we just focus on what the average citizen actually needs?

Everyone needs literacy, as you have to have some reading skills …. And then we should also teach everyone how to use Google, as that will cover science, history, and math whenever those come up. No reason that basic knowledge can’t be knocked off in a year for each kid…..

So there’s our solution to the education problem: Instead of trying to make a lot of bad education for everyone when most aren’t even going to use it, let’s focus on making the absolute best education to give to the few who will. Everyone else gets to learn useful skills, and as a bonus we bring manufacturing jobs back to our country.

His message, like the earlier one that the students themselves need to be held accountable, is also not new, and also not widely heard. For we go on insisting that if not everyone, most everyone be prepared for college, that which means for lives most of them will never lead.

For example we know early on that not everyone will take the calculus in the senior year of high school but continue promoting a mathematics program that is by and large a preparation for the calculus.

And the same is true throughout the program. Kids, if they remain in school through high school, all but about a quarter of them (and what have our schools done for this quarter?), will take subjects such as math (as I’ve said, a kind of precalculus) and science, language, literature, and history, in a form that is mostly irrelevant to their lives, and for the most part they will not achieve a college ready preparation or readiness in any one of these areas (that which makes it necessary for so many entering college freshmen to do remedial work before, too many of them, dropping out).

And while giving all those years as Fleming points out to not learning anything useful to them, students (better, kids) will therefore not have learned all those really useful things not in the program, the skills and knowledge regarding just about everything else that does go on in our society, the jobs and work and other activities needed by society, all those things they might have learned in school most useful to their own futures.

Classroom Learning, an Oxymoron

I’ve often written about just how little is learned in the classroom. Well, here’s the best explanation I’ve seen as to why this is so. I take the text (and explanation) that follows from the Introduction to R. Barker Bausell’s book, Too Simple to Fail.

Introduction: Obsolete from every perspective

Thirty-five students sit facing a single teacher. The teacher has just provided a brief but coherent introduction to a new topic, but one portionof her class couldn’t follow what she was saying because they have had too little previous instruction on the subject at hand. Another portion of the class is terminally bored because they had previously learned 90% of everything the teacher said (or will say during the upcoming school year). A third contingent is distracted by two misbehaving boys seated at he rear of the room.

Recognizing these problems, and hoping to reinforce the main points of her lecture, she reseats the two boys on opposite sides of the room and has all the students open their textbooks to read the same page. Unfortunately, the same part of her class who  couldn’t follow her leture along with a significant portion of the students who were distracted, also has trouble reading the textbook. And of course the students who already knew what she was talking about already know everything contained on that particular page in their textbook.

Sensing that something is amiss, the teacher decides to vary her routine a bit and have everyone come to the front of the room and sit on the floor surrounding the chalkboard. Following a few minutes of jostling and confusion, the class then watches a student attempt to solve a math problem based upon what has just been taught and read about (by some). This particular student fails miserably and can’t follow the teacher’s attempts to help him “discover” his error. The remainder of the class isn’t at all interested in this process since some of them would have never made such an egregious mistake, some of them can’t follow the teacher’s explanation, and some simply  aren’t paying attention.

Later, with the students back at their desks, the teacher poses a question to the class on the topic. Some students raise their hands whether they know the answer or not; some wave their arms frantically because they are sure they have the correct answer (or simply want the attentionn); and everyone else waits for either the correct or the incorrect answer, or pays more attention to the myriad other competing activities that are constantly  going on in the classroom, somewhat analogous to a cocktail party in which we stand in a crowded room with  sounds and conversations going on all around us and must decide to what we will direct our attention and to what we will only pretend to do so.

What these and most other classroom instructional activities have in common is their mind-boggling inefficiency, the amount of time they consume, and the fact that at any given point in time only a portion of the students involved will be a actually attending to them—either because the instruction isn’t keyed to their particular needs or they are free to attend to competing activities that they find more interesting. And as if all of this were not enough, the teacher herself is most likely ill trained for her job. She probably graduated from a university-based school of education, which may have been staffed by faculty  who knew very little about how to maintain order in a public school classroom, make instruction relevant for as large a percentage of such a classroom as possible, foster learning under typical classroom conditions, or even how to teach the types of content she is now charged with conveying. And if teaching children to read is part of our teacher’s duties, she may have never even been given a cursory lesson on basic phonics instruction. In fact, it is possible that this teacher may never have enrolled in a single course that actually prepared her to teach children to read, to  write, or to understand mathematics—perhaps because her faculty were never taught that themselves. An accident of history, perhaps, due to the discipline’s early thinkers (such as Herbert Spencer, John Dewey) who were less concerned about increasing the amount students learned than they were about the philosophical and social implications of schooling. Or, of later popular theorists such as Jean Piaget, whose work would ultimately  wind up having no recognizable application to classroom instruction.

But returning to the 35-student classroom, our intrepid teacher realizes that she can’t spend any more time on this particular lesson and must move on whether everyone is ready or not….

The sad truth is that no one knows just how little value classroom instruction adds to the children’s education….

I would encourage you to read the entire introduction, if not the book. The Introduction is included in a free “sample” download from Amazon’s Kindle App, either on Android or iphone smart phones.

Now you’ve all probably had the classroom experiences that the author, R. Barker Bausell is describing. Did you at the time, or have you since, asked yourselves how this sort of thing could still be going on, at least since my own experience in one of the “better” classrooms at a prestigious private school some 60 years ago?

OK, perhaps not the “horror” of it as Marlow might say, but the inefficiency, the horrible waste of one’s time, in many instances one’s best time, that time of childhood that could have been so rich in learning experiences.

How children might best learn, and what they are learning, with or without us, ought to be at the very top of our educational agenda. But instead, perhaps because we had to do it ourselves, we go on placing our children during some twelve years of their lives, the very formative years when so much could have been accomplished, into the very same classrooms that Bausell is describing. Hélas!

Reading John Harvard’s Journal in the current issue of Harvard Magazine

In a portion of his Journal John Harvard writes about “Tackling Teaching and Learning.” The irony is that from the vantage point of our most respected if not admired educational institution this writer seems to know so little about the subject.  In fact, it’s not often that I read so many words of so little substance and interest.

I wasn’t able to finish”Tackling Teaching and Learning,” but just about the point when I stopped reading there was one comment that caught my interest, not by Michael Smith, a Dean of the Faculty  of Arts and Sciences, and whose comments were most often referred to in the piece, but by a biology professor, a Richard M. Losick.

“We spend,” he said, “a lot of time at Harvard talking about what students should learn, and far less about how they should learn and what they do learn.”

Well, I said to myself, le plus ça change …. For isn’t that what all institutions of learning, schools and colleges, have always done, talk mostly about what they’re teaching, what kids should learn. And why? Well probably because they know so little about what the kids are actually learning, and even less about how they learn.

Know it all schools like Harvard don’t like not to be in charge so they go on talking about what kids should be learning, which means they go on, as Losick points out, talking about what they know, and not about what their students might or might not know thanks to their efforts.

Neither the weather nor the schools yet within our grasp

Talking about the schools is a lot like talking about the weather, what we say in regard to both depending a lot on where we’re standing. And, there being probably no two of us standing in the same place, our differing perspectives lead unsurprisingly to our widely different conclusions.

Still at present there are those who cling to certainty, who are convinced that it’s within their power to control the weather, say by regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions. And no less remarkably there are those who think we can change, and improve the schools by one or more reforms, such as holding teachers accountable for the achievement or lack of achievement of their students.

But no successes have yet been recorded traceable to the efforts of either group.

Why? Well in both, the weather and the schools, the variables are just too many, too complex, still in good part unknown, to be entered into any equations of explanation, let alone made a basis of any remedies for correction and improvement.

In regard to both humility is called for. And by reaching for much less we would grasp more.