In my last post, I noted that teacher educators who put shaping future teachers into social-justice activists above shaping them into effective instructors are, in my opinion, terribly misguided. I strongly agree with diminishing society’s inequities—and I think effective instructors, by narrowing the achievement gap, are doing just that.
One thing I did not mention is that the most effective instructors narrow the achievement gap in two essential ways: they build students’ knowledge and character (both of which contribute to achievement). Talk of character passes in and out of policy circles. Whether it’s shock at more teenage girls joining gangs or buzz about a book like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, leaders tend to use character as an easy clap line without putting much thought into its cultivation.
But there are effective teachers who think about it every day. More importantly, they strengthen it every day.
Take, for example, Jessica Lahey, whose school emphasizes prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice: “In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles’ impulsive rages, King Ozymandias’ petulant demand that we ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,’ Macbeth’s bloody, ‘vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.’ ”
With a rigorous academic program, effective instructors accomplish academic and character goals simultaneously. Assignments that are challenging and thought provoking develop students’ academic knowledge and skills—and also draw them into humanity’s centuries-long debate about what defines a worthy life.
For those of us lucky enough to have a liberal arts education, this makes perfect sense. But many people with advanced degrees never had the benefit of being educated for freedom. They may not be stuck in the cave, but they aren’t enjoying the sunshine either.
I was reminded of this a couple of times over the past few days. The first reminder came with Mark Bauerlein’s excellent commentary, “What does University of Minnesota have against classics?” Bauerlein writes:
Given that only 39 percent of Minnesota eighth-graders score “proficient” in reading, … we might assume that the University of Minnesota would applaud high school English classes that assign great literary works of the last 500 years.
What could be better for students to read than “Macbeth,” “Don Quixote,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Frankenstein,” or the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Wilde, Willa Cather, Camus, Orwell, and Toni Morrison?
Yet sadly, when a high school offered such a syllabus to the University of Minnesota’s College in the Schools program, it was turned down…. CIS provides a reading list of 86 titles, syllabi outlining assignments and policies, and professional development for high school teachers.
The texts that were rejected are some of the most brilliant, demanding and profound writings in history. But they aren’t on the reading list. The list signals a narrow conception of what 17-year-olds should study. The oldest works are Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and two 1899 novels, Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Apart from a few midcentury texts, the rest of the list is entirely contemporary….
The motives behind this restrictive corpus are indicated by the sample syllabi. One announces the goal of the course in terms common to multiculturalist instruction: “students will understand diverse experiences, languages,”…. The other syllabus declares: “Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and other forms of bigotry are inherent in our culture.”…
The point here is not to censure the course for its contemporary, multiculturalist focus…. Instead, what matters is the active exclusion of the great tradition from Chaucer to Austen to Joyce — from the Puritans to Frederick Douglass to Edith Wharton.
Like Bauerlein, I am very concerned about the works being excluded. I am not concerned with constructing a course that uses literature to help students value diversity and challenge bigotry; that is fundamental work in the humanities. But I think that by excluding time-tested works, these courses limit their ability to accomplish their goals.
History offers us a great variety of cultures. Can one seriously engage in multicultural studies without reading broadly across time and space to find that cultures around the world in the past and present have produced works of lasting beauty? Can one really grasp racism, sexism, etc. by looking at them only in the current context?
Let’s hope that the University of Minnesota will reconsider.
Now, onto my other reminder of how many of us are not being educated for freedom. This reminder, happily, came in the form of a blog post by a retired English professor who would create a spectacular course for high school students. A course that would not only beat back bigotry and be worthy of college credit, it would foster virtue.
Spoiler alert—here’s the ending: “Life doesn’t just happen. We make it happen, for good or bad. We do it best when we learn pietas, or character, with its legacy of decency and discipline fostering empowerment and destiny.”
How would this professor teach character? Through great literature:
I’ve read a lot of books across the years, not surprising I suppose for someone who’s invested more than forty-years in academia. Of those many books, there are a chosen few I’d take with me into island exile. Let me list them. I’d add some poets, too, but not right now:
I fashioned this list in less than a minute, since each of the items triggers easily recalled memories of excited discovery, awe, and insight. David Copperfield, for example, I read in eighth grade. From the very beginning I loved it, identifying with David, whose childhood, in good measure, mirrored my own as well as that of Dickens.
Walden, with its eloquence, gave sanctuary not only in wilderness, but in its verbal tranquility.
And there’s John Stuart Mill, that proverbial “saint of rationalism,” two of his books here. On Liberty taught me to hold out against censorship for the rest of my days; how to discern between just and unjust laws; the importance of protecting minority voices in a democratic society.
His Autobiography demonstrated a first rate humanity, a life of balanced thought and feeling, a passion for social justice. There isn’t any person I’d like to imitate more.
I could go on about the remaining works, too, as each of them has constituted a grace upon my life–a favoring of wisdom and influence….
When I studied in Europe on two occasions, England and France, I came upon an important word, character, something I find rarely talked about in America. Europeans would often talk of someone’s character, encompassing integrity markers like dependability, perseverance, equanimity, fairness, empathy, all adding up to a fundamental decency. It’s what Vergil advocated. It’s what Mill is all about. It’s what I’d like, when all things are said and done, people to say of me: “I like his character.” I think it’s what you want too.
It is what I want. And I thank all the effective instructors in my life who put challenging, thought-provoking, freedom-giving works like these in my hands. Teachers who assign works like these set students on a path of finding what matters most—and provide the academic knowledge and skills needed to lead others down the same path.
Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said (quoting Theodore Parker): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
How did King, and Parker, know that? Not by restricting their studies to relatively recent works. Not by schooling more concerned with social justice than with effective instruction. Their deep historical and literary knowledge revealed that humanity was capable of wickedness and beauty—and that inch by inch, the circle of those exposed to beauty is growing.