Mary Wollstonecraft, Philosopher Of Education

In ‘Observations on the State of Degradation to which Woman is Reduced by Various Causes’ (Chapter IV of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), Mary Wollstonecraft writes:

Reason is…the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth. Every individual is in this respect a world in itself. More or less may be conspicuous in one being than another; but the nature of reason must be the same in all…can that soul be stamped with the heavenly image, that is not perfected by the exercise of its own reason? Yet outwardly ornamented with elaborate care, and so adorned to delight man…the soul of woman is not allowed to have this distinction…But, dismissing these fanciful theories, and considering woman as a whole…the inquiry is whether she has reason or not. If she has, which, for a moment, I will take for granted, she was not created merely to be the solace of man…

Into this error men have, probably, been led by viewing education in a false light; not considering it as the first step to form a being advancing gradually towards perfection; but only as a preparation for life.

The power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations, is the only acquirement, for an immortal being, that really deserves the name of knowledge. Merely to observe, without endeavouring to account for any thing, may (in a very incomplete manner) serve as the common sense of life; but where is the store laid up that is to clothe the soul when it leaves the body?

In the second para quoted above, Wollstonecraft, after asserting the existence of reason in women–via a theological claim–goes on to establish a normative standard for education: its function is not purely vocational but also a spiritual and moral one. The task of education is the development of reason, the business of bringing to full fruition the divine gift granted all human beings by their Creator. The task of education is not mere ‘preparation’ for a narrowly circumscribed sphere of profane responsibility; it is, rather, to elevate and uplift each human being by making it possible for them to exercise their reason–as part of a process of gradually ‘perfecting’ their souls. Education is not prelude to the ‘real business’; it is the real business itself.

In the third para, Wollstonecraft asserts the importance of abstraction and generalization–implicit in these claims is the importance of pattern recognition. Humans cannot be content with particulars, with living from moment to moment; they must, through the mastery of these powerful intellectual tools, rise to a vantage point from which disparate phenomena can be tied together into explanatory wholes (and serve as the basis for future theory-building.) The ‘common sense of life’ is not the only standard that humans should aspire to; there are far loftier goals visible, the journey to which may only be made possible by the right kind of education.

Note: My Political Philosophy class and I read and discussed some excerpts from Vindication of the Rights of Woman yesterday; these two paragraphs led to a very interesting digression (ending up in computer science and binary numbers). Which is why I make note of them today.

On The Possible Advantages Of Robot Graders

Some very interesting news from the trenches about robot graders, which notes the ‘strong case against using robo-graders for assigning grades and test scores’ and then goes on to note:

But there’s another use for robo-graders — a role for them to play in which…they may not only be as good as humans, but better. In this role, the computer functions not as a grader but as a proofreader and basic writing tutor, providing feedback on drafts, which students then use to revise their papers before handing them in to a human.

Instructors at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have been using a program called E-Rater…and they’ve observed a striking change in student behavior…Andrew Klobucar, associate professor of humanities at NJIT, notes that students almost universally resist going back over material they’ve written. But [Klobucar’s] students are willing to revise their essays, even multiple times, when their work is being reviewed by a computer and not by a human teacher. They end up writing nearly three times as many words in the course of revising as students who are not offered the services of E-Rater, and the quality of their writing improves as a result…students who feel that handing in successive drafts to an instructor wielding a red pen is “corrective, even punitive” do not seem to feel rebuked by similar feedback from a computer….

The computer program appeared to transform the students’ approach to the process of receiving and acting on feedback…Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note….interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior — from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent. As a result of engaging in this process, the students’ writing improved; they repeated words less often, used shorter, simpler sentences, and corrected their grammar and spelling. These changes weren’t simply mechanical. Follow-up interviews with the study’s participants suggested that the computer feedback actually stimulated reflectiveness in the students — which, notably, feedback from instructors had not done.

Why would this be? First, the feedback from a computer program like Criterion is immediate and highly individualized….Second, the researchers observed that for many students in the study, the process of improving their writing appeared to take on a game-like quality, boosting their motivation to get better. Third, and most interesting, the students’ reactions to feedback seemed to be influenced by the impersonal, automated nature of the software.

Not all interactions with fellow humans are positive; many features of conversations and face-to-face spaces act to inhibit the full participation of those present. Some of these shortcomings can be compensated for, and directly addressed, by the nature of computerized, automated interlocutors (as, for instance, in the settings described above). The history of online communication showed how new avenues for verbal and written expression opened for those inhibited in previously valorized physical spaces; robot graders similarly promise to reveal interesting new personal dimensions of automation’s spaces for interaction.

The Abiding ‘Mystery’ of Calculus

I first encountered calculus in the eleventh grade. A mysterious symbol had made an appearance in my physics text–in the section on dynamics–as we studied displacement, velocity and acceleration. What was this ds/dt thing anyway? I had, at that point in time, never studied calculus of any variety; to suddenly encounter a derivative was to be confronted with mystery of the highest kind. I asked for explanation and clarification; I received less than satisfactory obfuscation in response. Something about ‘instantaneous rate of change’, whatever that was.

A few months later, having encountered differential calculus in the mathematics syllabus, I was considerably, if not totally, edified. Functions, curves, graphs, tangents; somehow, I was able to partially relate the material we had studied in the physics class to this mathematical paraphernalia. And then, a little later, in the twelfth grade, having encountered integral calculus and then differential equations, other pieces of the puzzle fell into place as the relationship between mathematical apparatus, the models they comprised, and the physical world became a little clearer.

But as the story of my introduction to calculus–an abrupt exposure to its application and formalism in dynamical analysis–shows, calculus had an initial air of mystery that took some shaking. It had been suddenly introduced as a mathematical tool to enable grappling with a problem of physical mechanics, but the formal insights that lay at its core–especially the concept of a limit–were decidedly unfamiliar. More to the point, its use seemed utterly gratuitous; I could not see how my understanding of the physical details of velocity and acceleration had been improved in any way. And even when I did study differential calculus, I felt as if I became an expert manipulator of its many recipes and techniques well before I understood what my activity entailed. Syntactical manipulation, the transformation of one set of mathematical symbols into another according to a well-specified algorithmic procedure, was easy enough; understanding what those meant, and how they underwrote our understanding of the world of becoming and change, was a different matter.

We were science students in high school, ostensibly preparing ourselves for careers in engineering, medicine, and perhaps even basic research in the physical sciences; calculus was one of our most important tools. But we remained befuddled by its place in the conceptual apparatus of our studies for a very long time. This should be, and was then, a matter of some perplexity, especially when I consider how enlightened I felt when I better understood its place in making a changing world comprehensible.

Years on, when I became embroiled in debates over curricula in computer science undergraduate education, it occurred to me little had changed; many students remained perplexed by calculus’ importance in their education, by its most foundational presumptions and applications.Nothing quite exercises pedagogues like mathematics education, and in their catalog of perplexities, the failure to properly contextualize calculus should rank especially high. I’m almost tempted to describe it as a civilizational failure, so convinced am I of the judgment of any extraterrestrial visitors when confronted with this peculiar combination of indispensability and incomprehensibility in our epistemic scheme of things.

The Seductive Appeal of ‘Education’

In reviewing Jill Lepore‘s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinion’s of Jane Franklin, a ‘biography’ of Benjamin Franklin‘s considerably less distinguished sibling, Susan Dunn writes:

The words “seduction” and “education” in fact share the same Latin root: ducere, to lead. Seduction leads astray (“se-”), while education leads out (“e”)—out of our unformed, primitive selves. Education civilizes us, prepares us for participation in society, in culture, in public service. Education opens the gates of the world. It provides the exit, the one way out. (‘The Other Franklin,’ The New York Review of Books, 24 October 2013)

Like just about any etymology lessons, this one is fascinating. Many–like me–might have noticed the orthographic similarity between ‘seduction’ and ‘education’ without pausing to inquire whether they might share in provenance.

For my present purposes, though, I am less interested in exploring this etymological connection than in inquiring further into the seductive appeal of education itself, one that Dunn elaborates as the primary reason for the wildly dissimilar achievements and lives of the Franklin siblings. At one pole is the phenomenally well-read Benjamin, at the other, the barely literate Jane. (Dunn helpfully provides several samples of her less than inspiring prose.) One sibling travels far and wide, literally and figuratively, acquiring a cosmopolitanism that would be the envy of many and ensuring a place for himself in any history of the times he lived in; the other remains stagnant in a provincial existence, destined for obscurity unless rescued by the attentions of a sympathetic writers committed to the construction of alternative histories. With such wildly disparate fates in store, who would not be convinced of the civilizing and prosperity-inducting effects of education? (Education appears correlated with longer lives too, as public health data seems to confirm.) If a flourishing life is our aim, then education seems the golden road to it.

This optimism though, seems destined to be tempered by the familiar skepticism about whether education–even if of the ‘right’, ‘classical’ variety–can form our ‘unformed’, ‘primitive’ selves in all the right ways, whether education, even as it ‘civilizes’ us, does a good enough job of driving out the uncivilized within us. for instance, here is George Steiner in the preface to Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966:

We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?

This skepticism suggests we have conceived of ‘education’ a little too narrowly. Perhaps we have only included bookish and cultural indoctrination of various stripes under that rubric. In the process, we might have excluded the more nebulous ‘moral education’, a process the determination of whose contours still remains oppressively intractable.

Michelle Rhee Shoulda Gotten An Education

Late last night, I stumbled across an ‘interview’ with Michelle Rhee (linked to by John Protevi on Facebook). (‘Michelle Rhee Gets an Education,’ New York Times Magazine, 2 February 2013). The comments section is absolutely priceless, and well worth a read. Here, I want to address a couple of her responses, because they offer us excellent insights into an extremely alarming person’s mind, one that has been appointed ‘reformer’ of ‘America’s schools’ but who instead, comes across as more of a destroyer than anything else.

Exhibit Numero Uno:

You write that you were offended by a sign in a Washington public school that read, “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do.” That didn’t make sense to you? 

As educators, we have to approach our job believing that anything is possible. It is incredibly important that we constantly communicate to kids that they can accomplish anything when they put their minds to it.

Translation: To me, that sign looked like an excuse made by lazy teachers.

Rhee does not like teachers, that much is clear. What she also revealed by her taking offense at the sign is that she lacks an understanding of the circumstances that may impinge on a student’s education. She forgets that schools are placed in very particular social and economic circumstances, as are their classrooms, and what takes place in them is not impervious to what happens outside. Her ‘anything is possible’ affirmation isn’t one; it’s an ostrich-like responses to material factors that affect school success. Unsurprisingly, she is fixated on test scores.

Exhibit Numero Dos:

You offered thousands of dollars to teachers and principals who brought up their schools’ test scores. Did you ever consider that it would encourage some to cheat? 

Teachers have integrity. And if money was the motivating factor, they wouldn’t be in education.

But money is enough of a motivating factor to get them to work toward your objectives? There is something more insidious at play here: Rhee wants to insist that teachers should work for the ‘love of it’ and shut up and put up about wages and working conditions. All those unions, asking for raises and better working hours. Shouldn’t you guys be working instead? As I’ve noted here before, the only Americans allowed to do the best for themselves are CEOs. The rest of us have to work for the love of it.

Exhibit Numero Tres:

Your reputation has been partly informed by the fact that you allowed a PBS news crew to film you firing a principal. Was that a terrible idea in retrospect? 

When I became chancellor, for the first two years of the job I was incredibly naïve about the press. I thought that my job was to run the school district, and that was what I was focused on. Now in retrospect I know how naïve it was.

At least Rhee is unapologetic. What she really wanted to say: ‘I quite enjoyed firing a principal on television; it let me show the teachers who’s boss.’

My sniping at Rhee here is inadequate; the real treat for the reader lies in the comments section of the interview. And in reading the always-wonderful Diane Ravitch on her.

The CTU Strike: Facile Reliance on Evaluation Won’t Work

Reading responses to the CTU strike has dismayed me: that there is so much hostility directed at teachers and their unions in a country where the path to middle-class success used to be understood as a good public education, but which is now directly under attack from a shrieking horde of carpetbaggers and rent-seekers. (Thankfully, the good folks of Chicago seem to be squarely behind the CTU.)

I’m stunned too by the  unquestioning reliance on the notion that teacher evaluation is the key to resolving the supposed crisis of public education.  When so much remains to be done for school students how can evaluation, a poorly understood notion at the best of times, become the centerpiece of reform? And indeed, given the pedagogical controversies that surround testing as a means of evaluating students, how can those scores be turned into a vehicle for evaluating their teachers? If someone had suggested to me that my 8th grade teachers be fired because of my scores in tests that year, I’d have been shocked; their teaching had nothing to do with my poor performance. And the idea that Aziz Akhtar, my high school chemistry teacher–a maestro whose explanation of the structure of benzene rings attained an almost poetic quality–should have been blamed for my slacking off and scoring poorly in the 11th grade chemistry exam fills me with horror.

What a student ‘gets’ from a teacher is not the kind of thing that is easily measured in quantifiable scores; more often than not, if a teacher is to be evaluated, it is best done by another teacher, by a process of observation, peer mentoring, and consistent, constructive feedback and criticism. Teaching is part science, part art; we are still a long way from understanding how learning proceeds and how teaching succeeds. To shoehorn this process into a ready-made quasi-Taylorist template is sheer folly. If school reform is to be carried out, it will be a necessarily slow and expensive process, and not one that can be hurried along with a slap on its rump from Michelle Rhee and her cohort.

Note: I’m often asked, ‘Would you like to teach in schools’? (i.e., high school or lower). My answer has always been, ‘Not on your life.’ It’s too hard: I simply cannot imagine dealing with the kinds of issues school teachers have to deal with on a daily basis. (Disciplinary for instance; I like dealing with students that are a bit more ‘mature’, ‘more adult’). Selfishly, I would like to be able to teach material that sometimes impacts my so-called ‘research.’ Thus, I stand back, and admire those that can take it on. I’ve met plenty of school teachers over the years and I’m impressed by their grace under fire, their careful navigation of the shoals of disciplinary issues, their deep commitment to their wards, their working in poorly equipped and funded school districts. Right from the time I was first offered an opportunity as a substitute teacher in Newark, NJ, I have turned away from school teaching. It’s fundamental to our society, but on this one, I have let others take the bullet.

The New York Times Joins the CTU-Bashing Party

This morning, I posted the following on my Facebook status:

I wouldn’t use today’s NYT Editorial on the CTU strike as a window-cleaning schmatta.

Unfortunately, editorials in influential newspapers cannot be dismissed so easily. So let’s take a closer look.

The editorial begins unpromisingly:

Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea.

Notice how it is the ‘idea’ that is problematic, thus indicting the agent of the strike i.e., the union. A more promising start might have been:

City administrations should never let negotiations with teachers get to the point where they feel compelled to strike.

Because, you know, city administration policies can also hurt the ‘children’ that the New York Times is so worried about. Let’s move on. (The next sentence, incidentally, undermines the seriousness of the situation by putting it down to a personality clash between Rahm Emanuel and Karen Lewis.)

The Times is quite sure that the union is opposed to ‘sensible policy changes,’ ones that,

[A]re increasingly popular across the country and are unlikely to be rolled back, no matter how long the union stays out.

Well. I hadn’t realized aping bad policies implemented elsewhere was such a good idea. And perhaps the Times could evaluate these ‘sensible’ changes for us? Thankfully, it does tell us that Mr. Emanuel rescinded a 4-percent pay raise last year, and that he, in keeping with the current fashion of diminishing organized labor in every way possible, by-passed the collective bargaining process to implement a longer school day.

The Times’ ‘why don’t you follow the lemmings’ query is on display again when it comes to noting the union’s resistance to ‘an evaluation system in which a teacher’s total rating depends partly on student test scores’:

Half the states have agreed to create similar teacher evaluation systems that take student achievement into account in exchange for grants under the federal Race to the Top program or for greater flexibility under the No Child Left Behind law. Such systems are already up and running in many places.

The Times does not stop to consider that such evaluations and ratings might be flawed and that the CTU’s stance might make more pedagogical sense. No sir; this is a fait accompli, fall in line!

The primary beef, in any case, over and above everything else, is that the union is ‘holding the city hostage’ by not bringing forward its ‘legitimate suggestions’ (if any) for improving the evaluation system in the right way. I hate to break the news to the New York Times, but the power to strike is organized labor’s weapon of last resort, one only to be used when faced with a recalcitrant and obdurate management. That same management, if not confronted with that threat, can all too easily stonewall its way into a resolution that favors it alone (and not the city’s students).

The editorial continues,

What stands out about this strike, however, is that the differences between the two sides were not particularly vast, which means that this strike was unnecessary.

But it is only the union that is required to make concessions.

Moreover, Ms. Lewis, who seems to be basking in the power of having shut down the school system, seems more inclined toward damaging the mayor politically than in getting this matter resolved.

Pardon me, I thought this was about a ‘personality clash’ between two folks. Why is Ms. Lewis’ personality the only one to be indicted?

If the strike goes on for much longer, the union could pay a dear price in terms of public opinion.

And the editorial page of the nation’s most prominent newspapers is helping that process get started.