An attitude check for teachers

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Teachers are idealists. Over time, however, they can become cynics as they work with youth. Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia State University, wrote a very wise article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that should be read by any teacher because it will induce a needful plea of “Guilty!” and a resolve to improve we comport ourselves around young people. Here is an excerpt:

If I’m right — if students haven’t really changed over the last several generations — then what has changed? Why, we have. As middle-aged faculty members, we’ve become more cynical, less idealistic, grouchier. We’ve come to have such low expectations of students — because, you know, they’re really bad and getting worse every year — that they sometimes oblige us by living down to those expectations.

Once we recognize that we’re a big part of the problem, how can we turn things around? How can we adjust our own attitudes while at the same time doing a better job for our students? Here are some suggestions.

Look for the good. I maintain that, far from being worse than previous generations, today’s college students are actually among the best and brightest young people I’ve ever taught. They’re remarkably versatile, caring, adventurous, open minded, and funny. Those qualities can make them a joy to be around, if we’ll simply stop obsessing about their perceived failings and focus on the positive.

One of my favorite things about the teaching profession is that being around young people all these years has helped to keep me young — or at least young at heart.

Ignore the negative hype. Maybe we tend to focus on the negative because we are inundated with information about what slackers today’s kids are, how poor their interpersonal skills are (because of social media, you know), and how little they know about important matters.

Some of those complaints are true, of course — but they’ve been true of every generation of young people, to one degree or another. There were plenty of times my parents worried about me being a slacker, and plenty of times my teachers shook their heads in dismay over my disgraceful ignorance. Are today’s young people really any worse than previous generations? Worse than we were, at their age? I think if we’re honest, we’d have to say no.

Consider the pressure they’re under. One difference I can see between today’s college students and my generation is that, if anything, kids today are under much more pressure than we were.

They’re expected to know, at an earlier age, what they intend to do with their life — to choose a major, land an internship, find the perfect job. At the same time, grade inflation has made it far more difficult to get into a good college, or a good degree program, than it used to be. I felt pretty good about getting into a decent graduate program with a 3.85 GPA. My son, with a 3.97, was concerned that he might not get into his university’s business school (thankfully, he did).

And so, while we as faculty members have an obligation to hold students’ feet to the fire academically speaking, perhaps we shouldn’t add to that the extra pressure of unrealistic expectations based on flawed memories of how wonderful things used to be.

Expect excellence. There’s nothing wrong with holding students to reasonable academic and professional standards or having high expectations in terms of their behavior and performance. In fact, that’s one of the very best things we can do for our students. To paraphrase Thoreau, “Let every professor make known what kind of students would command his or her respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining them.”

We just have to make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons and not merely because we’re annoyed at them or feeling “salty” (as the kids say) because our life isn’t quite going the way we imagined when we were their age. High expectations should be a natural result of our high regard for students and our deeply held belief in their potential — not a means of browbeating them or extracting penance.

Forgive them for being young. I’m convinced that the main reason for generational bias is that, as older people, we’re naturally envious of the young. Whoever said “youth is wasted on the young” was probably not very young at the time.

It’s true, though: We do tend to look at 20-year-olds — with their energy, their enthusiasm (for, we sometimes think, the wrong things), their natural optimism about the future — and wish we still possessed those qualities, combined with the benefit of our life experience: “Ah, if I’d only known then what I know now.” It can be difficult not to feel a tiny bit resentful that their lives are mostly still ahead of them, while much of ours are behind us.

And so we sometimes retaliate by creating frankly ridiculous rules and expectations. Because “that’s the way the world works,” and it’s our job (or so we think) to teach students those hard life lessons. Or else we mistake our own curmudgeonly outlook for reality, failing to recognize that cynicism as a perception is just as skewed as callowness.

Embrace the differences — and the similarities. Ultimately, the key to relating effectively to young people is to acknowledge your common humanity. Yes, there are significant differences between you and them — from tastes in music to fashion choices to (perhaps) political leanings. No, they’ve never seen some of the TV shows you grew up on or watched some of your favorite movies or read nearly as many books.

But those are just surface differences. Far more important is the fact that you and your students share many things in common. Like you, they just want to be happy. They want to be successful. They want to share their lives with family and friends. In addition to teaching them about your subject matter, you can also set a great example of how a well-adjusted adult behaves, both professionally and personally. They can learn a lot from you, and not just about academics.

And you, in turn, can learn a lot from them. I admit: It does make me feel young(er), as I read their papers and listen to students, to learn about their slang, their music, their fashion — even if I don’t embrace much of it. This has become especially poignant for me since my youngest went off to college last year. I no longer have teenagers at home to keep me “hip” — or as hip as I’m likely to be, anyway. I now have to rely on my students for that.

More important, though, as a teacher, I learn from them every day — about what works and doesn’t work in a college classroom, about what has and hasn’t changed in society, about things that had never occurred to me, and wouldn’t, left to my own middle-aged devices. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t find myself saying to a student, during a class discussion, “That’s a really good point. I’d never quite thought of it that way.”

Best of all, I find myself being reminded by young people every day that life is good and beautiful and exciting and worth living. That is a debt I can never fully repay. But I think I know where to start: by not trashing them in the hallway for my own or my colleagues’ amusement.

Source: “The Kids Are Still Alright” (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

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To grade or not to grade?

The hegemonic grading system in schools is an enemy to students appreciating that “knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward” (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University). The system generates laborers — not learners. As a teacher, I am trying to explore alternatives to a grading system that belongs to “Descartes’ dream of the mathematization of the world” (Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology).

St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM and Annapolis, MD) dares to challenge the grading system. Here are relevant excerpts from the student handbooks on grading.

Santa Fe Student Handbook

St. John’s College recognizes that grades often do not give a complete picture of student achievement. Emphasis on grades may also encourage thoughtless competitiveness among students, suggest an unexamined sense of success or failure, or imply wrongly that the teacher is in control of the student’s learning. Therefore, the primary assessment of student achievement is made in the don rag and in less formal communication between tutor and student during the course of the semester.

Nevertheless, in conformity with the common practice of American colleges and universities, the college requires a tutor to award letter grades to students at the end of each semester. Each tutor decides what elements are to be taken into consideration, and in what proportion, in assigning grades.

Other colleges, graduate and professional schools, grantors of scholarships, and employers expect to see the grade records of undergraduates and graduates. Students are not routinely informed of their grades and are not encouraged to be concerned about them. However, a student has the right to see his or her grades at any time convenient to the registrar. The assistant dean also welcomes the opportunity to talk with students about their grade records.

A student who believes a tutor has given an undeserved grade should speak with the tutor about it. In unusual cases the matter may be discussed with the dean, who may then consult the tutor. The tutor always has the right and the obligation to make the final decision.

Annapolis Student Handbook

St. John’s College tries to minimize the pernicious effect that the publication of grades can have on a community of learning. The college does require all tutors to award letter grades to their students at the end of each semester (A=Excellent, B=Good, C=Satisfactory, D=Passing, F=Failure, with pluses and minuses, and I=Incomplete) and authorizes them to decide what elements they will take into consideration and in what proportion. It also requires them to record these grades in the Office of the Registrar. But the college does this primarily because other colleges, graduate and professional schools, granters of scholarships, and employers insist on seeing the grade records of its students and graduates.

Students at the college are consequently not routinely informed of their grades. Indeed they are usually discouraged from having much concern about them. They are urged instead to talk to their tutors about their work, both informally and in don rags. Grades have some usefulness within the college, but in a limited way, and most often as a basis for conversation. Important information about the significance of grades is contained below under “Requirements for Graduation.” A student who thinks that his or her work has been judged unfairly by a tutor should speak to the tutor about this concern. Should the result of such a conversation prove unsatisfactory, the student should speak to the Assistant Dean or Dean. The tutor has the final word on the grade, though in rare cases the Assistant Dean or Dean may amplify the given grade with a letter of explanation.

Here are some essays that are worth reading:

The Atlantic: Why Grades Are Not Paramount to Achievement. The intrinsic love of learning supplants the drive for high marks in the long run.

The Atlantic: Letter Grades Deserve An “F”. The adoption of the Common Core could usher in a new era of standards-based grading.

The Atlantic: When the Value of High School Is Exaggerated. It turns out that students who take AP classes don’t actually get better college grades.

The Atlantic: Why Online Gradebooks Are Changing Education. How software better connects parents with what’s happening in their children’s classrooms – but it can also lead to heightened surveillance and less risk-taking.

What Christian education is NOT

From Calvin College philosophy professor, James K. A. Smith:

First, Christian education is not meant to be merely “safe” education. The impetus for Christian schooling is not a protectionist concern, driven by fear, to sequester children from the big, bad world. Christian schools are not meant to be moral bubbles or holy huddles where children are encouraged to stick their heads in the sand.

Rather, Christian schools are called to be like Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia: not safe, but good. Instead of antiseptic moral bubbles, Christian schools are moral incubators that help students not only to see the glories of God’s creation but also to discern and understand the brokenness of this fallen world.

While the Christian classroom makes room for appreciating the stunning complexity of cell biology and the rich diversity of world cultures, it’s also a place to understand the systemic injustices behind racism and the macroeconomics of poverty. Christian schools are not places for preserving a naive innocence; they are laboratories to form children who see that our broken world is full of widows, orphans, and strangers we are called to love and welcome.

In short, Christian schools are not a withdrawal from the world; they are a lens and microscope through which to see the world in all its broken beauty.

Second, Christian schools are not just about Bible classes. The curriculum of a Christian school is not the curriculum of a public school plus religion courses. While Christian education does deepen students’ knowledge of God’s Word, it’s not Bible class that makes a school Christian.

Rather, the Reformed vision of Christian education emphasizes that the entire curriculum is shaped and nourished by faith in Christ, “for by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). Christian schools are not just extensions of Sunday school focused on learning religion; they are Christ-rooted educational institutions focused on religious learning.

Third, Christian education is not a merely “private” education. Christian schools are not meant to be elite enclaves for the wealthy. To the extent that Christian schools become pious renditions of “prep schools,” they fail to appreciate the radical, biblical calling of Christian education.

Source: James K. A. Smith, “The Case for Christian Education” in Banner (January 18, 2011).

Recommended colleges for traditional and religious students

As a secondary school teacher, I am helping my students make the first big transition of their lives from home to college. Few students, surprisingly, ever solicit my advice about which colleges I recommend, and even fewer apply to those colleges, let alone enroll. Year after year, I observe students, who have undergone classical Christian schooling, make decisions about higher education that strike me as inconsistent or contrary to their formation. Why? The major influencers in the decision-making are regional insularity, alumni bias, and, most disconcertingly, status anxiety. At secondary schools with less affluent families, I suspect economic security would factor heavily.

Because education is a formative project, I exhort my students to choose a college that will contribute to human flourishing (eudaimonia), mindful that institutions shape or misshape the person. Since my students already possess a consumerist mentality, which fixates on how a college develops “marketability” for the workforce, I encourage a different set of questions for their college search: What kind of human being is this college aiming for? How does this college cultivate humanity? What is the mission of this college, and are its stakeholders (students, faculty, administration, board, alumni) genuinely mission-focused? Put differently, start with the end (telos) of a college and then work backwards. At Wheaton College, for example, everything is done for the sake of making wise, loving, and faithful disciples in the kingdom of God. At Hillsdale College, by contrast, everything is done for the sake of making prudent, knowledgeable, and engaged citizens in the American republic. In the Middle Ages, when universities were first established, the end was piety. In the 19th century, the end was gentlemanliness. Nowadays, the end is economic advancement.

Traditional educators have a short list of praiseworthy colleges. For the undergraduate student, I favor a small liberal arts college with its teaching priority, core curriculum, and integrated community over a large public or private university with its research priority, specialized curriculum, and ghettoized community. Whereas the liberal arts college seeks to liberate the soul of a human being through habituation in various arts (or disciplines), the university strives to equip the the worker for a competitive market. It is the difference between a human enterprise and professional training. Admittedly, some universities have excellent liberal arts programs. Public universities, I am afraid, are at the whim of the state; political influence usually harms more than it helps.

My college recommendations are below with opinions about the respective advantages and drawbacks.

SECULAR (religious or traditional-friendly)

  • St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD & Santa Fe, NM). Advantages: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy. Drawbacks: secularism, substance abuse.
  • University of Chicago (Chicago, IL). Advantages: The Core, location. Drawbacks: left-of-center politics, secularism.
  • Columbia University – Columbia College (New York City, NY). Advantage: The Core Curriculum. Drawback: location.
  • Hillsdale College (Hillsdale, MI). Advantages: civic education, Western civilization curriculum. Drawbacks: location, ring-wing politics.
  • St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN). Advantage: The Great Conversation. Drawback: location.

PROTESTANT

  • Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). Advantages: top Christian scholars, academic rigor and excellence, integration of faith & learning, location.
  • Baylor University – Honors College (Waco, TX). Advantages: top Christian scholars, University ScholarsGreat Texts. Drawback: location.
  • Biola University – Torrey Honors Institute (La Mirada, CA). Advantages: great books program, integration of faith & learning.
  • Samford University (Birmingham, AL). Advantage: University Fellows Program.
  • Eastern University – Templeton Honors College (St. Davids, PA). Advantage: great books program, seminary pedagogy, integration of faith & learning. Drawback: location.

While I am not a Catholic, I applaud the culture of learning at the colleges below.

CATHOLIC

  • Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (Merrimack, NH). Advantage: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy, integration of faith & learning.
  • Thomas Aquinas College (Santa Paula, CA). Advantage: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy, integration of faith & learning.
  • University of Dallas (Irving, TX). Advantage: Western civilization curriculum. Drawback: campus, location.
  • Christendom College (Front Royal, VA). Advantage: Western civilization curriculum, integration of faith & learning.

If I failed to mention a college that you think meets my criteria, then please leave a comment with the suggestion.

COLLEGE GUIDES

  • Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL)
  • Loren Pope, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges
  • Loren Pope, Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right For You
  • John Zmirak (editor), Choosing the Right College: The Inside Scoop on Elite Schools and Outstanding Lesser-Known InstitutionsAll-American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith
  • Howard Greene & Matthew W. Greene, The Hidden Ives: 63 of America’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities 
  • Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania

BOOKS

Visions of Higher Education

  • Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (written by a professor of humanities at Columbia University)
  • Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College
  • Todd C. Ream & Perry L. Glanzer, The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University
  • John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University
  • James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

Crisises in Higher Education

  • William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (written by a former Yale University professor)
  • Anthony T. Kronan, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (written by a professor of law and former Dean of the Law School at Yale University)
  • Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (written by a professor of computer science and former Dean of Harvard College)
  • Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School
  • C. John Sommerville, The Decline of the Secular University
  • Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Soul
  • Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education
  • Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
  • Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
  • Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

Studies that serve life

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote an essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” in his work Untimely Meditations (1873-1876). What he says below articulates my own philosophy of education. If our studies do not augment or invigorate life, they are vain.

‘In any case, I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity.’ These words are from Goethe, and they may stand as a sincere ceterum censeo* at the beginning of our meditation on the value of history. For its intention is to show why instruction without invigoration, why knowledge not attended by action, why history as a costly superfluity and luxury, must, to use Goethe’s word, be seriously hated by us – hated because we still lack even the things we need and the superfluous is the enemy of the necessary. We need history, certainly, but we need it for reasons different from those for which the idler in the garden of knowledge needs it, even though he may look nobly down on our rough and charmless needs and requirements. We need it, that is to say, for the sake of life and action, not so as to turn comfortably away from life and action, let alone for the purpose of extenuating the self-seeking life and the base and cowardly action. We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life: for it is possible to value the study of history to such a degree that life becomes stunted and degenerate.

Substitute any academic discipline for history when Nietzsche says, “We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life.” Too often, the educator is an “idler in the garden of knowledge,” turning students away from life rather than toward it. Educators need to show how literature, history, philosophy, theology, mathematics, and science all serve life. I regard my vocation as lying at the intersection of great books and human lives. Great books on their own are mummies; they need to be resurrected in a community of flesh-and-blood readers who make those books existentially urgent. 

*ceterum censeo: but I’m of the opinion

Christian education is the conversion of the imagination

From James K. A. Smith’s essay, “Keeping Time in the Social Sciences: An Experiment with Fixed-Hour Prayer and the Liturgical Calendar” (in Teaching and Christian Practices):

Christian education is not just about the transfer of information but also about a task of formation  – the formation of the kinds of persons that constitute a “peculiar people.” In short, Christian education is not just the communication and dissemination of Christian content but the formation of a people who are defined by a certain set of desires or passions which are themselves defined by a certain telos – namely, the shape of the coming kingdom.

More specifically, I’m convinced that at the heart of this task is the “conversion of the imagination” enacted through intentional practices that are tactile, bodily, repetitive, and “narratival.” We are narrative, liturgical, desiring animals whose actions and orientation to the world are driven much more by pre-cognitive imaginative construals of the world than by cognitive, intellectual perceptions of the world. Our dispositions function as automaticities that are operative, for the most part, without our thinking about them. So a central question for the task of Christian education is this: How can we form those pre-cognitive dispositions – those pre-theoretical, imaginative construals of the world? The shape of a Christian education, then, is not primarily (or not only) figuring out which content to disseminate, or from what “perspective” to consider such content, but determining how to enact practices that effect, as much as possible, the conversion of the imagination – the formation and training of an abiding desire for the kingdom.

Liturgy wastes much (linear) time

From Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths’ essay, “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning” (in Teaching and Christian Practices):

The liturgy is repetitive, and in being so it takes – or, better, wastes – much time. This is perhaps most evident if the entire cycle of the liturgy of the hours is prayed: doing that takes something over two hours a day, and if it is combined with the liturgy of the Mass, a substantial proportion of the day is liturgically spent. Wasting time is, in ordinary English, a bad thing: we want, we think, to make the best use possible of it. But in liturgical terms, time, considered as linear time that can be scheduled, divided into minutes and hours, filled up, deployed, and measured by chronometers, is exactly what should be laid waste, and effectively is. Time, considered as it should be, is cyclical rather than linear, and endlessly repetitive in its cycles: there is the cycle of the day, of the week, of the month, and of the year, each grounded, as Christians see it, in the creative work of the Lord, each evident, in different ways, in the created order, and each given its liturgical correlate. The liturgy of the hours works on a daily cycle, the Sabbath orders the weekly cycle, and the yearly cycle is given shape by the seasons of the church’s year, from the beginning of Advent to the feast of Christ the King. To enter into the repetitive patterns of the liturgy is to lay waste linear time with the radiance of eternity, and in that way to provide a foretaste of heaven