Monday, November 21, 2011

Dorothy Sayers and TLTOL (part ten)

In this post, I ponder on these two paragraphs from "The Lost Tools of Learning":

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of "subjects"; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education--lip- service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.
What, then, are we to do? We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. That is a cry to which we have become accustomed. We cannot go back--or can we? Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does "go back" mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. "Cannot"-- does this mean that our behavior is determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be very difficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentieth century is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if "the Middle Ages" is, in this context, simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not "go back" to it--with modifications--as we have already "gone back" with modifications, to, let us say, the idea of playing Shakespeare's plays as he wrote them, and not in the "modernized" versions of Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatrical progress.
Is being progressive always good? I don't see how that can be the case. Its most common definition is merely "to move forward". But in what are we moving forward? Are the outcomes positive...or at least better than they were before we took a given step forward? If not, there's nothing wrong with moving backward to something that gave us better results while we think of other things to try. In moving backward, we can still take with us the insights we gained from experimenting with the new thing, so in a way progress and regression can happen simultaneously.

For example, most reject the harsh schoolteacher who drills the class in arithmetic facts and "switches" the "dunces" in the class. In the name of progress in the USA, we seem to have given up not only the harsh, humiliating treatment of students but also demonized group recitation of arithmetic facts. What if we "threw the baby out with the bath water" on that one? What if group recitation of arithmetic facts serves an important and useful purpose in helping young children memorize math facts to automaticity? (I have no idea if this is the case. I'm making up a hypothetical.)

I would wish for the educational establishment in the USA to be better at utilizing the pedagogical methods and curricula that give good outcomes and rejecting any seemingly "progressive" things that end up giving bad results. Unfortunately, they glaringly fail at this, if I can judge by the "fuzzy math" curricula that so many school districts (including mine) refuse to give up in the face of quite pathetic math outcomes for the students. I'm so grateful to be able to teach my children using my own choice of curricula and methods.

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