Thursday, September 07, 2006

Dogma and education

The new school year has begun.

I was happy to see my old students again, and, of course, to welcome the new ones.

I like teaching, even though I recognize some of the problems inherent in the field.

One of those problems is that schools are often fad driven.

Since I first began teaching back in 1982, schools I have been at – both public and private - have experimented with any number of theories, fads, and methodologies.

All with their own particular form of edubabble!

The pattern is always the same. Some administrator will become enamored of some new way. He/she will bring in speakers (all of whom are well paid and who seem to nave new books out) who will indoctrinate us in the new way. We will have teams, and workshops, and committees.

Enthusiasm will burn bright for three to five years – until the enamored administrator moves on, or the results start coming in to show that the new way accomplished little or nothing more than the way it supplanted.

Then a new new way will appear on the horizon, and we begin again.

Our trustees have implemented a new program for this year.

I am dubious.

But this trend is not new.

As Chesterton commented back in 1929, "Our schools are swept nowadays with wave after wave of scientific speculation; by fad after fad and fashion after fashion.” (North American Review)

He has plenty more to say about education – including the fact that it does not exist!

"Of course, the main fact about education is that there is no such thing. It does not exist, as theology or soldiering exist. Theology is a word like geology, soldiering is a word like soldering; these sciences may be healthy or no as hobbies; but they deal with stone and kettles, with definite things. But education is not a word like geology or kettles. Education is a word like `transmission' or `inheritance'; it is not an object, but a method. It must mean the conveying of certain facts, views or qualities, to the last baby born." ("The Truth About Education")

In the same essay he goes on to note, "They might be the most trivial facts or the most preposterous views or the most offensive qualities; but if they are handed on from one generation to another they are education. Education is not a thing like theology, it is not an inferior or superior thing; it is not a thing in the same category of terms. Theology and education are to each other like a love-letter to the General Post Office. Mr. Fagin was quite as educational as Dr. Strong; in practice probably more educational. It is giving something--perhaps poison. Education is tradition, and tradition (as its name implies) can be treason."

Ah, treason. It can be an insidious thing. But teachers are often asked to teach treasonous things about history, science, economics, government, and so on.

Oh, these things are not viewed by the educational establishment as treasonous (except, of course, by those who are aware, but have sold their souls).

No, we instill patriotism, they say. Or we educate young people for their roles in the workplace.

Never mind whether the nation is worthy of support, or the economic system is moral.

In effect, teachers are asked to teach, "the general idea of authority. It is quaint that people talk of separating dogma from education. Dogma is actually the only thing that cannot be separated from education. It is education. A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching."

A dogmatic teacher? Certainly. Any teacher who is "successful" has a dogma he or she believes - or at least that he/she is paid to support - and so tries to instill it into the minds of students.

That dogma can be one of religion – Evolution is Wrong! … Social Justice is Right! – or secular – Question Everything!

I have encountered teachers who believe students should be challenged because they are capable of so much; teachers who believe you have to water everything down because the students are incapable of doing the work; teachers who believe you have to instill the beliefs that individual fulfillment and choice are paramount; teachers; teachers who advocate training students in basic skills and tricks to get around actually thinking.

I daily pray that the dogma I am teaching is one that is heaven sent.


Trubador said...

Queue the "Jeopardy" theme...

Paul Pennyfeather said...


You are living my life. I teach in Catholic education, but many of our parents have kids in public schools. There is rot in both.

The thing that struck me the most about what you wrote was what I call "The cult of the new." It drives me crazy! All that is necessary to justify an educational theory is that 1) it be promelgated by a PhD, and 2) that it be new. In the absence of 1), just having the quality of 2) will suffice. That they once pushed something completely different as the last word on pedagogy, or that they will assuredly be pushing something completely different in 5 to 10 years time, in no way impedes their zeal for the current fad.

There's very little critical thinking. At least we in this private, Catholic school are spared the ubiquitous platitude "education = virtue."