Friday, August 04, 2006

Bye Brown Betty. Hello Insanity.

So recently I finally gave up my car. It was something that I’d been hoping to do for some time for various reasons but a sort of final excuse came and I sent my loyal vehicle to great diabetes research funding junkyard in the sky. The car, originally a gift from my grandmother carried me back and forth across the country and all over the desert. It had endured three hit-and-run accidents while being parked in perfectly legitimate spaces. Upon coming to New England the moisture wreaked havoc with the electrical system and induced more rust than I ever thought to expect. One of the doors which had a nice big dent in it started bending at the hinge so that it wouldn’t close properly. One of the rear windows started not working because of ice and a well-intended but foolish passenger in trying to fix it broke one of the gears in the internal mechanism. The ultimate and final offence the car suffered was a burst front brake line. Anyway, the car served me well and far and I’m very grateful to have had it. All the same, considering the cost of insurance and the intensely strict safety inspections in Massachusetts, the rising cost of gas, the insane traffic of Boston, and the desire to improve my fitness a bit, I was glad to see it go.

Since being without a car and having joined the pedestrian class I’ve attained a new perspective on Boston traffic. It is still insane but in a different way. After spending a couple of years in Seoul and it’s suburbs, I became very acquainted with the way the sidewalks can be crowded with people in a big city. Things in Boston have proven comparable for degree of crowdedness. What I wasn’t prepared for was how slowly the crowd moves. It may be an artifact of my memory but, it always seemed that in Seoul people had a place to go, and they were trying to move from point to point in as efficient a manner as possible. But here, it seems like I’m always running into groups of people who fill the sidewalk and move as if they really have no place to go. It has proven rather annoying on occasion to be rushing to an appointment or something and to find myself trapped behind a mob of meandering moseyers.

There has been another effect of not having a car any longer. I have generally long commute times when going to work, it being about an hour and a half drive away. Between this and every other trip I take by public trans my reading time has increased substantially which has allowed me to complete two books of particular interest recently: The Mismeasure of Man by Steven J. Gould and An Elusive Science by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. Now I wont try and explain too much about the details of these books now. Nor will I evaluate them for quality of content. What they have in common is they deal with the way we assess learning in educational contexts. Between the two of them I’ve been forced to severely reconsider a great deal about the way I see both my job and my research aspirations. It has left me in a new state of confusion regarding my own theoretical perspectives on education and I’ve desired greatly to be able to articulate some kind of coherency out of them. So far it has been to no avail and instead I’ve started cramming more on the issue into my head.

One thing that has come to impress (or should I say appall) me is the way in which educators and folks who study education come up with theories which are largely based in other theories, or the common-sense of experienced teachers rather than any kind of empirical understanding of natural phenomena. Ultimately the tendency is to claim scientific authority while violating it’s basic principles and jumping straight into producing practices that are then “demonstrated” as effective in overly controlled, unrealistic school settings. Applications of these “theories” are then attempted in real schools to be met largely with a system too inert to allow any kind of meaningful adaptation that would allow one to see if it was in fact a good idea or not.

So where the process should be: have a cool idea, test it out scientifically, demonstrate the idea is correct, and then finally implement the idea in a school; the actual procedure is: have an idea that a hundred people have published on before you, test it out in the semblance of science, market the idea like crazy to teachers and administrators, stand by and watch all of it go nowhere. I kind of wish my son were reading this because he might appreciate it when I say, sometimes these folks talk about the idea in such a way that makes you think they are more interested in people believing it will work than actually demonstrating whether or not it does. My recent reading from Howard Gardner suggests that he wants you to believe in his theory enough that you’ll persist with it in the face of recurrent inadequate results. Even though there are some aspects of his theory that I think are probably correct his work seems especially guilty of trying to coerce findings to comply with the results he wants to achieve in the process of pushing for people to apply it even though he confesses his classification system is arbitrary in its designations and is as much a victim of cultural value systems as it is based in any kind of natural biology. In other words he’s saying, “Here are my multiple intelligences. I just made them up and can’t really prove they exist in any natural form except that I’ve defined them in such and such a way. Teach to them. They’re not real, but if you believe in them your students will learn more.” Blah!

Curiously I think Jesus gave an apt description of the failure of our attempts at education reform. “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and uses it to patch an old garment. For then the new garment would be ruined, and the new patch wouldn’t even match the old garment. And no one puts new wine into old bottles. For the new wine would burst the bottles spilling the wine and ruining the bottles. New wine must be put into new bottles.” I have yet to discover a time when reform was attempted in some way other than taking some new theory and ripping off pieces try and force them in as patches on the old system. And without fail each time the bottles couldn’t hold it and spilt both good and bad alike leaving a system loaded with diverse theory but completely lacking in clarity of function. If it is desirable to change the system to make it more beneficial to those we educate in some meaningful way, the need to redefine the concept of “school” or abolish the concept altogether seems inescapable.