Putting Down Roots and Pulling Them Up Again

California Bloodlines
John Stewart

Putting Down Roots and Pulling Them Up Again

Montage of Los Angeles pictures on Commons

John Stewart is probably best known as one of the Kingston Trio. He was not an original member but filled in when one of the founding members left. He grew up in California. His father worked at one of the Orange County race tracks and one of his songs celebrates the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. In this song he acknowledges his California roots and how he cannot imagine himself as anything but a Californian. I think it interesting that he finds his roots in one of the most rootless states in the union.

My two sisters were born in California and one stayed and one moved east, to Nevada. My brother, like me, was born in Schenectady, New York, but he was not even a year old when we moved to California. I was four. Though I lived in California until I was able to move east, to Massachusetts, in the 1990’s when I was in my forties, I never thought of it as home, I always identified with the East Coast and the changing seasons. The image above contains images of Los Angeles I know very well and I have pleasant memories of them, but though it was home for a long time I never felt my “roots” were there.

My father used to take us camping weekends to those mountains behind the L. A. skyline at least once a month when the snow was not around. Somewhere in those snowy mountains there is a little town called Wrightwood and a campground on the banks of Jackson Lake in an area of the Los Padres National Forest called Big Pines, where we used to camp. We did not have sleeping bags only heavy canvas blankets that we used to throw over us as we slept on the ground. It was great fun.

Many great stories revolve around home and our relationship with home and our roots. My juniors are reading Ethan Frome about a man who has never felt home at home. They will be reading next The Grapes of Wrath about a family that is quite attached to their home but circumstances force them to leave home. Grandpa Joad was one of the pioneers that first settled the Oklahoma land that he has farmed for many years. Larry McMurtry tells a similar story in his memoir Reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen of his grandfather moving west to settle an undeveloped land and watched it develop and become settled. Pulling up roots to set them down someplace else makes a good story whether, like the Joads, the move is undesired or, like the McMurtrys, it fulfills an aspiration.

The Plaza and “Old Plaza Church”

This is a Los Angeles street when the west was wild. The gold rush has passed but California and Los Angeles was still a desired destination. Wallace Stegner wrote a marvelous novel Angle of Repose about an old college professor trying to reconstruct the story oh his grandparents’ life. His grandfather was an engineer who had aspirations to settle in the west and use his skills to extract the earth’s riches. He is taken advantage of much of the time but he is ultimately successful as he pursued his engineering career throughout the Western United States and Mexico, settling finally in California, where the family sets down its roots. His grandmother was from the East Coast and moved in sophisticated circles that included Henry James. They were a very different pair but at the same time, the kind of people that settled the west and rebuilt it in their image, an image with roots in Europe.

Perhaps this is what rootlessness produces, a land that comes to resemble the land that was left behind. I enjoy western novels, both those that aspire to be literary art, like those of Wallace Stegner, and those that preserve the romance of the west and whose fiction is a bit pulpy, like those of Zane Grey and Owen Wister. The western, if one can forget for a moment the harm that was done to the people to whom the land originally belonged, is about restlessness and the quest for new horizons and new adventures. The western is often about courage and an ethic that in many ways resembles that of chivalry and the order of knighthood in the medieval romances of Europe. I think this is also a part of the American character, or at least it used to be; a desire to push limits, explore the unknown, and to remake the world.

Los Angeles City Hall shortly after its completion (1931)

About seventy years after the earlier photograph was taken Los Angeles looked more like this, like a major city with a City Hall and paved streets. In the voyages of discovery a place was claimed by the “mother country” with the posting of a flag and the recitation of a few words but the place actually became the “mother country” when it began to resemble this national parent. The stories of Sinbad and Odysseus revolve around men on a journey. Each has many adventures but each wants ultimately to get home, not to a place that has been made to resemble home but to the home they remember. Aeneas is also a man on a journey with no home to go to and the desire to find a corner of the world in which he can make a home. That home became Rome. Aeneas will put down roots that centuries later others will attempt to pull up and replant someplace else.

Growing up in Los Angeles about twenty-five years farther down the road the city did not look that different from the last photograph. There was a trolley system that knit the downtown together. As time passed that trolley system was replaced by a freeway system that threw the city boundaries out many miles in all directions. My brother and two sisters embraced the sunshine and picnics on the beach in mid-January. I longed for snow and a sled.

From The Endless Summer
Bruce Brown Films

This scene from the movie The Endless Summer takes place in South Africa but the quest for the perfect wave was what motivated my brother and many of my friends. I never learned to balance myself on a surfboard, though I could do pretty well on a skateboard. This is the California of Venice Beach, in the montage at the beginning, and The Beach Boys. It was an important part of the California culture in which I grew up. It is the sun and the surf that allegedly draws people to California. I like the ice and the snow. What are roots, what motivates people to set them down one place instead of another? What is the future of roots?

As the world changes the corners of the world are being pulled together. It is now possible for a teacher in Massachusetts to teach students in Ohio, Georgia, and California; Brazil, China, and Arabia. How does this change the classroom and more importantly how does this change the students in that classroom? In some ways it seems that we are beginning to set down roots into a more digital soil, that we are less dependent on a physical place. Our friends do not have to live in our neighborhood or even our state. We no longer have to report at a certain time to a cubicle in a certain place to do our jobs. Perhaps this last is an exaggeration, the world of work is largely unchanged for most, but it is changing and for some it is no longer necessary to “commute to the office” to do their work.

I think we continue to give our loyalty to a nation but we are less bound by the borders of that nation. China, for example, has managed to get Google modified for its citizens so that they do not have the access that citizens of other countries have to news and the lifestyles of the world. But how long will this be possible? What happens when a government can no longer control our digital travel? How will this change the world and our corner of it?

The L. A. Times this week advertised a couple of talks on the city as it was presented in the literature of the past, particularly the books of Raymond Chandler and how it is presented today in the works of contemporary authors. How will this discussion be different twenty years hence? As more and more of us spend more and more time living not on the city sidewalks or the neighborhood hangouts but on a digital cable car that can take us almost anywhere how will our view of “roots” and “place” change? How will this affect our loyalties and our sense of community spirit? What will our “communities” look like?

Public schools are struggling with technology. I was this week invited by my principal to join a teacher discussion group sponsored by one of the districts technology people. The discussion is being hosted on Facebook. The irony of this is that our school blocks Facebook so that no teacher can participate in this discussion during school hours, even though the school is promoting the discussion. On the one hand schools can see the potential that the new technology offers for the future of education but they cannot, on the other hand, get past the problems the technology will bring along with it.

I think the potential gains make the potential risks worthwhile, if only because the students will be using this technology whether the schools use it or not. There are many tools we entrust to our students that are potentially dangerous, automobiles, dissecting knives, and laboratories. Generally students are safer using tools that have potential dangers if they have been taught how to use them properly. But the advantages go beyond this. The schoolroom as it exists today is constrained by geography; it rests on a plot of ground within the village or town that supports it. The technology enables students to study in a world that is larger than their hometown.

Poster for the Film The Endless Summer

Family will always have a claim to some of the roots we put down, which in turn will always tie us to a physical place. But our roots can go deeper and farther and for many this is already happening. I never learned to surf because I could not keep my balance on the surfboard. Perhaps the surfboard has changed a bit, and balance is achieved using different skills and the perfect wave is no longer found at the beach.

It’s a Mystery to Me

“Baker Street”
Gerry Rafferty

It’s a Mystery to Me

Picture of Sherlock Holmes
Illustration by Frank Wiles for The Valley of Fear (Color)

When I first heard the song “Baker Street” the first image that came to my mind was of Sherlock Holmes because of his famous address of 221B Baker Street. The song of course has nothing to do with murder, mystery, or with Sherlock Holmes but Baker Street is Baker Street and the name cannot be mentioned without evoking its most famous resident and that resident’s occupation of consulting detective.

The genre in which this fictional detective worked was the murder mystery, though, as in the genre as a whole, not all of Holmes’ cases involved murder. As a genre it involves the solution of a puzzle that involves a crime. One of the more satisfying aspects of the traditional murder mystery is that a world that has been disrupted by a heinous event is put right again; that good triumphs over evil and that the world is ultimately a safe place. There is the tragedy suffered by those related to the crime and its victims but for the world at large there is comfort and the assurance that those that do wrong will be punished and that potential wrong doers see the punishment and are, perhaps, deterred from pursuing their criminal plans.

For Holmes, though, it is the puzzle and not the quest for justice that motivates him. He refuses simple cases and when he does not have a case he often seeks refuge in narcotics. His is an active mind that needs to be stimulated; that without a difficult problem to wrap itself around gets restless. This is another attribute of the traditional murder mystery detective; she or he has some eccentricity that sets the detective apart from others. This may make them aloof like Holmes or perhaps neurotic like a certain television detective.

Clips from episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from PBS

As can be seen from the clips Holmes delights in the intellectual challenge of a difficult problem. He also believes most problems can be solved by careful observation and a study of the people and facts in front of him; that careful observation will reveal the solution to the most enigmatic of mysteries. In Holmes’ view the problem with most people and the reason most people are perplexed is because they do not look. As a teacher I think this is certainly true of the problems most of us face trying to learn something new, that observation and tenacity will usually produce the appropriate form of enlightenment.

Cover of Magazine with Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet

Cover of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring A. Conan Doyle’s story A Study in Scarlet

The detective story begins many believe with Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Murders of the Rue Morgue, which is why one of the most prestigious awards an American mystery writer can earn is called “The Edgar.” But the mystery story is much older. The plot of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King is at its heart a murder investigation (I think of Oedipus as a quaesitor the a magistrate charged with investigating capital crimes in Ancient Rome). The play is a search for the identity of the murderer of the previous king of Thebes, the king that Oedipus replaced. This king was murdered and his death was never investigated. Oedipus vows to solve the crime and in fact he does, read the play to discover the murderer’s identity. Like with the traditional murder mystery the solution of the crime restores order to Theban society.

The refined and sophisticated detective of the traditional “drawing room” whodunit was replaced in early 20th century America by the hard-boiled detective. This was the Depression Era and things were more rough and tumble and polite society was, in many ways, on the skids. This detective operated on instincts, hunches, and a kind of bare-knuckled tenacity the eventually produced a solution. I say “bare-knuckled” because before arriving at a solution most of these detectives had to either survive or inflict (or both) a few beatings. They are smart guys, but they occupy a seedier part of town than Baker Street and are often perceived to be as crooked as those they pursue (though by the end of the story this perception is often found to be misguided).

What I enjoy about these detectives is their patter and their similes. For example, Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, probably the most skilled at this, on one occasion says, “His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish.” And on another, “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.” Like a lost letter on a runaway train the story may not get where it needs to go, but the ride is always very exciting.

Cover of the Magazine Black Mask with The Maltese Falcon
Cover of hardboiled magazine Black Mask, September 1929, featuring part 1 of The Maltese Falcon, by hardboiled pioneer Dashiell Hammett

These thoughts on mysteries were provoked by an entry in Will Richardson’s blog, “The Ultimate Disruption for Schools.” The blog is about making schools more modern, a discussion that has been going on for about a hundred years and as yet not much has changed, at least not since right after the discussion started and Horace Mann and his friends created the modern public school. School reform is a mystery that has puzzled many for a very long time.

The basic model of a school has really changed little since the time of Socrates. There is a teacher sharing what she or he knows and a group of students hanging on every word. Perhaps all the modern school movement changed was that last bit about “hanging on every word.” Since Socrates good teachers have been frustrated by students who only want the answers and do not want to reason the conclusions out for themselves. All a good teacher can do is provide a method for finding answers not the answers themselves. Teachers can of course give an answer, even a correct answer, but it is not likely the answer will be remembered because it is the working out of the problem that makes the answer stick. It is also knowing how to work the problem that makes the answer recoverable when it has been forgotten.

Too often the answers are contingent on where one stands. Standing on the beach looking east provides a very different view from standing on that same beach looking west (where you stand, west coast or east coast also determines in which direction the ocean lies). The teacher can help the student make sense of an eastward or westward point of view but the teacher should not dictate the point of view and unless the teacher dictates point of view the teacher cannot provide answers only analytic tools and methods.

Richardson believes that schools should integrate more of the social networking tools now available on the Internet into their academic programs. That students learn best when they form their own social networks and learn from each other. There is certainly truth to this. Curiosity is the best teacher and students organized into networks of shared interests have a common curiosity that unites them. But what about those ideas and disciplines that live outside the social networks in which a student moves? How will the student moving in circles interested in psychology ever be introduced to calculus?

It is possible that someone with an interest in both psychology and calculus will penetrate that network, but that seems to rely a bit too heavily on fate. It is also unlikely students that learn in this way are going to accumulate all the knowledge they need to become good psychologists. I do not think anyone would advocate learning the practice of medicine or most any profession, in this way. Without someone passing judgment on the depth and breadth of the student’s knowledge, not to mention the student’s skill with a scalpel, how can a patient have confidence in this student’s abilities when she or he enters the profession?

Richardson is, of course, talking about training public k-12 students, not doctors and lawyers so the analogy is not entirely fair. But I think the issue does at some level need resolution. My interest in English language and literature was provoked by inspiring teachers of English language and literature. Those that went on to become mathematicians and scientists often had the same experience that I had, only with math and science teachers. One purpose of the public school and of a liberal arts education is to expose students to all the disciplines (university is, after all, a cognate of universal). Unless students are challenged beyond the circle of interests towards which they naturally gravitate they may never discover where their true interests lie.

Schools need to be reformed and the skills students get from working collaboratively in social networks structured within the schools and by the various disciplines taught in those schools will give students skills that will be very valuable later in life, even if the disciplines in which those skills were learned are abandoned. It is not likely that new technologies will awaken an interest in education in all that receive a compulsory education. Plato said that the mind will not retain what it has been forced to learn. It may retain a body of information long enough to pass a test but unless the student’s interest is piqued that body of information will not likely remain with the student after the test is passed or failed as the case may be.

The technology may help to capture the interest of some. But even if the new technology does not succeed in generating student interest in a given discipline students have been provided with tools, and taught how to use those tools, that can help students educate themselves when their interests are eventually aroused. Someone once said that an autodidact was someone educated by a fool. There may be some truth to that but I am not sure. If the student is wise that self-study may provoke an interest in learning from those with more expertise in the subject and the technology that provoked the interest might also put that student in touch with those whose knowledge of the subject is more complete.

Tone Deaf or Just Atonal – Sensing Change

From Rites of Spring, ” Part 1_ Adoration Of The Earth_ Dance Of The Young Girls”
Igor Stravinsky
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic

Tone Deaf or Just Atonal – Sensing Change

When Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rites of Spring was first performed the audience rioted. The ballet evoked a pagan ritual celebrating the coming of spring with a heavy emphasis on percussion instruments and using conventional instruments almost as though they were percussive instruments at times. Needless to say the change was greater than most in the audience were prepared to accept.

Part of the problem is that we have to retrain the way we absorb a thing when something about it changes. Part of the problem with Stravinsky’s music was, I think, that people did not know how to listen to it. Their reaction certainly suggests they did not get it. With time, though, the music has become a part of the mainstream and is appreciated and enjoyed by many who enjoy and appreciate classical music.

Arnold Schoenberg’s music also provoked profound disinterest when his music was first performed, though there were no riots that I am aware of. He developed a twelve-tone compositional system that many found intriguing and many others to this day find almost unlistenable. His composition courses, though, were very popular. It is said that many hoping to write music for the movies, especially for horror movies found his twelve-tone system (a form of atonality) well suited to film where music is used not so much as a stand alone item but as something to underscore or add emphasis to what is happening on screen.

Schoenberg’s method could be used effectively for creating mood and atmosphere, though I am told that those composers that employed this technique in the movies lacked Schoenberg’s skill and artistry. I think that hints of Schoenberg’s atonality can be heard in the work of some jazz composers, especially those, like John Coltrane, whose compositions are often dissonant and not always overtly melodic. Listening to John Coltrane and other jazz composers like him also requires a bit of retraining for the ear.

Abstract painting by Jackson Pollock,
No. 5, 1948
An abstract painting by Jackson Pollock, taken from Art Market Watch.com

The painting by Jackson Pollack does not look like much of a painting to many and it too requires the viewer to learn a new way of looking if the work is to be appreciated. There is depth and texture to the painting but identifying what its about may suggest more of Rorschach and his inkblots than art. Art is supposed to move the viewer at some level and many find themselves responding emotionally to the painting. Because it is not representational it can suggest many things, but it is the viewer’s job to establish this meaningful connection. I think it is worth the effort to seek the artistry in this and other paintings like it (like it in the sense that they defy traditional forms of observation).

These thoughts about music and art and the difficulty with which a culture often reacts to change were provoked by attitudes toward change in schools. It seems at times that the reaction to some of the new technologies and less traditional classroom strategies are met with a reaction not unlike that which confronted Stravinsky and Schoenberg. I teach in a school that is a bit standoffish to some of the newer technologies, especially some of the more social technologies, like YouTube. There have been plenty of examples of the misuse of this technology in the media, but does that justify closing the door on it. We do not deny our students access to libraries because they may contain books that we would rather they did not read.

It can be argued that a school library is different than a public library and that it is prudent to keep some books of school library shelves. Still, no one advocates closing the school library altogether. At worst this is an argument for opening the door to some of the things these technologies offer while putting in place some safeguards to make it difficult to access their less savory side. In this Sunday’s Boston Globe (11/2) there is an article (“U Tube“) about how these new technologies are being used to make lectures, interviews, and other educational materials available for free to any who want to learn from them. Prominent people in various fields of study have developed these materials and they offer much that can be of value in the classroom.

YouTube on Grimm’s and Verner’s Laws

The YouTube video is a discussion of Grimm’s Law and how he codified the transitional steps between the Latin branch of the Indo-European language group and the Germanic Languages that do not resemble, at least not superficially, Latin. As an English teacher I find the evolution of language fascinating and I find this video fascinating for understanding how that branch of the English language that has its origins in the German Languages of the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes, came to look and act the way it does. Whatever one thinks of this particular YouTube video, the point is still the same; it serves and was designed to serve an educational purpose, a purpose that has a place in the modern classroom.

I think that over time the nature of the book is going to change. There are already technologies available that could make the book of bound paper pages obsolete. It is not unlikely that books of the future may be multi-media in their presentation. Essays and stories that are published online already incorporate images, film clips, and music to add additional dimensions to the writing and to reinforce points in their arguments. The rise of the graphic novel suggests that a visual component is finding its way into the work (though the work of Arthur Rackham and John Tenniel suggest that this is not an entirely new idea).

The culture changes even if we do not and change is not always comfortable, but it is necessary. What more can be done within the traditional art forms. Music, painting, and the written word do not pass away because there does not seem to be much left to do with them. The novel evolved in part because the epic no longer served as an effective way to tell stories, or so it seemed to those that wrote stories.

I think the same is true of the classroom. It, like any other form, must evolve and grow to fit the times in which it lives or it ceases to be effective, it ceases to be alive. I am not sure changing the way the desks are organized is enough, though it may be an effective place to start. Living things change. We can speak with greater certainty about the meaning of a Latin word than an English or German word because no one speaks Latin anymore and therefore its vocabulary is no longer fluid. Living things change, that is in part what it means to be alive.

The best that can be said of a classroom that operates in much the same way classrooms operated a hundred years ago is that it is in a state of suspended animation waiting to be revived. It is also possible, I think, to use twenty-first century tools and techniques within a nineteenth century classroom structure; to use, for example, a web text in the same way we use a traditional textbook. I am not sure this is enough either. The greatest argument in favor of changing the classroom, not just to incorporate the new technologies, though certainly they should do that, is to keep it healthy and alive. It is difficult to excite the mind with an old idea or an old way of looking at the world or even of looking at new ideas. As our world and the arts and ideas that shape that world change so must our ways of looking, listening, and learning change.

2010: A Classroom Odyssey

Symphony #9 In E Minor, Op. 95, “From The New World” – 2. Largo
Antonin Dvorak

2010: A Classroom Odyssey

A Chinese Abacus

A Chinese abacus with the value in each column given.

The music is from Dvorak’s The New World Symphony. It captures the composer’s impressions of what was for him the “New World”, the United States of the early 20th century. But the idea of a “new world” is not specific to any one country or any one idea. Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s science fiction was my “new world.” As an educator the idea of a “new world” is found in the impact technology has made on my classroom with the potential of growing it into a room without walls or borders.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey redefined the science fiction film for my generation. I remember thinking how realistic the animations and special effects looked and could not imagine that space ships could be done better, at least not until real space ships could be photographed in actual deep space. About ten or so years later the first Star Wars film came out and the graphics in this film dwarfed the graphics in 2001. I just recently looked at the first Star Wars and the graphics in this film were not as crisp and realistic as I remembered them.

I do not know if this is because special effects in films have gotten so much better or because the films live more vividly in my memory than they ever were in fact. To what extent do the visuals in any film depend on the imagination of the viewer to fill in the missing pieces and smooth out the rough edges. Perhaps this is not unlike what people do when they read something they have written. They see what they intended to write and not always the spelling and grammatical errors they in fact wrote. This is one reason English teachers encourage students to have peers look over their papers before turning them in for a grade.

One reason 2001 was praised so highly was for its vision of the future. Michael Chabon in his book Maps and Legends writes about his love for genre fiction, one of the genres he praised being science fiction. He does not like the 2001 variety of science fiction that attempts to be prophetic in how it imagines the future because these kinds of stories, he thinks, get so much more wrong than they get right. As an example he points out that in 2001 for all the technological marvels that the film imagines, the characters are still carrying around clipboards. In 1968 who imagined “clipboards” smaller than a transistor radio.

Directed by Fritz Lang
Production Company:
Universum Film (UFA)

When the film Metropolis came out it did not receive the attention it received in later years. But it too has been hailed as ground breaking and prophetic, as paving the way for films like 2001. Yet in its opening sequence the futuristic flying machines are bi-planes. The film is amazing for what it was able to accomplish with 1927 technology, but though the spirit of many of its prophesies have come to pass, the letter of these prophesies are a bit wanting. I live near Boston where we just spent billions of dollars doing away with the kind of highway system Metropolis envisions.

Poster of Robot and Futuristic City from the film Metropolis
Poster for the film Metropolis

Will Richardson in his blog comments on a debate on Web 2.0 technology hosted by The Britannica, the folks that bring us that other encyclopedia. The debate focuses on the impact new web technologies will (or will not) have on education and the modern classroom. It is a necessary dialog. Schools are changing as the world in which they live is changing. But to what extent do the future classrooms teachers are being encouraged to imagine resemble the bi-planes and clipboards in these science fiction films.

The problem with the future is that something can happen tomorrow (perhaps it has happened already) that will change the whole direction the future takes. One of the first jobs I had after graduating college was for a banking firm. I worked with customer accounts and everything was done on computers. The computers of 1977 were a bit different from those today. I remember seeing the Hewlett-Packard mainframes that were used to handle all the information the company had to manage and manipulate on a regular basis. There was a room with about a half dozen of these units that stood about six feet tall and maybe three feet wide (I remember their height much more vividly than I do their depth or breadth) and the peripheral equipment necessary to keeping them running. There was a special fire extinguishing material that would suck the oxygen out of the room and kill the fire without using any water. They used huge magnetic tape drives producing reels of tape that had to be stored in other large rooms. It all seemed amazing to me at the time.

I remember being told by one of the folks that worked these machines that most of what was in the computer housing was empty space. He believed they were built as largely as they were not because they required that much space to do what they did, but because no one (at least no one responsible for buying the machines) would believe they could do what they did if they built them any smaller.

The discussion that Will Richardson describes in his blog and that the folks at Britannica are sponsoring is important. Schools do need to incorporate new technologies if they are ever to prepare students adequately for the world that students will find outside of high school. But imagining what that future will in fact look like can be daunting. All schools can do is help students find their bearings in this new world. Wherever the new technology ends up, it will get there through whatever it is we have available to us today. But the world of work in the next decade or so will probably not resemble the world of work today or any world of work we can imagine.

It is not difficult to imagine a time when the new laptop is more of a palm top, something the size of a pocket calculator that serves not only as a computer, but as a telephone, and complete entertainment center as well, that perhaps come with special glasses that make a 2″ screen look like movie theater. But this is easy to imagine because there is technology available today that resembles this. But to what extent are the technologies we imagine the clipboards of our day, remember the clipboards in 2001 did look futuristic.

There is another article in today’s (10/26) Boston Globe. It is about education and America’s place in the global classroom. The article is by Jay Mathews and is called “Making the Grade.” Whatever one thinks of his analysis of American schools as they compete in the world he makes a point that captures the essence of the modern teacher (or what that essence ought to be).

There is, in any event, scant evidence that test scores have much to do with national economic performance. Robert J. Samuelson, a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, analyzed the disconnect between test scores and economic growth in a column reprinted in his 2001 book, “Untruth: Why the Conventional Wisdom Is (Almost Always) Wrong.” Samuelson told of the computer guru at Newsweek’s Washington bureau who had an English degree but found, through a series of jobs that taught him new skills, that he had become a technological expert indispensable to Samuelson and his colleagues. “People don’t learn only at school,” Samuelson concluded. “What counts – for the economy, at least – is what people do at work. . . . On the job, people learn from supervisors, mentors, co-workers, customers and – most important – experience. One Labor Department study estimates that about 70 percent of training in the workplace is informal. Culturally, this is America’s strong suit.” Mathews, “Making the Grade”

What struck me was not just that the computer guru at Newsweek did not have a degree in technology, but that he had a degree in English, which is probably as far removed as one can get from conventional thinking about computer gurus. The important thing I take from this is that the 21st century teacher does not only need to be the master of her or his discipline but also to be open minded, adaptable, and possess a vigorous curiosity. There is not a lot of money to spend on the kind of professional development that will make good teachers into technologically savvy teachers. The way professional development is done in most schools would probably do more harm than good in any case.

This means that teachers will probably need to explore independently and possess a level of curiosity that will motivate this kind of exploration. This would also suggest that time needs to be made available to teachers to do this. People often talk about money as an issue in education but that is an incomplete argument. No matter how much my school pays me there are still only twenty-four hours in a day and no amount of money will enable me to do twenty-five hours of work in a twenty-four hour block of time.

As the Richardson article argues, each discipline has its own needs and dynamics and the lessons designed for each discipline need to come from within that discipline and from that discipline’s teachers. But what are also needed are teachers like the technology guru at Newsweek, who want to play around and explore the neighborhoods of these new technologies. School districts are not likely to pay teachers for the exploring they do or the curriculum they develop, nor are the tools going to be easy to come by with the economic problems currently faced by all of the public sector. But students need to see modeled in the classroom not only the kinds of adaptability the work place of the future will demand and reward but also the kind of enthusiasm for these new tools and technologies that will get students excited by this future and their place in it.

Technology, Web 2.0, and the Platonic Ideal

Technology, Web 2.0, and the Platonic Ideal

The Ptolemiac Universe

The first illustration is of the Ptolemaic universe, a series of spheres nested inside one another. Many of the earliest composers were attempting to capture the music that these crystal spheres must produce in their orbits; sort of like the music one makes running their finger around the rim of a fine crystal goblet. The bit of music we just heard is from Anton Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. I have been told by people who understand such things that Bruckner’s symphonies often exhibit a mathematical precision and it is this precision that often evokes the emotional response that many have to the music.

I think that what attracts many to music, whatever the genre, is not the melody but the content of the complete musical experience. The melody is the most accessible; it is what we whistle in the shower. But it is all the other stuff that is going on around the melody that makes the music endure. It is why we still listen to old Beatles records, perhaps, and not other of the less enduring bands of the era. The melody may be the hook, but if there is nothing of interest happening with harmonies and rhythms and the blend of instrumental sounds the melody soon becomes cloying. It is that melody we get stuck inside our heads and cannot get free of.

I think it is always the content that gives enduring value. If the melody is all there is the music is not likely to endure. It is those other things, the harmonies, rhythms, and instruments that give the music its depth and longevity. I think this principle holds true with many things, not just music and I think there is a lesson here about education, course content, and the technology (new or otherwise) employed to showcase that course content.

The kind of authentic assignments that many advocates of the new technologies offer as examples of best practice trivialize the core academic disciplines; create a kind of “Big Mac curriculum” where students develop only those skills that they are most likely to use in the market place. Because few students will need to read and understand anything more complex than a memo or a travel brochure, their writing tasks should focus on memos and travel brochures. Few of our students will go on to become physicists or literary critics. Most students will not in their daily lives have to use calculus or need to read Proust. But if school curriculum is built only around travel brochures and how to balance a checkbook we will not be training the physicists, mathematicians, or scholars of the next generation.

It may be that students will never write a term paper after they leave school and that the kind of writing they will do will be much more “practical”. But the purpose behind a term paper is not to prepare them for a life of writing term papers but a life of making critical, analytic, and interpretive judgments; skills that term papers teach and the paper itself documents have been mastered.

The adept will perhaps succeed in training themselves and the children of the wealthy and privileged will be able to acquire the skills that have always characterized the traditional liberal arts education, the children of the less fortunate (which includes the bulk of the middle class and the vast majority of children in this country) will not be challenged to excel at any but the most rudimentary skills. This need not be the case, I suppose, but when I look at the examples of what those leading the “technology revolution” regard as authentic assignments I see assignments that tap into what most students find interesting.

I do not mean to suggest that what interests students or what students think they need to know should be barred from the classroom but only to suggest that the classroom should go beyond this. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the philosophy of the Summerhill School enjoyed some popularity in America and that philosophy is revived every now and again. It is at heart a belief that students know best what they need to learn and left to their own devices will learn what they need to learn more effectively.

When I look at the educational philosophy behind much of the Web 2.0 tools and those that advocate for them I see this Summerhill philosophy. I think there is a lot of merit to this for the motivated students. But every school that I encountered that practiced this philosophy had problems motivating some of their students. It is these students that concern me. I think as a teacher it is these difficult to motivate students that makes the job challenging and exciting and keeps me from becoming bored with it. I think it is important to find a balance between offering students the opportunity to self-direct some of their education (as they will have to do for the rest of their lives once the leave the academic community) and the traditional teacher directed classroom. Even the most motivated students need guidance from time to time and student interest cannot be the sole criteria determining classroom content.

If I structure my classroom around what students want to know or what they think they need to know my job becomes much easier. But if I structure my class around the more difficult skills that students resist and maybe only a few will go on to use in their working lives my job becomes much more difficult. And this has always been at the heart of reforming the classroom, the choice between what is easy and what is difficult. I also think students see through this. They understand that if they are not being pushed to do things they do not like or that they think are beyond them that their time is being wasted. They resist because they want, like most of us, the easy road, but they also, like many of us, resent those that make things too easy for them. Some students after being coerced a bit to pursue a difficult line of study come to find it interesting.

When I was in school students were tracked. As a result of my dyslexia I was labeled in the mid 1950’s as “borderline retarded” and put into a vocational track that would not challenge me very much because the schools thought I could not do very much. So I was delighted when tracking was done away with and teachers were required to challenge all students at a “college preparatory” level. But what has happened in many of our schools is that more and more of the “college prep” curriculum has come to resemble the old “vocational” curriculum. If most students do not have the reading skills to handle Chaucer or Shakespeare, give them the current YAL (Young Adult Literature) favorites because these are easier for most students to read.

I have nothing against YAL and enjoy reading many of the titles that are classified under this label. But the challenge is not just to get students to read but to read difficult texts. There is a difference between reading Time Magazine and a poem by Keats. Students will not have to read Shakespeare or Chaucer when they leave school, though some may, but the language skills, the insights into human nature, the training of the imagination that these books provide cannot be provided by “more accessible” texts.

It is the difficulty of the traditional texts that make them valuable. It is like those things in music that enable the music to survive. The best opportunities often come to those that have learned to master difficult tasks and developed the tenacity and patience to work their way through a difficult problem. The issue is not relevance to the world of work but the mindset that is developed within the student.

It is also important for students to understand that the more difficult aspects of all the academic disciplines should at some level be mastered if only so they start to realize how a fundamental knowledge of those disciplines that do not attract them have relevance if only in broadening the scope of what their minds can grasp. Many students do not see where a math course applies to a language course or a history course to a science course. Though there is much about each discipline that is unique to that discipline (which is why it is a separate discipline in the first place) there is much that is transferable. I learned this in high school geometry. As a student more attracted to literature and language than I was to mathematics I always struggled in my math courses. But in doing proofs in my geometry course I learned the importance of evidence in making and defending an assertion. I still use a geometry proof I learned in high school that ends by “proving” one equals two as an example of a spurious argument in my A. P. Language and Composition course.

I think if the new technologies are to be made relevant to the modern classroom those that advocate for them must come to realize the importance of the content of the traditional curriculum to the classroom. I think one reason some educators resist the new technologies is because the defenses made for these technologies by their advocates appear to argue for a lowering of academic standards or trivialization of those aspects of the curriculum that are important to the practitioner of that discipline.

If the classical literature that is at the heart of the English curriculum is irrelevant than why keep the discipline? The examples of authentic assignments I have seen for the Language Arts classroom in articles advocating Web 2.0 technologies suggest to me that it is more important to prepare students for an occupation than to help students master language; that I am being encouraged to offer job training not exposure to an important literary tradition.

Plato and Aristotle walking and talking together

I do not think our students will ever have cause to quote Plato or Aristotle in the work place, but if they learn to follow and structure an argument as Plato and Aristotle did they will probably have significant advantages over those they are competing with for the best jobs in the work place. These philosophers challenge us to think not just deeply but broadly. They were wrong about many things. My mother used to tell me Aristotle set learning back a thousand years because what he taught was accepted as the final authority. I think there is truth to this, which Aristotle would probably recognize, but which he would also find a bit troubling, seeing in it a sign that he failed as a teacher.

It is said that when students of Pythagoras could not explain a difficult concept they had learned from Pythagoras they would respond, “ipse dixit”, which in Latin means “He himself has said it” (though being a speaker of Greek he probably said something else, though the points remains the same). They said this because they believed there was no higher authority than Pythagoras, so if he said something it must be true. I think we often encourage this kind of thinking in our students. It is easier to deal with students that just do what they are told than with students that question everything. When we give students what they want as opposed to what they need we are more likely to create this kind of complacency.

I had a professor in college who told us to accept nothing anyone says at face value, even anything he said, but exhorted us to challenge in our minds everything and verify everything for ourselves, or at least those things we might come to rely upon or try to teach to others. Like that old Russian proverb Ronald Reagan was so fond of quoting “trust but verify.” Perhaps we should take this attitude with the new technology. Trust people when they tell us the new technologies can improve the classroom and experiment with them, but verify for ourselves that they actually live up to their expectations.

Ptolemaic orbits, from “Harmonia Macrocosmica” by Andreas Cellarius, 1661, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_science_in_Classical_Antiquity

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_science_in_Classical_Antiquity

From Symphony #7 in E Major, “Adagio”, by Anton Bruckner, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter Conductor