On education as ‘going along with the flow’; on choice as the offspring of distrust

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One of my fondest college memories is of proving Euclidean theorems all the way up to the precipice: the Parallel Postulate. Until one arrives at the Parallel Postulate, one can derive Euclidean geometry from 5 scintillatingly simple axioms. Each theorem can be clearly formulated, each proof can be neatly arranged according to the steps in the argument, and each conclusion can come with the utmost logical necessity: the Q.E.D., or quod erat demonstratum, a period at the end of a finished thought. All along the path, you see the system emerging slowly by following the clearly laid out stepping stones of theorems, corollaries, and lemmas.

I was 19 then, and I loved this course especially because the professor was bald, pale, and a loving hardass. Jerry Wagenblast had yellow orange skin, liver spots, a long clicking slappy tongue, and eyes that turned askew, more often when he drew inferences and accented points. He was right much of the time but self-righteous almost never. And the beautiful thing about mathematics is that there is no smarmy coddling.

Actually, I loved mathematics because it was full of loving hard asses: with men, mostly, who were socially inept, intensely curious, and impressively loving in their own way. They were loving, most of all, in their desire to work with you on mathematics provided you showed the curiosity, the aptitude, and the patience. (One professor from Holland taught me about set theory; he wore wooden clogs. I met with him every Wednesday.)

I had not elected to take this course on geometry. I was a freshman at the time and rather farther along in my studies in mathematics than other freshmen. I had spoken with the Head of the Department, Patrick Sullivan, about my love of math and about what course would be suitable for me. He recommended this course in Absolute Geometry which after the Parallel Postulate diverges into Hyperbolic Geometry, and I followed his recommendation. I took it also because it was a required course, one I would have to take anyway if I were to graduate with a degree in mathematics. The course was deemed a junior- and senior-level course, a keystone of the curriculum. (I’ll come back to these fitting italicized words later on. Clearly, I’m sweating profusely to make a point.)

Sullivan, who had a habit of staring madly off into the distance as if seeing some visionary gleam had caught his eye or as if grasping some Platonic truth and who, as a result, rarely looked at you, was an excellent guide. I trusted him. I didn’t know any better, and my ignorance was never tested. In addition, the course he recommended appealed to me, and–to be frank–that was that. That, to me, is how an argument reaches a conclusion without any doubt or moment’s hesitation.

Mathematical reasoning, as Plato well knew, is an elegant and rigorous form of reasoning. Through practice, you learn how to follow steps in an argument, steps not of your devising or choosing or selecting. (What would it mean to “choose” the answer to 2+2? Only 4, for the properly trained, would come to mind and that immediately, clearly, and distinctly.) Professor Wagenblast, who started us off by teaching us some formal logic, gave us assignments–here, Andrew, do theorem 15–that followed from those that came before and that pointed to those that would come after. We were clearly enmeshed in an inquiry, none of which was chosen, and all of which led to only one (or a few) logical directions. There may be a couple ways to prove a theorem, but the way that was best was the most parsimonious, elegant, and straightforward. The criteria for success were clear: formal beauty and Ockham’s Razor.

We loved it–or I loved it. (I don’t know whether they loved because I was socially inept.) The course was hard, I struggled initially, I was engrossed entirely, and I loved it all from beginning to end.

I don’t recall the long, painful hours I spent in the library shot through with thinking about doing otherwise, imagining other pursuits, dreaming up other options, concocting other alternatives, drumming up counterfactuals, or involving myself in opportunity costs. The thought never occurred to me because I was committed to a worthwhile inquiry and because I was in love with the beauty of a well-crafted proof. I did it very well and I muddled.

I muddled and I did it well. The two are deeply intertwined.

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At the risk of being overly hasty, I want to draw a conclusion based on this perspicuous experience: here we have a picture of good learning, and there is no room in it whatsoever or in any ‘family resemblance’ picture of good learning for choice, choosing, or its cognates. No room period. No room. End of story.

Recall your best educational experiences. I’ll wait here for a minute…. Go ahead…. I’ll still be here when you get back…

What terms did you use when the experience came to mind? You might have said: you were passionate, involved, focused, in love, all in it, enraptured, in the flow, in the zone. You could have thought: you lost track of time. You forgot yourself. You gave yourself up to it. You couldn’t imagine doing anything else with your time. You were drawn to it. You were pulled by it. You felt compelled to do it, but it was a compulsion that was peculiarly liberating. You were called. You were attuned. You attended. You were drawn. You were inspired (a term derived from a religious background). You just did it. ‘You’ weren’t ‘you.’

If you’re feeling the itch to carrot in “I chose to…” before any or all of these, then I think you’re making a category mistake. Or, with Bernard Williams, I would say that you’ve had  “one thought too many.” (You don’t choose to save your lover; you save your lover.) Choosing, being free to choose, and letting so-and-so be free to choose: none of these have anything to do with the activity of learning proper.

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Ah, point well taken, you say. But but. But here’s the but. Sometimes it’s said that we choose an activity and then, from the inside, we feel passionate about that activity which does not involve choosing. (Ah, my friend, but I never chose to love math.) Suppose, you say, you ask your child, “What book should we read for bedtime tonight?” The child points to the book, picks it out from the others, and then is passionate–in other words, “really into”–this book. Arguably, the child is especially passionate because she chose the book.

The general line of thought seems to be that there is a salient distinction to be drawn between the external (the frame) and the internal (the activity), a distinction between which game the child would like to play and the game playing proper.

My reply (you see, reader, we’re playing without choosing: your choice would be stop reading: to turn away from this blog and to stop reading) would be that this scenario starts “too far along.” What really happens is that a child is introduced to a game or activity with love and due care. Through exercise and discipline, the child moves from pain and disquietude to respect and love. This would go by the simple name of education. In another blog I wrote also about fond memories:

One of my fondest childhood memories is of my father playing catch with me. In my mind’s eye, I can see him showing me how to rotate my glove through a sundial of positions. A basket catch won’t always do. You don’t stab at the ball with pinchers; you let it in. A good outfielder gets under the ball and uses two hands. A great fielder moves to where the ball will be, not where it is. The drop-step, the first five steps, a keen eye, a clean read, quickness rather than breakaway speed: all of these the outfielder’s weapons.

During the summer, we played catch after he got home from work while it was still light out. Sometimes he could be a prick and I could be mopey, but usually this was our time to figure out what being a father and a son was all about. During winter, I stood sideways and caught footballs. Or I did out-and-in’s, out-and-down’s, down-out-and-down’s. I learned how to catch the ball over my shoulder in stride. I dove and leapt for balls when I had to. Many an imaginary cornerback lost his jockstrap.

This is a story about good education, about letting ourselves ‘go with the flow.’ Contrast this image with school choice in New York. Erg. A few years ago, one former friend of mine, then in her early 40s, was talking about her seventh grade son. Where should her son go to high school? She told me that she and her former husband would speak with her son, but in the end, of course, the decision was up to him. I think he was 12 or 13 at the time.

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What happens when you distrust a school?

You argue for school choice. (Consensus on Left and Right)

What happens when you distrust teachers?

Generally, you reject the possibility that good authority can ever exist.

Specifically, you turn teachers into ‘facililators’ (On the Left, this was John Dewey’s solution. Me: weeping.)

You speak of teacher accountability in terms of value added metrics. (On the Right. Me: frowning.)

You move to another school district or enroll your child in another school. (So much for settlement.)

What happens when you distrust food?

You turn a school cafeteria into food a la carte. (A charming corporate vision here.)

What happens when you distrust curriculum?

You speak of ‘child-centered’ learning. (Erg: that darn John Dewey again)

You move from ‘requirements’ to ‘electives.’

End of the story, a contradiction in terms: you offer an ‘open curriculum.’ (Here’s Hamilton College.)

What happens when you have doubts about any subject matter?

You let the student pick. (Or, um, you let the kids run the school.)

What is the end of the story?

The trenchant skepticism regarding a common vision (telos).

A nation of Choosers without commitments. We can always opt out. (Me: sighing heavily.)

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The common thread running through the litany above is an abiding sense of distrust. Our first premise is that we live in a hostile world. Our second premise is that our child will likely be harmed. One of the ways of harming her is by “coercing” her to do what she doesn’t want to do. From premises 1 and 2, we draw the inference that choice will serve as a form of protection against harm. (Cf. talk of rights as a bulwark against the power and scope of the modern state.) Arguably, all the talk of choice and school choice is a recoil from the prospect of harm.

(NB: What could have happened so far in our inquiry about education? Well, I could have lost you. Maybe you’ve not been able to follow me because I’m going too fast, too slow, or skipping steps. It’s possible that I’m being unclear. If you still trust me, then you could, in due course, ask questions that put us back on track, that bring us back together. And I’ll reply as best I can. If this works, we’ll continue with the inquiry.)

But this picture admits of no tertium datur between ‘is’ and ‘ought,’ between ‘can’ and ‘must,’ between freedom and coercion. Strange because most of a good life, I submit, is spent inhabiting this vast savanna in which we are called to follow someone else’s lead (be it Kant’s, Sullivan’s, or a good parent’s), yearn to meet someone’s need, conduct inquiries that lead to reasonable conclusions, live according to everyday logics (the idea of choosing to be a philosopher never occurred to me: what an odd thought that would have been!), make dinner for hungry children, finish homework assignments out of habit and love… The list could go on.

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Let’s try to imagine education once more, this time by telling a different story. Let’s suppose we’re highly skilled golfers. When things are going well, we look at the green, assess where we are, draw conclusions, grab clubs, and hit the darn ball. Then we walk to the ball, whack it nicely again, and repeat. Things are going well! It’s fun! We’ve learned to reason well, to see clearly, and to go on, as if we were doing things naturally.

That was a good day. Here is a bad one. We hit the ball, and it goes every which way. Perhaps, at first we’re still “self-forgetful,” still “naive” and “unconscious” for a few more strokes, but after a while we’re in a terrible muddle. We have no idea what club to use, how hard to hit the ball, we’ve lost our sense of reasoning, lost our bearings, and we’ve no idea how to calculate. In this fog of doubt, we glob onto the discourse of choosing: weighing up, deliberating, hemming and hawing, and deciding. We think that choosing will do away with the fog of doubt, leading us to the land of quiet certainty, but thinking in terms of choosing only makes matters worse. Like Chuck Knoblauch, we’ve come down with a nasty case of “the yips.” On these terms, we can’t possibly win. It’s as if we’d never felt love.

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We think choosing is the starting point to most of our conversations about education and life, but in truth it is a much later step in an argument that, more often than not, has already gone awry. Most disconcerting is that we have, in our national conversations about education and education reform, forgotten that this is the case and then begun the conversation at the point of crisis. In light of this, we need to first remind ourselves of what good education looks and feels like (e.g., constructing arguments, writing poems, falling in love, playing golf flowingly), second to begin by building educational institutions based on intimations of blessed visions of education, and third to inquire about the source of our disquietude when it arises. In most cases, we don’t solve choices; we “back off” of them, as though we were stepping out of a trap. (We back off of dilemmas; we don’t try to force our way through them.)

The last, for now, shall be first. When you begin thinking in terms of choosing, you might examine the doubts that led you to speak and think in terms of choosing in the first place. Thus:

  • I don’t truly know this person. In my eyes, Jane is opaque.
  • I don’t truly know what Jane wants or needs or likes.
  • I don’t want to hurt Jane, and I don’t want Jane to be hurt.
  • I don’t trust Jane, and, for all I know, Jane doesn’t trust me.
  • I’m not sure where to go next in this argument. I’m confused and possibly scared.

So we’d start to see a choice question would come after any of these statements. If I don’t know what Jane wants, I ask her choice questions. I’m uncomfortable, a little wobbly. If I knew what Jane wanted, I’d simply give it to her. (Cf. giving a gift with giving a gift certificate.)

It’s scary how we’ve built our educational institutions on the prospect of not being harmed. To me, this doesn’t exactly meet my demand for a radiant social world.

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A quick summary of a very long and windy argument.

1.) When life’s going well for us, then we’re ‘in the swing’ of things. We rarely choose. Rather, we’re ‘going along with the flow.’ To me, this is a beautiful story about education’s going well.

2.) When life’s not going so well for us and when life has become hostile or doubtful or uncertain, then our talk turns to choosing. (I remain agnostic for now about the metaphysical question of whether free will exists. Throughout this post, I’ve been focusing only on the ‘practical implications’ of choosing.)

3.) Choosing normally appeals to us when a way of life has gone under and when something’s amiss. Now, we look for the exit. We say (and it can be assuring) that we have alternatives.

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