Imagine you’re being wheeled into surgery when you pass your doctor talking to the anesthesiologist. “The trouble with this hospital,” he says as he tosses your chart aside, “is we’re preoccupied with medical care. We spend all our time trying to make sick people better.”
“Yeah,” the other doctor agrees as he drops his mask. “When are we going to get our priorities straight?”
When was the last time you were standing in line at a restaurant and the guy next to you said, “The salad bar is great, but where’s the eye chart?” Has the counterman at the auto parts store ever encouraged you to talk about growing up with your mother? Raise your hand if you expect your dentist to pave your driveway.
No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. I realize my dentist is supposed to fix my teeth, and I’ve never unburdened my psyche at our local NAPA outlet. I’d leap off my gurney in a heartbeat if my doctor didn’t consider my medical well-being his top priority.
Somehow, though, the same common sense doesn’t apply when we’re talking about schools. According to an education professor recently featured in Education Week, schools are too focused on “the scholastic skills that students will need in the future.”
I wish I could say I was surprised when I read that, but I’ve been a teacher long enough that I wasn’t. Since the author of the article is employed as a teacher of teachers, his opinion is likely to infect future school leaders and through them, both today’s students and students yet unborn.
Our author’s definition of scholastic skills is already broader than “classical literacy,” by which he means the “three R’s,” and includes “digital literacy, workplace-oriented literacy,” “general literacy” and “citizenship literacy.” Beyond all that, he also wants schools to teach “human literacy,” which he identifies as the “ability to know oneself and work with others.”
Since the injunction to “know thyself” dates back at least to Socrates, and since I can still hear my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Flannery, coaching us to get along in our classroom groups, neither notion qualifies as a new idea. More recently, both earned experts’ accolades in 1983 as part of Howard Gardner’s heralded theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner’s original seven domains included interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence, reflected in our ability to deal with those around us and with our inner selves, respectively. Our author breaks things down still further by identifying qualities he’s dubbed human literacy’s “formative five:” empathy, self-control, integrity, embracing diversity and grit.
It’s not my intention to pick a fight with Socrates or with Mrs. Flannery. I believe in introspection and cooperation, and I’m familiar with the five. So were my teachers, particularly with the element of self-control, which appeared chronically on my report card as an area in need of improvement, prompting my father’s understated response, “We have spoken to Peter about his lack of self-control.”
Our author has ideas about self-control, too. He feels it “should be a focus in every class.” Unfortunately, self-control, or its lack, is already a focus in too many classes. We talk about it. We make excuses when someone doesn’t have it. We do everything but insist on it and enforce the rules we have. Contrary to our theorist’s misinformed assumption, the reason most students misbehave isn’t that no one has ever explained to them why misbehaving is “counterproductive.”
He contends that human literacy “must be consciously taught” in order to develop “good people.” He prescribes, for example, that every subject in every elementary grade should “investigate” the difference between empathy and sympathy. In the same way, high school students should learn to distinguish between honesty and integrity. Except you don’t need to be able to articulate the difference between empathy and sympathy to be a decent human being. I’ve known a lot of good people who couldn’t put their goodness into words. I’ve taught ethics to my middle school students for years, but everyone isn’t suited to plumb the metaphysics of morals.
He also asserts that since it’s necessary to “measure what we value,” schools need to assess how students are progressing in their acquisition of these human literacy “success skills.” Naturally, this won’t involve letter grades or numbers. It will involve rubrics, which inevitably translate into letter grades or numbers. For example, Vermont’s statewide portfolio assessment system initially outlawed letter and number grades and instead scored performance on delineated standards as Extensively, Frequently, Sometimes or Rarely. These descriptive ratings promptly morphed into the letters E, F, S and R, and from there into 4, 3, 2 and 1.
Performance will also be measured based on students’ reflections on their progress, as well as on posted photos and videos of students “exhibiting human literacy.”
I agree with the author that people should listen to and try to understand each other. I agree that we should value cultural differences, cherish honor, esteem good character and do the right thing. As a teacher, I should expect decency from my students and set a good example myself. But as important as all that is, it isn’t what I’m supposed to be teaching in history class. It’s just what’s supposed to happen along the way.
It’s also supposed to happen in our homes, our neighborhoods, our religious institutions and our communities.
Teachers haven’t the time or resources to teach it all, and the evidence is that schools aren’t teaching it all, especially the academic knowledge and skills for which they were created. Dressing human virtues up in curricular clothing doesn’t make them school subjects.
Advocates counter that some parents aren’t teaching human literacy anymore, and if schools don’t teach it, nobody will. The problem is that by endeavoring to substitute for delinquent parents, we’re further weakening families, enabling irresponsibility by compensating for it, and trespassing on responsible parents’ legitimate prerogatives.
We expect medical schools to focus on medical skills. How much of his time in medical school would you want your doctor to spend learning something else?
In the same way, public schools need to focus on scholastic skills.
Ignorance doesn’t need a scalpel to be dangerous.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.