Sunday, May 20, 2012

Flattery Will Get You Nowhere

English professor Janice Fiamengo's perspective on what's wrong with students -- and education -- today, here:

On the streak of narcissism that results when you teach self-esteem rather than actual subject material...

"[The students'] belief that nothing requires improvement except the grade is one of the biggest obstacles that teachers face in the modern university.  And that is perhaps the real tragedy of our education system: not only that so many students enter university lacking the basic skills and knowledge to succeed in their courses — terrible in itself — but also that they often arrive essentially unteachable, lacking the personal qualities necessary to respond to criticism."

On grade inflation...

"In the past twenty years, the well-documented phenomenon of grade inflation in humanities subjects — the awarding of high “Bs” and “As” to the vast majority of students — has increased the conviction that everyone is first-rate."

(Which, of course, flies in the face of the truism that half the population is below average.)

On where the progressives jumped the track:

"Memorization itself, the foundation of traditional teaching, came to be seen as an enemy of creative thought: pejorative similes for memory work such as “rote learning” and “fact-grinding” suggest the classroom equivalent of a military drill, harsh and unaccommodating. The progressive approach, in contrast, emphasizes variety, pleasure, and student interest and self-motivation above all."

I was always suspicious of education fads that dismissed any learning done by "rote memorization."  On the contrary, I have always instinctively thought that memorization is to learning as calisthenics and drill are to playing football, or basic training is to warfare, or scales and arpeggios are to performing music.  In football, nobody skips the practice field or the training camp and goes straight to the scrimmage.  In warfare, nobody starts his military career by charging up San Juan Hill.  In music, you don't perform in Carnegie Hall without having first played a few thousand scales.

One lesson that you learn when studying music is that there are no A's for effort.  I never had a music instructor who felt it necessary to boost my self-esteem, though I could have sworn there were several who had quite the opposite goal.  You pay these folks to criticize your playing, and criticism is what you get.

You can't teach someone who thinks he knows everything already.  That makes humility a valuable commodity.

1 comment:

Joseph said...

I suppose memorization is treated negatively for two reasons. As you say, it's like drilling is to sport or scales are to music, which means it's strenuous and tedious. The other is that it isn't always applied intelligently in the classroom. By itself, rote memorization is as useful to learning as squats are to football. You might be an ace squatter, but how is that going to help you on gameday? Unless you take the strength and endurance from squats and apply it to agility exercises and practice plays, it's almost useless. Rote memorization of facts is only good if you can apply it to solving problems and analyzing events.

The flip side, instant recall of information is a fantastic advantage when you know how to use it. Like an athlete with fine-tuned agility.