Just the Facts, Ma’am?

Close to the start of “An Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope writes, “’Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none/Go just alike, yet each believes his own.” The cornerstone of education, I have come to believe, is development of judgment–but with recognition that it is not uniform. Judgment is an elusive quality, impervious to quantification. It never runs alike and each of us reifies our own, to some degree, dismissing as vapors that of others. A wise person, we should learn, is also a careful one, especially when it comes to claims about what one knows, circumspect in the judgments made, recognizing that there is no one true and consistent answer to any question. Pope ends:

The Learn’d reflect on what before they knew:
Careless of Censure, not too fond of Fame,
Still pleas’d to praise, yet not afraid to blame,
Averse alike to Flatter, or Offend,
Not free from Faults, nor yet too vain to mend.

Our knowledge is incomplete, always, and subjective. Our wisdom, the acuity of our judgment, is ever suspect. Even the facts we believe we command are liable to change.

Pope’s most famous line comes from this same poem, in the following passage:

A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc’d, behold with strange Surprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!

Any of us, today, can discover in seconds that the “Pierian Spring” is, to Greek mythology, the font of knowledge. Google has become our “little Learning.” And it is “a dang’rous Thing.”

Assumptions about learning are changing as “little Learning” takes over so much of it, leaving us free to “see the lengths behind”—or to imagine that it has put us at the height of knowledge—unfortunately.

It is this that lies behind David Brooks’ “Schools of Wisdom” column in today’s The New York Times. He’s objecting—as gently as he can—to Greg Whiteley’s documentary Most Likely to Succeed about a San Diego high school. High Tech High attempts a group and project-based approach to education that leaves Brooks uncomfortable. Unfortunately, Brooks himself has only a “little Learning” himself when it comes to education, so he descends into treacle instead of adding to the necessary evaluation of American education and its future.

Brooks writes, “Ultimately, what matters is not only how well you can collaborate in groups, but the quality of the mind you bring to the group.” He’s arguing that one must know something before working with others—an argument that would make any parent organizing a play group shake his or her head. There’s not cart/horse dichotomy here; ‘quality of mind’ does not develop independently of groups. Brooks argues that, “First, there is basic factual acquisition.” Really? My experience as a teacher shows me that facts are best retained when they are acquired in the process of other activities, not simply as discrete items memorized. “Second, there is pattern formation, linking facts together in meaningful ways.” Brooks sees this as arising through lectures and talk—actually, it happens through activity, not simply talk, and activity that has something of a repetitive, reinforcing aspect. “Third,” Brooks claims, “there is mental reformation. At some point while studying a field, the student realizes she has learned a new language and way of seeing — how to think like a mathematician or a poet or a physicist.” This, of course, is asking people to mistake the mindsets of the past for the necessary boundary-breaking attitudes of real innovation and discovery.

Brooks claims that these three stages lead to a point where “information has become knowledge.” There’s quite a leap, here. For one thing, his stages are not progressive and then there’s the obvious fact that nothing in any of them necessarily leads to that final point. Brooks never addresses the distinction between information and knowledge except with gobbledygook: Knowledge, he claims, “is alive. It can be manipulated and rearranged. At this point a student has the mental content and architecture to innovate.” That makes no sense; it jumbles all sorts of things together in a masquerade of thought or definition.

Wisdom, Brooks goes on to claim, comes from “living with this sort of knowledge for years.” As he does with knowledge, he personifies wisdom, calling it playful and giving it attributes including the ability to love. It’s Athena, a Greek goddess, I guess, not an attribute.

Though I have not seen the Whiteley movie, I recognize within even Brooks’ description of it much of what I try to do in my own classroom—and that I experienced as a child in an experimental middle school. Much of it sounds like a sensible outgrowth of thoughts presented by Paolo Freire half a century ago. The boarding school where I taught in the late seventies, also, made work and communal projects central to its mission—highly successfully, and for decades even before I arrived there. In none of these instances is the “subject matter,” as Brooks calls it, elided in favor of the “projects.” Instead, it becomes part of the projects. For some reason, Brooks seems to believe that “subject matter” can be extracted from its utilization and that it must be mastered prior to use. The truth of the matter is that practice and theory are bound together, and each reinforces the other through the dynamic produced by the sorts of projects focused on at High Tech High.

Brooks posits a division where one needn’t exist. He writes that “relational skills have to be taught alongside factual literacy.” There’s no need to make this distinction, especially if the project is designed to produce defined results and to improve individual judgment. When this is done well, the facts take care of themselves, ma’am.

Let me end with Pope again:

LEARN then what MORALS Criticks ought to show,
For ’tis but half a Judge’s Task, to Know.
‘Tis not enough, Taste, Judgment, Learning, join;
In all you speak, let Truth and Candor shine:
That not alone what to your Sense is due,
All may allow; but seek your Friendship too.

One thought on “Just the Facts, Ma’am?

  1. Pingback: Brooks Falls Apart | The Academe Blog

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