کلاس دیوید سارنوفکتاب: سلاح های آموزش جمعی / درس 5
کلاس دیوید سارنوف
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4_ David Sarnoff’s Classroom
A Letter to My Assistant Principal
I enjoyed our talk last Friday about the hidden machinery in School District Three, Manhattan. You surprised me with your candor.
I hope we can build on that to exchange some ideas (discreetly of course), which might prove of mutual benefit. I know official pedagogy doesn’t forgive those who expose its secrets, so in light, of the fact you told me you expect to work here “forever;’ in what follows I’ve exercised some discretion in the event this falls into hostile hands. I have left my own presence intact, you’ll notice. In the first place I have no intention of working here forever, and in the second place I grew up in the Monongahela Valley near Pittsburgh around the time of WWII, and I was taught by that Scots-Irish place (even in its schools), to welcome a fight with rotters, scoundrels and low-lives, all which labels fit our mutual employers.
Recently I walked through the Harvard campus in Cambridge, just for the fun of it, and on that ramble, I spotted a brochure pinned to a bulletin board in one of the buildings, containing advice for students planning a career in the new international economy which it predicted was at hand. First, the brochure gave warning that academic classwork and professional credentials would count for less in the future, and a track record of accomplishment which suggested competency would count for more. This seemed a way to put a bell around the neck of grade point averages and test rankings, fingering them for the frauds they are, albeit in the time-honored elliptical manner of charlatans everywhere. That caught my interest, so I read on.
The brochure identified nine qualities its author felt were essential for successful adaptation to the evolving world of work, so I’m asking you, Murray, to temporarily put aside your customary apologia for District Three’s shameless schools and let me know how many of the nine you can honestly say are the priorities of the wealthy school district we work for on the Upper Westside of Manhattan:
I. The ability to ask hard questions of data, whether from textbooks, authorities, or other “expert” sources. In other words, do we teach dialectics?
The ability to define problems independently, to avoid slavish dependence on official definitions.
The ability to scan masses of irrelevant information and to quickly extract from the sludge whatever is useful.
The ability to conceptualize.
The ability to reorganize information into new patterns which enable a different perspective than the customary.
The possession of a mind fluent in moving among different modes of thought: deductive, inductive, heuristic, intuitive, et al.
Facility in collaboration with a partner, or in teams.
Skill in the discussion of issues, problems or techniques.
Skill in rhetoric. Convincing others your course is correct. Now, from where I sit, and I’ve been sitting in District Three for nearly three decades, we don’t teach any of these as a matter of policy.
And for good reason. Students so trained would destroy the structure of familiar schooling and all the comfortable hierarchies some of us depend on.
Just think for a second about the transmission of competencies.
Our school population is drawn largely from families of the working poor, but we’ve abandoned shop and cooking programs, interscholastic athletics, school socials, art, and music. Not only can’t our kids read, write, or count very well; now they can’t drive a nail, plane a board, use a saw, turn a screwdriver, boil an egg, or find ways to amuse themselves and stay healthy. In a few classrooms, very few, teachers know how to train the young in powers; but actually doing this has to be accomplished as a kind of sabotage because it would never be authorized by authority. Every deviation from standardized protocol has to be signed off on multiple times, making it almost impossible to teach correctly, to adapt to particular people, conditions, and opportunities.
Now, for contrast, think of David Sarnoff’s school- the streets.
Sarnoff, as head of RCA, has been a major power in the twentieth century, yet his early years were spent in a shtetl in Russia without schooling. Promptly upon arrival in New York City with his family, his father dropped dead - leaving David at age nine to be family breadwinner. In five short months, he could read English well enough to read the daily newspapers and to speak it well enough to earn the family living as a newsboy - half a cent for every paper sold. Was it English classes in school that inspired such facility, do you think?
Five months to operational fluency. No school. What do you make of that, Murray? At fourteen Sarnoff had his own newsstand.
Without time for a high school diploma, little David read the daily papers as his texts. One day he saw an ad for an office boy at Marconi Wireless. He hurried over to the company without an appointment, barged into the office of the president unannounced, and asked for the job.
Five hundred boys in line to be interviewed, but it was David who was hired on the spot. There’s a lesson there, Murray. I wish our school could teach it. Waiting your turn is often the worst way to get what you want.
After a year as an office boy, Sarnoff taught himself telegraphy just as Andy Carnegie had done in Pittsburgh at an even younger age. When Marconi Wireless was swallowed up by the Radio Corporation of America, he was on the cutting edge of the technology it needed, thanks to self-teaching. Twenty-three years later, age 39, he was president of the company.
How could that happen without money, family connections, a high school diploma, or a (gasp!) college degree?! Sounds like a soap opera or an Alger story. Murray, don’t dare say “those were simpler times” like a parrot repeating something it heard; those were far more complicated times than this barren epoch we enjoy, stripped of human meaning by the corporatizing of everything. At age nine, Sarnoff self-taught himself into a job; at 14 into a business; at 39, into the presidency of a powerful, tech-driven corporation.
He was able to move so rapidly also because he got a chance to think about serious matters before his eighth birthday, to live a significant life before he was ten. He got a chance to add value to his family and community before he was 15, and a chance to follow his own instincts and ambitions ever after. What school do you know these days that would allow that? If we followed the same path, school would cease to be the jobs-project it really is.
You can’t self-teach without inner strength and a measure of gravity, without opportunities to be alone, to have broad experience with people and great challenges. Most of us who presume to judge schools are fooled by rituals of disciplined behavior, pretty hall displays, and test scores. If we knew what to look for, we’d be horrified and angry at the empty destinies this waste of precious time arranges for us.
######The Mask of School Reform
I was recently a visitor to a famous alternative public school in East Harlem which received truckloads of compliments over the past few years. It was founded and run by a famous woman, Debbie Meier, a lady with a reputation for plain talk and straight shooting. I had known Mrs. Meier very slightly for about a decade before I saw her school, and I have no hesitation saying she deserved all the nice things said about her: she was smart as a whip, tough as nails, and generous to a fault.
But looking at the school from inside for a few hours it was impossible not to see how far it fell short of standards of excellence which aren’t very hard to achieve - and which once were common to schools in the steel-working Monongahela Valley where I grew up.
Right near the surface, I could see this famous East Harlem school was seriously hobbled by familiar constraints, many self-imposed by habit, by custom, by lack of imagination, and by the school district, too, I would imagine. The famous negative litany: You can’t do this; you can’t do that; time to move to something different; you better take the upcoming test seriously, etc., was alive and well at the famous school.
My guess is none of this was Debbie’s doing, but realistically she had to function inside a mature bureaucracy, one very conscious just how far deviation could be allowed before top management would be called on the carpet and punished.
The most suffocating of the constraints are generated from traditional Calvinistic roots: Mistrust of children, mistrust of teachers, a reluctance to face that adolescence is a junk word, fear of looking bad, fear of scoring poorly on standardized tests, and suppression of imagination - voluntary suppression - which the collective teaching staff imposes on those of its colleagues who haven’t yet lost their talent.
For weeks after that visit, I felt awful. Debbie’s school was clearly a better place for kids than the schools of District Three, and yet David Sarnoff wouldn’t have wasted his time there, nor would the place have had anything real to offer Mr. Sarnoff. What hit me hardest was the community service program at Central Park East - community service was a requirement of attendance, and one I used extensively in my own teaching practice. It had produced stunning benefits in all areas of curriculum for me, I was a believer.
And yet at this famous school - enrolling students older than David Farragut was when he took over command of a warship; older than Washington was when he learned trigonometry, surveying, naval architecture, and military science - at this famous school students were assigned to community service for two hours a week.
Two hours a week. Who in their right mind would want a teenager to drop in for two hours a week, with all the bookkeeping, training, oversight, and hassle that would require? It was a way of fatally trivializing the service ideal, turning it into superficial drudgery for all concerned.
######The Commissioner’s Report
Once a principal in the richest secondary school in District Three - you’ll know the one I mean, Murray - asked me privately if I could help him set up a program to teach critical thinking. Of course, I replied, but if w~ do it right your school will become unmanageable.
Why would kids taught to think critically and express themselves effectively put up with the nonsense you force down their throats? That was the end of our interview and his critical thinking project.
Murray, you’re the only individual who ever willingly spoke to me about the apparatus of pedagogy, in all 26 years I’ve been in the business. The only one. In the thousands of hours I’ve spent in teachers’ rooms and teachers’ meetings, not a single soul besides yourself was open to discussing anything profound about our notions of pedagogy, nothing that could get them in trouble. Surely that intellectual vacuum says something terrible about the business which has swallowed your life and my own.
My compliment is bait on the hook of my next question: At the end of 1988, our rich district was ranked statistically last by the State Commissioner of Education in a dull publication which looked like a telephone directory. You had to massage the numbers a long time to actually figure out what it was saying, but when I did, it seemed to be saying that we were the worst school district in New York State, 736th of 736, in certain key categories. But our section of the city is world famous, isn’t it? We have great universities, famous research institutions, museums, centers for art, the best transportation system around …what gives?
You know what contempt I have for the instruments used to rank the student body, but in this one case I’m going to be inconsistent and cite them as a measure of school district failure. In third-grade math and reading, we rank dead last. We are only nine places off the bottom in fifth-grade writing, sixth-grade reading, math, and social studies and in seventh-grade honor math and honor biology. Listen, friend; we can’t be last or nearly last out of 736 school jurisdictions in so many metrics without being abysmal, not just bad.
Last isn’t an easy degree of failure to achieve; being last is a creative act. The Sarnoff family should thank its lucky stars District Three didn’t get its hooks into David. This is the business you want to stay in “forever”? It boggles the mind. You ought to feel ashamed to take money for wasting the lives of these trapped children. I’ve gone to many school board meetings looking, like Diogenes, for one honest board member or administrator, one person who looked to be worried. But all I ever heard werewolves of self-congratulation and a smug indifference to the suffering we were causing.
According to the Commissioner’s Report, the average teacher in our schools has been there sixteen years, a sign of stability; yet the teacher turnover is an incredible 22% a year, almost the highest in New York State! What could account for such an anomaly? In some businesses turnover like that would cause a management shakeup. It damages morale; it causes a school to lose its memory. And yet … and yet, we have all those teachers who stay, too! Why? Let me tell you why.
A caste system has been created by school administrators, in combination with the teachers union. Certain teachers in each of our schools have been rewarded with good programs, good rooms, good kids in exchange for their loyalty and cooperation. The power to confer these privileges will be fatally enhanced if we ever get so-called “merit” pay (who would decide”merit” except feather-bedding administrators?). These favors are rewards for those who play ball, these privileges are bought by exploiting unfortunate fellow teachers, often the newest teachers who are dumped upon with impossible workloads, and quickly leave the business.
The situation I’m describing is universal and constitutes the poison pill in merit proposals. Merit would certainly NOT go to the meritorious - as a student, parent or citizen would define merit - but as a school administrator would. When 22% of the teachers don’t survive more than a year, the caste system that corrupts our schools is partially to blame. Nobody ever bothers to ask the 100 to 150 teachers who leave each year why they left. That’s because everyone already knows.
######The Shadow Economy of Schools
Teachers with deals don’t constitute the entirety of non-laboring labor in schools, there’s been such an inflation of management, both visible and invisible, as to defy imagination. For instance, what do you make of this: the student/teacher ratio in our school district is listed in state accounts as 15:1, but everywhere the number of kids in a class is 30 or more: Half of all teaching energy has been siphoned away into administrative tasks in the shadow economy of front-office politics.
No healthy enterprise can afford this degree of deceit. It’s the teachers who don’t get paid off with these non-teaching deals you should be worrying about. They become bitter and cynical. They find ways to get even, ways to cut back on their own production. You, administrators, have created a catastrophe by paying off your favorites with deals.
I can’t escape the conclusion that we both are involved in a social engineering project whose mission is to weaken children’s minds and give them bad characters - all concealed in the sanctimony we exude on parents’ night. I heard one principal (a decent man in his own estimation, I’m sure), tell a large audience that the damage to these children had already been done before they came to him in seventh grade, and that his job was to relieve their pain and make them feel good in the here and now because their limited futures were already predetermined.
Can you believe it?! The shameless brass! I couldn’t make that up. Isn’t it the function of morphine or crack cocaine to stupefy pain?
Given a choice between those substances and school as an anodyne, you’d have to be deranged to choose school.
Two district policies, in particular, have destroyed the capacity for sustained thought among our kids. The first was the political decision, cooked up at the Ford Foundation, as I recall, not to control outrageous classroom behavior on the grounds that frustration causes perpetrators to have low self-esteem.
While this policy was being imposed (and afterward), the rhetoric of decent behavior was maintained, as if nothing out of the ordinary were going on. Tell me how that was any different from Big Brother announcing the chocolate ration was being raised, while it was being lowered? The degree of disrespect our nation has assigned its ordinary population wouldn’t be possible unless somewhere in the command centers it hadn’t been decided that common men and women should be stripped of any power to rebel. And that they could be lied to without compunction because their dignity didn’t count. Or their lives.
As these conditions for chaos were being imposed, a form of triage was constructed wherein a few of the “best” classes (on the liberal West Side, that means mostly white classes) were to be held to a traditional standard. As for the others, the mass of fairly well-behaved kids was mixed with an infusion of violent, restless, disruptive students until only a primitive level of instruction was possible. In order to free school administrators from the tiresome function of helping to maintain order for the lumpenproletariat, classroom disruption was now deemed, system-wide, a problem of bad teaching.
In other words, if you complained, or asked for help, you were treated with contempt and your job was in jeopardy. Mirabile dictu! The burden of discipline vanished as an administrative responsibility. And because reasonably patient children become angry at a teacher’s ineffectiveness in maintaining order, many of the polite kids joined the disruptors, too. Does that surprise you, Murray? The cause and effect linkage, I mean.
Another destructive policy decision was the project to recruit disruptive children from other school districts, to conceal the shrinking enrollment in District Three - a student population decline caused by the evil reputation District Three acquired from its first policy!
In 1984, after we fell to the lowest student enrollment of any district in New York City (10,000), 3,000 half-crazed children were recruited. It was like dumping the flotsam and jetsam of Cuban prisons on the United States in the boatlift days. This radical decision was taken without any consultation with parents at all, or with teachers who would be expected to manage these wild children. Incorporating them into hitherto calm classes, all hell broke loose, of course. How could it have been avoided? Principals began to lock their office doors.
In short order, District Three plunged to the bottom of city statistical rankings. Then, to the bottom of the entire state! What a movie that would have made.
In 28 years of teaching, I’ve never seen an administrator attempt to raise the standard of what we expect from children, or what we expect from ourselves. We drown, however, in the rhetoric of high expectations which only those who wear tinfoil hats could take seriously.
Changing superintendents makes no difference to the quality of schooling: some are fatter, some shriller, some black, some white, some Hispanic, some older or younger - but all dance to the same weird flute music from above. For decades I’ve watched a dreary parade of men and women make fine promises from the superintendent’s office and everyone eventually made some false move that angered their handlers and they were gone.
In all that time only one superintendent, a man who won his job thanks to a deal with my wife (the swing vote on the School Board at that time), in which he agreed to assert independence from the cabal of influence peddlers and others who ran the district. Inside of a single year, teacher morale soared - along with measures of accomplishment - and the district soared from the bottom of the city rankings to the mediocre center.
It was too much to bear. The fellow was fired for his cheek toward his betters, fired at a public meeting attended by all local politicians and political club leaders where he was denounced from the podium by a legendary West Side politician known to the media as “the conscience of the city council:’ You see, Murray, too much was at stake, not just money, but careers, patronage, and ideological status - to allow any changes which would actually occur. It’s the invisible stakeholders in schooling who would have to approve changes, and only in a fairytale (or special temporary circumstances), can that happen.
This doesn’t mean the villains of my narrative are bad people; many are quite decent and intelligent, like you, Murray. It means that the mission of ambition and survival trumps a commitment to excellence every time.
It’s an ancient problem. Gym teachers and math teachers become principals and administrators because they have the least work to do in a school day, the least stress, and they pay the least emotional toll in doing it. They have time to feather their nests. Climbing the pyramid, they surround themselves with loyal friends as buffers, always careful to include representatives of any special interest that might upset the cozy arrangements.
######School as Narcotic
What have we done, Murray? Filling blackboards and workbooks, running videos, cramming heads with disconnected information we have driven even the idea of quality from the field. And by constantly bathing the young in passivity, showering them with petty orders and bells for their own good, we have created a foundry where incomplete men and women are forged.
Our school products emerge with only shaky grasp of the past, with a void where comprehension should be; they have no capacity to visualize the future. Every single secondary school student in NewYork City is taught that North and South Vietnam are one country, divided, and all their teachers believe that, too. But the truth is that for thousands of years they were three countries - and only forced together for a short time under French domination. The civilization of the two northern countries, Annam and Tonkin, derives largely from
China; the culture of South Vietnam, a country know as Champa, comes - like that of Cambodia - from India. The two regions have been fighting for nearly two thousand years. Like the Sunnis and the Shiites in the artificial country fabricated by the British called Iraq, there is no “solution” to the conflict - only violence periodically renewed. Why don’t you know this, Murray? Your license says you are a “history teacher;’ but what you teach is propaganda.
Nightmare children are all about us, diseased by our indifference; some have capacity to heal themselves, most don’t. These are nightmare children, I say; no vital interests, creatures trained to organize their time around spasms of excitement and amusement, or escape from punishment. The maps of the road ahead they carry are false. The most curious commentary on these kids is the thousands of hours they spend in not exploring, not playing, not seeking opportunities for personal gain - but in watching other people on television, in music videos and computer games.
Sane children would never do this - the arc of anyone’s life is too short to accept passivity and fantasy to this degree. Conjure with these numbers: in families where the husband and wife have never been divorced, and where the wife doesn’t work, the index of spectatorship - TV and otherwise - drops to one-tenth the big-city average.
The institution you and I work for creates addiction. It addicts children to prefer thin abstraction and dull fantasies to reality. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to believe that good teachers are more dangerous than bad ones. They keep this sick institution alive.
Old friend, I’m done. I’m going to circulate this letter to the new school board in the hopes it might make some of them think. I haven’t the slightest reason to believe it will, but that doesn’t excuse me from trying.