Back to Basics

I just had one of those transcendent teaching experiences when the walk out of the classroom fired up and ready to slay the dragon of ignorance.

Invited to sit in on a US History class’s debate on the effectiveness of Brown v. Board, I listened to a student read off statistics from a crumpled piece of notebook paper. His monotone went from number to number, from percentage to totals, graduation rates to dropout rates. After about three minutes of this, the teacher stepped in and asked him to summarize his argument. It took continued questioning and cajoling, but he was finally maneuvered into saying that he was supporting his team’s argument that Brown v. Board was a failure because the dropout rate of African-Americans was greater than whites. Before letting the other team respond, the teacher asked the source of these statistics and when they were gathered. Another student pumped his fist in the air declaring “US Census” as if the unimpeachability of their evidence sealed the entire debate. The fact that the statistics came from 2000 was barely noticed by students on either side.

The debate reeled around for the next ten minutes and covered every possible permutation of causes for this disparity that could possibly be imagined. Both sides argued about child care, teen pregnancy, the different regard in which different communities held education. They argued over the legal requirements for high school and how long a student was required by law to go to school. It bounced around at least a dozen different topics by the time the teacher stepped in and brought an end to the madness. The last student allowed to speak was arguing that in some communities you don’t have to become a businessman, while in others, you do. I swear, I’m not making this up.

Apparently a student had simply offered some statistics, and his opponents and then his team took a field trip through a teeming mass of other arguments, none of which was directly related to the question at hand.

To bring them back on the reservation, the teacher asked the student to summarize his argument in one sentence. With some fumbling, he said that his statistics showed that African-Americans are dropping out of school and therefore Brown isn’t working. Once again, the teacher asked, “in what year?” The answer, 2000, meant nothing.

At that very moment an angel of thought came down from heaven and gave me this analogy. I asked the class to consider this statement, “I weigh 200 pounds, my diet doesn’t work.” Immediately they did the same thing to my statement. “Maybe you can’t lose weight.” “Maybe you are cheating on the diet”. “Maybe you are genetically predetermined to be obese.” “My uncle had tried every diet there is and he still hasn’t lost weight.”

We had to stop them again.

Realizing this needed spoon feeding, I asked them to reconsider my conclusion. “I’ve just said that my diet doesn’t work because I weigh 200 pounds, but how do you really know if my diet is working?”. I was tempted to put my head through the window when one student said, “Because we don’t know what diet it is you’re talking about.”

Through the grace of a kind Providence, another student finally noted that they needed to know how much I weighed before the diet.

Bingo!

A moment of silence hung in the air as the gears turned in their heads. Finally, they got it. They could not conclude about the effectiveness of the Brown decision if they only considered what happened after the decision. They had to compare the statistics of before and after.

Yes there are still many problems with this. What counts as “dropping out”? How can you compare statistics from different states? How reliable is the evidence gathered from the south before Brown?

The point is this: instead of having a lesson on the Trail of Tears, why don’t we have a lesson that illustrates this feature of the use of statistics in argument? Ok, I know, sacrilege. How about this…Why don’t we teach this rather than have the student separate FDR’s New Deal agencies into a Relief, Recovery and Reform chart? Yes, blasphemy.

But if you were hiring someone, would you rather they have that skill or that content? If you were concerned about a literate democratic public, would you rather have a voter who knows that statistics have to be viewed this way or someone who forgot that New Deal worksheet they did in high school?

Academic Crack

I’ve discovered the hydroponics of continuous learning; audible.com.  Whether trudging my way through the traffic of a daily two-hour round trip commute, or cutting the grass of my significant other’s half-acre backyard of Pennsylvania farmland, I’m learning.  Good readers and good books combine to infect the otherwise barren moments of my life with information. Though I know all about “quiet time” and the regenerative benefits of meditative contemplation, I’m hooked on this lifeline of constant education.  Audio books are academic crack for nerds. 

Since August, I’ve “read” the first volume of Shelby Foote’s Narrative of the Civil War, Andrew Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life and all 57 hours of WIlliam Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  There is no way the to carve out that sort of time in a 21st century lifestyle without audio books.  But as a result of this immersion in history and nonfiction, my views on education haven’t been changed, but rather reinforced in ways I never expected.

For example, William Shirer’s description of the Anchluss and the Sudenten Crisis of 1938 takes about four hours to read even though those events may amount to nothing more than two slides in a teacher’s PowerPoint and a five minute synopsis in an average social studies class. Perhaps there may be homework assignment, an essay on appeasement or even a more elaborate two day role-play project and debate.  Yet how can we claim that we’ve even scratched the surface of this era in history?

Those who defend the primacy of content in history education are shielding an hypocrisy.  The average survey course may be nothing more than a drive-by snapshot of history.  Sort of like a music lesson that teaches students to play the flute by telling them to blow in it on one end and move their fingers along the top. 

Isn’t it amazing that the more we immerse ourselves in history, the less certain we become of any one explanation of it?  The more we learn, the more suspicious we get of simple declarative statements that distill the vast expanse of the human experience into a blue vocabulary word surrounded by a simple sentence.

One way to prove the above is to spell out the way in which William Shirer takes a tire iron to Nevlille Chamberlain in Rise and Fall by describing the way in which a nascent mutiny against Hitler led by General Beck and Franz Halder needed only the slightest gesture of resistance on the part of Britain and France with regard to Czechoslovakia in 1938.  Add to that an analysis of the build-up of the British military between Anchluss and the invasion of Poland to defend Chamberlain’s appeasement.  Or one of Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” podcast episodes from the BBC in which one of his guests describes the first public opinion surveys that showed Chamberlain couldn’t possibly have led the recalcitrant British into another world war in 1938.  Better yet, listen to Margaret Anderson’s spring semester 2007 installment of Berkeley’s History 5 class in which she categorically organizes the many factors at work in Sudeten crisis.

History teachers who are themselves students of history know the foundational belief of their discipline is that there is never one answer to any history question.  Yet they are trapped in state-mandated curricula, enforced by standardized testing based in perfect opposition to this belief.  “Appeasement before World War II was caused by ….”

If you’re the type of person that believes that significant events and eras in history can be crushed into a multiple choice answer shorter than the average 140 character Tweet, you might want to stay away from the academic crack of continuous learning, it will change your mind forever.