The Grail Code 

Archive for September, 2007

The saboteurs of democracy

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Sitting around talking? Isn’t that what we send kids to the principal’s office for?

Still, there might be something to it. Call it a “seminar,” and you just might get away with it.

I’ve been thinking about seminars a lot lately, because I’m just about to go to my twentieth college reunion, and in four years of college I hardly did anything else but read and then sit around and talk. That was St. John’s College in Annapolis, a school that’s somehow managed to stay obscure for 311 years now.

Let me tell you a little about St. John’s, because its program is the one that inspired most of the seminar-style great-books programs out there. It’s still called the “New Program” at St. John’s, even though it’s seventy years old, because in Annapolis anything after the War of 1812 counts as “new.”

There are no textbooks and no tests at St. John’s. Well, that statement isn’t strictly accurate. There are two tests: one to make sure you know enough algebra to read some of the important mathematicians on the third-year list, and one to make sure you can translate enough Tocqueville to say that you’re going into your senior year with a reading knowledge of French. If you don’t pass one of the tests, you go back and review your algebra or your French, and then take the test again. You keep taking the test until you can pass it.

I bring up those tests because they’re indicative of a certain attitude that’s fundamental to the radical great-books programs. The purpose of the tests is not to sort students into different levels of achievement or to weed out the unqualified. The purpose is only to help the student learn. That attitude is what makes this approach so radical, and it distinguishes it from every other common style of education.

Think about it for a moment. If you’re a teacher, what is your goal? You’ll probably answer right away that your goal is to help students learn. So the more your students learn, the better you’re doing, right?

Now ask yourself this: What would happen if you gave every student 100% on every test? How would the school administration react if every student left your class with an A for the year?

Well, I suppose they’d double your salary, wouldn’t they? I mean, you must be a very good teacher if all your students are learning everything they’re supposed to be learning.

But in fact that’s not what would happen at all, is it? You’ve seen teachers reprimanded because they grade too generously. If you gave everyone an A this year, you wouldn’t be a teacher next year.

That’s because, whatever you may tell yourself, helping students learn is not the main goal of a traditional American education. The main goal is really to sort students out. The system not only expects but demands that a certain number of students will excel and a roughly equal number will fall behind.

If you wanted to be shocking (and when have I not wanted to be shocking?), you could state the same idea in political terms: the goal of the American educational establishment is to sabotage democracy.

What I mean is that American schools are set up to act as factories for deciding who will be given an opportunity to succeed and who will not. That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it? If you get good grades in school, you can go on to a good college and find a high-paying job and drive a Lexus. If you get bad grades in school, you can be a cashier at the Foodland. Our schools are creating permanent class distinctions that will stay with our children for the rest of their lives—and they’re starting to create those distinctions when our children are only six years old.

All this may seem like rambling or even ranting. But you may remember (if you’ve been reading for a few days) that the subject under discussion was “What is a great-books education?” And here is part of the answer: a great-books education, according to the radical method, is a democratic and egalitarian form of education, opposed not only in its methods but also in its aims to the elitist educational methods in use in most schools.

Now, I’m well aware that the great majority of educators in America would tell you that the great-books approach is elitist, and that whatever educational theory is in favor today is democratic. I’ve led you through this political rant because I know that elitism is the charge most often hurled at great-books education.

So let me summarize what I’ve said so far about the real aims of American education as it’s carried on at most of our schools.

1. The real aim is not learning, but sorting students into categories.

2. The system aims at creating permanent social divisions between students who “excel” and students who do not.

3. For the system to work, a certain number of students must fail to meet the requirements. If that doesn’t happen, then the requirements must be changed until it does happen.

In other words, if you’re a teacher, your work is not considered successful unless you manage to prevent some of your students from learning.

Now, the radical great-books approach has opposite goals, and therefore starts with opposite assumptions. It assumes that every student can learn and ought to learn. But more than that, it assumes that every student has a contribution to make to the learning of the group. Finally, it assumes that the role of the teacher, and of the school, is to give the students the help they need to learn.

That’s the difference, then. On the one hand, we have an aristocratic system designed to create and perpetuate class distinctions. On the other hand is a democratic system whose goal is to help every student learn. Until today, if I had asked you which was which, you probably would have got them mixed up. Now that I’ve set you straight, we can go on to talk about what actually happens in the classroom.

Great books to the rescue

Monday, September 17th, 2007

Sure, it’s easy to bash American education, you say. But what do you have to offer that’s any better?

Oh, you’re going to be sorry you asked that. As I hinted earlier, I have a whole lecture prepared on that very subject. I call it “The Great Books in Your School,” and I consider it a kind of subversive’s manual for turning American education on its head.

Sometimes I think everyone but me knows what a “great books” education is. Like Socrates, I know only that I know nothing. Unlike Socrates, I don’t think that makes me particularly wise.

Actually, I think I can propose a good working definition of a great-books education. A great-books education is any program whose graduates are likely to mention Socrates in the first thirty seconds of a conversation.

Yes, laugh if you like, but I mean it quite seriously. You’ll see why after I’ve had more to say about what a “great book” is and how we decide which books are “great.”

First, though, I have a lot to say about what a great-books education is, which of course involves knowing a lot about what it isn’t.

Before we go too far, you should know that there are many schools of thought on the subject of “great books,” and I come from one of the most radical schools. But I’m a pragmatic sort of radical. I think the methods I advocate are better, not because I have a theory that says they ought to be better, but because long experience proves that they work very well in practice.

“Great books” has become a popular academic catchphrase lately, and that has created a demand in the academic world for things that are called “great-books” classes. Many of these classes are taught the same way every other class is taught. Students are expected to absorb certain facts about certain books. They’re tested on the facts they absorb. So the students will be expected to name the chief ideas in Plato’s Republic, just as in geography class they’re expected to name the chief exports of Indonesia. We might call this the “read-and-regurgitate” method.

In practice, of course, this method forces students not to discover what the book really means, but to memorize what their teacher thinks it means. They’re not learning Plato’s ideas; they’re taking an intensive course in the political thought of their teacher. The problem with that is that the political thought of most teachers isn’t very important in the great scheme of things. There’s a reason why you and I aren’t as well known as Plato. We’re not as much worth knowing as Plato.

But even if the teacher interpreted the book absolutely correctly—whatever that could possibly mean—the whole exercise isn’t very useful. Being able to tell you that Plato said this and Hobbes said that is good vocational training for reference librarians, but it doesn’t do anybody else much good. The students would be better off learning something practical, like origami or jazz mandolin.

Another approach—what we might call the “historical-critical” approach—uses extensive research to prove that each book was an inevitable product of its time. Academics who think this way will make sweeping statements about what the Greeks believed, which is about as useful as making sweeping statements about what Pennsylvanians believe. In the end, the historical-critical approach usually concludes that the great thinkers of the past were ignorant goobers compared to us, because they lacked the benefit of our modern wisdom. Specifically, they lacked the historical-critical approach.

Students who learn to look at great books this way are probably worse off than the ones who just memorize the chief exports of Plato. All they learn is that the great books have nothing to tell us. Archaeology and historical criticism can explain why Plato wrote what he wrote, so there’s no need to worry about what he’s actually saying. If they’re smart (and students are often smarter than their teachers), they’ll figure out soon enough that our own current ideas must be just as much historically determined as Plato’s. That includes the idea of the historical-critical approach to literature, which then falls in a heap of wreckage at their feet, leaving them back where they started.

A third approach is the one used by great-books radicals like me. It’s what you might call the sitting-around-talking approach. Even the name sounds dangerously radical, doesn’t it? After all, if there’s one thing schools can’t stand, it’s students sitting around talking. We have rules against that.

But that’s what I’m going to be recommending. Yes, my solution to the problems facing our schools today is a lot of sitting around and talking.

I’ll bet you can’t wait to know how I intend to make that work.

Learning not to read

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

I’m not a big conspiracy theorist—in fact I spend a lot of my time making fun of conspiracy theorists. So I’m just going to call it a happy coincidence that, the worse schools get, the more professional educators we need to sort out the mess.

It seems like a conflict of interest, doesn’t it? I mean, would you want to buy a car from a dealer that made most of its money fixing broken cars? —Oh, wait, we do that all the time.

Still, heaven forbid that we should ever actually figure out what makes a good education, because then we wouldn’t need any more professional educators—just teachers. Instead, we have a constant merry-go-round of hand-wringing studies showing that Johnny can’t read, followed by new educational theories promising to fix what was wrong with Johnny’s education, followed by more hand-wringing studies showing that Johnny is even worse off now, followed by new educational theories promising to fix what was wrong with the last round of theories, and so on. No wonder Johnny is a bit dizzy. All we need is a Wurlitzer in the middle.

A little while ago I ventured upstream a bit toward McKeesport and picked up a copy of the Daily News. The lead article was a roundup of what your children could expect to find when they went back to school in any of the school districts in that part of the Mon Valley.

For the benefit of people who live in normal parts of the world, I should explain that the area around Pittsburgh is jealously jurisdictional. Every two-bit borough has its own school district. Sometimes two or three one-bit boroughs will pool their resources to make a two-bit school district, but even those are usually quite small. There are more than forty school districts in Allegheny County alone, and that’s just the City of Pittsburgh and the innermost suburbs.

In the Mon Valley, most of the boroughs and cities never recovered from the demise of Big Steel. Most of those school districts hover somewhere between poor and broke.

So how are they spending their meager resources? Well, just for example, one district is giving its elementary school—it has only one—a new “software-based” reading program. “Motivating software”—which I assume involves electrodes wired directly into the brain—will reward the pupils for learning their lessons correctly.

Now, I’m not a professional educator. I have, however, been paid to blither at professional educators, so if I’m only a crank with opinions, at least they’re opinions worth money. In this case, my opinion is that this method is especially designed to teach children not to read.

Say what you like about even the worst of the old readers (and I’m talking about you, Dick and Jane), at least the reward they promised was in the reading itself. The assumption was always that it was worth learning to read because, eventually, you would have fun reading. Now that assumption has been abandoned. Instead, our children are being taught by the most obvious method that reading is a chore, something you get through to get the non-reading reward zapped into your brain.

Would a child learn to appreciate good food if you gave him candy as a reward for eating it? No: he’d learn to appreciate the candy, and soon enough, when he was old enough to control what he ate, he’d skip the food and go straight for the candy.

My theory, if you can dignify it with that title, of teaching reading is simple: at every stage, you must reinforce the idea that reading itself is the reward. You do that with great stories. In a religious school, for example, you could use stories from the Bible. Take that one about the youths who mocked Elisha and were torn to pieces by bears (2 Kings 2:23-24). Kids love that story, but for some reason they never hear it in Sunday school anymore. Once they learn there’s stuff like that in the Bible, and they can only get at it by reading it themselves, they’ll be hooked. I need hardly mention that, for older children, the stories of King Arthur and his knights can be the beginning of a lifelong obsession.

That’s not my only opinion about education, of course. When I gave a lecture to a bunch of Catholic educators a few years ago, I told them that their school expected them to work as hard as they could to sabotage democracy, and it was up to them to be subversive and democratic. Since then, you’ll notice, all the problems have disappeared from Catholic schools, and every pupil is above average. Now I’m ready to offer that same wisdom to the world at large. Stay tuned.

Grails everywhere you look

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

Since we’ve been taking a rather long break, let’s start with a nice new roundup of holy-grails-of to get back into the swing of things. Just by looking for “holy grail of” on the Web, I came across hundreds of things I never knew existed. Here are a few from the first two or three pages of results:

The Holy Grail of RuneScape

The Holy Grail of Searching Within Videos

European club football’s holy grail of winning the Champions League

Holy Grail of CSS layouts

The Holy Grail of Snare Drums

The Holy Grail of Horticultural Accomplishment: Grass That Never Grows But Is Always Green

The holy grail of environmental site design

The “Holy Grail” of In-Game Advertising

The so-called “holy grail” of electric solid-body guitars

The “holy grail of espresso machines”

“Holy Grail” of baseball cards (our boy Honus Wagner, of course, says the proud Pittsburgher in me)

Now, I hardly need to tell you that the one thing all these holy-grails-of have in common is that they won’t fix what’s wrong with your life. They won’t fill the aching hole in your heart. You might find the Holy Grail of Snare Drums in a flea market for five dollars, and tomorrow you’ll still be the same miserable sinner you always were.

And yet, even as I say “I hardly need to tell you,” I know that a lot of us need to be told. Here in the United States, especially, material acquisition has become so much the driving force behind everything we do that it even seeps into our religion.

A few years ago, I was flipping channels on the television when I came across one of those TV preachers who preach a simple message of prosperity. If you invest in God (in the form of a check made out to the TV preacher), God will return your investment with interest—not just in spiritual gifts, which are worthless on the open market unless you have a good agent who can get you a weekly TV show, but in hard cash. And as the preacher yammered on, I grabbed a sheet of paper and scribbled down what he was saying, because I thought I’d never heard anything quite so funny:

“Somebody out there needs a car. I was just at the car show, at the state fair, and let me tell you, those cars weren’t made for the sinners, they were made for the righteous! Someone out there—you’ve never had a new car. You can change that! That thing that’s kept you from having a new car, you can lose that!”

“Those cars weren’t made for the sinners” is a phrase that still pops into my head at the oddest times. Not long afterward, that particular preacher went down in a sex scandal or an embezzlement indictment or one of those other things that bring down TV preachers—I forget exactly which. But I discovered, to my dismay and slackjawed amazement, that his message was right in line with what a lot of people who call themselves Christians believe. If you’re good to God, God rewards you with material possessions. Have these people never read the book of Job?

Which brings me around to an entirely different subject: why people don’t read. We’ve been hearing a lot of surveys lately saying that our teenagers would rather eat live weasels than read a book. (And we’ve seen Harry Potter sell more books than God, which tells us a thing or two about how seriously we should take these surveys.)

As it turns out, I have a number of opinions on the subject of why young people don’t read as much as we’d like them to. So the next few days will be back-to-school days here at I hope you remember where your locker is.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey