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The Anthropological Perspective and Crap Detecting

…We must have instruments that telling us when we are running down, when maintenance is required. For Wiener, such instruments would be people who have been educated to recognize change, to be sensitive to problems caused by change, and who have the motivation and courage to sound alarms when entropy accelerates to a dangerous degree. This is what we mean by ‘crap detecting.’ It is also what John Gardener means by the ‘ever-renewing society,’ and what Kenneth Boulding means by ‘social self-consciousness.’ We are talking about the schools cultivating in the young that most ‘subversive’ intellectual instrument – the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, pp. 3-4

Out of the culture and in the culture at the same time. This sounds oddly familiar.

John 17:15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

The problem comes when you don’t have the grounding that follows in John’s Gospel:

John 17:17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

I think the phrase ‘anthropological perspective’ is helpful. It’s a reminder that Christians are to serve, at least in some sense, as sociologists of the culture they find themselves in. Sociologists and tourists.



The Teacher’s Work Should Be Largely Negative

In any case, I believe the teacher’s work should be largely negative. He can’t put the gift into you, but if he finds it there, he can try to keep it from going in an obviously wrong direction. We can learn how not to write, but this is a discipline that does not simply concern writing itself but concerns the whole intellectual life. A mind cleared of false emotion and false sentiment and egocentricity is going to have at least those roadblocks removed from its path. If you don’t think cheaply, then there at least won’t be the quality of cheapness in your writing, even though you may not be able to write well. The teacher can try to weed out what is positively bad, and this should be the aim of the whole college.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, pp. 83-84

Helpful as usual.

Neil Postman made the argument that the job of the teacher is to weed out stupidity: like a doctor, whose business is more the cure of illness than the positive advancement of help, the teacher’s job has to do with fighting against stupidity as much or more than actually cultivating pure intelligence. What is intelligence anyway?

You can’t make someone into a genius, but you can generally discourage them from being an idiot (especially if you catch stupidity early enough). Much of my own education has followed this pattern. Many lessons have slowly done away with a lot of my stupidity. I’m hoping to get rid of a lot more before my time is done.

But the main point is that learning what not to do if often as important as learning what to do.

They Don’t Stifle Enough of Them

Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, pp. 84-95

This could perhaps apply to more than just writers (as is the case with pretty much everything Ms. O’Connor says about writers).

Education as a Defense Against Culture

We can locate the origins of this tradition in some fragments of Cicero, who remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present…

It is in the spirit of this tradition – that is, education as a defense against culture – that I wish to speak.

-Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections, p. 22

This isn’t much different from what C.S. Lewis said. I’ve written about that HERE. In short,

Lewis argues that a familiarity with the literature of the past provides readers with a standpoint which gives them critical distance from their own era. Thus, it allows them to see ‘the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.’ The reading of old books enables us to avoid becoming passive captives of the Spirit of the Age by keeping ‘the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds’ (Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis – A Life, p. 187).

Another point I’ve made in the past has to do with McLuhan’s ‘rear-view mirror’ analogy. It is pertinent. Some look at things like old books, or old methods of education, and say such things are like looking and living in the rear view mirror. We’ve left those things behind, why look back? But this is not what looking in a rear-view mirror actually shows us.

Looking into a rear-view mirror doesn’t show us the past – it shows us the present and the future. It shows us what is behind us now and what is coming at us in the future. It gives us perspective on where we are, what is nipping at our heels, and what is preparing to overtake us and pass us by.

This is the defense against culture that education should provide; and it starts with reading old books. Someone says, ‘they’re not relevant; you’re living in the past.’ Not quite. We’re actually going to old perspectives so that we can get a new one, or at least a foreign one. We’re being oh so totally pluralistic and democratic – letting dead people speak to us (they are, after all, the most maligned group these days).

Our culture will not defend us from itself. Future cultures cannot defend us from the present one. The past is the only place, so to speak, of finding such a defense – a defense against the tyranny of the present.

Enabling the Student (C.S. Lewis)

Alister McGrath comments on C.S. Lewis’s teaching style:

Lewis did not see it as his responsibility to impart information to his students. He resented and resisted what some then called the ‘gramophone’ model of tuition, in which the tutor simply imparted the knowledge that the student had so signally failed to discover for himself.

Lewis saw himself as enabling the student to develop the skills necessary to uncover and evaluate such knowledge for himself.

C.S. Lewis – A Life, p. 164

This type of teaching philosophy is something I contend for, and something I’ve had to debate and defend for the past couple of years in my studies in Instructional Technology. I always go back to a Wendell Berry quote I came across a while back:

‘Information,’ which once meant that which forms or fashions from within, now means merely ‘data.’ However organized this data may be, it is not shapely or formal or in the true sense in-forming. It is not present where it is needed; if you have to ‘access’ it, you don’t have it. Whereas knowledge moves and forms acts, information is inert. You cannot imagine a debater or a quarterback or a musician performing by ‘accessing information.’ A computer chock full of such information is no more admirable than a head or a book chock full of it (Another Turn of the Crank, p. 96).

My contention is that the true teacher, that is the good teacher, is not someone who sees his or her task as merely imparting information; rather, he or she is the one who sees his or her task as the work of in-forming – that is, actually working to inwardly form the student. Another way of saying that is this: the teacher’s job is not simply to teach the students what to think, but to teach them how to think. In practice, this takes a thousand different forms. For the Literature professor, for example, it means that you don’t simply make your students learn facts about Shakespeare and his plays and sonnets; rather, you teach them to read Shakespeare profitably for themselves. You want them to be able to pick up Hamlet for themselves, even if it’s a year from now, and actually be able to read it and enjoy it. I am having almost daily discussions with a young friend of mine who is taking a summer Lit course at the moment. His daily quizzes involve the remembering of names and places primarily. This is precisely what McGrath says Lewis was against. Teach them to engage the story, not to remember facts about the work. Stop niggling over the data and teach them to engage the actual narrative.

Another example: For the Bible teacher, this means that you aren’t content to teach content; instead you want to impart your students with tools that will enable them to engage the Bible when you are not around. I teach a Sunday School class on a semi-regular basis. I am not the least concerned whether my students can recite all 66 books of the Bible. If they can, that’s great. I’ve never asked them to. I’m more worried about their grasp of the narrative of the Scriptures and their engagement with the Law and the Gospel. If they get those points down, they will essentially be able to engage any passage they come across in their own reading.

I’m tempted to give more examples of how this can play out, but Literature and Bible are my own areas of interest. I’ll leave it to others to make applications in those areas for the time being.

The world around us is in-forming us. Movies are catechisms for our imaginations and impulses. Technology is shaping the way we learn and look at the world. If teachers, especially Christian teachers (and preachers), are content to see themselves as so many shovelers of data, then we are really only digging a hole. If we actually are shoveling something, it probably doesn’t smell too good in terms of pedagogical aroma. Don’t be content to inform. in-FORM.