Princeton's President Praises Genuine Teaching

Princeton, my college, distresses me by constantly seeming to drift leftward.  So I was quite charmed and indeed overjoyed when I read that President Christopher Eisgruber, at the commencement ceremony in June, had praised traditional notions of teaching:

Indeed, at the heart of all great teaching is the desire to inspire a genuine love of learning. It is one of the surprising and delightful secrets that all of us who teach discover as we go into the classroom….Even those of us who teach spectacular students like you find ourselves using all sorts of tricks to get your attention and engage your imagination. We will use whatever it takes: provocative questions, fanciful stories, in-class experiments, free food, bad jokes, dramatic pauses, or demonstrative gesticulations. Teaching is a remarkably personal act, and teaching well depends upon a remarkably personal relationship.

It’s clear that the president’s heartfelt comments derive from experience and love.  Indeed, there are two separate loves here: love for knowledge and love for the next generation.

I was reminded of Gilbert Highet and his excellent book The Art of Teaching.  No exaggeration – these were the good old days.  Teachers were expected to be a combination of priest and magician.  They knew the sacred texts, and they knew the tricks for transmitting those texts to the young.  President Eisgruber exemplifies that tradition.

So here is the bad news.  Highet would be stunned were he to walk today through a public school.  Real teaching is more and more illegal.  Verboten.  Forbidden.

One has to wonder if professors at Princeton know that teaching as traditionally understood is neither required nor appreciated.  Indeed, it can invite reproach from principals and superintendents.

A crude kind of non-teaching has been ordained in many public schools.  Constructivism, as this weird mutation is called, demands that teachers not teach in the traditional sense.  They can say things like: “What do you know about X?  There’s probably a lot of interesting material on the internet about X.  Maybe you should check it out.” 

Teachers must not teach directly.  In effect, students must do the teaching.  They must forage for themselves.  The theory is that this active participation will result in a deeper learning.  The theory may be true now and then.  But when we come to telling children about the causes and effects of the American Revolution, or what was so special about the Roman Empire, somebody has to organize and present all this material in the most efficient way.

So the kind of teaching that President Eisgruber speaks of is becoming something of a fossil.  School officials in effect tell teachers, This is a constructivist school.  Don’t engage in direct instruction.

In this empty landscape, the teacher is rebranded a “facilitator.”  It sounds mundane and industrial, doesn’t it?  That’s because all the glory of teaching has been removed from the equation.  Now the teacher is like a bus driver.  You don’t expect a bus driver to tell you anything about the city you are passing through.  The driver merely steers the bus, and if you need to know how to get to a nearby street, the driver might know that.

Facilitators, in short, do not urge students to learn and achieve.  Facilitators, at most, suggest and nudge.  There’s no grandiosity, except in the sophistry employed by the Education Establishment.

What, after all, is the tiny pretext for all these changes?  Piaget speculated that perhaps when we learn something for ourselves, we have really learned it.  Sure, that might be ideal.  But for everything you learn for yourself, some clever person has explained another ten things to you.  Or the History Channel has done it more memorably than you could do it yourself.  Piaget was a biologist tossing around theories about how babies develop.  But the Education Establishment likes to pretend that he is Moses coming down from Mount Sinai.  The whole thing is just fatuous.

But now we are in a post-teaching age.  Is it too late for us to recover?  Constructivism has taken hold in every grade and in every subject.  Math, reading, history, science – everything is taught constructively, which is to say it’s not taught very well.

I have to wonder what President Eisgruber and the faculty at Princeton know about these matters.  It would be helpful if they became outraged and engaged.

The goal of teaching is to create sparks, indeed to create fireworks.  Consider how few adults would on their own go to the library to study a new subject.  Why do we think that restless 12-year-olds will, because a facilitator suggested it, rush off to do deep research?  No, the typical student will find the first thing on the internet that can be copied and pasted, put this into a little article, and say, This is what I constructed.

Constructivism has another dreadful consequence.  If teachers are not expected to teach, there is no pressure on them to know anything.  They can be as ignorant as their typical student.  Think about that for a few minutes.  The Education Establishment has been trying to get out of the knowledge business for 75 years, and this is one of its most brilliant gimmicks.  Teachers don’t need to learn anything; they don’t need to teach anything.  Isn’t that a remarkable sleight-of-hand?  There should be more indignation.

What’s needed is for the elite institutions, Princeton and the rest, to join together to affirm the absolute importance of genuine teaching.  Educated teachers creatively communicating vital information to students – nothing else is going to work.

My hope is that Princeton will get more involved in our current education crisis.  Professors at a liberal university, safely hidden in an ivory tower, might not feel that there is a crisis.  But there definitely is if you look at the public schools, where teachers are not allowed to teach, and students are each year becoming less educated.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains educational theories and methods on his site

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