Review: Excellent Sheep

Review: Excellent Sheep

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful LifeExcellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I still remember my first exposure to Deresiewicz. I had recently dropped out of graduate school—full of disgust and indignation—and as a form of self-therapy I was busy reading everything I could find about the flaws of higher education. Naturally, I jumped on Deresiewicz’s essay in The American Scholar: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. It seemed to put into words so many things I’d been thinking.

A few days later, I was in the car with my mom and my brother (we were dropping my brother off at his elite university), bitterly complaining, and at great length, about the evils of the system. My mom turned on the radio.

This book is an odd jumble. While barely more than 200 pages, it attempts to be a manifesto, an exposé, a path to tranquility, a work of cultural criticism, and a philosophy of education. Needless to say the book fails to be every one of these things, but this doesn’t mean it fails to be any of them.

Deresiewicz’s first section, wherein he talks about the flaws in the system, is the most successful, since it is what he knows about. In a nutshell, the problem with American higher education is that there is an enormous amount of pressure and prestige for precious little substance.

Young people have more hoops than ever to jump through: if they want to go to Harvard, they must be super students. They can’t afford to stop for one moment. They need to get excellent grades, take all the toughest subjects, be leaders in extra-curriculars—at least six!—maybe found a few clubs themselves, outcompete their peers in the SAT, and in general tick off all the rights boxes.

The problem, of course, is that the things that look good to the college admission office often have dubious educational value, and are most often the product of privilege as much as talent. The vignette that most stuck with me was about the “college enrichment programs” that took young people on carefully choreographed trips, so they would have some good stories for their college essays. (This is not to mention the writing assistance, sometimes bordering on ghost-writing, that the wealthy can afford.)

The ironic part is that all of this stress and effort does not lead to social mobility, since the wealthy already start with such a big advantage. Each cohort of students at elite universities is disproportionally upper or upper-middle class. This is no coincidence, since universities need a sizable number of “full-freighters”—students whose parents can afford to pay the enormous tuition costs—in order to stay afloat.

Even more ironic is that it doesn’t even lead to an excellent education. As the university becomes increasingly reliant on wealthy students, the students increasingly get treated like customers. The university cannot afford to fail them; it cannot even afford to make them uncomfortable, which is arguably a prerequisite to genuine learning. Grade-inflation is rampant. Universities focus on hiring a few research professors, because these professors bring more prestige. Though experts, these professors are often not especially good teachers; and besides, there aren’t very many of them. The bulk of the teaching gets done by contingent faculty, chronically underpaid, always underappreciated, who come and go, without the time or resources to teach to their potential.

Instead of education, these universities focus on ranking. The problem is that the ranking is not based on quality of instruction, but on things like admission rates: the more selective, the better. It benefits elite colleges to advertise to students who have a very low chance of getting in, since if they apply and get rejected, the school looks better.

The result is a system obsessed with prestige at the expense of learning. From the moment students arrive to their final graduation speech, students are praised for being the best, the brightest, the most wonderful. And yet they are enmeshed in an educational system that encourages them to put themselves into boxes for admissions, that rarely challenges their fundamental beliefs, and that leaves them with a sense of entitlement, a sense that they deserve all of the nice things their elite education will give them.

So what should an education do? This brings us to part two and three of Deresiewicz’s book, which I thought were much weaker. He has a lot to say about the value of a liberal education, about self-discovery, taking risks, questioning beliefs, developing a philosophy, finding your real passion, and lots of other nice clichés. To be fair, these are clichés for a reason: in some form or another, they are the goal of a true education. Nevertheless, I didn’t find Deresiewicz’s prescriptions particularly insightful or inspiring.

Finally, Deresiewicz aims his sights at society as a whole. What has this educational model done to our country, and how can we fix it? All the recent presidents, as products of “the system,” come in for a good bashing—especially Barack Obama, who Deresiewicz finds to be arrogant, condescending, technocratic, while totally blind to genuine ideological differences. The book ends with a widespread, sweeping, universal condemnation of the entire upper and upper-middle class. Their time has passed, he thinks, and they must be removed from the stage of history, just as the old, aristocratic WASP class had before them.

What are we to make of all this? It’s clear that the book bites off far more than it can chew. Ambition is certainly not a problem; but when ambition so far outpaces execution, it certainly is.

One weakness is that this book is so personal. By his own admission, Deresiewicz—the offspring of upper-middle class, Jewish parents, a former professor at Yale—is bitter about his experience in elite education, and it shows. For many years, it seems, he was dissatisfied and unfulfilled, consumed by feelings of envy and empty accomplishment, which accounts for both the self-help and the invective.

But emotion is a perilous guide. While at his best he is sardonic and witty, at his worst he is alternately whiney and preachy. His torrents of feeling often blow his vessel into strange waters—like the psychology of achievement addiction, or the dysfunction of government—where he thrashes about ineffectually.

This thrashing led to some tiresome writing. He has a tendency to write in epigram after epigram—none very clever—pounding and hammering his opinions into your head, while supplying few particulars and little evidence. He makes sweeping generalizations, all written in antitheses: “Everybody is doing this, and nobody is doing that,” “All of us care about this, and none of us pays attention to that,” and so on. He rarely qualifies his points, he does not address counterarguments, he does not betray even the least doubt of his righteousness and the system’s evilness. (The book’s condescending title is indicative of its fervor.) If I were his writing teacher, I would tell him it needs more work.

This book could really have been a long essay, focusing exclusively on the flaws of elite universities. The rest feels like self-indulgence and padding, an excuse to air his views and sell a book.

But for all his shortcomings, I think that Deresiewicz is making a vital point. All of his complaints boil down to one insight: meritocracy is insidious.

Now, how can this be? Isn’t meritocracy good? Isn’t is the only fair and just system? Well, there are several obvious problems. For one, what is ‘merit’? Any meritocracy must begin with some notion of worth; and this notion will always be shaped by cultural and economic pressures. You simply cannot measure the inherent ‘worth’ of a person, so you end up measuring people against some arbitrary standard—like analytical intelligence or academic pedigree—imposed by the outside.

But even if we could agree on a universal measure of ‘merit’ (which is impossible), there would be no guarantee that we could measure it perfectly. Some people will be lucky, others unlucky. And even if we could agree on a standard and measure it perfectly—two impossible conditions—we are still left with the question of reward. If somebody is in the top fifth percentile, how much wealth do they ‘deserve’? This will also be arbitrary, and whatever decision will likely not satisfy everyone.

So you see, first a meritocracy imposes an arbitrary standard, and then denies the existence of luck, and then distributes rewards along this standard arbitrarily. A meritocratic system is not necessarily fair—since people’s worth cannot be measured—nor is it necessarily effective—since chance will always play a role—nor is it necessarily just—since meritocratic systems can still be highly unequal. The most insidious part is that it makes people believe they deserve their rewards: the rich deserve their wealth, the poor their poverty.

This is essentially what Deresiewicz is complaining about. The American elite educational system tends to reward certain qualities that are not necessarily desirable (and which are usually associated with wealthy families), and then treat this unequal distribution as justified. But when you think about it, is it really fair that educational resources and prestige be concentrated in very few, very expensive institutions, instead of distributed more evenly throughout the system?

I agree with this fundamental critique. However, I am far from sure that I know how to fix it. For his part, Deresiewicz puts his faith in the old tradition of the liberal arts education.

While I am naturally very sympathetic to this idea, I always ask myself: Are the liberal arts compatible with big institutions? Can a tradition predicated on free thought, on questioning authority, and on open enquiry—a tradition that is not oriented towards job skills or economic gain—be made compatible with an organization of power and wealth? Can we really expect students to pay enormous tuitions to induct them into the life of the mind? Or can we expect tax-payers to support universities that do the same?

To me is seems that, in the United States, by asking our universities to be both liberal arts colleges and pre-vocational training, we are asking the impossible. The first tradition teaches us how to live, while the second teaches us how to work. The problem, it seems to me, is that in the United States we have come to identify so fully with our jobs that we can’t see the questions as separate. Deresiewicz definitely falls into this error, which he exemplifies by his endorsement of the “follow your passion” advice for a better life.

As I finish, I am left with more questions than when I started. And, as cliché as that sounds, that is still the sign of a good book.

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Review: Tools for Teaching

Review: Tools for Teaching

Tools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation.  Primary Prevention of Classroom Discipline ProblemsTools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation. Primary Prevention of Classroom Discipline Problems by Fredric H. Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever looked at the work kids turn in these days and wondered, “What will happen to this country in the next 50 years?” When you watch Larry sharpen his pencil, you know that the future is in good hands. It’s inspirational.

Last year I switched from teaching adults to teaching teenagers. Though I’m still teaching English, the job could hardly be more different. With adults, I could focus entirely on content; my students were mature, intelligent, and motivated, so I could think exclusively about what to teach them, and how. With kids, I am dealing with a classroom full of energetic, distracted, unruly, loud, and sometimes obnoxious humans whose main motivation is not to fail the upcoming exam. They’re not there because they want to be, and they would always inevitably rather be doing something else.

This probably makes me sound jaded and disenchanted (and I hasten to add that I actually have a lot more fun teaching kids, and my students are great, I swear!); but the fact is inescapable: when you’re teaching in a school setting, you need to worry about classroom management. Either you will control the kids, or they will control you.

It is the hope of every beginning teacher, myself included, to manage through instruction. We all begin with the same dream: to create lessons so dynamic, so enriching, so brilliant, and to teach with such charisma and compassion, that misbehavior isn’t a problem. But this doesn’t work, for two obvious reasons. For one, we don’t have unlimited control of the curriculum; to the contrary, our room to maneuver is often quite limited. And even with complete autonomy, having interesting lessons would be no guarantee of participation or attention, since it only takes one bored student to disrupt, and only one disruption to derail a lesson.

Even if you’re Socrates, disruptions will happen. When they do, in the absence of any plan, you will end up falling back on your instincts. The problem is that your instincts are probably bad. I know this well, both from experience and observation. Our impulsive reaction is usually to nag, to argue, to preach, to bargain, to threaten, to cajole—in other words, to flap our mouths in futility until we finally get angry, snap, yell, and then repeat the process.

But no amount of nagging creates a motivated classroom; and no amount of speeches—about the value of education, the importance of respect, or the relevance of the lesson to one’s future—will produce interested and engaged students. In short, our instinctual response is inefficient, ineffective, and stressful for both teacher and students. (Again, I know this both from experience and observation.)

Some strategies are therefore needed to keep the kids settled and on task. And since teachers are chronically overworked as it is—the endless grading and planning, not to mention the physical strain of standing in front of classes all day—these strategies must be neither too complex nor too expensive. To the contrary, they must be relatively straightforward to implement, and they must save time in the long run.

This is where Fred Jones comes in. Fred Jones is the Isaac Newton of classroom management. This book is nothing less than a fully worked out strategy for controlling a room full of young people. This system, according to him, is the result of many hundreds of hours of observing effective and ineffective teachers, trying to analyze what the “natural” teachers did right and the “unnatural” teachers wrong, and to put it all together into a system. And it really is systematic: every part fits into every part, interlocking like the gears of a bicycle.

This makes the book somewhat difficult to summarize, since it is not a bag of tricks to add to your repertoire. Indeed, its main limitation—especially for me, since I’m just assistant who goes from class to class—is that his strategies cannot be implemented piecemeal. They work together, or they don’t work. As a pedagogical nomad who merely helps out, I am not really in a position to put this book into practice, so I cannot personally vouch for it.

Despite this, Jones manages to be utterly convincing. The book is so full of anecdotes, insights, and explanations that were immediately familiar that it seemed as if he was spying on my own classrooms. Unlike so many books on education, which offer ringing phrases and high-minded idealism, this book deals with the nitty-gritty reality of being a teacher: the challenges, frustrations, and the stress.

The main challenge of classroom management—the problem that dwarfs all others—is to eliminate talking to neighbors. Kids like to talk, and they will talk: when they’re supposed to be listening, when they should be working, whenever they think they can get away with it. This is only natural. And with the conventional classroom approach—standing in the front and lecturing, snarling whenever the kids in the back are too loud—talking to neighbors is inevitable, since the teacher is physically distant, and the kids have nothing else to do.

Jones begins by suggesting board work: an activity that each student must start at the beginning of class, something handed out or written on the board, to eliminate the usual chaos that attends the beginning of the lesson. He then goes into detail about how the classroom should be arranged: with large avenues to the teacher can quickly move around. Movement is key, because the most important factor that determines goofing off is physical proximity to the teacher. (This seems certainly less true in Spain, where people are more comfortable with limited personal space, but I imagine it’s quite true in the United States.)

This leads to the lesson. Jones advocates a pedagogical approach that only requires the teacher to talk for five minutes or less at a time. Break down the lesson into chunks, using visual aids for easy understanding, and then immediately follow every concept with an activity. When the kids are working, the teacher is to move around the classroom, helping, checking, and managing behavior, while being sure not to spend too much time with the students he calls “helpless handraisers”—the students who inevitably raise their hands and say they don’t understand. (To be clear, he isn’t saying to ignore these students, but to resist the impulse to re-teach the whole lesson with your back turned to the rest of the class.)

This leads to one of the main limitation of Jones’s method: it works better for math and science than for the humanities. I don’t see how literature or history can be broken down into these five-minute chunks without destroying the content altogether. Jones suggests frequent writing exercises, which I certainly approve of, but it is also hard for me to imagine teaching a lesson about the Spanish Reconquest, for example, without a lengthy lecture. Maybe this is just due to lack of imagination on my part.

When it comes to disruptions, Jones’s advice is refreshingly physical. The first challenge is remaining calm. When you’re standing in front of a crowd, and some kids are chuckling in the back, or worse, talking back to you, your adrenaline immediately begins to flow. Your heart races, and you feel a tense anxiety grip your chest, intermediate between panic and rage. Before doing anything, you must calm down. Jones suggests learning how to relax yourself by breathing deeply. You need to be in control of your emotions to respond effectively.

Then, Jones follows this with a long section on body language. The way we hold our bodies signals a lot about our intentions and our resolve. Confidence and timidity are things we all intuitively perceive just from looking at the way someone holds herself. How do you turn around and face the offending students with conviction? How do you signal that you are taking the disruption seriously? And how do you avoid seeming noncommittal or unserious?

One of the most brilliant sections in this book, I thought, was on dealing with backtalk. Backtalk can be anything, but as Jones points out, it usually takes a very limited number of forms. Denial is probably the most common; in Spanish, this translates to “Pero, ¡no he hecho nada!” Then there is blaming; the student points her finger at her neighbor, and says “But, she asked me a question!” And then there is misdirection, when the offending student says, “But, I don’t understand!” as if they were in a busy intellectual debate. I see all these on a daily basis. The classic mistake to make in these situations is to engage the student—to argue, to nag, or to scold, or to take their claim that they “don’t understand” at face value. Be calm, stay quiet, and if they keep talking move towards them. Talking back yourself only puts you on the same level.

The penultimate section of the book deals with what Jones calls Preferred Activity Time, or PAT. This is an academic activity that the students want to do, and will work for. It is not a reward to hold over their heads, or something to punish the students with by taking it away, but something the teacher gives to the class, with the opportunity for them to earn more through good behavior. This acts as an additional incentive system to stay on task and well behaved.

The book ends with a note on what Jones calls “the backup system,” which consists of the official punishments, like suspension and detention, that the school system inflicts on misbehaving kids. As Jones repeatedly says, this backup system has been in place for generations, and yet it has always been ineffective. The same small number of repeat offenders account for the vast majority of these reprimands; obviously it is not an successful deterrent. Sometimes the backup system is unavoidable, however, and he has some wise words on how to use it when needed.

Now, if you’ve been following along so far, you’ll have noticed that this book is behaviorist. Its ideas are based on control, on incentive systems, on input and output. As a model of human behavior, I think behaviorism is far too simplistic to be accurate, and so I’m somewhat uncomfortable thinking of classroom management in this way. Furthermore, there are moments, I admit, when the job of teaching in a public school feels more like working in a prison than the glorious pursuit of knowledge. Your job is to keep the kids in a room, keep them quiet and seated, and to keep them busy—at least, that’s how it feels at times. And Jones’s whole system can perhaps legitimately be accused of perpetuating this incarceration model of education.

But teachers have the choice of working within an imperfect system or not working. The question of the ideal educational model is entirely different from the question this book addresses: how to effectively teach in the current educational paradigm. Jones’s approach is clear-eyed, thorough, intelligent, insightful, and eminently practical, and for that reason I think he has done a great thing. Teaching, after all, is too difficult a job, and too important a job, to do with only idealism and instinct as tools.

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