Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams : An AutobiographyThe Education of Henry Adams : An Autobiography by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once more! this is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men—or such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them.

Everyone agrees that this book is difficult and odd. An autobiography of an American man of letters, the son of a diplomat, grandson of a president, historian, journalist, secretary, all told in the third person, written for his private circle of friends. At once claiming to be the story of one man’s life, a critique of the educational methods of the nineteenth century, a parable of the fin de siècle, and a new theory of history, the book is, in reality, none of the above, and is instead the sigh of an old man looking back on his life.

I must admit that I found this book exasperating in the extreme. One quickly gets the impression that, when Adams uses the word “education,” it is meaningless or worse than meaningless. He goes to London with his father, and becomes intimately acquainted with the workings of British politics, all during the difficult years of the American Civil War, and complains that he received no useful “education.” He teaches at Harvard for seven years, a professor of Medieval History, and concludes: “On the whole, he was content neither with what he had taught nor with the way he had taught it. The seven years in teaching seemed to him lost.” He becomes a journalist in the capital, and then works on a seven-volume history of America during Jefferson’s presidency; and still, after all this, he insists he has received no useful “education.” And after every phase of his life, when Adams rings the same gloomy bell, the reader asks: “What on earth would satisfy you, Mr. Adams?”

Another exasperating element is the degree to which Adams assumes a familiarity with the intricacies of 19th century politics. Reading the chapters when he was in England felt like reading a grocer’s shopkeeping books. It was disjointed, jerky, and, worst of all, didn’t explain a thing. At first, I assumed this difficulty resulted from Adams’s originally writing the book for his circle of friends; but the obscurity goes even further: it is as if Adams wrote the book only for himself. The book swings wildly in tone from dry note-taking to half-formed and half-coherent abstractions, all written in a prose style lucidly opaque.

Adams also gives the impression of being a bit muddle-headed. He spends some time talking about Lyell’s geology and Darwin’s evolution, and it soon becomes apparent he understands neither. He goes on long tangents about “force,” while it is obvious that what Adams means by that word is as meaningless as what he means by “education.” He ends the book on a very confused and seemingly pointless attempt to give a mathematical explanation of history, but never reaches above vague commonplaces, endlessly repeated. I seldom came across an insight of his that was insightful.

In short, the impression was that Adams had taken all of the stuff of his life—his doings, his friendships, his thoughts, his career, his background—and left it out to bake in the hot sun, until all the savor and succulence was scorched out of it, leaving only a tough jerky that wearies the jaw in the attempt to chew the husk.

Still, after all this, I must admit that this book has a strange power. There were times I could not put it down, even when I felt I wasn’t understanding a thing. Adams always seemed to be only two steps away from a great insight, an astounding thought; but he never quite reaches it, which is why the book can seem so tragic. He was always searching and never finding; and the reader is left in doubt what he was searching for, and whether anyone will ever find it. In his elegant, knotty prose, he turns out aphorism after aphorism—all apparently insightful, but in reality empty—popping like soap bubbles leaving nothing but air. And what saves the book is that Adams knew this, and yet could do nothing better.

Mont-Saint-Michel and ChartresMont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Saint Thomas did not allow the Deity the right to contradict Himself, which is one of man’s chief pleasures.

I read this book in preparation for my visit to Chartres, which was just last week. I had not been very fond of Adam’s most famous book, his Education, but I had high hopes that his writing would improve when his focus shifted to something other than his own life. Yet I have found the two books discouragingly similar.

As a stylist Adams appears, at least superficially, quite strong. His sentences are clear and mostly elegant, occasionally epigrammatic. But stylistic problems appear on a higher level of organization. Both Adam’s autobiography and this book were not originally written for publication, but for his close circle of family and friends; and as a result, Adams seems to explain everything except what most needs to be explained. His ideas float against a background that he does not provide, making his train of thought appear out of context. In this he reminds me of George Santayana, who similarly omits to signal where he is going and why he is going there, though Adams lacks the philosopher’s occasionally forays into sublimity to compensate. The result is rather irritating, superficially clear but actually opaque, like overhearing an eloquent old man talk to himself.

But my gravest complaint about Adams, both here and in his autobiography, is his tendency to organize his books around central ideas that I find vague and vapid. In the Education, this takes the form of his armchair theorizing about “force,” the Dynamo, and the laws of physics as applied to history, and even more prominently in his main theme of “education,” his conception of which remains unclear to the very end. In this book it mainly takes the form of his insistence that “The Virgen” was personally involved in the construction of Chartres Cathedral. To be fair, he tends to treat these ideas (and himself) with a considerable amount of irony; but the irony does not amount to full satire, leaving it unclear whether he is merely kidding or if he intends these ideas to be somehow insightful.

Again, just as in his autobiography, here the dominant mood is notalgia. Though extremely successful, Adams apparently felt out of harmony with his world and yearned for a time when society was simpler and more unified. This leads him quite naturally to the Middle Ages, to the poetry, to the great cathedrals, and to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which unite art and science into a seamless whole. Consequently this book, far from being historical analysis, is more of a personal appreciation of the French Medieval period, spinning off into fantasy or speculation wherever it suits him. This self-indulgent tone is grating to somebody trying to learn about Chartres.

Now that I have gotten all this criticism out of the way, I must admit that the book, like his autobiography, has its merits and charms. He is obviously fond of this period, and so writes in a tone of enthusiastic admiration that proves quite infectious. This keen appreciation for the “spirit” of the Medieval period is the book’s most useful attribute, helping to put the reader in the mindset to appreciate the epoch’s art, poetry, and thought. I found Adams’s chapters on architecture, specifically on Chartres, to be stuffy and difficult to follow—for here, as in his chapters on British politics in the Education—he assumes a level of familiarity (specifically about the French royal family) that the reader is unlikely to possess. But when context is provided by an external source, Adams can be quite pleasant. When I visited Chartres, and saw its magnificent stained glass for myself, his chapters ceased to be so vexing.

The chapters I most enjoyed were the final three, about philosophy—specifically, Abelard, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas—since here my background was not so lacking. Yet even here it must be said that Adams’s comments are more in the spirit of an amateurish aficionado rather than a serious student. He interprets Aquinas as an “artist” rather than a thinker, repeatedly disqualifying himself from passing sentence on Aquinas’s arguments (though he says some perceptive things in spite of this).

By contrast I thought the chapters on poetry were the worst, since they mainly consisted of excerpts of poetry, in Latin or Medieval French, with repeated assurances of their high quality and their untranslatable beauty. (His mostly bland translations serve to prove his point.) But in general Adams’s approach to poetry is the same as his approach to architecture and theology, mostly confined to passionate declarations of affection, without much attempt at analysis or insight.

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(Cover photo by Benh LIEU SONG; licensed under CC BY 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

Review: Emile

Review: Emile

EmileEmile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If all the philosophers in the world should prove that I am wrong, and you feel that I am right, that is all I ask.

My reaction to Rousseau is very similar to my reaction to Thoreau, whose back-to-nature ethic owed much to Rousseau’s philosophy. Though constantly impressed with the breadth of their vision and the force of their rhetoric, I find the personalities of these two men—at least as manifested in their books—to be grating and unpleasant. When I am not underlining brilliant passages, I read Rousseau through gritted teeth and with frequent interruptions to roll my eyes.

I see much in common between these two Romantic devotees of nature. While Thoreau’s dour and stern demeanor is not comparable to Rousseau’s sentimental imagination, the two of them are self-involved, prickly, and vain. Both praise wild isolation at the expense of society because neither seemed to fit into the latter. Though the two of them were brilliant in the extreme, neither of them seemed to have reached the level of intellectual maturity that allows feelings to be submitted to reasons and other perspectives to be considered. Both of them fire off opinions with wild abandon, saying what feels good, without taking the trouble to thoroughly argue their points, to consider competing ideas, or even to make their own thoughts consistent.

To pick just one example of this last tendency in Rousseau, at one point he says: “Amid the uncertainty of human life, let us shun that false prudence which seeks to sacrifice the present to the future; what is, is too often sacrificed to what will never be. Let us make man happy at every age lest in spite of our care he should die without knowing the meaning of happiness.” And yet, almost immediately after this pronouncement, he insists that his titular pupil, after having fallen in love and proposed marriage, postpone the delight of union for two years—leaving his beloved to go travel—in order to learn to master his feelings. The book is rife with such inconsistency. And not only that but, as in Thoreau’s case, Rousseau’s manner of life was notoriously inconsistent with the principles he espoused, adding hypocrisy into the bargain. That a man who sent his own children to an orphanage should write a manifesto of education is rich indeed.

But Rousseau must be read and praised, this book above all, since he—as well as his American disciple—contributed a great deal to our common stock of ideas and the expansion of our cultural faculties. Under the guise of a treatise on education, Rousseau has written a universal reflection on human life, comparable to Plato’s Republic or The Brothers Karamazov for its omnidirectional scope. The novelistic device of describing himself as a tutor educating a child allows Rousseau to illustrate his philosophy of society, ethics, government, love, history, travel, religion, literature, and much else along the way, besides to his groundbreaking views on education.

Rousseau begins with his famous dictum that nature makes everything good, and it is human society corrupts our natural goodness into evil. His stated purpose is to illustrate how natural goodness can be preserved in a growing boy destined for life in society—that is, without Thoreau’s recourse of reverting to a state of nature. With this principle in mind, Rousseau blasts mothers for hiring wet nurses to breastfeed their children rather than doing it themselves. And though Rousseau’s reasons are fallacious, this advice probably did the world much good, since, in addition to the emotional bonding, breastfeeding allows important antibodies to be transferred from the mother to the infant.

After infancy gives way to childhood, Rousseau’s real educational work begins. Here he made another important contribution to child-rearing, by insisting that children’s minds are not suited to adult ideas and methods. A child is a different creature altogether and education must be suited to a child’s capacities and predilections. Lectures, sermons, and catechisms must be avoided; and using punishment and reward only corrupt the child. Instead the tutor must find ways to motivate the child to learn without ever seeming to do so. Rousseau the tutor is constantly devising tricks and schemes to get his imaginary pupil, Emile, to learn valuable lessons in a “natural” way—that is, relying on the child’s intrinsic motivation and using no explicit instruction. Everything in Rousseau’s model must simulate life and the child must work on his own conclusions following his own curiosity. The tutor is much more a guide—and, behind the scenes, an impresario—than a real teacher.

Following this procedure, lessons on magnetism and morality are woven into a magician’s act. Geography is taught by getting lost in the forest. Geometry is taught by attempting to draw and map. Botany and agriculture are taught through gardening. And so on, covering sciences, arts, and moral lessons. This way, Emile grows up into a competent, strong, and thoroughly honest boy with no social pretensions and no vanity whatsoever. At least, Rousseau assures us that this would be the result. By the time Rousseau takes Emile into Paris, as a young man, the student is disgusted at the foppery of the men, the arrogance of the philosophes, and the affected manners of the women.

More contentiously, Rousseau would not teach his pupil anything about God or religion until the age of eighteen, considering such subjects too abstruse and profound for a child to understand. He would not even teach Emile to read until shortly before that. And this is not all that occasioned scandal. Rousseau famously interrupts the story of Emile’s education to include the Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, the most well-known, influential, and controversial section of the book. Though couched in the language of philosophy, the Profession is essentially an argument against both organized religion and atheism in favor of deism, based on feeling alone. Voltaire, a deist himself, considered this the book’s only worthwhile section, only lamenting that it has been written by “such a rascal.” It was largely this trenchant criticism of organized religion that led to the book getting banned and burned in Paris and Geneva. And yet, ironically enough, the idea that inner conviction is a surer basis for faith than logic was to become a pillar of religious thought in the coming centuries.

The last section of the book consists in finding a mate for Emile. This is by far the most unpleasant part of the book. Rousseau’s view on women and their upbringing is reactionary and sexist to the utmost, not to mention unpleasantly marred by Rousseau’s own sentimental (and sexual) fantasies regarding women. Rousseau’s ideal companion for his pupil is named Sophie, and her education differs markedly from Emile’s. Sophie is to be a kind of passive doll, a creature not fit for reason or art, whose job is to caress Emile and to make his life easier. Rousseau describes their courtship with the drama of a novelist and the passion of an onanist. Both the principles and the writing are revolting.

Finally, after enduring a forced separation for his beloved—a very unnatural thing for Rousseau to recommend!—Emile settles down happily in blissful union with Sophie, and prepared to educate his own children along Rousseau’s lines.

This summary does not exactly do justice to Emile, since it omits all of the manifold digressions that Rousseau yields to in the book’s wandering course. Some of these are among the best sections of the work; others are pointless rambling. Even when he is not off in the bushes, Rousseau can be very repetitive, giving us five sentences where one would do, spending three paragraphs harping on a minor point. The final result is a book much longer than it has to be. This is Rousseau’s most conspicuous stylistic flaw, which he excuses in typical Rousseau fashion: “If this book is to be well written, I must enjoy writing it.” Unfortunately the author’s pleasure is often gotten at the expense of the reader’s. Yet the book’s best moments are masterful, rising to heights of power and lyricism that cannot be forgotten. Immanuel Kant famously had to read the book twice, the first time just for the style, the second for the content.

The flaws in Rousseau’s ideas are many and grave. Most obviously, Rousseau’s educational program is impractical in the extreme, relying on a perfectly wise tutor to devote twenty years of his life to a perfectly malleable pupil. This may be excused, however, by treating the arrangement as an explanatory device and not a real proposal to be emulated. More seriously, Rousseau’s conviction that nature is intrinsically good is, I think, incorrect and even incoherent. Natural disasters, such as the Lisbon Earthquake in Rousseau’s own lifetime, demonstrate that nature can be cruel and merciless; and in any case, how can you know what nature is, or where nature ends and human culture begins? Besides, doesn’t Rousseau advocate many “unnatural” things? The level of control exercised by his tutor over his pupil’s reality is far greater than any real parent or teacher.

Yet even when strictly viewed as an educational treatise, there is much to be praised in the book. Rousseau’s emphasis on experiential rather than theoretical learning was quite valuable. And his conviction that education must take into account the child’s development and maturity was a revolution. I also share his suspicion towards using external rewards and punishments to motivate children, since the bad is avoided and the good is sought for artificial, rather than instrinctic, reasons.

Of course the book’s merits extend much further than education. Taken together, Rousseau’s philosophy touched on every aspect of society, from philosophy to fashion, from labor to love. For all his naïveté, Rousseau seemed to have correctly sensed that his society was artificial and could not last. Thirty years before the revolution, he says: “The crisis is approaching, and we are on the edge of a revolution.” And he then goes on in a footnote: “In my opinion, it is impossible that the great kingdoms of Europe should last much longer. Each of them has had its period of splendor, after which it must inevitably decline.” Like Thoreau, Rousseau was a prophet and a true original, embittered by being misunderstood, isolated, and ostracized, whose all-too-obvious faults concealed the revolutionary reach of his vision.

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Review: Cracking the GRE

Review: Cracking the GRE

Cracking the GRECracking the GRE by The Princeton Review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Compared with Europe, America has a strange fixation with standardized tests. Administrators and bureaucrats seems to view these tests as tools of accountability, allowing for standard measurement across the system with no possibility of error. But the result is often quixotic: the attempt to come up with a test that creates a normal curve in scores, a test immune to differences in social and cultural background, and a test that measures something predictive of future success, irrespective of the field or career.

As far as these tests go, the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is well done. The math sections only include the most basic techniques, focusing instead on tricky word problems or painstakingly lengthy operations, which theoretically would put all students—regardless of math background—on an equal footing. The essays focus on equally fundamental skills: creating and defending a thesis, and critiquing somebody else’s thesis. The verbal section is a straightforward vocabulary and reading comprehension drill. In sum, as far as possible, I think that the GRE is focused on fundamental skills needed for study.

The catch, of course, is the “as far as possible.” For no matter how much the test-makers try, a physics major and a history major will not be on an even footing in the math and verbal sections. What is more, by making vocabulary such an integral part of the exam, people from more privileged backgrounds—whose well-educated parents work white-collar jobs—have an obvious advantage. This is not to mention the upper hand that the well-off always have in competitions of this sort: the time available for studying (without worrying about multiple jobs or rent), and the resources (private tutors and so on) to prepare adequately.

In any case, can even a well-designed test give valuable information at the graduate school level? For lower-level education, where students are taught the basics of academic skills, a general test seems more plausible. But as students apply to Masters and Doctorate programs—the final steps of vocational and academic specialization—the usefulness of a generalized skill exam is far more questionable. The ability to write an essay in 30 minutes taking a stance on a randomly generated quote (one of the essay tasks) is perhaps hardly related to the ability to, say, write a detailed exploration of the post-Soviet period in Poland.

Granted, I can see why admissions offices like tests such as this one. First, it is a quick and easy to cut down the hefty stack of applications. What’s more, the GRE scores do provide a standard measurement across varying backgrounds (but what is it a measurement of?). And even if the admissions office sees the GRE as purely pro forma—something that is not uncommon—the obstacle of a $205, 4-hour test may help whittle out those less interested in applying.

However convenient it may be for these admissions officers, I personally cannot help being frustrated with exams like this. At present, Educational Testing Services (ETS), its creator, is the Standard Oil of the testing business. To apply to any institution of higher education in the United States, you must pay a toll—in time, stress, and money—to this organization. If I thought that this ritual improved educational quality in any way, I would tolerate it; but I have trouble believing that.

ETS is not the only entity that benefits from this arrangement, since the competition for scores gives rise to innumerable test-prep companies and products, such as this book. I have used the Princeton Review on numerous occasions, and have consistently appreciated their prep-books. This book provides quite a bit of value for the price: including dozens of specific techniques, and 6 full-length practice tests.

Because the Princeton Review can’t use real ETS questions, they must come up with their own. And this is no easy thing, since their questions must replicate exactly the look, difficulty, and type of questions on the real thing. For what it’s worth, in my own experience I have found that the real ETS verbal questions are easier than the Princeton versions, while the ETS math section is more difficult than Princeton’s—though admittedly this difference is fairly small.

A world where we didn’t have to spend months preparing for standard exams would be ideal. But in the world we live in, Princeton Review books are a valuable aid.

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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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