Educational methods

The more so as it is the more strictly standardized, lower education is a line to be held. Those who are below the line may hope to be lifted up to it; those who are above the line must expect to be trimmed down even with it. Provided that it is peaceful and prosperous, I suspect that a country in which many minds fall below the line will have unusually many minds above the line. This has been one of the reasons for America's success. But unless the majority of people are close to the line, a country shall be neither peaceful nor prosperous

Those who believe that education is unnecessary are fools; but those who believe that a nation's aggregate intellectual capacity is measurable through test scores are also fools. Because it cannot be made into procedures, the truth goes unnoticed: that all education is self-education. Teaching cannot be brainwashing or downloading. No complex of government regulations can do more than bring the teacher to the halfway where he must meet the student. No stake on any test and no drug can do more than bring the student to the halfway point where the teacher should meet him.

I shudder whenever I hear talk of a new method in education. In the hands of a good teacher, who understands and shares its aims and principles, any method can succeed. In the hands of the rest, the shape and color of the prod do not matter: they will find a way to draw blood with it.

Sometimes a new method dredges the silt of habit which all teachers are prone to. Sometimes it solves a problem; sometimes is shows up a program in need of solving. But most methods try to reduce the teacher to catechist or technician. It is too painful for reformers of education to realize that good teachers are good, because they have good instincts. They have use for any method only when they can, as necessary, set it aside. When governments or school administrations enforce a particular method, they only waste good teachers and worsen bad ones.

The most basic question of method is whether to teach knowledge or critical thinking. I once read the difference analogized in the terms of computer programming—whether program or data be more important? It is a good analogy only because it shows the misguidedness of the question. The distinction of data and program, while momently necessary, is not essential or fixed. In the most sophisticated and subtle of computer languages, Lisp—made to allow computers to mimic human thinking—what is now data may become program, and what is now program may become data.

There is no skill of critical thinking and no capacity to learn, indifferent to, or severable from, knowledge. Classroom critical thinking, when it is the communal abuse of carefully stuffed straw men or the circling of out-of-reach questions, stops at inverting every statement into a question or cavil. That is the opposite of understanding; it is active ignorance.

Nor is knowledge absorbed directly. Words are symbols, and symbols represent what symbols cannot be. You learn not by absorbing a thought from another mind, but by private analogy. Beginning with what you already know or have experienced, you recombine by aggregation and dissection until you make a likeness of what is shown to you. You build outward year by year from the experience of the cradle—to the soul and the stars. But minds are not as different as their differentiating experiences. The building and building up of analogies, beginning in the isolation of the individual, converges on the common and communicable—that is sanity.

The mind is a fire, not an attic. You cannot burn anything without fuel, and you cannot fuel what is not burning. It takes a good teacher and a good student to set the fire; and it is the sign of good teachers to understand that whatever method does not bend to serve the burning mind will smother it.