Friday, August 13, 2010

Excerpts from Jacques Barzun's "Begin Here"

From Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, one of my favorite books on education:

From "Schooling No Mystery":

Forget EDUCATION. Education is a result, a slow growth, and hard to judge. Let us talk rather about Teaching and Learning, a joint activity that can be provided for, though as a nation we have lost the knack of it.
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As for the means of learning and thinking, that is to say, reading and writing, the colleges are at the same point as the grade schools - helpless in the face of illiteracy. The exceptional teacher is still trying in graduate school to get decent writing and intelligent reading out of his bright students.
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Learning to read, write, and count meant equal opportunity. Lincoln, as everybody knows, had to teach himself.
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In the name of progress and method, innovation and statistical research, educationists have persuaded the world that teaching is a set of complex problems to be solved. It is no such thing. It is a series of difficulties. They recur endlessly and have to be met; there is no solution.... Teaching is an art, and an art, though it has a variety of practical devices to choose from, cannot be reduced to a science.
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...Knowing a subject and wanting to teach it are the chief prerequisite to success in the profession....

From "Teacher in 1980 America: What He Found":

The manifest decline is heartbreakingly sad, but it is what we have chosen to make it, in higher learning as well as in our public schools. There, instead of trying to develop native intelligence and give it good techniques in the basic arts of man, we professed to make ideal citizens, supertolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars. In the upshot, a working system has been brought to a state of impotence. Good teachers are cramped or stymied in their efforts, while the public pays more and more for less and less. The failure to be sober in action and purpose, to do well what can actually be done, has turned a scene of fruitful activity into a spectacle of defeat, shame, and despair.

From "The Alphabet Equals the Wheel":

All children can learn and do learn. By the time they first go to school they have learned an enormous amount, including a foreign language, since no language is native to the womb.
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A teacher must believe in the capacity of those he is teaching; it is defeatism to start out with the opposite assumption.
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Teaching is a demanding, often back-breaking job; it should not be done with the energy left over after meetings and pointless paperwork have drained hope and faith in the enterprise. Accountability, the latest cure in vogue, is to be looked for only in results. Good teaching is usually well-known to all concerned without questionnaires or approved lesson plans.
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When good teachers perform and pupils learn, the sense of accomplishment produces a momentum that lightens the toil for both. Discipline is easier to maintain and failures become exceptions instead of the rule.
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...Reform must bear directly on what is wanted, not try roundabout ways next door. The Army is not considered the most efficient of institutions, but when it finds a deficiency in fire power it does not launch a "Right to Shoot Program" or a "Marksmanship Recovery Project." It gets the sergeants busy and the instructors out to the rifle range.

From "The Centrality of Reading":

There is...no excuse for allowing the exercise of reading to be less certain in its results than the exercise of listening and remembering. To tolerate reading that proceeds by guesswork, as if at a later time some one would surely tighten the screws of the loose mental structure and make it solid and precise, is to commit an injury against the growing mind. To allow the written word to be indefinite is to undo the incalculable technical advance that turned sounds into signs.

On this pedagogical ground alone, it could be said that no subject of study is more important than reading. In our civilization, at any rate, all the other intellectual powers depend upon it. No one can compute very far without reading correctly; no one can write decently without reading widely and well; no one can speak or listen intelligently without the mass of workaday information that comes chiefly through reading. As for acquiring some notions of history, government, hygiene, philosophy, art, religion, love-making, or the operation of a camera, they are all equally and pitifully dependent on reading.
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Imagine the art of reading lost - and with it writing, study, and verbal recovery - and it is hard to see how civilized man could survive the shocks and anxieties of his state, let alone serve his multitudinous desires.
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The linguists who affect to scorn all utterance but the spoken word, the teachers' group in the Midwest that has discovered the uselessness of reading and asks that it no longer be taught in the schools, the zealots who sidestep the issue but sell futures in a world where only the voice and the image will have currency - all appear deficient in imagination, the imagination they would need still more under their wayward scheme. In any case, their prophecy of the end of reading leaves me unmoved, for prophecy concerns the future, and to reach any future we must somehow get from here to there, and that will require reading.
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...Reading and its necessary twin, writing, constitute not merely an ability but a power. I mean by the distinction that reading is not just a device (in jargon "a tool") by which we are reached and reach others for practical ends. It is also a mode of incarnating and shaping thought....

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With impatient contempt of school dullness and rote learning, educators resolved to emancipate the child and afford him (the superior joys of the free play of fancy, creativeness, and immediate enjoyment; self-expression, novelty, and untrammeled choice in pursuing one's own thing).

The folly consisted, not in wanting the lofty results, but in thinking that they could be reached directly. I have elsewhere defined this fallacy as "preposterism" - seeking to obtain straight off what can only be the fruit of some effort, putting the end before the beginning. It should have been obvious that self-expression is real only after the means to it have been acquired.
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...The last phase of the liberalism which by 1910 had proclaimed everybody's imagination, including the child's, took the form of total egalitarianism. Everybody was, by democratic fiat, right and just in all his actions; he was doing the best he could; he was human: we knew this by his errors. It therefore became wrong to correct a child, to press him, push him, show him how to do better. Dialectical speech and grammatical blunders were natural and, as such, sacred; the linguists proved it by basing a profession on the dogma. Literature was a trivial surface phenomenon, the pastime of a doomed elite: why read books, why read, why teach the alphabet?
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...The conquest of the public imagination by the arts, by "art as a way of life," has reinforced the natural resistance of the mind to ordinary logic, order, and precision - without replacing these with any strong dose of artistic logic, order, and precision. The arts have simply given universal warrant for the offbeat, the unintelligible, the defiant without purpose. The schools have soaked up this heady brew. Anything new, obscure, implausible, self-willed is worth trying out, is an educational experiment. It has the aura of both science and art.
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Nothing is right by virtue of its origins, but only by virtue of its results. A stifling tradition is bad and a "great" tradition is good. Innovation that brings improvement is what we all desire; innovation that impoverishes the mind and the chances of life is damnable. Above all institutions, the school is designed for only one thing - fruits. But nowadays we despise the very world cultivation. Unweeded soil undoubtedly grows wondrous things that nobody can predict. Such things we have in abundance, but it would be a rash man who would call it a harvest.

Jacques Barzun
--Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning

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