Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"They Listen and they Hear"

I've read the William Cronon article from which I've taken the new name of this blog at least seven times.  Each time I come away from the article as a teacher with a deepened and renewed sense of purpose.  So, I thought it might be a good idea to pull the ten qualities Cronon lists as characteristics of a liberally educated person and deal with them in ten or so short blog entries.  In each I'll summarize the point as it exists in Cronon's article and offer some observations as to how one can achieve such goals in a contemporary public school classroom.

It is utterly important to note that I'm adapting (you decide if it's an improper adaptation) Cronon's article, which is written from a college perspective, into a secondary school classroom, not because I want to foist top-down management into our schools any more than it already is.  Rather, I'm convinced that the current climate under which we teachers and our students must suffer is inimical to the most important goals of American public education, which are, in short: to perpetuate the democracy, the economic system, and humanize us all so that we endeavor to push the race forward rather than to destroy ourselves.

Furthermore, I don't want to assert that Cronon's goals are mutually exclusive of other, more measurable goals.  Skills in math, reading, and some measure of scientific literacy are crucial to achieving the larger goals of American Public Education I list above.  No, Cronon's goals are actually prerequisites for all other types of learning.  More importantly,  they are also not goals in the traditional sense.  That is, they are not end states.  One never achieves such a goal as "They listen and they hear."  One can only ever get better and better at it.  My bone of contention, then, with the current state of affairs is that we spend little time on developing these goals--on even letting students know that these goals are honorable and salable--because they are not easily quantifiable.  The old saw applies here:  Not every thing that matters can be counted; not everything that can be counted matters.

So, onto Cronon's list...

1)  They Listen and they Hear.

Cronon states that this goal of a liberal education is something you'd think goes without saying.  Essentially, it describes people who "work hard to hear what other people say. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions."

I'll admit to a good deal of bias here.  I'm a debate coach.  Offering students activities that help them work towards this goal is easy.  Engage them in structured controversies like debates and constructive discussions.  There are any number of debate structures you might employ, with the more formal styles outlined clearly and fully at websites like the National Forensic League, The Pennsylvania High School Speech League, and other such leagues around the nation.  Additionally, teachers can employ structured discussions.  Programs like Paideia Seminars, Socratic Circles, Literature Circles, or The Touchstones Discussion Project all offer students opportunities to speak and listen and learn from each other in many different curricula (not just language arts or social studies).

My list is not exhaustive, but I am certain of the solid outcomes each of the different strategies I suggest can produce if a teacher buys into and believes in their individual processes.

And in the end, listening and hearing?  Sure, you can't necessarily test for it, but you sure as heck aren't building a solid foundation for a democracy if all you focus on is computation and comprehension.   At least by focusing on a goal like this one we'll have a chance to erase future episodes of The Jerry Springer Show from our airwaves and promote more civil discourse than what we saw in this summer's town-hall meetings.


symbot said...

I really want some more educators to take up this recommendation in their classroom practice. I'm overwhelmed with the number of people in the world who can't construct or follow the logic in an argument... who can't distinguish between levels of abstraction in a controversy or a debate... who try to discuss something meaningful, and get bogged down fighting over the first sub-point of the first nuance that one of them tries to bring up in support of a broader argument. I'm also dismayed that the media is so prone to ridiculous, comically bad argument, and that nobody ever recognizes it as such.

I saw The Exorcism of Emily Rose the other night. It was a horror, but moreso it was a courtroom drama, with one side arguing that a priest... who had discontinued medical treatment in favor of an exorcism... was criminally negligent, and the other arguing that in the absence of an effective medical solution, the Catholic belief system couldn't simply be ruled out as invalid. As I watched it, I kept thinking, "If this was a Lincoln-Douglas debate, these people would BOTH lose."

Obama himself has proven a very smart debater. During the presidential debates, he was able to respond directly to Bush's talking points and encapsulate them in his own, demonstrating that his argument was more valid because it was working at a slightly higher level of reasoning. I really appreciated that. I was always so sad that the media "scored" these debates purely on a few key phrases from each debater.

It's critical for people to realize -- being able to articulate your position on ANYTHING... whether it's an aesthetic judgment or a mathematical principle... isn't just a matter of being smart with words. It's a yardstick for whether you truly have a comprehensive understanding of the system you're working with.

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