Blackboard Jungle, Part 1: For School, Not for Life

I dare to venture the guess that complaints about the quality and practical benefits of education are as old as mankind — and as commonplace as whining about the weather. That this issue seems to be as present as ever — quasi timeless — reveals more about the complainants than it says about individual concepts proposed and executed to this day.

“People are getting dumber” is a pseudoscientific gag that never seems to get old. Drop this truism in a room full of people, and some few (those who believe to belong to the group of rare exceptions) will squeal with delight.

The rest — alias “the vast majority” — will not. Those will silently resent your “blunt honesty”, provided that they are even prepared to consider what you have to say.

In a World Without Meaning, Comprehension Is a Useless Skill

Chances are, a number will launch a certain, fairly popular search engine and try to challenge your statement with “tried–and–trusted” examples (of quite dubious origin), conveniently prepared by the “consiglieri” of their own echo chamber.

I doesn’t seem to matter that these tried their methods on (and ultimately had their evidence confirmed by) those supposed to be convinced that every previous generation was a bunch of ignorant cave–dwellers — no match for the soon–to–emerge intellectual elite (themselves, in other words).

However, alleging a decline of generational intelligentsia is just as cheap a move as the flat denial of intellectual degeneration by virtue of hardly plausible, decidedly non–empirical “evidence”.

Both are what I like to call “killer statements”; they are employed to win any argument, as the other camp is not able to challenge them immediately. Such statements are inadmissible in every serious discussion.

It may even be true that the youth know less than we do, and that we know less than our parents did, but an honest person will have to admit that not all information any of us has gathered is really meaningful or individually applicable. A fair amount of our knowledge has been learnt in order to have been learnt. Yet learning should never be an end in itself.

It is probably true that most of them don’t know what we know, but they certainly know things most of us have never even heard about — regardless of who “we” or “they” are in any particular context.

Whether the knowledge of these or those is more or less relevant in any one case, is a matter that remains to be seen. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the old saying goes.

Yet anyway, knowledge is neither a prerequisite for nor evidence of intelligence — and vice versa. An intelligent person does not necessarily have to know (have evidence) to comprehend, while for those who do not comprehend all knowledge is useless.

For School We Learn — and We Always Did

Despite honest effort, I failed to find a truly old document expressly dedicated to this topic. Yet the one I do know of is actually rather old (1st century CE), in its full extent largely unknown (I suspect) to the majority of modern educators, and a contender for the shortlist of most widely misquoted writings of all time.

So I shall go with this one, as it gives a fine example of what exactly, I think, is wrong with modern education concepts in general and the popular idea that people are getting dumber by the generation in particular.

The work I’m talking about is called Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (Moral letters to Lucilius). It was written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, commonly referred to as “Seneca the Younger”. It is assumed to have been conceived sometime between 62 and 65 CE.

Your man left us not only some beautiful plays, but also a wealth of aphorisms, many of those are still in popular use today.

Not for life, but for school, we learn. (Non vitae sed scholae discimus.)

Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE–65 CE), Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist, Moral letters to Lucilius (Letter 106: On the Corporeality of Virtue)

The quote probably best known to most pupils (at least of my generation) who ever had Latin classes in school, was — and I strongly suspect still is — commonly misinterpreted.

I’m still prepared to give our own teachers the benefit of the doubt (if only for rhetorical reasons), and pretend they lied to us for educational purposes (hoping we would never find out) — otherwise, I would have to presume that they had never actually read Letter 106 (known as On the Corporeality of Virtue) to Lucilius. This notion would inevitably lead to the conclusion that our teachers were already of a generation — the infamous “Generation of ’68”, no less — that was merely trained to pass school exams rather than master life.

Seneca himself never stated: Non scholae sed vitae discimus. At best, this line may serve as a paraphrase of what he actually meant to convey: that classical education and critical thinking are fundamental tools, keys to enter life and pursue “the good”.

Its more popular opposite (especially among first–year Latin scholars), non vitae sed scholae discimus, is not a mocking reversal, invented by unruly students (as many a teacher would still insist), but Seneca’s own words (in anticipation of Lucilius’ reply to his advice).

Reading the letter with a critical mind, it becomes obvious that he did not encourage learning for life rather than the “lecture–room”, but teaching in a fashion that enables the student to face life with vigor and passion — with body and mind.

To merely recite from literature is to tell students what to think. The knowledge they may gather from these lectures will never exceed the amount they are able to memorise. It takes the philosophical approach for them to learn how to think — and eventually gain real knowledge and wisdom.

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.

William Arthur Ward (1921–1994), American writer

So scrape this platitude (“for life, not for school”) off your silly plaques above the entrances of school buildings already — or deliver on this promise and prepare pupils for the cold reality they are about to enter in a few years’ time.

But then, how could you with a substantial percentage of teacher aspirants who proved their inability to read and write properly?

Whether or not these are masters of their individual subjects is relatively irrelevant, if they do not have sufficient command of the classroom language to convey this knowledge comprehensibly. How would they be able to explain, demonstrate, or even inspire?

That Is Never too Often Repeated, Which Is Never Sufficiently Learned

While I have always been doubtful about the practical relevance of phenomena such as the “Flynn Effect” (or its reversal), they do not surprise me at all — and no one who has ever had the chance to compare textbooks circulated in the 1950s to those of the 1990s (and later) can be surprised at the recent “decline of intelligence”.

Let’s not fool ourselves: It is not intelligence that is on the decline, but intelligent education. People are not getting dumber, they are made dumber.

Isn’t it a bit unreasonable to be surprised that kids who have never seen a single cow in the flesh, or watched anyone pouring cocoa powder into a glass of fresh milk (because it is oh–so convenient to buy tertiary processed food), believe that chocolate milk is produced by brown cows?

After all, cattle do come in many colours and shapes, and if you bother to look up pictures of “cow” in your favourite search engine, you will realise that a great many of them have fairly the same colour (or combination of colours) as fancy products particularly manufactured for minors.

So what does anyone expect them to believe? Parents who failed to introduce their child to even a single specimen of this species (let alone a variety thereof), may consider themselves lucky that the kid was smart enough to deduce a plausible result from what scarce information was accessible.

The “solution” may be wrong, technically speaking, but the deduction was as logical as it could possibly get. This is the kind of thinking that will conceive wisdom one fine day.

At any rate, it is more reasonable to be proud of a child’s (voluntary) approach to “synthetic a posteriori judgement” than expecting him or her to know about the origin of chocolate milk, because “ma’s grandpa used to work on a farm”. Knowledge is not inheritable, it has to be passed on from generation to generation.

I, for one, would be worried about children who see an empty milk bottle and utter, “look ma, a dead cow”, for this is what proper idiots sound like. (To prove that I’m a nice person, I decided to spare the precious reader the version where the kid tries to make fresh milk from the “dead cow in the freezer”.)

It really doesn’t matter how “smart” one actually is: If a problem was posed by a proper idiot, even the smartest of testees is at risk of failure.

The other day, I happened upon a “test for teacher aspirants”, apparently provided for people who may be inclined to become teachers and “find out whether they are made for this profession”.

What kept me from eventually submitting my results was not the fact that I have no intention whatsoever to become a teacher, but “technical” problems. (At this point, I would like to apologise to the creators of this test for “abusing” their system. I was too curious to learn what might be expected of someone who voluntarily enters this profession. This said, I would like to state that I am not sorry for calling you “proper idiots”.)

If my memory serves me well, there were fifty questions — a wild mix of reading comprehension, (German) history, science, and the occasional problem to test one’s visual and logico–mathematical intelligence — to be answered within 30 minutes.

It was nothing spectacular, really. Six minutes before the time was up, I had answered all but one. Question 19 had instantly struck me as unsolvable, though. With enough time left, I nonetheless returned to it to check whether I had possibly missed a hint.

At second glance, I decided that it probably was meant to be a problem sans solution and therefore to be skipped — a trap, in other words — you know, a test to learn whether the candidate is smart enough to admit defeat in the face of an impossible mission. Thus I tried to submit my results, but the form was rejected because “all questions have to be answered”. Here’s the problem for the precious reader’s entertainment.

The Problem of the Cast Die

Imagine an ordinary six–sided die (or “dice”, if you prefer) displayed in a fashion for you to see three sides (front, top, right). The front is “6” (the top is “2”, and the right side is “4”). Now turn [sic] it once to the right and once to the back. Which number is on top?

  • a
  • b
  • c
  • d
  • e

If your answer happens to be “six”, welcome to the club. Yet given this setting, we are both either perfect dimwits or too smart to become teachers.

I would have taken the problem seriously, if there had been six options (a–f), and converted “1” to “a”, “2” to “b”, etc.

Alternatively, I wouldn’t have thought twice to go for “c”, if the die had to be rolled first back and than to the right. For in this case, “f” (equalling “6”) would not have been necessary (for being visible at all times).

Obviously, the person who conceived this test does not know the first thing about the proper use of dice — or language. To arrive at “c” (equalling “3”; which is, I still suppose, the expected answer), one has to “rotate” the die by ninety degrees to the right (“vertically” or “about its y–axis”) and then “roll” it (“rotate it horizontally” or “about its x–axis”) by ninety degrees to the back — which is the same as “rolling” it first back and then to the right.

Dice are not commonly “turned” but “rolled”, and this is always a horizontal motion. If you want someone to “rotate” a die, you will have to indicate both direction and orientation — or else be content with even the least graceful of results.

Honestly, I did not bother to give the “correct” (expected) answer and submit the form. If one has to tell a “teacher” what’s what, aspiring to become one would be a degrading venture.

Would anyone really wish for their offspring to be taught by future “teachers” who are anxious to solve the above problem at all cost or rather by someone who can plausibly explain the problem (and why it is unsolvable the way it was posed)? The first candidate is going to teach your young ones for school, the other will teach them for life.

A Matter of Mutual Respect and Trust

Basically, I don’t have a dog in this fight (i.e., I’m too old for mandatory schooling, have no children, and do not wish to become a mindless minion of the education machinery).

Yet I do have a question: How dare you being surprised at students who fail to find proper answers to problems their teachers failed to pose properly?

What really annoys me — to the point where I decided to actually consider this matter and publish these lines — is that disgusting public mourning about “today’s pupils’ progressive stupidity”.

I have heard this litany for more than four decades now (the day my own schooling commenced, to be precise), but I have yet to hear of an inspired (and inspiring) concept or individual approach to put an end to this mess.

Who cares whether “kids love their teachers” or “teachers are happy”? If that were the point of education, we could simply extend kindergarten until the “kids” turn 18. Come to think of it, every now and then, one could actually get the impression that exactly this might be the plan.

A “pupil” is someone who “follows” and “takes advice”, while a “teacher (or tutor)” is someone who “leads”, “gives advice and guidance”; both need mutual respect and the confidence that the other is willing to contribute to common success.

School is not the place to be unruly or disrespectful, but it seems that the teachers and parents, rather than their children, need to relearn this lesson over and over again.

Pupils are not the teacher’s (or parents’) companions or even friends, they are individuals who need to learn their lessons (and sometimes be put in their place). Failing to do so in good time is disrespectful not only towards them, but also towards society in general.

The adult “idiots” one happens to meet every day are the result of an environment of would–be “enlightened”, unreasonably anti–authoritarian (or perhaps just utterly indifferent) teachers and parents.

Surely one could argue that everyone is at some point old enough to recognise one’s own misconduct and to reconsider one’s attitude towards others, but this is an inherent error of reasoning, because those “fools” were never given the opportunity to develop appropriate patterns of thinking and behaving.

That people don’t always get their own way in “real” life is a lesson never sufficiently learned while there was time. Any forceful attempt to “repeat this lesson” later is a recipe for disaster.