Muddying the waters

Doug calls it “muddying the waters”, a surprisingly negative-sounding expression for what I immediately recognized as a positive action – pointing out aspects of an argument or debate that make it less black-and-white and more murkily complex.

Doug provides a link to a Feinberg article that picks a lot of holes in Hirsch’s arguments. There are definite flaws in Hirsch’s thinking and suggestions, at least in “The Schools We Need” (the only book or writing of his I’ve read). For instance, answering his own question of “why do educators persist in advocating the very antifact, anti-rote-learning, antiverbal practices that have led to poor results – persist in urging them?” he states baldly, “Within the educational community, there is currently no thinkable alternative.” Well, that sounds exactly the kind of ideology-over-common-sense sloganeering that he claims to be trying to avoid. There is surely more to the matter than this, even assuming his description of the problem is correct, which is arguable. I was more impressed with Barzun’s view, namely that teaching and learning are not problems with solutions, but rather difficulties faced by any and all teachers (regardless of current practices or environment or personal philosophy) and to be overcome daily by patience, hard thinking, and trial-and-error creativity.

Hirsch’s references to education in Japan also betray a lack of real knowledge, and smack of the “Japan is No.1” mentality that pervaded many books about Japanese industrial and educational practices written in the 70s and 80s (for a more realistic picture, see Japanese Higher Education as Myth. ) However, I appreciated Hirsch shining a strong light on many concepts I had latched onto without thinking critically about them, e.g. multiple intelligences, “hands-on learning”, etc. His analysis of the Romantic influences in present-day teachers’ thinking is pretty astute. Feinberg’s article raises some good points, but is also full of holes and misrepresentations. But it’s all grist to the mill. Teaching is a highly complex and emotional matter, and personally I feel I need all the intelligent thinking on it I can get.

The other day, I was discussing some of Hirsch’s ideas, and those of Lisa Delpit, with a Canadian colleague. He recently completed his doctoral thesis on bilingual education. We soon hit on some common areas of interest, and this morning he gave me a couple of articles to read. One is What Teachers Need to Know About Language by Lily Wong Fillmore and Catherine Snow (pdf warning). (There is a digest of it here). A quick skim revealed a reference to a Lisa Delpit article Ebonics and Culturally Responsive Instruction (found, lo and behold, at Rethinking Schools Online archive, to which Doug pointed me in his reply to my comment). (The Fillmore/Snow article also includes a reference to Fillmore paper The class of 2002: Will everyone be there? presented at the Alaska State Department of Education, February 1999 – can’t find it online, tho).

My Canadian colleague also recommended I read an article by James Gee that he had. I then read a comment by Doug on my blog, and who should Doug recommend I read? James Paul Gee.

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