Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I'm not a great teacher. I do a serviceable enough job, when I have a subject I enjoy and students who are there to learn. I'm not one of these brilliant teachers who could make a yeshiva class excited about hog farming. I'm just there.

I'm not particularly patient, for one thing, and I have problems finding ways to explain subject matter to people who don't understand it. I hate discipline problems so teaching high school was fairly miserable for me and probably many of my students who (in the words of Charles Laughton surveying the mutinous crew of the Bounty) didn't know wood from canvas and didn't want to learn. Teaching at the local community college is better, since the students are paying their own way and paying for something, like being hanged, concentrates the mind wonderfully. But in the pedagogical horserace, I'm pulling the beer wagon. Trust me; nobody'd hit the trifecta on my teaching.

Every so often I make a genuine intellectual connection with a student and that is a very pleasurable and profitable thing. But those moments are quite unusual.

Much more typical is the young woman in the front row every Monday and Wednesday evening. Neatly dressed, quiet, with a faint, slightly puzzled expression that slips into vacancy from time to time as she loses the sense of the lecture.

She's probably twenty-four, was born abroad or here in southeast Portland of immigrant parents. She was probably a dutiful little student in primary school, a laughing outsider in the "Russian" or "Ukrainian" clique in high school. She probably managed a "C" in most of her high school subjects by dint of hard graft, lots of tutoring, and plenty of help from her teachers.

But she's lost in here, and I can see it in the increasing time her face wears that vacant look.

I've talked to her and she has very minimal English capabilities. Enough to hold a conversation, but she's in a science class and the technical and scientific terms are kicking her ass. She doesn't know a tsunami from mu shu pork, and with her poor English reading ability she's sunk trying to keep up.

This is the ragged edge of the "information society" that education and technology enthusiasts keep telling you about. This is the Debatable Land, the very distant fringes of the warm, sunlit uplands of education that you see in the television specials and that politicians and educators tell you is the hope of the future. This isn't Manifest Destiny, the broad horizon and limitless opportunity that the land speculators of pedagogy are selling you; this is the dark hinterlands of learning, the Mountain Meadows of education, where ignorant armies of harassed, poorly prepared, overcharged students scramble to learn by night from equally harassed, poorly paid instructors. This is the recruit depot for a beaten army, where with my jaded sergeant's eye I can pick out the walking dead from the likely survivors. This one, she wears her body bag around her head like a shawl, her puzzled eyes already glazed with the dim awareness of danger and failure around her.

She's not going to make it.

There are a lot like her.

We're Americans. We like to pretend that all of us can be winners, that we're all just a moment away from success, and that it's just a matter of finding the right magic; the right job, the right marriage, the right school, the right something...and we'll be happy and wealthy and secure.

We don't like to accept that not everyone can learn technical subjects. In fact, it's fairly critical that we don't know this, since as we've watched the old, simpler, hard-work jobs dwindle and those remaining provide less and less for the worker to live on we've steadfastly pretended that we would all just go to work for Intel and it'd be OK. It's important to us not to know that a man or a woman is hard-pressed to live comfortably doing manual labor work today even if such work can be found, lost as much of it is to automatons or outlanders who can be worked for wages you could not buy a pet with in our country. If we understood this we'd feel like we had to do something about it, and that would be difficult and unpleasant for everyone.

But the fact is that not everyone has the intellectual skills to do a technical job, or learn a difficult subject, especially math and science. Many people simply don't have the mental throw-weight; there's a reason that there are so many more fry-cooks than research chemists.

Even more people lack more the general skills needed for technical success; patience, organization, time management, perseverance. My experience is that literacy in general is not in a healthy state. Many people, perhaps more than you'd think, are almost incapable of extracting, analyzing and absorbing information from the printed page. By the time these people are in college, even the troglodyte college where I teach, this is a serious problem for them, and one that is difficult to remedy.

And, too, many of these people have been taught to fail in their early schooling. They have been taught to be afraid to expose their failings, to hide their inability to understand. Not to be "trouble", not to ask questions. They have been beaten with the stick of their own insignificance and ignorance and have lost much of the ability to learn for themselves. Their prior training, and much of their daily lives, makes it difficult for them to discipline and organize themselves enough to study their way out of their troubles, and they often lack even the ability to understand what it is they don't understand. And they're afraid to demand better instruction from people like me.

They are the casualties of our technical society, and after we kill them in the schools their bodies are tipped into the mass graves of the quickie-lube pits, the counters of the minimarts and the checkstands of the groceries, the posts of the night guards and the day laborers.

Or they sit, like my Russian girl, dumb and lost, in the hard plastic chair behind the table in the front row looking up at the whiteboard with the sad, empty eyes of the saints on the icon.


Pluto said...

I understand your concern and mostly share it, but let me offer a small glimmer of hope.

The heart of the issue here is that your student is in the wrong class. I'm sure she knows it by now and hopefully she'll learn from this experience and choose a different major and have better success.

My wife decided to try changing careers and become a Pharmacy Technician. After a solid year of hard study (straight A student with a double class load), three internships where she earned perfect marks, and taking very difficult test, she earned the right to be a Pharm Tech.

And she hated it. It turned out that the actual job was filling out insurance paperwork, not mixing up drugs, which is what the class had emphasized.

She stuck with it for four months, trying different companies to see if she could salvage the situation and then went back to her Bookseller position at Barnes & Noble where they greeted her with open arms, a full-time position, and a pay raise.

Do I begrudge the high cost and time lost? Not at all because she learned a lot of valuable lessons about what she could and could not do and she became a better and more capable person.

While I agree with your concern about people trying out for technical positions they are not qualified for (Computer programming is a LOT more attractive to the uninitiated than Geology and I have to scare away a lot of people who would do everybody, especially themselves, more harm than good), I am continually amazed by the quantity of people who manage to find a way to make a living when there shouldn't be a way.

And they do it more or less by accident. Sometimes it's enough to make you believe in a semi-just God.

FDChief said...

Pluto: Most of these poor people are only there to get a science credit rather than looking for work in the sciences. But watching them struggle with science really points out the degree to which so MANY people are not prepared for a technical education or a career trying to work with their minds.

The sad part for me is just that there is increasingly no way for this young woman to make a "middle-class" living any other way. The society in which she could labor for a living or work as a craftswoman is really passing or past. So she HAS to try and "go to college", even though she's in way over her head.

J. said...

"This one, she wears her body bag around her head like a shawl, her puzzled eyes already glazed with the dim awareness of danger and failure around her.

She's not going to make it."

Dude! you're a poet! And here I thought youse was just a grunt. Nice work, excellent rythym, nice commentary on our society's dark points.

EGrise said...

You've touched on something that I've been thinking about for some time: the increasing complexity of work/technology/politics/society is leaving more and more people in the dust, and that's going to be a huge problem.

Education is in a downward spiral to be sure, but I don't expect traditional K-12 classroom schooling to be able to prepare *anyone* for our complex world, so I view it as a symptom.

Although I've been thinking about it for a while, I have no solution. Nor does anyone else. Fundamentally, the problem is that we are trying to transform humans who have been optimized over millenia to be shepherds and bakers and carpenters into technologists. For a certain percentage that's possible, but for many it just leads to frustration: I'm thinking of a friend in college who dropped out to become a mountain SAR ranger, and is as happy as a clam without a degree.

All I can figure is we're going to have to wait for the whole complex house of cards to fall apart and start over. Which I neither wish for nor recommend (it will be painful) but it's the only reasonable solution I can see.

Lisa said...


First, I agree with J. -- you are a poet, and I'm quite sure you are a fabulous teacher.

There is so much to say about what you've written. The competency level of students leaving p.s. today is abysmal. When we stopped allowing people to fit skills to studies, we began to see what you're describing. It's not p.c., perhaps, but it's a fact: Not everyone can be President.

Secretarial and vocational tracks accomodated difference; no more. We have a happy, middlin' homogenization. Everyone must "do college", and it means students often repeat classes for which they are ill-suited numerous times, and the community college mill is happy to take their bucks.

If one will not earn the BA and beyond, then they must be a tech -- pharmacy, radiology, IT, whatever. Often, a glorified flunky.

You say, "not everyone has the intellectual skills to do a technical job, or learn a difficult subject, especially math and science", and while I agree, I am also concerned that math is seen as "difficult". IMHO, it is simply taught poorly at grade level, so only those with aptitude pursue it; but it needn't be that way.

To my thinking, excelling at the liberal arts is actually a more difficult thing, for how does one impart the love and ability to cogitate? Creativity, synthesis -- these are the rarefied skills that require being on fire.

Math and science are the more "reasonable", straightforward subjects. They are only seen as arcane because we hold our students back, and so few go on to the calculus series.

IMO, math and science should have the place they do in Russia and other countries: Everyone is expected to have a scientific/"technical" grounding. From there, you pursue your aptitudes. We are backwards.

If our society expects to make a paradigm shift to the technological, it must change the programming in its formative education.

Lisa said...

But I must add this Clarence Darrow:

"When I was a boy, I was told that anybody could become President. Now I'm beginning to believe it."

FDChief said...

Lisa: While the mechanics of mathematics are not difficult the mental organization and discipline needed to perform a complicated series of cognitive tasks correctly, in order, is a different matter. Lots of us aren't really suited intellectually for this. You can drill a sort of basic competence into many people but for a lot of us anything more complex than simple addition and subtraction are always going to be a struggle.

Same-same with scientific methods and knowledge.

I think part of the problem is that the scope and influence of scientific knowledge has become so vast that we can't stop trying to instill a good chunk of it into our kids. So they tend to get a little bit of everything - biology, chemistry, physics - rather than a real deep understanding of a smaller field of knowledge.

In some ways I think we'd be better off if we focused on teaching the basics of science; the scientific method, understanding dependent and independent variables, forming hypotheses, testing these with controlled experiments and making observations, statistical analysis of results.

Teach the depth in HS, leave the breadth for the upper division courses...

Lisa said...


Again, so much to say here.

[1] Re.: "the mental organization and discipline needed to perform a complicated series of cognitive tasks correctly, in order, is a different matter"

Yes, and we would do well to impart this process to every student. I will never forget what gratitude I felt in my first logic class. The flabby "organization" of my literature courses became loathsome to me.

Once I had a skeleton on which to hang a textual deconstruction, things became clear. I did not get lost in a hazy mess.

[2] Your thoughts on instilling a depth vs. a breadth of scientific knowledge: I am not sure. I agree that trying to "instill a good chunk of it" is not the best way.

Like in English, when teachers distribute word lists. Why not teach the Greek and Latin roots; prefixes and suffixes? Then one can unpack so many more words... Yet so frequently it is not done!

I definitely agree:

"I think we'd be better off if we focused on teaching the basics of science; the scientific method, understanding dependent and independent variables, forming hypotheses, testing these with controlled experiments and making observations, statistical analysis of results."

It is truly pathetic when some teachers take pride in keeping their subjects arcane, or worse, haven't the ability to demystify their topic. Ego has no place in teaching, yet few people have rid themselves of this burden.