November 12, 2019 · reviews theory

The Shape of Thought

Dancing roof
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel / Unsplash

"So, mister, I was thinking: I think I'd like to do some reading."

This at the end of a writing conference with one of my twelfth grade students, a thoughtful young man named Sebastian.

"Uh... Yes, OK," I said, caught slightly off guard. Besides the course reading, which is mostly in the form of short stories, poetry, essays, and journalism this semester, I always encourage free choice reading, especially novels. Wasn't he reading? I haven't had much time to keep track of it lately. "Absolutely. That's a great goal."

"Yeah, it's something I've always wanted to do. But I don't know where to start. I've only ever read a couple of books. I read Catcher in the Rye. I liked that book..."

Sebastian paused, briefly looking into the distance as if imagining Holden and his youthful quest for authenticity.

"Maybe when I'm done with high school I will be able to read."

The next day I was talking to a different student, Tiago, an ambitious character who'd proudly brought a book to class earlier in the year. The book was a compilation of "great philosophical ideas" condensed to two page summaries. Tiago's goal was to read and understand this huge list of ideas.

Before class started on that day recently, I asked him which new philosophical idea he was reading about.

"Oh, mister, I don't have time for that."

"Huh...?" I mumbled, once more confused.

"I don't have time to read that kind of thing. I have summative assessments."

"It's the IB," his friend interjected helpfully.

All the students nearby looked up and murmured agreement.

So, there I was, wondering how bright, thoughtful Sebastian can come to the end of high school wanting to read but not feeling as if he has the time; wondering how eager, ambitious Tiago could be thwarted in his quest to grasp the Big Ideas of philosophy by the very school system that purported to give him opportunities to learn.

It was, coincidentally, at this moment that I began to read Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner.

The book's basic premise is that the standards and assessment movement in US national education has had the effect of producing people who don’t know how to write, and are largely alienated from the learning process by a system that simultaneously holds their hands and prescribes in ever more stringent detail their every intellectual move. We are in thrall to an educational hype machine that continues to miss the point.

The deeper question it raises is: what are the unintended effects of educational principles and strategies we adopt? In other words, how does an educational system shape thought, and are those shapes really what we aim for? He argues that no, the kids don’t know how to write, but that is because they are doing what we told them to do. In a sense, this is a symptom of "success."

Warner's is part of a tradition of commentary on institutional education that responds to the obvious disconnect between what happens in school and what students want and need. (As Mark Twain supposedly quipped, don't let school get in the way of your education.) Notable recent titles include Susan Blum's "I Love Learning; I Hate School" and Daniel Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School?

So, the presence of disengaged students and anxious teachers is not a new phenomenon, but the context in which I encountered it is interesting. I frequently meet students in the IB Diploma Program who have abandoned passionate self-directed learning in favor of "making the grade." What we say we want – that students are empowered to direct their own learning, and, as such, grow into independent and resourceful members of society – is being undermined by the system we use to shape student thought and action.

This is not the particular fault of the IB and its demands, nor of AP or any other advanced high school coursework. This situation is one that has unfurled incrementally, too slowly and ubiquitously to point to any one cause. We can point to the insidious incentives of grades, to the late-capitalist reality of higher education signaling effects (i.e. if you were graduated from Elite Institution XYZ you must be more valuable as an employee), to standards and accountability movements, to the high stakes testing movement, and more. I fear that this discussion is too much about culprits and not enough about concrete solutions.

What solutions does Warner offer? He leaves us with his renewed focus on teaching writing by connecting writing to purpose beyond the classroom. He advocates for paying teachers more, solving some of the more egregious labor market inequalities that have cropped up, both in K-12 and higher ed. He argues that teaching loads are too large to meaningfully interact with students in a way that gives them freedom and offers them sufficient guidance. He adds his voice to the anti-testing chorus, pointing out, obviously and necessarily, that the more high-stakes testing shapes the system, the more it shapes the students, and not in ways we want. But perhaps the most important piece of advice Warner offers – and also the most oft-repeated in educational theoretical discussions – is that we should see things from the student's perspective.

To take seriously the student perspective is difficult and maybe even revolutionary. It may lead us to uncomfortable truths. Why don't students like school? According to some, it's simply because they value freedom, and school is not a situation in which they can be free. Warner's vision skews to this side of the truth: school can be a tyranny of grades, alienating assignments, and institutional control, even under the very best conditions, under the conditions we design and implement on purpose.

All this brings me back to a remarkable text, The Lives of Animals by JM Coetzee. It is about how humans are so terrible to animals (we instrumentalize them) and why we ought to stop doing that. There’s a powerful excerpt in which a researcher has captured a chimpanzee and is giving it different tasks in order to study how it thinks (and to “humanize” it, to educate it).

First, the scientist shoots the chimp's mom, extracts it from its habitat, puts the chimp inside a cage, ships it off to a lab — you know, standard science stuff. Then the scientist begins devising problems for the chimp to solve: hanging bananas from the top of the cage, and placing crates in the cage, so the chimp has to stack the crates to reach the bananas. The scientist is thinking: how complex can I make these problems? How “smart” is the chimp?

From the chimp's perspective (his name is Sultan), the scientist is a sadist who relentlessly forces him to think in a certain way, to shape his thought toward instrumental reason and away from the abstract, the ethical, the metaphysical.

In his deepest being Sultan is not interested in the banana problem. Only the experimenter’s single-minded regimentation forces him to concentrate on it. The question that truly occupies him, as it occupies the rat and the cat and every other animal trapped in the hell of the laboratory or the zoo, is: Where is home, and how do I get there?

Coetzee’s narration from the perspective of the chimp is devastating and heartbreaking. Read it, if you can, if you have the time and the energy. It reminds me of Sebastian who wants the time and space to read, and Tiago who wants to throw off the yoke of college-readiness and focus on the metaphysical, the ethical, the philosophical. The question that truly occupies these students, as it occupies all students negotiating the pressures of institutional education, is: Who am I, and how do I matter?

This thought, with its fuzzy, uncontainable, uncertain boundaries, its uniqueness, is the thought we must allow to take shape on its own.