The perils of generalizing

My favorite writers about teaching share a holy zeal for change. I’ve been noticing lately that they tend to share something else, as well–a tendency to make sweepingly negative statements about the current state of teaching in the U.S.

Whether it’s James Leowen’s cogent arguments about what gets left out of history textbooks (Most famously in Lies My Teacher Told Me) or Grant Wiggins’s recent post “Dereliction of Duty by HS Teachers” or the impassioned, if problematic, documentary “Waiting for Superman,” reforming teachers tend to give the impression that they alone have understood the problem they are pointing out and, further, that the reason for this is that the teaching establishment is otherwise populated with burnt out idiots.

Wiggins’s Understanding By Design is on my bookshelf of all-time great teaching books. I have given Leowen’s Teaching What Really Happened to more than one new teacher. These guys are my heroes. Nonetheless, I think we need a change in tone.

This is not only because of the old adage about flies and honey (though if I find that a blog post supporting something for which I’ve argued for years leaves me feeling testy and defensive, it doesn’t bode particularly well for convincing someone for whom agreeing with the root idea would mean a real change in practice!). Every historical movement toward change has been split between boundary pushers and bridge builders, and every movement needs both. My quarrel with this kind of language is deeper than that:  I think it has a bad effect on how we see each other and, therefore, on how we think about the field.

For some reason, we teachers have a tendency to attach moral values and assumptions about motives to debates about best practices in a way that I think happens less in other fields. Doctors seem (at least to an outsider) to be able to say pretty damning things about the comparative ineffectiveness of a widely used method of treatment without simultaneously suggesting that their colleagues who use it do so because they are conscienceless quacks. We, on the other hand, seem very quick to accuse each other of complacency, power trips, fear, or other nefarious motives. I don’t think that does justice to the nuance and precision we expect of ourselves in other parts of our academic lives.

I teach a lot of ninth graders, and one of the comments I find myself writing over and over in the margins of papers is “Be careful about overgeneralizing!”  Were all medieval monks saintly? Were all knights violent? Do you really mean that these were tendencies and, if so, how so strong were they? What evidence of counter-tendencies must be addressed? We all know those questions; the habits of careful thought they lead to are, I submit, among the greatest gifts of a good education.

They are easy habits to forget when in the heat of debate about the thing to which you have devoted your life. One of the things I had to learn when I started serving as a department chair and was forced to engage with everyone impartially was that the teachers with whom I had been feuding bitterly over curriculum had redeeming qualities. I still think I’m right and they’re wrong about certain things–I can be stubborn that way–but I’ve come to understand the reasons my colleagues think the way they do. As I’ve slugged it out toe-to-toe with some people I respect, it has become very clear to me that none of them hold those positions for venal, self-serving, or shallow reasons. Few of them are not highly intelligent. Ours is a philosophical dispute–one with high stakes, as all important academic questions are–not a clash between Good and Evil teachers. What should be the goal of an education in history, and what count as fair criteria for judging that?  What really does work in the classroom? (and will what worked for me and my students work for you and yours?) What can we safely accept as proof that something works?

I have always taught in strong independent schools. Maybe things are different on big city public schools, where teachers are working under far greater constraints of time and resources, but I rather doubt it. The public school teachers whose paths have crossed mine have tended to be, if anything, more altruistic than their private school counterparts, if almost universally wearier and more frustrated. In a lifetime spent mostly in schools of one description or another, I have met teachers who blew me away and teachers I thought were pretty darn bad, but only maybe one or two who I felt did not truly believe what they were doing was “putting the students first.”

Since I started teaching myself, I have never met a teacher who didn’t do something better than I do. I steal from other teachers constantly, as do most of the other good teachers I know:  that’s how good ideas travel. But none of that will happen if we start building high walls and consigning most of our colleagues to the other side of them.

If we do that, not only will change come harder, but the end result will be poorer. By labeling those on the other side of proposals to change the way we teach as definitionally bad teachers, we are free to ignore them. By acknowledging that there are genuine intellectual objections being raised and addressing them, we stand a chance of reaching an end result that is stronger, subtler, and more successful, as well as more intellectually honest. This is how the academic process works. This is what we are trying to teach our kids.


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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