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The Holmes Impairment

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Recently I expressed my great disappointment with the intellectual quality of the new report of the Holmes Group, "Tomorrow's Schools of Education," to a distinguished colleague from a school of education in another part of the United States. To my criticisms he replied, "It doesn't matter, Ed. Nobody listens to Holmes anymore, anyway." Perhaps he is right. But whether or not the Holmes Group has influence, its third report wastes any opportunity the group might have had to elevate the future of schools of education and schooling in the United States.

The report is not bereft of insight, nor of conscience. The Holmes Group insists that many schools of education and schools are intellectually dreadful. The report indicts the preparation of teachers merely for profit rather than for the educational opportunities of the young. "Tomorrow's Schools of Education" calls for accountability and for joining the work and personnel of schools of education and schools into a seamless profession. Though not new, these recommendations are compelling. (See Education Week, 2/1/95.)

But the report does not offer trustworthy or convincing recommendations for the intellectual preparation of administrators and teachers for either schools or higher education. The report unfairly demeans "most educators" as straw men and women who "regard teaching as show and tell, learning as passive listening, knowledge as a litany of facts, tests as memory samples." With contempt for present educators, the report forsakes listening well as an instrument of learning and a form of respect for others; factual knowledge as necessary for responsible judgment about anything; and practiced memory as essential to formation of trustworthy habits of intellect and character.

This contempt for the past--"the old order"--spawns adoration of "technology in all its glorious manifestations" to "promote" new learning for "a new breed" of students. Which of the glories of technology can replace the power to draw from memory in times of heartache or joy treasured words of an Edna St. Vincent Millay or a Gwendolyn Brooks, the report does not say. Neither does it recognize that the suffering and exultation, the misery and joy of the young today feel just as they have always felt. Tears taste as they have always tasted; laughter is as joyful, or as cruel, as ever; and ignorance of the good and the beautiful still breeds barbarity--technology notwithstanding.

The report rightly claims that education-school students should not take "watered-down studies in the liberal arts" but "the same course with other liberal-arts students." But in schools, teachers must instead "tailor curriculum to suit individual students," recognizing that "children and youth are shaped by their culture and they cannot be expected to disconnect from it when they come to school. Their culture is neither right nor wrong. It simply is what it is." The scholarly and scientific disciplines are granted some integrity and legitimacy in higher education, but not in schools. Schools must be "learner centered," concerned not about "whether the child is ready for school" but whether "the school is ready for the child."

In the United States, we sustain traditions of privacy and of toleration--of non-interference in behavior we have reason to disapprove--on the grounds that liberty and justice require them. But these necessary traditions often have harsh consequences. Parents can, if they wish, raise their children to be racial and gender supremacists who refer to minorities and women or men in foul words that demean everyone who uses them. Adults abandon children to mind-numbing television baby-sitting; squelch the yearning to know; and encourage mindless violence. They can, by neglect, by unintentional example, or purposefully, teach selfishness, self-indulgence, intolerance, fanaticism, self-aggrandizement, rashness, intemperance, mean-spiritedness, and dishonesty. Whether such lessons are rooted in cultures or subcultures, individual ignorance or depravity, or inordinate exposure to the worst of popular culture, none of them "simply is." All of them are wrong, because they betray the young and their chances to make the best of themselves. Such lessons are everywhere inimical to the acquisition of the cooperative virtues the Holmes Group itself insists are essential to successful learning and teaching.

The Holmes Group attests that "teaching approaches, content selection, and content organization ought to consider such stark influences." Consideration is not enough. As long as the Holmes Group indiscriminately celebrates diversity--as if the shameful treatment of children that we tolerate from respect for privacy were not part of diversity--their recommendations will never meet the educational needs of the young. Furthermore, many of the conditions that stand in the way of children's readiness for school are not legitimately sheltered by privacy and should be reversed by local intervention that precedes schooling. To suppose otherwise is to condemn schools to the status of social-service agencies that will not focus on the academic mission through which students take possession of their human heritage--of the wisdom and folly, the enlightenment and benightedness, the compassion and cruelty in every culture. The Holmes Group actively supports this diminution of academic mission, urging that intervention in the interests of children "may" depend on "extending the long arm of concern into the home through the conduit of the school" and figuring "out how to deliver the services effectively."

A narrow conception of social policy and a narrow imagination about the delivery of social services profoundly influence the Holmes Group's view of the appropriate qualifications for student admission to schools of education. "Tomorrow's school of education wants students who possess a service ethic and who place a high priority on diversity. ... That quaint trait, altruism, persists through these selfish times and we hope to see it manifested in as many educators as possible."

Quite rightly, the Holmes Group wants "students who value learning for themselves and enjoy helping others to learn." But it is not difficult to tell how "Tomorrow's Schools of Education" would treat students who were passionately committed to scholarly and scientific learning, including learning about the maturation of children; committed to becoming accomplished in the experimentation, analysis, argumentation, criticism, translation, and demonstration that are the heart of such disciplines; concerned to command the artistry of lecture, dialogue, listening, reading, and writing central to fine teaching--but not interested in becoming social-service providers. Such students would not satisfy the Holmes notion of altruism, however devoted they were to the academic mission of a school. Thus, the report threatens excellence in teaching itself.

It is more difficult to tell how to read "a high priority on diversity." If this means that educational institutions suffer when they have few minority students and faculty members in residence, it is a priority we should share; it is disgraceful to lose access to a profound domain of talent that belongs in education of students at all levels. If it means that students--no matter their color, gender, or ethnicity--should learn at first hand that human achievement transcends differences of color, gender, and ethnicity, then it should be a central tenet of education. But if it means that "culture simply is;" or if it is shorthand for the versions of multiculturalism and globalism that hold cultures to be morally equivalent, no matter how people are actually treated in them; or means that all "learning styles" and "children's preferred learning" are trustworthy and that nothing really counts as truth or rationality, then it is an assault on responsible educational policy and teaching.

The report is so diffuse that I take it to embrace both the constructive and destructive senses of "high priority on diversity." When a report advocates multiculturalism but adds that "becoming experts in 'cultures' would lead educators to develop stereotypes and obscure the distinctiveness of particular groups of students," it portrays knowledge as the enemy of Holmes Group attitudes. Misology [sic] cannot improve education. And when a report says that "knowledge of human development allows a teacher to avoid traps and heightens the likelihood of the teacher accepting the student's thoughts and actions as perfectly reasonable given the student's experience," it denies the ineludible fact that no human being's thoughts and actions are always perfectly reasonable, no matter the person's experiences. Sometimes we and our students think and behave reasonably, sometimes unreasonably, sometimes impulsively, sometimes self-deceptively; sometimes we and our students complacently embrace contradictions, and sometimes we and they use reason to gratify our own prejudices or to exploit others.

Cultural differences spare none of us these frailties, and no aspiring teacher ought to be taught otherwise. Sound teaching depends on entering the minds and hearts of students, seeing from their eyes. But no one should expect to find the minds and hearts of others to be any more "perfectly reasonable" than--if we are honest--we find our own to be.

Simplism about human nature--human culture, institutions, knowledge, ignorance, motivation, possibility, and limits--strangles the Holmes report. The Holmes Group abandons the intellectual scrupulousness, precision, and conscientiousness on which the elevation of tomorrow's schools of education and schools depends.

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