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Summitry, Irony, Polarity: Responses to Chester Finn

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To the Editor:

I see that Chester E. Finn Jr. has returned to his ideological playpen, where he delights in transforming complex, systemic realities into simple-minded polarizations ("On Governors and Ostriches," Commentary, Feb. 14, 1996). Then one pole, always what he calls the "left," becomes the foolish enemy which he attacks.

Mr. Finn says that the "bad guys," meaning most educators throughout the nation, hold "at their center ... that what you know is not as important as how you feel, indeed that what you know is not very important all." He goes on to list his usual polarized litany: Educators oppose competition and support cooperation, ignore spelling and mechanics and believe in self-expression, ignore phonics and believe in stories, ignore multiplication and division and believe in calculators, and on and on and on.

What country do you live in, Checker? Are you ever personally in schools? I'm in classrooms all across western Washington state on a regular basis. For the most part, what I see in elementary schools is teachers trying to put into practice what research and teaching lore have described for many years: Feeling and thinking are interconnected and interdependent; they are never separable. For the most part, people learn more effectively when they feel positive about themselves and their likelihood of being successful. They also learn more when they are appropriately challenged and have high aspirations.

Paying attention to emotions doesn't preclude paying attention to academic learning. Good teachers encourage their students to learn and to have positive feelings about school as they engage them in learning academic knowledge and skills. Some teachers do this poorly, but many conduct this enterprise very effectively, basing their teaching on a complex understanding of the relationship between feeling and thinking and on a commitment to their students' learning of academic skills and knowledge.

What I see in secondary schools is that some teachers demonstrate great expertise at engaging their students' emotions as they involve their minds. Yet many secondary teachers still do not pay enough attention to how their students feel about what's going on in the classroom. This lack of attention to emotions is often directly correlated with classrooms that young people experience as boring or irrelevant.

Human beings are complex systems. Feeling and thinking are profoundly interrelated. Chester Finn's simplistic polarization may function as effective political sloganeering in this era of sound bites, but it's nonsense. Any teacher who works with people knows this.

David Marshak
Assistant Professor
Seattle University
Seattle, Wash.

To the Editor:

When you spend too much time inside the Beltway, you begin to rail about ostriches, flat vouchers, and charter barter.

Mr. Finn from Peabody College should quit grieving because he hasn't been invited to the upcoming summit "on the banks of the Hudson" (not the institute, the river) and join the zanies on the presidential-primary trail. Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander could use a good wordsmith.

Don Stedman
Chapel Hill, N.C.

To the Editor:

How ironic that Chester Finn should advocate that the governors and chief executive officers attending the education summit in Palisades, N.Y. should listen to "bus drivers, policemen, shopkeepers, engineers, preachers, and orthodontists" in setting standards for their schools. These are the very people who are daily setting standards by serving on boards of education, parent-teacher organizations, and site-based-management teams. These are the very people who are in touch with the concerns of parents, children, and teachers in their school communities. These are also the people who will be running in circles trying to put into practice whatever set of nationwide goals a bunch of governors and CEOs comes up with after a few days of panel discussions.

Picture what will happen, really. The governors and the CEOs will breeze in and be handed folders of prepared materials, which they'll scan briefly over coffee and danish. They'll scurry off to workshops and panels and talk about what children today should be learning, spouting the kinds of sweeping generalizations they receive from the likes of Mr. Finn. After a couple of dinner meetings, at which they'll be told how important it is to make sure that students "consume and digest a decent quantity" of whatever content the Finns, E.D. Hirsches, and Diane Ravitches deem necessary, they'll draft a set of proposals (that almost certainly will have the words "21st century" somewhere in them) and head back home.

A few weeks later, state departments of education will go into overdrive thinking up objectives to meet the goals. Since they'll need to know if the objectives are being met, they'll make up more tests to supplement the tests children are given already. If the children don't do well on the new tests, Mr. Finn and others who want to demonize teachers, will say, "See? I told you so." If the children perform well, the same group will fault the system for not setting high enough standards. The local boards and administrators will spend countless hours trying to make sense of all the paper.

Unfortunately, the bus drivers, policemen, shopkeepers, and others are too busy running their local school districts to attend these "education summits," even if they were invited. And the teachers and students, who are rarely, if ever, asked to contribute their ideas, will just keep plugging away, doing the best they know how.

Andrew P. Dunn
Teacher
Allendale, N.J.

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