So far I’ve outlasted them all. Over the last two decades, education fads have come and gone, and I’m still in the classroom with the student, with only the textbook between us.
It seems like ages ago that Admiral Hyman Rickover talked about the need for excellence in education and the importance of keeping up with the Russians. That’s when the federal money started pouring in.
One of the first innovations was a language lab. The idea was that the students could learn more effectively by listening to records and tapes and by hearing themselves trying out foreign words and phrases. So a room was set aside, its insides were tom out, and individual booths were built and wired for headphones. The teacher’s desk was replaced by a console with knobs, buttons, and jacks, and he became a kind of disc jockey. Tapes and records lined one wall.
I don’t remember how long this bold experiment lasted, but a few terms later the room was turned into a study hall. Now the insides have been tom out, and the cycle has been completed. The lab is again an old-fashioned classroom. I don’t know what happened to the records and headphones. Uncle Sam showered us with all sorts of other goodies. I particularly remember two impressive tape recorders that made our eyes light up, though they looked a little too cumbersome and complicated to use in a classroom. After a while, they just got in the way in our office, so we put them in the storage room. A few years later, someone noticed them on a shelf, and we passed them on to the audio-visual department. We needed the space for other things.
I remember, too, years ago when, at a department meeting, the main topic was the use of our new overhead projector. Our chairman, a bit of a showman, flaunted his newly acquired expertise in subduing the infernal contraption. He flashed a sample composition on the ceiling, on the wall--on me! And, with a special crayon, he showed us how we could correct a student’s paper for all the world to see. Red pencils seemed about to go the way of the buggy whip.
But English teachers are easily intimidated by technology, especially when it weighs more than 30 pounds and involves turning out classroom lights. So I don’t think any of us used the thing back then, and it, too, found its way into the storage room, this time on the floor because it was too big to put on a shelf.
We still have to be careful not to kick it when we reach in for some chalk or a box of paper clips.
Those were the gaudy days--flush times, as Mark Twain would have said. The ready money created a kind of euphoria and prompted some educators to act out their wildest fantasies. For instance, high on the most remote shelf of our book room there were 35 new books containing Aristotle’s “Poetics” and “On the Sublime,” attributed to Longinus, waiting to be used by an unborn generation of superstudents. Every now and then, we gaze up at them, trying to discover the motive of a predecessor who had ordered them, blinded as he was by some pedagogical delusion or, more likely, by the mandate to spend money--because it was there.
It’s interesting that in the midst of all this largesse we teachers remained, for the most part, hopelessly traditional in teaching methods. Though we might have given lip service to the need for innovation and for new materials, all that new hardware hardly affected us at all in the classroom, where things count. Mainly, all those shiny gizmos were baubles for some administrators to puff about and play with. And, like children, they soon grew tired of them and went on to other things.
Of course, I’m not against audiovisual aids. For example, I’ve got a superb tape of Siobhan McKenna as Saint Joan that I use whenever we’re reading George Bernard Shaw’s play. I do the same with some Shakespeare but I usually use my own recorder because it’s portable and simple to operate. Like most teachers, I prefer a direct relationship with my students. Machines get in the way.
All of this is a roundabout way of explaining why I didn’t panic when President Reagan talked about cutting the education budget. For one thing, as a teacher in New York City, I’ve been on short rations for quite a while: Our building is not properly maintained, we have no composition paper, and I’m holding on to my own private blackboard eraser since new ones are hard to come by.
The truth is that I never really believed in all the hardware that once upon a time came our way. So if the Reagan cuts mean that we’re not going to get a new tape recorder, I won’t complain. We already have two--somewhere.
What I do believe in is a rather simple equation: the teacher, the student, and the book. Just close the classroom door and let us be--and, though it’s unlikely now, if there’s a package from Uncle Sam, just put it in the storeroom with the other stuff.
A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 1981 edition of Education Week