It seems to me—granted, I’m a cranky person—that we often look in the wrong places for the right things. Want to raise student achievement? Put computers in the classroom. Want to make schools more accountable? Mandate high-stakes testing. Want to improve teaching? Abolish tenure, or increase teacher salaries, or both. No matter how big the problem, we act as if there were a quick answer for it.
Would Socrates or Hillel have been even greater if they could have followed the trends or used the tools of modern education?
But I wonder, would the great sages of old have been even greater if they could have followed the trends or used the tools of modern education? Would Socrates’ dialogues, for example, have been any more effective if he had been able to jazz them up with PowerPoint slides? Or would Hillel, the most revered teacher in Jewish tradition, have been more conscientious if his students had been required to take annual standards-based tests?
Personally, I don’t think so. The stories and legends that have come down to us about the sages emphasize the importance of integrity, patience, and love of learning in being a good teacher. There is nothing in the stories about technology, or testing, or any of the other solutions on which we put so much emphasis today.
The qualities of heart and mind that separate good teachers from bad are illustrated in a rabbinic anecdote about Hillel and the leader of a rival school, Shammai. A non- Jew once approached Shammai and said, “Teach me the entire Torah"—in effect, all of Judaism—"while I stand on one foot.” Shammai, who was notorious for his ill temper, beat the man with a ruler. The man then went to Hillel and made the same request, but received a totally different reception. “What is hateful to you,” Hillel replied, “do not do to your fellow man; this is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go, complete your study.”
Hillel’s reply is distinguished by its epigrammatic felicity, its loving concern, its ethical zeal. Where Shammai believed that the Torah shouldn’t be taught to just anyone, Hillel maintained that it should be taught to everyone. The bad teacher restricts his or her efforts to a special few. The good teacher is democratic and inclusive and treats all students as deserving of encouragement, even the odd and the impudent.
If we are impatient with computers that operate at light speed, how long will we wait for teachers and students to get their academic act together?
It is perhaps not surprising that one of the most famous sayings attributed to Hillel is, “The impatient cannot teach.” (Some versions add “and the timid cannot learn.”) Unfortunately, we live in an impatient age, as a quick look around—who has time for more?—shows. We bounce from express checking to speed dialing to instant-messaging, and gulp fast food in between. But the faster things go, the more impatient we seem to become. We hate worse than ever to stand in line or wait in traffic. We pound our fists and curse when our computers are even a little slow. And if we are impatient with computers that operate at light speed, how long will we wait for teachers and students to get their academic act together?
Not very, it turns out. On Jan. 8 of this year, President Bush signed into law the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which one educator sarcastically redubbed the “Leave No Child Untested” Act. The law mandates, among other things, that states administer annual tests in reading and math to every student in grades 3 through 8. Schools whose scores fail to improve could lose federal aid or be forced to replace their teachers and administrators.
On paper—and the No Child Left Behind Act takes up a lot of paper, 1,184 pages—the law may look good. Its promise to get tough on low- performing schools is emotionally satisfying and politically popular. But even so, I can’t shake the feeling that the ancient sages wouldn’t approve. To them, education was more about instilling a love of learning than about giving tests or making threats.
Both Socrates and Hillel are portrayed in stories as ever eager to learn. Hillel, who was born in Babylonia about 30 B.C., came to Jerusalem for advanced study. For a long time after his arrival, he peddled fuel, using part of his meager daily earnings for food and other personal needs and the rest to pay for admission to school. According to legend, when one day Hillel didn’t sell enough wood to meet the admission fee, he climbed to the roof of the schoolhouse so that he might hear the discussions under way indoors. In his concentration, he never noticed that it had begun snowing. He was covered in snow and almost frozen to death before his teachers discovered him and brought him down.
The story is intended as a rebuke to those who would cite poverty or the press of business as an excuse for not furthering their learning. This includes teachers. “Teach in order to learn,” the Indian yogi Baba Hari Dass said, implying that one of the primary rewards of teaching is keeping up with the emergence of new knowledge and ideas. It is also a primary responsibility. Students will forget sooner or later the specific information they learn for a test, but not the love of learning teachers model for them.
Plato’s dialogue Crito, about the last days of Socrates, provides a moving account of a teacher modeling what one commentator has called “the constituent ideals of the civilized mind.” In the dialogue, Socrates is in prison, having been convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings and sentenced to die. Crito, a friend and former student, visits him just before dawn to beg him to escape, but the old philosopher—he is about 70—refuses. He explains that if he fled to a neighboring city with the help of his supporters, he would be disrespecting the institutions and laws of Athens. And wouldn’t that, he asks, be shameful, for hadn’t he always taught that “virtue and justice and institutions and laws” were “the best things among men”? He calmly tells Crito that he will drink poison and die rather than betray his principles. It is the ultimate in lesson plans.
When will people realize, damn it, that learning isn't about knowing the answer, but about pondering the question?
Given the sacrifices of Socrates, Hillel, and other legendary sages, it seems almost silly to complain about such things as one-size-fits-all standards and high-stakes testing. Then again, it is perhaps precisely because the sages showed how important teachers can be that we should resist the current trend to reduce teaching to preparing students for tests or learning to doing well on them. When will people realize, damn it, that learning isn’t about knowing the answer, but about pondering the question?
Howard Good, a writer and a former school board member, teaches journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He lives in Highland, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2002 edition of Education Week as The Age of Impatience