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An Unconvincing Lie

It’s always interesting in a let’s-watch-the-car-wreck kind of way to encounter some of Neil Postman’s writings [“The Error of Our Ways,” August]. He manages to capture some of the best of the ivory-tower fertilizer—a construct of foolishness on a reasonably sound foundation—that we teachers in the field love to hate.

I can’t outright disagree with him: Textbooks are dry and deadly and need a teacher’s touch to be digestible. Many students don’t like or appreciate classroom subject matter. Errors are a fact of life. None of these observations is news, but his conclusions are suspect.

Postman seems to view dealing with error as an interesting intellectual activity. It is not. The article lead-in asks why school teaches students to avoid and fear error. The answers are a) because so does most of the surrounding culture and b) because life is filled with errors that should be avoided and feared.

Cheat on your wife? Spend all your money on cocaine? Skip too many days at your job? Amputate the wrong leg? Turn the wrong dials at the nuclear power plant? Every person will have ample opportunity to commit major errors in judgment. While it is true that no error is without the opportunity for learning and growth (with the possible exception of fatal ones), in many cases the cost of the education is far too great. Society and government have worked hard to erase consequences for bad or stupid choices, but they will never be successful. For most of us in the real world, error is not an interesting abstraction but a potentially grave loss. To suggest otherwise to our students would be an obvious and unconvincing lie.

Should they know that life is still a thing of beauty to be grasped and grappled with? Should they know that their errors do not diminish their value as people? Certainly. Should they know that all of us, teachers included, will never finish the work of grasping what’s right? Absolutely. But to suggest that the difference between right and wrong is simply a nifty discussion starter is foolish.

Please send Postman back to his ivory tower, where, if he really wants to consider error, he can think about what is suggested by the widespread laughter over his ideas.

Peter Greene
Cochranton, Pa.

School And Religion

The last sentence of Warren Nord’s “Is Nothing Sacred” (“Any good secular liberal should be in favor of requiring students to study a good deal more religion than they do now”) is about the only part of his lengthy commentary in the August issue with which I agree.

Religion has had profound effects upon all cultures. Students need to understand why some of our foreparents found America to be a religious refuge. They need to understand how religion worked on both sides of the slavery issue. They need to know that religious values have contributed to the civil rights and peace movements. It would be very difficult to teach American history and not include the religious beliefs that influenced individuals and groups. Students need to be able to understand how religious beliefs affected behavior, but it is not our job to teach students to accept these beliefs.

Perhaps teachers should know more about the role of religion in American life, and perhaps colleges should require a course in it for all prospective teachers. But the same could be said of economics, the arts, family life, technology, values, communication, women’s studies, minority studies, and others.

Education does not “relegate religion to irrelevance” as Nord claims but does put religion within the context of the culture. For Nord this is not enough. He would prefer that teachers instruct students that “God’s hand shapes the structure of history.” Students must learn of the “world to come” and the “immortal soul.” Nord wants these, as well as miracles, to be a part of the curriculum of American public schools. Perhaps he feels that religion is relevant and valuable only if it has miracles. This creates a terribly narrow definition of religion.

Nord asserts that public education “fails to provide students with the intellectual and emotional resources that would enable them to take religion seriously.” Yet students are exposed to many American religious leaders. It is the actions of such people that most impress students. They take pleasure in figuring out why historical figures act the way they do and how those actions fit in with their way of thinking. Martin Luther King Jr. is a good example. But we also have Anne Hutchinson, Henry Beecher, Brigham Young, Father Coughlin, Dorothy Day, Jim Jones, Jesse Jackson, and many others. Are these people heroes who have been consistent or hypocrites? Does Nord really believe that students are not given the resources to judge whether such people’s beliefs and actions should be taken seriously (and emulated)?

Barry Swan
Nathaniel Rochester Community School
Rochester, N.Y.

Wasted Years

I want to thank David Ruenzel for exploding the popular myth that when left to their own devices, children will discover how to be competent writers [“Write to the Point,” May/June]. My daughter, a better-than-average student, cannot express herself in writing. I should clarify that she is capable of the mechanical act, but to understand the point she is trying to make is often impossible.

I began to be concerned about this when she was in elementary school but was told by her teachers that they did not want to stifle her creativity by correcting her all-too-numerous mistakes. When pressed to explain just when she would learn she was making mistakes, the general response was that as she was exposed to more and more literature, this skill would naturally evolve.

During my first conference with her 7th grade English teacher last fall, the poor woman confessed in a hushed, conspiratorial tone that she and the other junior high English teachers had, out of necessity, reverted to teaching structured grammar and spelling in addition to the recognized curriculum. They felt this was something they had to do as the students they received from the elementary schools were extremely poor writers. My daughter’s writing skills have improved, but she still has a long way to go. I am indignant that the district has wasted seven years of writing time waiting for her to “evolve.”

Hurrah for the teachers at Ladue Horton Watkins High School who don’t believe it is a mortal sin to mark up a child’s written work. Perhaps there is hope for the future of writing.

Barbara Lindquist
Yankton, S.D.

Vol. 07, Issue 01, Pages 4-5

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