Analyze This

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The in-service training session began like so many others. The consultant sang a cute song and then chastised a group of teachers for putting too much emphasis on thinking and too little on emotions. "Schools don't need more worksheets," he said. "First you must help your students get in touch with their feelings."

In our system, the importance of facts is trivialized, while feelings have become the focus of much instruction.

If students are in touch with their feelings, he implied, they can understand works like Les Misérables. If they can feel love, hate, anger, and pity, somehow it will not so much matter if they know nothing of French history, have tiny vocabularies, read with their fingers, or lack the self-discipline to read more than 10 pages at a sitting. Great works of literature were, to him, not lessons from great minds, nor vessels that transport culture from one generation to another, but rather mirrors to reflect the reader's inner feelings.

He spoke as if American education emulated Thomas Gradgrind's model school in Charles Dickens' Hard Times: "Now, what I want is Facts," Dickens' 19th-century protagonist says in the novel. "Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals on Facts: Nothing else will ever be of service to them."

Maybe Thomas Gradgrind could have benefited from our consultant's advice. The modern American school, however, is the antithesis of Gradgrind's. In our system, the importance of facts is trivialized, while feelings have become the focus of much instruction.

We teachers are bombarded with suggestions and mandates to "teach the total child." Build the self-esteem, we are told, and everything else will fall into place. Do not merely teach times tables but strive to end math anxiety. Lower the affective filter, and children will somehow magically absorb foreign languages. Teach them conflict-resolution and anger-management skills, and good classroom discipline will ensue.

I once knew the owner of a small but successful language school who got caught up in pop psychology back in the '70s. His staff was required to attend sensitivity-training sessions and to read books like I'm OK, You're OK and The Inner Game of Tennis. He dismissed his grammar and phonics specialists and placed trained psychologists in two key administrative positions. His new staff abandoned traditional teaching methods and embraced new fads. Students lay on the floor while teachers whispered vocabulary words. Team teachers engaged students in meaningful conversations. Activities were designed to help students become better adjusted and more assertive as they built language skills.

The company was out of business within the year. It is not too hard to understand why. People who want psychological help seek out psychologists, not language teachers, and people who want to learn languages hire tutors. The same sort of philosophy that bankrupted that business, though, is alive and well in our schools. Public schools do not go broke, and ideas that do not survive in the marketplace seem to thrive in the American education monopoly.

I do not object to the science of the mind. My objection is to the notion that literature, philosophy, theology, science, history, and mathematics should take a back seat to psychology, and that those of us who work in the classroom are somehow more valuable as amateur psychologists than as professional teachers.

Turnabout is fair play. We schoolteachers should respond to this trend by formally intervening in the practice of psychology. If psychology can make students better learners, perhaps academics can make psychologists' clients better adjusted.

My objection is to the notion that literature, philosophy, theology, science, history, and mathematics should take a back seat to psychology.

We could prescribe the study of mathematics to those who feel the need for greater stability and structure in their lives. For example, knowing that seven times eight always equals 56, or understanding the formulas that define the length of the leg of a triangle can provide great comfort to clients who find too little order in their worlds. For those who feel helpless, trapped in a system over which they have no control, we could prescribe the study of civics to help them feel as though they can influence the political process. Those who suffer from irrational nervousness or anger could receive sports therapy. An hour of kicking a ball around a soccer field may well calm a client down and leave him with a sense of inner peace.

Literature could be the greatest healing discipline of all. Clients with family troubles could read King Lear. Look what a failure to communicate did to the king and his daughter Cordelia. Those struggling with alcohol would do well to read any play with Falstaff in it or perhaps Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. After seeing what the sauce did to those guys, anyone would think twice about taking his next drink. Those suffering romantic setbacks could be advised to read Jane Austen. Those who have let their jobs isolate them would do well to read Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Those who are contemplating suicide should read works that exalt the human spirit, or at least something cheery. The Bible would be a good choice, if local regulations do not forbid it. Otherwise, some of Emily Dickinson's or Walt Whitman's happier poems could certainly help.

It might be a bit radical to storm the psychological profession. People in 12-step programs might not immediately accept civics or mathematics lessons as therapy, and those on the psychologist's couch might not welcome poetry readings. We teachers need to take this plan one small step at a time. We can begin by retaking the realm that once belonged to us, the classroom.

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