Education: The Circle Game

Writing more than fifty years ago, the historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun commented upon the multiple-choice test:

Taking an objective test is simply pointing. It calls for the least effort of mind above that of keeping awake: recognition. And it is recognition without a shock, for to a veteran of twelve years old, the traditional four choices of each question fall into a soothing rhythm. No tumult of surprise followed by a rallying generalship and concentration, as in facing an essay question; no fresh unfolding of the subject under unexpected demand, but the routine sorting out of the absurd from the trivial, or the completing of dull sentences by word- or thought-cliches. No other single practice explains as fully the intellectual defects of our student up to and through graduate school than their ingrained association of knowledge and thought with the scratching down of check marks on dotted lines.

The frustrating thing about reading Barzun’s The House of Intellect today is the constant illustration of just how little we have learned over the past half-century.

Equally frustrating, this may be due, in part, to the fact that we now mistake success on tests for learning, just what Barzun was railing against.

Or one of the things he was railing against. Just a page or so after the above, he wrote:

In theory and practice alike,… and from top to bottom, American education serves other ends than Intellect. This state of fact… is… the logical result of what we think and feel as a massive egalitarian democracy. The schools are made of our flesh and bone, our thoughts and emotions, which means that if we want to cut away any part and reshape others, we must be willing to bleed and feel pain. No amount of reshuffling within the present curriculum and rebaptizing of ‘objectives’ in the catalogues will accomplish anything. More will than we have ever used about ‘education’ is needed to make the least of our hopes into a deed.

Barzun was right. Look at the Charter School movement. It doesn’t argue for a real change in how students are taught or how schools are conceived, simply in how they are organized. Like public schools, they accept standardized testing as a given, and shuffle things around, trying to find the configuration that will provide the best results on those tests—never questioning whether or not those tests are measuring anything at all to do with education.

Never questioning even the definition of ‘education.’

We have come to see education as simply preparation for the next step in… education. Will my child get into a good primary school from this pre-school? Will the kid manage to be accepted by a good college? We never question what ‘good’ is (that’s been defined for us by US News and World Reports) or what the end of education might be—aside from assuring a high-paying job in a prestige field.

In the years since Barzun’s book (one of many he wrote, by the way), our debate on education has actually devolved. Perhaps because we’ve all now been trained to see education as doing well on tests, few of us actually study. Even fewer study the past. Barzun, though still alive, is largely forgotten. Writers on education today, while they might throw in a passing reference to Horace Mann or John Dewey, concentrate mainly on those also writing on issues of education today. Rarely are they even aware that most of what they are arguing has been argued before—and generally much more ably. Their “new” is actually quite old.

When I was in graduate school, one of the tricks another student told me of was never to bother with articles more than ten years old. Earlier research, he said, would be encompassed in the new. For a time, I tried that—but I got bored. When I explored the things everyone else seemed to have forgotten, I started finding the new and exciting. That was the start of my real education… and none of it could have been encapsulated in multiple-choice testing—for what I was exploring were things even the test writers had forgotten (if they had ever known them). I had jumped off the carousel and was chasing real horses rather than just pretending to ride.

If we are to improve our schools, and get off this perpetual merry-go-round of suggesting the same tired ‘solutions’ over and over again, we are going to have to do what Barzun says and really start examining ourselves and what we need (even what we want) from education. And we are going to have to recognize that reforming our schools will be much more difficult than simply making demands that testing goals be met.

Until we do that, we’re just going to keep going round and round.