Monday, December 16, 2013

Nothing More Than Happy Accidents

"First, let's be clear about what philosophy and education do not (italics original) amount to, what they do not offer in return:  philosophy and education do not amount to grades, diplomas, or the byproducts of schooling."  (A Primer on Philosophy & Education, p. 30)

Stop the presses!  If that sentence does not make you slam on the brakes and realize how subversive Samuel Rocha's book is, I don't know what will.  Ask anybody.  Students will tell you education is precisely about grades and diplomas.  Parents and legislators will say that it is all about the byproduct, namely, a job.

Rocha not only takes aim at this ultra-pragmatic view, but observes that it is pervasive throughout our educational system.  "In many colleges and universities, there are students who care more about being on the list of some person they hardly know (the Dean), based on three numbers and decimal point (their grade point average), than they do about anything else related to their studies.  Sadly, these people have been conditioned to feel and act this way in previous schooling institutions and elsewhere, too.  There has never been an infant who cared about grades, awards, or credentials."  (pp. 30, 31)

Whoa, Nelly, again!  Rocha takes us right back to Plato's cave and the poor prisoners who award prizes for correctly guessing at shadows.  One of the most challenging classes I have had the pleasure to teach is Theory of Knowledge, a course required for the International Baccalaureate diploma.  Students in the IB program are at the top of their academic game, but when they hit TOK, they get jarred from their routine of what works.  They know how to make an A in all their other classes.  They know how the system works and how to work the system.  Suddenly they find themselves in a class that asks them to explore how they know what they know.  Their concrete perception of the world gets a bit fuzzy.  I have watched honor roll students struggle with this class because the boundaries were vague and I could not tell them with the precision of their chemistry teacher how to achieve an A.  As a result, I have watched more than one such student unravel.

This is not to say that we should not care about grades at all, and Rocha concedes this.  No one should try to earn a D.  On the other hand, he suggests that "you should not confuse this institutionalized process of grade-getting, school-going, degree-worshipping, and job-seeking with what philosophy and education have to offer you."  (p. 31)  While he admits that these things are not trivial or unimportant, his point is simply that there is something more to the enterprise than just these things, and he uses a powerful analogy to make his point.

"It would be like trying to fall in love and get married in order to pay lower taxes," he writes.  (p. 33)  "[L]ower tax rates simply come as happy accidents.  Likewise, good grades come as happy accidents, too."  (pp. 33-34)

If making the honor roll or landing a job is not the supreme goal of education, what is?  It is that little thing that caused Pontius Pilate to pause in wonder.  Says Rocha, "Read for the truth.  Write and speak to show what seems true.  Ask questions to get at what might be true.  Attend classes to seek the truth.  Do not settle for shallow, impoverished grades and cheap, degrading rewards.  Philosophy and education require courage."  (p. 34)

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