I’m not an idiot! I’m not! I’m not! (Or am I?)

Background: On February 20, 2011, at 10:59 A.M., “Inagua” posted the following message about me on another blog site: “LLS is a teacher! I missed that. It explains everything — the fuzzy thinking, the smug tone, the fact free posts.” (Chris Fountain’s For What It’s Worth, under “Greenwich teacher quality”)

(I’m going to respond, at considerable length, directly to Inagua. Although the response will seem long-winded and not-very-interesting to most people, I’m using this spot for it, rather than take up space on CF’s site. I’ll tell Inagua about it and hope to hear back. Here goes.)

This was a double whammy, because you’re saying (1) that teachers are much more likely than others to be dull-witted and self-satisfied, and (2) that I in particular have impressed you in a heap of negative ways.

These suggestions would be hurtful in and of themselves, simply because they’re so unfriendly. Beyond that, though, they were delivered under a posting from Chris Fountain that had begun with a kind of respectful disclaimer addressed to me: “LLS, you’re a teacher, and obviously not one of the folks [lousy teachers] I’m about to discuss, but perhaps you’d care to comment and give your insight.” You took Chris’s friendly, unthreatening opening and converted it to . . . well, whammy.

In addition, I really didn’t see why you’d declare me “fuzzy thinking,” “smug,” and “fact free.” I do remember that not long ago you and I went back and forth over the question of global warming, that you wanted to pin me down on the Richard Feynman statement about predictions and hypotheses, that you wanted to prove that I don’t think like a scientist, and that I refused to behave like a person in the witness stand, obliged to “answer the question and only the question being asked.” This struck you as evasive and irresponsible, I think, but as I said then, I did not want to get into either the issue of global warming itself or the question of whether I accept basic scientific principles.

We enter into discussions on blog sites for many different reasons. I distinctly remember that my reason for posting comments on that particular topic was that I think global-warming deniers (and global-warming believers, for that matter) are going to hold resolutely to their convictions, regardless of strong contradictory evidence. I was accusing Chris of taking an easy escape (from looking into the evidence) by hurling insults at warming proponents and the “sheep” who follow them. You were in that discussion for other reasons, obviously, not to dispute my contention that people hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe. I think you wanted to show me up for a shallow thinker and/or a fool. Maybe not, but in light of more recent statements, it seems likely that you were far more interested in shutting me down than in an open-minded discussion of either global warming or (my specific interest at that juncture) cognitive dissonance/rationalization.

It’s not quite accurate to say “I really didn’t see why you’d declare me ‘fuzzy thinking,’ ‘smug,’ and ‘fact free.’ ” I suspected that your disapproval of me stemmed from various things I’ve posted that you didn’t agree with, and, more particularly, from my uncooperativeness in the global warming discussion. But I think that you jumped to some unjustifiable conclusions. I don’t deny being all those bad things at times, but those are not characteristics of mine. The global warming scenario, which I’m sure convinced you I was fuzzy-thinking and evasive, actually amounted to this (as I more or less said at the time): An honest discussion of the issue deserves a lot more space, time, and thought than can be found in the midst of a multi-person back-and-forth on Chris Fountain’s blog.

Here’s how I think–or try to think–about global warming:

I’ve heard the claims and counterclaims, watched the Al Gore film, clicked a number of blog postings, pro and con. After many hours of honest uncertainty—at least about specific data, claims, and predictions—and many hours of investigation, I could only take my best guess about global warming. My best guess is that it’s real, that a significant portion of it is man-made, and that the consequences are going to prove, though not entirely foreseeable, largely unpleasant. Am I a scientist? Nowhere near. It seems to me that a non-scientist is forced to rely on authorities, much more than one would like. And the authorities I have tended to rely on have strongly indicated that global warming is anything but a hoax. I should add that no matter how much time I spend looking into something, there’s never a point at which I’m 100% certain. In the case of global warming, I’ve more than once put my convictions on Pause and taken another look. Last summer, for instance, I stumbled across a very long video series, available online, that seemed to me to be balanced and authoritative. I started watching the installments without knowing what the presenter’s verdict would be, and I was willing to suspend judgment until I heard his case and weighed his verdict. I came away from the series thinking, “Wow! The deniers are stubborn, but the evidence is pretty convincing.” This echoes a long-held suspicion about people hearing and believing what they want to hear and believe, regardless. (I’ve thought this for decades, and more so with each passing year.)

In the proper space, and given sufficient time, I would be happy to reopen the global-warming dialogue. And I’d be willing to discover, if it’s true, that I don’t think at all like a scientist—that I instinctively reject the scientific principle laid down by Richard Feynman, if that proves to be the case. If you or someone else feels it’s worthwhile to convince me that I’m a shallow-minded fool, I might even give that message serious consideration, because despite what I think is true of all human beings, I would love to be able to rise above rationalizations and self-delusions. If I am actually an idiot, why should I deny it?

The secret of convincing me, though, probably lies in patience. I think you have to sneak up on me, engage me in civil discourse, make it seem as though you respect me. Under such conditions, I am such a gullible guy that I’ll be lulled into complacency and, before you know it, I’ll discover for myself that I’m a lame brain!

Please note: Much of the preceding language will strike you as sarcastic. I don’t deny a sarcastic (or maybe just playful) tone. But, if it’s conceivable to you, I mean every word of it!

Addendum: As a fan of Feynman, you might appreciate this “job interview” that I just found: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ericlippert/archive/2011/02/14/what-would-feynman-do.aspx

This entry was posted in About this Blog, Education, Liberals and Others. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to I’m not an idiot! I’m not! I’m not! (Or am I?)

  1. Inagua says:

    The events in Wisconsin got me to thinking about education, a topic about which I know virtually nothing. So I decided to sally forth from this position of ignorance and ask your reaction to my ruminations. First, public K-12 education is highly desirable because of what economists call neighborhood effects. Second, good teachers are grossly underpaid and bad treachers should let go. Third, competition generally works in the private marketplace for professionals, so why not for teachers? Because I do not know how the system works, I can easily envision how it should work. Each school principal should be able to hire any teacher he wants at any pay package he and the teacher negotiate. The pakage would include salary, a contribution to a 401(k) type portable retirement plan, and enrollment in some type of portable health insurance plan. Why wouldn’t this simple model work?

    Another issue is teacher certification. It should be streamlined so that more people like Jaimie Escalante make a mid-career shift into education.

    There must be many problems with my model or it would be in effect. So tell me where I am wrong, LLS.

    • Inagua,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m on my way to work (school!), so I’ll get back to you later on.

    • Let’s talk about competition among teachers.

      I don’t rule out the idea, but there are problems inherent in such an arrangement. If you and I are across the hall from each other, and my pay depends on how well I perform relative to you, what’s to stop me from sabotaging you? If I happen to have some great materials for presenting Shakespeare’s plays, and you ask me to share them with you, why should I? I’d just be helping you to compete with me. Since part of most teacher-rating systems would involve students’ opinions of their teachers, don’t you think I’ll plant some unwholesome seeds about you in your students’ minds? And won’t I self-promote, not just with my own students, but also with parents and administrators, meanwhile sniping at you in both subtle and flagrant ways? All’s fair in salary wars. Perhaps most importantly, wouldn’t I do whatever I can to avoid or unload the trouble-making students, the emotional messes, the intellectually challenged? Granted, teachers don’t usually have much say about which students wind up on their rosters, other than to state their preferences in each coming year’s course titles, but Machiavellian shenanigans are not unheard of, and if teachers compete with each other, I’d expect a substantial increase in manipulative skullduggery. Speaking of which, if my students’ performance on exams is to be a major factor in the rating I receive, won’t I be tempted to cheat on their behalf? A couple of “improved” multiple-choice answers on each standardized test, or a little extra “help” with an open-ended question, and voila! My students outperform yours, and I cash in.

      I’m not saying I would do any of these rotten things. My virtue is impermeable. But others might just be willing to sell their souls for sufficient remuneration.

      To repeat: Some element of competition might be a good idea. But too much of it would be asking for trouble. And while I’m at it, I should put in a good word for cooperation among colleagues. Education might be one field in which collaboration most often wins the day.

      As you may be able to tell, I don’t think “bad teachers” are a huge part of what’s wrong with American education. I think that what’s far more significant is that we live in a society that doesn’t really respect education but only pretends to do so. If we actually cared, we’d have honest discussions about all of it–teachers, students, parents, administrators, taxpayers, budgets, unions, and (gasp!) the society itself–instead of merely picking a favorite scapegoat and firing off round after round of buckshot.

  2. Inagua says:

    I will start with your two examples and then try to work toward the larger issue of cooperation that you raise. You describe not sharing an effective teaching tool with a colleague as “sabotage.” I don’t accept that for two reasons: 1) sabotage is an undermining or destruction from within and simply not sharing a secret when under no obligation to share is something quite different, and 2) isn’t effective teaching tools what is taught at teachers colleges? Shouldn’t these things be known to all like, “When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking?” Your second example involved student input into teacher ratings. I am sure that this is a component of most teacher rating systems, but that is a stupid measure. Teaching is a skill or a craft more like singing or dancing than the production of widgets. And teaching must necessarily be judged subjectively, just like all crafts. Judging teachers should be the primary responsibility of the person in charge of the school, the principal. This is the way it works in the rest of the professional world — your boss pretty much determines how valuable you are, and if you don’t agree with the boss, you seek a new boss. Most professional employees in America change employeers something like 6 ot 8 times in a career. I see no reason why teachers should’t also have professional mobility — for location, subject matter, and grade level.

    On the larger issue, you apparently admire a society with as even an outcome of result as possible after most people join in cooperating to build that society. (If I got this wrong, I apologize.) I, on the other hand, admire an opportunity society where the talented, the gifted, the hard working, or the lucky get a bigger reward than the rest of us. Ability and ambition is not evenly distributed, and systems that fail to recognize that fact work at less than optimal efficiency, except on the lowest level like assembly line type work.

    But the education system is the way it is, and I guess this is the way most participants want it. I find it amazing that college educated professionals would want to all be treated the same, would want to all get the same pay, would want to work at the same school an entire career, and basically never be treated as an individual. No other profession to my knowledge is dominated by such thinking. Accountants, doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, sales people, marketing types, bankers, etc. all compete in an open market to sell their services. Why public school teachers alone do not do this eludes me.

    Finally, my definition of education is probably different than yours. Education is a life long process, and the best any teacher can ever do is instill a love of learning in a student.

  3. Actually, I wasn’t presenting “not sharing with a colleague” as an example of sabotage. I was listing problems with the competitive model, and I was not very careful to label each problem and provide discrete categories of problems. I listed the scenarios as they occurred to me. If you’ll look again at the list of difficulties, you’ll see that they’re NOT all examples of sabotage, though some are. Sorry for the confusion. Regardless of my careless classification system, the problems are substantial.

    As far as sharing materials: I happen to believe that sharing “stuff that works” is a great time saver. Believe it or not, teachers are kept busy by the demands of preparing lessons, grading student work, attending meetings (worthless ones as well as worthwhile ones), contacting parents, figuring or at least punching in grades, issuing progress reports, preparing make-up work for absent students, etc. etc. As an English teacher, if I want to do a novel I’ve never taught before, it can be highly useful to get some tips from teachers who HAVE taught the work. Yes, on a theoretical level everyone could do all the research and preparation on his/her own. But some of it is reinventing the wheel, and that would be a good idea only if it were everyone for him/herself, as I think you’re proposing. As it is, almost all the teachers I know are generous in sharing ideas and materials. This doesn’t mean we get to kick back and just present “other people’s work.” It means we can save some time by trying SOME of the stuff that others recommend. (Plenty of the materials I’ve been offered I’ve never used, by the way; it just seemed “not my kind of thing.”)

    You have more faith in the judgment of the school principal than I have. Even the best of ’em is human and can like or dislike a teacher for the wrong reasons. (I could tell you stories.) The principal should have substantial but not absolute authority.

    What you call “professional mobility” seems like a euphemism for “the right to get fired.”

    For now (not necessarily forever), I’ll skip over your declaration of faith in competition, except to mention that your concluding clause–“the best any teacher can ever do is instill a love of learning in a student”–strikes me as well stated AND an unintentional refutation of the competitive argument. If teachers are to be paid according to how well they teach, and if their students’ love of learning is the highest standard, how do we measure and compare that? Sounds like an imprecise yardstick, no matter how valid the sentiment.

  4. Inagua says:

    How to measure good teaching? You can’t. Because it is a skill, an art, a craft, a talent. But just as the Justice said about pornogrophy, we know it when we see it. Bosses recognize and reward the best accountants, engineers, and architects, and I see no reason why a principal couldn’t do the same with teachers.

    But my opinion counts for nothing, and I guess most teachers want to be treated as interchangeable commodities in a system that does more to protect the worst than reward the best. Very few high quality people will want to enter a profession so organized. It seems so terribly unfair to the good teachers.

  5. You seem to have trouble imagining the non-competitive (or less-competitive) mindset. Rather than acknowledge that collaboration and cooperation have benefits, you say that “most teachers want to be treated as interchangeable commodities.” You’re superimposing your own strong preference for market dynamics on a field that may not need it.

    Again, I’m not rejecting outright the possibility that making teaching more competitive could be a good thing. And it’s certain that bad teachers ought to be removed rather than protected. But some of your suggestions don’t seem realistic. Specifically, that the principal of a school should have the authority to make unilateral decisions about hiring and firing; or that higher wages could attract enough “high quality people” into the profession to turn American education around. I know that makes me sound like a pessimist or naysayer, so I’ll try to put it another way: The main reward in teaching is not salary or benefits, it’s something deeper and more gratifying. If “high quality people” need big money in order to be pulled into teaching, they probably don’t have the right stuff for the job.

  6. Inagua says:

    You’re right. I do have a preference for free markets and it no doubt does color my thinking. So let me ask you about some of the specifics in the Wisconsin situation that interest me. Teacher union dues are now collected automatically from the paycheck, and the governor wants to switch to separate payment by the teachers. What is wrong with this, if anything? Walker also wants to have the union re-voted on by the teachers every year. Again, why not? Finally, Walker doesn’t want to use the health insurance company owned by the teachers union. I was astonished to learn that a union was in the insurance business. Did you know this? What do you think?

    Also, and this is going to sound very strange, but what exactly does “collective bargaining” mean in plain English? I’ve done all the google searches, and I was very interested to learn that the term was coined by Beatrice Webb, but I couldn’t find a simple definition, especially in the open shop/closed shop/free rider context. Is your union a state level organization? Or smaller? Or bigger? And is is an open or closed shop?

    Finally, did you see that the Milwaulkee teachers union, dropped its request that viagra be covered under its medical plan?

  7. About teachers’ union dues: In theory, everyone should be “free” to decide whether to join the union and pay dues. But, assuming the union has been responsible for obtaining contracts favorable to teachers, is it fair for all teachers (non-members as well as members) to reap the benefits of a favorable contract?

    When I was a teacher in California, union membership was not mandatory, and I spent the first two years NOT paying union dues, and telling myself that I needed to “get ahead” by saving every dime. After that, however, I joined. The same pay scale was in effect whether I was a union member or not. But it didn’t seem right to continue freeloading. I don’t know if membership is still optional. When I took a job in Connecticut, membership was mandatory, or virtually so.

    In order to answer your questions about mandatory union membership, I’d have to know what the consequences of a BUSTED union would be. Would salaries drop? Would benefits disappear? Would job security be decimated? If so, then you and I would have very different votes on dues collection, open shop/closed shop, and so forth. This takes us back to square one, don’t you think? I believe unions serve an important function, even though there are excesses and inequities; you believe unions interfere with a free market process that ought to be left unfettered. Right?

  8. Inagua says:

    You raise an excellent question about what a profession would look like after a union was busted. The only example I know of is PATCO. The non-UAW auto plants might provide another clue. But in public K-12 education, I suspect that the one size fits all mentality is so ingrained in the mindsets of all participants that a meaningful shift towards competition is impossible, even if the odd kook like me thinks it desirable.

    What kind of a job do you think public K-12 schools generally are doing? How do you rate your fellow teachers?

  9. My very quick answer is: I don’t think public schools are doing all that well. I’d put some of the blame on teachers, some on administrators, and by far the biggest portion on our society itself. People SAY that education is important, but they don’t mean it. If they meant it, they’d be lifelong learners themselves, rather than . . . well, take a glance at television (the programs and the commercials), and tell me what people are truly interested in. What passes for “entertainment”? for “news”? for “discussion”? for “critical analysis”? On what basis are products and services promoted? What images are most effective in selling an automobile, a diet plan, colorectal health, a lottery ticket, or insurance?

    Okay, so I went tangential. I can try to give you a better answer later.

  10. Inagua says:

    It is not a tangent. Public education can only be as good as the public itself. Beyond the rudiments that can be drilled into anyone like the times tables, state capitals, and correct spelling of some words, there is nothing good teaching can do other than hope to excite a love of learning. People either have the love of learning gene or they don’t.

    Back to another question. Collective bargaining. The news is that Wisconsin just “removed collective bargaining rights” from public unions. What does this mean, exactly? If you know.

  11. Well, it’s tangential in the sense that you asked my opinion of public schools and of my colleagues–and I spewed bile about how rotten TV is! I think bad TV, a dimwitted populace, and less-than-great education are connected; nonetheless, I haven’t (yet) answered your question. I will, but just now I sent out an email to a few teacher pals (and my daughter, who’s a teacher in LA), asking for THEIR responses to your rate-the-schools and rate-the-teachers questions.

    At first glance, “collective bargaining” doesn’t seem like a complicated concept. I’ll go read up on the Wisconsin news and see if I can spot some confusion!

    By the way, thanks very much for what has been a most civil exchange of views.

  12. I sent out a request to several other teachers, asking their opinions of colleagues and of public education. So far, I’ve heard from only one–code name Bud–a guy I went to high school with. He retired recently after a career of teaching high school English in the town next door to where we grew up. Here is one passage from the email message he sent me:

    “I taught high school English for 38 years in the same Connecticut town. It was a good place to work, and whenever I had a chance to visit other school districts, I returned to mine thinking that I was fortunate to be where I was. The community supported education, the educational environment was positive (neither oppressively rigid nor chaotically loose), the students were generally well-behaved, adequately prepared and usually willing to go along with the lesson plan, and my colleagues were very supportive of one another. Regardless of who the superintendent and administrators were, the faculty exhibited a sense of family. I liked/respected some superintendents and principals more than others. Early in my career there were many fewer state mandates and requirements to follow. The superintendent ran the district, and each individual school was, to a large degree, autonomous. I really didn’t appreciate the freedom we had until all this began to change. If a school system wanted to receive its small share of state revenue, it had to be obedient to the state. Even when I only made $7,800 a year, with a master’s degree, I thought I was pretty lucky. Association participation was required, but I think at first only at the town and state level. Today I frequently find myself at odds with the lobbying positions and the political support given by the NEA.”

    And here are two additional paragraphs:

    “What remained constant throughout my career was the fact that although the curriculum evolved over the years to become cumulative, sequential and fairly rigid, the teacher was always encouraged to present the material in his own way. What I think worked for me and my teaching ‘style’ would not necessarily fit my colleagues. I respected what others were able to do that I couldn’t. In my case, I was predictable, consistent, thorough, and I showed up everyday prepared. I tried to model my expectations for my students in my own preparation and behavior.

    “I’d like to think it worked, and I wasn’t a total failure. I seem to bump into my former students everywhere, and even if I can ‘t remember their names. which is usually the case, they remember something about the class, something that was usually not part of the lesson plan, but a memory that makes us both smile.”

  13. Inagua says:

    Bud is obviously one of the very best. The fact that so many students remember him attests to the impact he had. I like the way he wrote that he likes to think he wasn’t a total failure, and every time I come across that formulation, it gives me pleasure to know that it is litotes, and I remember the teacher who taught that to me.

    Regarding pay, Bud is about my age and I started work with a BS in 1970 at $10,000. Adjusting for work days, Bud wasn’t too far behind me. It is not my impression that starting teachers salaries have kept pace with other starting salaries. This is based on a admittedly small sample of one, my daughter who teaches in a blue collar town in Vermont.

    I suspect, but cannot prove, that there are fewer Buds entering the profession today, and that they are making less relative to Finance majors like me than Bud did. And I of course blame the unions which do to much to protect the poor teachers. This is my admittedly uninformed and intuitive opinion.

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