The limits of evidence

This will be the last of my series of guest-blogging posts, and perhaps the most controversial one. Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful and stimulating comments.

Much of education discussion rests on the assumption that we can and should demonstrate the efficacy of what we do in the classroom. We have concrete aims, and it is our responsibility to ensure that these aims are achieved. These include: ensuring that students learn the basics, bringing them up to a desired proficiency level across the subject areas, teaching them to communicate and debate ideas, exposing them to subjects that they will need for work and life, helping them do well on tests, seeing to their well-being at school, preparing them to participate in a democracy, and more. Our practices are deemed good insofar as they bring us closer to our goals.

But there are parts of education that cannot be explained or justified in a concrete way. Why teach literature? Because it is useful? Because it prepares us to participate in a democracy? Those are secondary reasons. Ultimately many of us teach it because it is beautiful and urgent and because we do not have it in our hearts to do otherwise.

It is not that a student must know Shakespeare in order to have a rewarding life or be part of a democracy. We do not study for concrete purposes alone. There are other things that pull us. Think of the times when you see something beautiful outside–a leaf with unusual colors taking its time to flutter to the ground, then bouncing on the sidewalk as if in a dance; a dirty littered sidewalk gleaming with chestnuts, their shells just opened, and yellow butterflies flying above–and trucks roaring by, and grass taking over the sidewalk cracks. If you tell someone what you have seen, it is not useful information. It will not help the other person, except perhaps to change what the person notices when walking down the street. You pass it on because it came to you as a gift, and you wanted to pass it on. So, too, with literature. We pass on what has held great meaning for us. One may argue that it will not have the same meaning for young people. But that does not make the gesture futile. Students respond to a teacher’s love of literature; they come to see things in it; what’s more, they learn that they may find more in it later. They are given a glimpse into what they do not yet understand. And this is intangible.

This does not mean that we abandon evidence and do only what the spirit moves us to do in the classroom. I would be among the first to laugh that sort of suggestion out of town. In The New Education (1915), Scott Nearing describes the Oyler School in Cincinnati, where, if a teacher felt it was the right time to go visit an absent student, she would simply leave her class to another teacher and do so. That is going a bit far. Likewise, it would be absurd for a research study to conclude, “Policy X is good because I know in my heart that it is.” But not all our purposes can be spelled out, and not all of them can be justified by evidence. Evidence does have its place, but we should not confine ourselves to evidence any more than we should confine ourselves to utility.

I brought this up in a comment on Deborah Meier’s latest column in Bridging Differences. She asks what students truly need to learn to participate in a democracy, and suggests that there’s no evidence they need Milton or Dante. This may or may not be so. But in any case, whatever the arguments for and against certain works of literature, our reasons for teaching them go beyond the arguments.

I can hear the objections to this, and part of me objects to my own argument. If we allow for things in education that we cannot explain or justify, how can we sort out the valuable from the loony? How do we keep wacky ideas and irresponsible practices from taking over? That is a serious question, not easily answered. I would suggest that there is a touch of the loony in the valuable, but only a touch. We have to use our logic, observation, intuition, experience, belief, and faith (not necessarily religious), all together. One on its own will not do.

Autumn has declared itself here in New Haven. I remember teaching on a day like this, a year ago in Brooklyn. I was teaching my second-grade class the Christina Rossetti poem “Who Has Seen the Wind?

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

They were taking turns reciting it in groups while acting as the wind and trees. We had done it a few times, and suddenly a girl started bouncing in here seat and pointing.

“They’re doing it!” she cried. We turned to look. She was pointing out the window.

“They’re doing it! The leaves are trembling!”

And then a chorus of children chimed in, “The wind is passing through!”

Evidence of what? A “text-to-world connection”? Oh, more than that! And one of the most beautiful moments of my teaching experience. I would not trade that moment for a 100-percent guaranteed research-proven practice.


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    If we allow for things in education that we cannot explain or justify, how can we sort out the valuable from the loony? How do we keep wacky ideas and irresponsible practices from taking over?

    This is at once a very easy question to answer, and a very difficult problem to address.

    If you want to allow teachers to forge ahead in the art (rather than the science) of teaching, you need to give them more freedom. If you want to avoid catastrophe, or at least minimize wacky ideas and irresponsible practices, then you need to not give freedom to people who are going to abuse it.

    Now, you might say that this is vague and unhelpful. But everyone on a typical campus who has contact with teachers — other teachers, principals, and students (well, students once you get past maybe 5th or 6th grade), know who the “good” teachers are and who the “bad” teachers are. It’s not a great secret, though it’s often either not discussed or deliberately obfuscated. We know who is going to be a loon and who is going to occasionally work magic in the classroom. We know whose unorthodox approaches work and whose do not, because even if it is impossible to design some objective test to measure particular, concrete factors, like you when your students saw the leaves, you know it when you see it.

    An easy answer. A hard solution.

    How do we give freedom to good-and-average teachers, but not give it to below-average and bad teachers? After all, the bad teachers will want it, too, because no one likes entering TPS reports when they can be splattering paint on a wall, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. Well, there are a at least a couple of options.

    First, you might engage in differential treatment. Principals can force their less capable teachers to stay on book, and allow greater latitude to their better teachers. Schools are hotbeds of differential treatment — good students get off with slaps on the wrist for things that land the delinquents in in-school suspension. But teachers are unionized in a way that children are not. OK, scratch that.

    Second, you might get rid of the bad and below-average teachers. s I said before, we know who they are; it’s stunningly obvious if you just spend a few days observing. And they can’t screw things up if they aren’t around. Except that getting rid of teachers runs quickly into three sub-problems: 1) There will no longer be enough teachers. This is something people don’t consider enough when they talk about reform and accountability; we might NEED those crappy teachers just to stand in front of classrooms. 2) The unions will cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. 3) You have to have principals who are not only willing to let the axe fall, but who are holders of good judgment themselves. It is often the case (and more’s the pity) that the worst instructors become principals because (no surprise) they hate teaching. Perhaps because they know they suck at it. This all seems too complicated.

    Third…? Who knows. But this is supposed to be a comment, not a blog post. I will let things rest here.

  2. It was a darn good comment.

  3. Andrew Bell says:

    This is a wonderful piece. Thank you.

    If you have questions about why we study a range of topics, not just the immediately useful, you should have a look at the St. John’s College viewbook. It’s a good read. Villanova University also has a well-written piece:

    We often miss the point that learning something in school isn’t (or shouldn’t be) always about the memorization of a topic or the solution of a problem. Unfortunately, students and teachers often mistake a grade or score for successful learning. What has an “A” gotten you if you didn’t get excited about some new idea, learned the other side of an issue, connected seemingly unrelated topics or spawned a little compassion?

    As to Michael’s comments – we need to get teachers excited about learning! We don’t spend near enough effort improving the efficacy of INDIVIDUAL teachers. Remember, they came up through the existing system — you can’t expect too much 🙂 Help them, don’t discard them.

  4. This is a very deep human theme.

  5. You have a limited definition of literature. It’s not just beautiful and useless. Good literature illuminates human truth; like paiting, music and dance. It discusses what it means to be a human being on this planet at this place and time, and it discuss that which is universal in human nature; jealously, love, lust, hatred. Literature is profoundly useful as it provides new information or an alternative or more sophisticated persective on those truths than are otherwise available to isolated beings.

    We should teach literature because it exposes young people to complex ideas about being a human being, ideas that they may otherwise not have access to.

  6. Ms. Senechal, It may be that an excellent teacher can teach Milton or Shakespeare so as to bring beauty to a student who wants it by finds it remote or odd. It may be that the best of the best teachers can teach Milton or Shakespeare so as to bring that beauty to a student who doesn’t want it.

    But to believe that you are that person is outrageous hubris.

    Many (most?) teachers believe a fallacy that their enthusiasm will translate into students’ enthusiasm. This is naivete and egotism. They also believe that because they are in love with their subject, they are good at teaching it. They jump in their own minds to how because of their interest, they are grand grand people to deign to share this gift with their students–pure hubris. Better to be a little less dreamy and a lot more humble, and concentrate not on how the beauty was so grand and you are so grand as to give a GIFT to the children, but instead to admit that you are tiny, that the world is immense, and your job is on the concrete question of what you can do TODAY, NOW, in YOUR classroom to improve your own ability to teach.

    The students I know need curricula that teach them mastery of reading, writing, history, and arithmetic so that they can achieve mastery of the higher concepts present in literature and math.

    Save the world on your own time. Give gifts on your own time. Dream less, and improve your instruction more.

  7. Diana Senechal says:

    Of course literature does all of these things, Stacy. That was part of my point. But it does more.

  8. Diana Senechal says:

    Allison, you have never met me–but beyond that, you miss my point. I am not denying the other things that go into instruction.

    But all those purposes together are not the sum total of what we do.

    Nor is it hubris to want to pass on something that you love, something that has held meaning for you for years.

    My teachers did this for me. And I am grateful.

  9. Diana,

    Thank you for giving voice to the soul of the liberal arts. I too believe that without beauty, love, humor, joy and enthusiasm, academics are dead and deadening. Is it likely that most teachers will be able to do what you strive to do? No. But so what? This is the truth and it needs to be said.

  10. “I wonder why.
    I wonder why.
    I wonder why I wonder
    I wonder why I wonder why
    I wonder why I wonder!”

    Dick Feynman

    He had the knowledge and skills to back it up, although I believe he was being flippant at the time.

    How many fourths are in a whole? About fifty percent of 4th grade kids got that wrong on the NAEP math test. Instead, let’s listen to some music and talk about how it makes us feel. Forget the fact that these kids should be learning the hard work required to master an instrument. Then they might really understand the beauty of music.

    We don’t need sentimentality in the middle of what should be a discussion of competence. I can better smell the roses if I skip school. You might not be able to calibrate the value of a specific topic, but you better be able to calibrate the effort and excellence it requires. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and you better have some clue about what that is. Loving something is not good enough. Motivation is fleeting. Hard work is eternal. The former rarely translates into the latter.

    We really don’t need one more justification for low expectations in schools.

  11. If it weren’t for people like Diana, the world would revolve on its axis a great deal quicker.

  12. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Robert… that’s a little mean, but funny as hell.

  13. Scrooge McDuck says:

    If Allison is the gatekeeper for hubris, I suggest she apply her finely honed critical skills to Eduwonk who is a living definition of the word. Much harder to do, as well. He doesn’t stick his neck out or take the risks that Diana did. But it can be done. Dare to be great.

  14. “(Deborah Meier) asks what students truly need to learn to participate in a democracy, and suggests that there’s no evidence they need Milton or Dante”

    One of the ways people in a society communicate with one another is through a common symbol set. For most of American history, it could safely be assumed that a high portion of the population was familiar with the Bible and with Shakespeare, and that allusions to these works would be understood.

    What happens when the only common point of reference is popular culture? I’m not sure, but I doubt if it is good.

  15. expat_teacher says:

    I would never question a math teacher’s insistence that my child learn to master the quadratic formula — despite the chance that he will never use that skill in his adult life. I believe that the study of math is important because it teaches logic, perseverance, and because it is inherently beautiful. (And who knows — maybe my son WILL use it some day. I want to keep that door open for him.)

    Why can’t we give literature the same courtesy? Does it need to be proven that learning to thoughtfully analyze a text is a valuable exercise in logic and critical thinking? Do we really need a study to show that examining characters and their behavior in one of Shakespeare’s plays helps us understand (or at least contemplate) our own human nature? Isn’t it possible that the inherent beauty of literature makes it worth our scholarly efforts? And don’t we want to leave the door open for the kids for whom literature will resonate and inspire?

    Loving your subject does not mean that you will teach it in a “dreamy” or sentimental way. I can assure you that, while I love Shakespeare, none of my students will ever be assigned a poster project, navel-gazing personal reflection paper, or any other such nonsense. They use the literature as a vehicle for mastering writing, logic, and rhetorical skills. They will outline, defend positions, and read closely. They will write (and I will grade) until their fingers bleed. Some will love it. Others will loath it. I’m okay with that. They’ll all come out of my class as better people — just as I hope they’ll exit calculus as better people.

    If that’s hubris, I’m okay with that, too.

  16. —Nor is it hubris to want to pass on something that you love, something that has held meaning for you for years.

    Actually, I didn’t miss your point at all. You seem to have missed mine. It *is* hubris to want that because lo, it’s all about you.

    You want to be a teacher! bully for you! but do you want to TEACH?

    Lots of people want to be writers, too. But they don’t actually want to write. They want to sit in cafes and pontificate and drink lattes and feel angst or passion. But they don’t want to do the work. The work itself has a lot of not-so-dreamy parts.

    You want gratitude and beauty and love and la la la la la. I want you to TEACH A SUBJECT.

    Or, to say this in less words: “Why I’m a teacher: it’s all about ME!”

    I, too, loved it when my students get that “aha!” and I can feel like I own part of that. But my emotional needs weren’t what was best for the students. Over time, I realized that a little better explanation in the first place, a little better breaking up of the content into swallowable chunks, and my students wouldn’t have NEEDED to have an “aha!” moment, because they wouldn’t have been so damn confused by me in the first place.

    Get over it. You will do more for your students.

  17. Excellent post, Diana, and one of the best comments I have ever seen here, Michael E. Lopez. You two both examined a critical question in education in your own ways. I read both the post and the comment twice I was so taken by them. I also thought that some of the other comments were good as well as they seemed to be really thoughtful and mostly stay away from the typical knee jerk reaction around here of calling teachers incompetent and foolish. Thank you both for elevating the discourse here and for writing about something new and original.

  18. I’d argue Dante is pop culture, actually. I just a saw one of those silly Facebook quizzes about what level of hell you go to.

    I have the hubris to teach Milton and Shakespeare, too. It’s, um, part of the curriculum. Yes, the world is big and I am small, and I also work on improving my instruction…. while teaching sublime and complex literature. Why the false choice when it is so natural to do both?

    Shakespeare had something interesting things to say about hubris.

  19. It takes all kinds. Sure. But the whole problem with public schooling today? Too many Allisons, not enough Dianas.

    Michael, I was quoting The Queen of Hearts.

    Alice responds by saying, “Which would be to no one’s advantage.”

  20. timfromtexas says:

    More blah and blah and blah from the gifted. A retarded person is not blamed for hiser inabilities. Therefore, the gifted can’t consider themselves great achievers born from their own will.

  21. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Robert… I missed the quote. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I thought you were making a reference to moment of rotational inertia, saying that people like Diana had their heads up in the clouds, and if their heads were closer to the center of rotation the earth would rotate more quickly.

    I wonder if Lewis Carrol was packing all that into the quote….

  22. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Gah. Carroll has two l’s, doesn’t it? Sigh.

  23. “It takes all kinds. Sure. But the whole problem with public schooling today? Too many Allisons, not enough Dianas.”

    Too many Allisons? You have that backwards. Think about that the next time your child has to do a diorama or creative navel gazing.

    “The limits of evidence”

    There is way too little evidence of anything in K-12. We don’t need justification for more “authentic assessment” and portfolios. “Active learning” is just a conceited justification for pedagogical bias and lack of evidence.

    I would be glad to send my child to an Allison school. Oops. That’s right. Charter schools that set high expectations are turned down all of the time. That’s what this is all about. The expectation that a school can judge the effectiveness of their teaching, no matter what they teach. It has to be based on something more than making the teacher feel good.

    The lack of evidence for the value of a subject doesn’t translate to a lack of evidence for quality teaching and expectations for learning.

  24. I’m with LS on this – the divide between skills and content is unnecessary. Maybe even further: it’s just incorrect – they’re interdependent.

    While don’t come remotely close to worshipping the classics, I do think there’s a need for classic literature, because it’s both meaningful and challenging, and we need both meaning and challenge in the classroom.

  25. The drama being played on this blog makes me want to watch the Dead Poets Society again.

  26. Diana,

    Another thing I love about classic literature is that it’s a rock in a sea of change. I took my students to see an excellent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at CalShakes last week and familiar words like “think but this and all is mended” soothed me, on one level, simply because they were familiar –and perhaps because I know that they will carry on as long as people speak English. Touching something quasi-immortal is good for our souls, I think; especially in this world of accelerating and sickening change.

  27. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I am a graduate student T.A. and I teach. And, at the risk of hubris, I’m pretty damn good at it. But let us qualify this statement: I’m good at teaching in the environment in which I find myself. Now, several times I’ve been asked what my approach is, and it’s rather hard to describe. Because wWhen I walk into the classroom and start talking about epistemology, I’m not doing it for my students. I’m doing it for me.

    It *is* all about ME. I explore a particular topic because I WANT TO. I structure a discussion a particular way because it appeals TO ME. I have classroom policies that make life easier FOR ME. I schedule my office hours for when it’s convenient FOR ME. I set the standards on my grading to reflect what I think my students should be accomplishing.

    One of the reasons I’m able to do this is that I, apropos of my first post, have quite a bit of freedom as to what I’m doing. The professor who delivers the lectures basically picks the subject matter and the readings, but nearly everything pertaining to my discussion sections is (within the limits of university policy) at my discretion. Although it varies from prof to prof, grading is more or less at my discretion as well.

    But life is different, you might say, for people who are teaching in higher education. The students there are motivated, or smarter, or more accomplished, or have better habits. Or maybe it’s different at top flight universities and places like Exeter because the students are more motivated, or more accomplished, or have greater resources, or whatever. I’m freed from the necessity of HAVING TO TEACH A SUBJECT as set down in the tablets of the temple of the Department of Education.

    Well, in the first place, it’s easy to produce counterexamples: university students who can barely read, who aren’t interested in the material, etc.

    But let’s assume that there’s a grain of truth to this objection (because I think there is). What this tells us is that there may be two very different types of education, calling for two very different approaches.

    On the one hand, you have the scenario where students are motivated and/or brilliant and/or accomplished (either by their own virtues or by virtue of their parents’ involvement) who are seeking not some sort of standardized skill set, but who are seeking enrichment. On the other, you have students who are one or none of these things. The former students may very well require someone who is given freedom to improvise, who loves their subject, and who is a little dreamy. The latter students may require more structure, more repetition, teachers who perform their job in a workmanlike fashion.

    Now here’s something else to consider that may be a bit controversial: the two approaches to education may require two very different types of personality and skill sets to pull them off. Dreamy, self-centered, head-in-the-clouds egotists with tremendous reserves of general knowledge and analytical ability who want to follow where the Muse leads them (I’d put me in this category) may be more suited for the former type of student, while the latter are better served by determined, practical, disciplined specialists who focus on running the program and are more amenable to a bit of self-sacrifice.

    There may be room for two paradigms: Aristotle versus the Drill Instructor. (For those of you who haven’t been in the military, this is most expressly not a disparagement of the second type of teacher. There may be no more impressive, capable, and (indeed) self-sacrificing person on the planet than a drill instructor.)

    Again, referencing my earlier post: it’s art vs. science. And there may be room for both.

    Bear in mind that I’m not talking about one’s approach to classroom management here — I can be a real martinet about policies (and indeed, I think that’s probably good). I’m talking about one’s approach to content. The policies about which I am a martinet are the ones that *I* think best serve *MY* needs. Perhaps I am simply lucky enough to be in an environment where most of my students respond well to my approach. If I were working in an inner-city junior high teaching remedial reading, I rather doubt that I would have this much success.

    Finally, let us be aware that when I say “two kinds of students” I do not mean to say that students are either one or the other. The same student may be in a group that needs to learn a very particular skill set (say, analytical writing, or spelling, or transmission repair) at the very same time that they are seeking enrichment and epiphany in the pages of Shakespeare. That student (those two students in one body) may not be able to get both those things in the same place.

    So perhaps there is room at institutions of education for both types of instructor. But this brings us back to differential treatment, all teachers necessarily being treated the same, and the problem of unions.

    It’s all far too complicated. My head hurts.

  28. Roger Sweeny says:

    Michael E. Lopez,

    Last year I had an 11th grader tell me–in the same matter-of-fact way that one would say, “summer is hot and winter is cold”–“But Mr. Sweeny, high school is about memorization; thinking is for college.”

    You think your head hurts 🙂

  29. “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.” –Confucius

    From what I’ve gathered, classical Chinese education entails a lot of memorization (“learning”), in addition to opportunities to reflect upon it (“thought”). It seems to me that American education fetishizes thinking without learning.

  30. The limits of evidence, indeed.

    Now approaching retirement, I sit at a class reunion with my high school classmates, and we reflect upon our lives. How well have we done? How much did our education help us? Which aspects were essential, which superfluous? What was missing in our learning that could have improved our contributions to society?

    Even with 20-20 hindsight, no one can honestly profess a definitive or quantifiable answer to any of those questions.

    And that is the problem: If one cannot identify, let alone quantify that which has already occurred, how can we possible do better with education for a future we cannot predict?

    The answer is that we cannot. Just as some here point out that teachers may teach to meet their own emotional needs, I would suggest that the quantifiers chase measurement largely to meet their emotional needs — the desire feel certainty about things that are largely unknowable.

    My school district counts the percentage of students who graduate on time on an annual basis fudging the numbers in all kinds of creative ways. The result is expressed in an exact looking decimal, and it pleases a certain sort of mind, gives the customers what the want.

    Never mind that even that fairly concrete measurement is muddied by incoming students, exiting students, arrested students, drug addicted students… not to mention students who needed an extra term in order to finish, but the PR types pressured the teachers to pass through on time, to up the stats a few precious ticks.

    But even if the number were not such a cynical fraud, the truth would remain: It is a terrible measure of the impact of education on students’ lives.

  31. Well-said, Don. Ed leaders want pat numbers. To use an analogy, they’d rather have kids get served TV dinners than a meal cooked by Alice Waters (a renowned Berkeley chef) because the former comes in a box with the nutritional info printed on it.

    And rather than promote high-quality cookery, they’d have us take kids’ blood and urine samples every week to look for nutritional deficencies so that we could administer IV vitamins and minerals as needed.

  32. Diana Senechal says:

    Thanks to all those who commented thoughtfully. You gave me much to think about.

    It is possible to be both “dreamy” and demanding–to follow a structure and yet depart from it here and there or put something of yourself into it. Is that hubris? If so, I hope we don’t become screechingly humble. Perhaps a little hubris is a good thing.

    It is possible to use evidence, rely on evidence for much of our thinking, and yet see the limits of evidence. Many scientists will attest to this. That in fact sounds like humility to me, but there are flip sides to these things.

    But then the question remains: why do some react angrily to the mere suggestion that there may be more to education than we can prove or justify? What could be provocative about that?

    I don’t know. Maybe it’s that people understandably want to see concrete improvements, and suggestion of a “beyond” makes them nervous, as though it threatened the entire endeavor. I am more or less agnostic, but I can see an analogy in religion: those who suggest the presence of an invisible being or life may greatly irritate those who want to see improvements on earth.

    But the most demanding teachers can be also the dreamiest ones. My Latin teacher was to the point, no-nonsense, insistent on accuracy, and all those things, yet she loved the literature and showed it. I learned the basics of Latin from her and also read Virgil in her fourth-year class. Both classes were hard, and both were wonderful.

    If a thing could only be useful or compelling but never both, explicable or inexplicable but never both, subject to laws or elusive but never both, tough or beautiful but never both, then one could reduce education to a set of skills and methods on the one hand, or to a sparkle in the eye on the other. Fortunately that is not the case.

  33. There are two separate things here; what you teach and how well you teach it.

    Nobody would ever argue that everything can be quantified, but there are many educators who have never seen a test they liked. So what new insight do you have for this larger context? What, exactly, are you saying? If you keep your argument on a general level, then anyone can spin it any way they want, and the discussion becomes worthless.

    Are you saying that individual teachers should have more control over dreamy tangents in a well-defined curriculum? (Is this a problem?) Or, are you saying that some whole classes defy evidence of anything? If some topics in a curriculum defy evidence, then who gets to decide on the curriculum? Teachers? How about parents? If a course offers little evidence of being useful for participating in a democracy, does that mean there can be no evidence for whether kids are learning anything or not?

    How does this fit in with the modern educational ethic of motivation and trying to inspire kids by linking everything to top-down, real world learning? Who gets to decide what is important; kids or adults; teachers or parents?

    You’re mixing up curriculum and topic; evidence of value and evidence of effectiveness.

  34. No Diane, you’re not agnostic on the subject; you’ve just convinced yourself you are. You’re quite clearly an adherent of the “teaching as art” mythos although you haven’t quite made a sufficient commitment to the notion to comfortably dismiss people who’d like to have some idea whether education’s actually occurring as mentally unstable, stupid or morally corrupt.

    Here’s the proof:

    “But then the question remains: why do some react angrily to the mere suggestion that there may be more to education than we can prove or justify? What could be provocative about that?”

    The anger results from the obviously self-serving nature of the position that there may be more to education that can be proven or justified. The somewhat more temperate position that there may that about education that may be difficult to prove or justify devolves rapidly to the position that there’s nothing about education that can be proven or justified.

    But let’s not treat this debate as if it’s some free-floating philosophical discussion. It isn’t. Public education’s a political institution and so it has repercussions that go far beyond the walls of the classroom. The burden placed on those that are expected to fund public education is real enough and is certainly measurable so it shouldn’t elicit wide-eyed surprise that the people who are expected to pay for public education would like to have some idea that they’re getting what they pay for.

    Of course that would be a departure from past practice.

    For a very long time it was simply assumed that the education the public was taxed to pay for was worth the money.

    But some time back that assumption was called into question. Probably some time after the MEA turned the NEA into a blackboard UAW.

    Following that watershed event the old bargain of not getting paid very much for not having to prove professional competence was broken and that’s where we are today. If you want to get paid like a professional then you’ll have to accept that the customer wants evidence they’re getting what they pay for and save your excuses for those apres work events where complaining is appropriate.

    The real irony is that it’s among teachers that good teaching is most lightly regarded. If you want to know who the really good teachers are you have to go to the entertainment industry. Not one in a hundred teachers know who David Macenulty is or what he ought to be very well know for but Ted Danson knows.

  35. Diana Senechal says:

    I was talking about being agnostic with respect to religion. I am not an agnostic on the matter of literature and did not claim to be.

    By your logic, any suggestion of anything beyond evidence will devolve into a dismissal of all evidence:

    “The somewhat more temperate position that there may that about education that may be difficult to prove or justify devolves rapidly to the position that there’s nothing about education that can be proven or justified.”

    Well, anything can devolve, for that matter. We must not shy away from certain positions simply because they can devolve. We must not confuse them with what they might devolve into.

  36. A simile is a comparison which is different from a metaphor in that it uses the word “like” or “as.”

    That’s easy to teach and easy to test.

    But it’s not Raymond Chandler.

  37. I think this is an excellent description of the fear that drives the anger:

    “The somewhat more temperate position that there may that about education that may be difficult to prove or justify devolves rapidly to the position that there’s nothing about education that can be proven or justified.”

  38. –It is possible to be both “dreamy” and demanding–to follow a structure and yet depart from it here and there or put something of yourself into it. Is that hubris? If so, I hope we don’t become screechingly humble. Perhaps a little hubris is a good thing.

    Hubris is exaggerated pride, not merely pride. “A little exaggerated pride” is a good thing? No, it isn’t, because it is a nonsensical thing to say.

    I love the straw men we’ve seen here: my attack on how self congratulatory notion of the “limits of evidence” notion was met with a claim that I thought teaching Shakespeare or Milton was hubris.
    The idea that instead of being so self congratulatory and dreamy, you should work on improving your instruction, because better instruction is more likely to show the beauty of your subject than simply your self professed love was met with a claim that I didn’t acknowledge the limits of evidence.

    An army of straw men pose the fake dialectic of “useful and compelling” so you can swat it down. But no one ever believed that fake dialectic in the first place.

    Of course it’s possible to be dreamy and demanding. But that isn’t the point. The point is: get better at teaching. Stop pontificating and writing books about it, and do the hard work of improving your ability to communicate what’s so darn important, ethereal, and human!– about literature.

    Or, in other worse, I’m not arguing the value of literature. Not at all. What I said was that your *instruction* should be more useful, so that you can actually convey what’s compelling. Fluttering leaves might make you swoon, but you should concentrate on giving the students what they need in grammar, rhetoric, and history rather than just swooning in front of them.

    And since you don’t even seem to understand the difference between the value you place on literature and the value you place on *instruction* in literature, perhaps humility is a good start.

  39. Michael E. Lopez says:


    It may be good, by way of providing an example, to swoon a little over LITERATURE (you can even say it in all-caps) in front of children. Children learn to smile by seeing people smile. Children learn kindness by observing and receiving kindness.

    Children learn *about* literature by having others teach it to them. (Or by reading it themselves… but why would they?)

    Children learn to love art and literature by seeing others love it.

    Just a thought.

  40. Michael E. Lopez says:

    And before you start in with “But I’m not saying don’t swoon… I’m saying swoon-and-teach”, I’d point out that the title of this blog post is not “The Uselessness of Evidence” but “The Limits of Evidence”.

    Your express claim was that it’s hubris to think that your enthusiasm for a subject will translate into students’ enthusiasm. You seem to be conflating enthusiasm for X and learning about X. The two seem to me to be distinct, and to have different relationships to the concept of evidence.

  41. Nice try Diana but by my logic anywhere evidence isn’t welcomed is a place “anything beyond evidence will devolve into a dismissal of all evidence:”

    The public education system has gotten along quite nicely without resort to the need to prove that the institution was performing effectively at any level.

    Some kids graduated and went on to Harvard or MIT, some didn’t but so what? The funding continued to flow and indeed burgeon so something was being done right even if it wasn’t education. Maybe education was being done right but no one knew because no one was measuring.

    Looks like those happy times are coming to an end.

    Some things are going to be measured and the main hope of the folks who hanker for the days when nothing about the public education system was being measured is to try to obfuscate the issue sufficiently so that the measuring instruments always produce the proper results. That’s the response that’s gotten rave reviews among state departments of education who, intellectual titans one and all, came up with the brilliant strategy of “adjusting” the standards so that meeting them consisted of doing nothing new. Fills you with a feeling of confidence that intellectual giants of such immense courage are overseeing public education doesn’t it?

    The reason, as I’ve already written and you’ve chosen to ignore, is that while there’s that about education that’s most assuredly measurable there may that about education that isn’t measurable. The latter is used as a defense against the former. Since there may be factors related to education that aren’t measurable the measurable factors must be discounted.

    If you’re not among those that buy that point of view it’s pretty clearly both self-serving and nonsensical. There’s a two-syllable vulgarism that neatly encapsulates the common response to such a self-serving rationalization.

    If you care about the stated outcome – education – you measure everything you can measure and worry about relevance when you’ve got some information on which to make decisions. If you don’t care about the outcome then information will only illuminate that better kept obscured.

  42. “The Limits of Evidence”.

    I still don’t know what this evidence is for and exactly where the cut-off point is in terms of what goes on in class or what goes on in deciding what classes a school should offer versus what goes on in deciding what classes each student should take.

    What, exactly, is the problem?

    A discussion of evidence might be interesting in terms of how much leeway a teacher should have over the syllabus or what goes on in class. However, the original post seemed to have more to do with whether a whole course needs evidence (of what?) before it is offered. Offered as a requirement or offered as an elective? What seems to drive a lot of schools is evidence that kids are happy, active learners, no matter what the content and expectations.

    Most teachers have plenty of leeway over dreamy tangents in class. A more common problem is that there is too much leeway and variability between two teachers who teach the same course; so much so that it affects the non-dreamy goals. Is this post supposed to be an argument for not trying to quantify what it is that a teacher does or the goals that have to be achieved? If so, then give an example showing the details.

    Allison makes a good argument that many seemingly fuzzy topics can be directly related to basic skills and knowledge that can be quantified, like grammar, rhetoric, and history. As everyone knows, the big problem in modern education is the devaluation of these basic skills. Many feel that all it takes is a little bit of dreamy motivation and the basics will take care of themselves. That, and sending home letters telling parents to work on math facts with their kids. Teachers get to do the fun, dreamy stuff and parents have to ensure that learning actually gets done. Leave the hard evidence (and consequences) to the parents.

    The only kind of motivation that really works is the kind that motivates hard work. Otherwise, you’re back to eating mathematical Twinkies in a couple of days.

    So, I’ll put this discussion in the same box as discussions of “balance”. Educators argue with generalities to get parents to go away, and then they decide on all of the details.

  43. I come at this discussion from a different angle. I’m not a teacher, but am married to one. So my thoughts tend to analyze what other people are saying in light of my own experiences.

    For me, Milton and Dante are way too advanced for the average high school student. Sure, I can think of some of the girls in my high school who would understand and maybe even enjoy them, but I can’t think of any boys who would have. We simply have a different skill set and learn that fuzzy stuff at a lower pace. For that matter, Freshman English in college was a bit over my head, too. It concentrated on literature, and although I’ve always been a voracious reader (the only book I had to read for a book report in high school was Ben Franklin’s Autobiography; I had already read books in the other required categories), the analysis of literature was hampered by limited life experiences. I also didn’t like writing, primarily because holding the pen hurt my fingers (which is why I switched to fountain pens in high school, even for math, which wasn’t a problem because I didn’t make any mistakes), but secondarily because nobody taught me HOW to construct an essay, an analysis, or etc. until my 10th grade history teacher showed us at the end of the year how to answer an essay question for the Regents Exam: choose the theme for your essay and encapsulate it in one sentence. Then choose three main points to prove your theme. Flesh out the main points with a sentence or two. Use a one sentence conclusion at the end. Bingo. Short and sweet, and absolutely NO ONE ever teaching me “English” had pointed that out. Nor did they in the future.

    I also tend to have a hard time with the so-called Liberal Arts curriculum. Sure, I enjoy the topics, but I couldn’t get A’s in them to save my life. And they count towards things such as Dean’s List, other honors, etc. I finally dropped out of college, because my cum was going down, down, down. When I went back to college a couple of years later, I embarked on an engineering curriculum and finished top of my class, in large part because I didn’t have to take any liberal arts courses, having already had more than the average engineering student is required to take.

    Later I went to law school, and placed in the top third of my class, but I still don’t know to this day why I got A’s in some law classes and B’s and C’s in others.

    Bottom line: kids should be exposed to liberal arts themes, but shouldn’t always be graded on them. Too much of the grade is based on ability rather than on taught skills, e.g., art classes–those kids who could draw got A’s, while the rest of us who couldn’t, didn’t. And the teacher never taught us how to draw. But I learned my primary colors, and I’m glad I did, but I don’t think we should have been graded on Art. For me, English skills fall into the same category as Art.

  44. Diana Senechal says:

    I was talking about the teaching of literature. I was defending it for all the good reasons plus things that go beyond reason. That is all, and that has nothing to do with fluff or “dreamy motivation.”

    Nor does dreaminess have anything to do with low standards. Some of the dreamiest people do the hardest work, because they are immersed in what they do.

  45. Rex, your post is non-sensical. Exactly! Let’s get rid of English because you weren’t good at it.

  46. Diana Senechal says:

    The discussion on this thread has come to rest, and people have moved on to other posts–but I wanted to respond to a few who posted thoughtful comments. There were many.

    Don Bemont–I went to a reunion recently, and what did we remember from 25 years ago? The songs we had sung in chorus together, the books we had read together–and all sorts of funny, sad, delightful things that happened along the way as we worked hard, learned, and thought. We remembered the teachers’ love of the subject and their toughness–both. But you are right–it would be impossible to say with certainty what was most important, though some things appear to stay with us more than others.

    Michael E. Lopez–your comments are still on my mind. I have been thinking about your point that some students benefit from “dreamy” teachers, others from practical, disciplined teachers. You are right that a student may need both at different times–and I would add that a teacher can also be both. Most of the dreamy people I know have been incredibly hard-working and disciplined, immersed in what they do.

    Beyond that, I have been thinking about your point about egotism. Are dreamy teachers by nature egotistical? Yes and no. They are egotistical in the sense that they have the nerve to teach (up to a point) on their own terms. But they also have the ability to lose themselves in the subject, and to regard it as greater than themselves, and that is not egotistical.

    Incidentally, I brought in the example from the classroom not to congratulate myself for my teaching (which, like many teachers’, has some good and can also use some improvement) but to show how powerful literature can be on its own terms. I was teaching Literature Through Theater, so I was not doing anything out of the ordinary for that class. It actually wasn’t about me. It was about the poem and the students.

    Expat Teacher: wonderful points. I wonder why “dreamy” (a word I didn’t use once in the post) is ever equated with mediocrity or sentimentality. Beauty is not easy to contend with. It is not readily understood. It takes much hard work to grasp certain kinds of beauty, and some beauty is found in the hard work itself. And sometimes beauty is palpable but elusive–the formula that for an instant makes sense, the poem we understand in flashes. Those flashes make us want to keep working and searching.

    SteveH–I think you simply put me in the wrong category. I often rail against vapid group activities, dioramas, posters, and such. I agree with you wholeheartedly that “what seems to drive a lot of schools is evidence that kids are happy, active learners, no matter what the content and expectations.” I was arguing for the specificity and challenge of literature, not the abandonment of specificity or challenge! I was simply saying that not all of the study of literature can be justified by its purposes or outcomes.

    Rex–perhaps, if students begin studying literature in elementary school, it won’t be quite as daunting by the time they get to high school. Milton and Dante are a bit advanced indeed; the ancient Greek dramatists may be a better choice for ninth graders. The language is direct, and the themes are stark. It’s hard not be taken by Sophocles’ Antigone or Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

    Andrew Bell–I would suggest that memorization and meaning are not opposed. When we memorize a poem, we internalize its rhythms and cadences. We carry it in our minds and ponder it here and there. And drill is essential to doing many things well. I had a next door neighbor who was a professional jazz guitarist, and sometimes I could hear him playing single notes over and over for hours. I studied cello for many years and now can’t stand to “sort of” do it. Either I practice daily for several hours (with one hour devoted to technical exercise) or I don’t. (Right now I don’t.)

    Robert Wright, I enjoyed your Carroll reference. We can certainly go faster and faster–and what good would it do us? It would likely end in a screaming match. People would not listen to each other–they’d just react. They wouldn’t have time to consider who another person was or what another person meant. And there would be little time for difficult literature.

    That is all for now. I will keep on thinking about these things.

  47. “I was arguing for the specificity and challenge of literature, not the abandonment of specificity or challenge!”

    And that requires evidence. It requires that you at least try for evidence. It means that you separate evidence of value from evidence of effectiveness.

    Although you may not be able to argue the value of studying Shakespeare, you can try to offer the evidence (as you seem to do) for the value of memorization. Although evidence is not proof, the goal for evidence must not be abandoned. There are no limits.

  48. “There are no limits.”

    Perhaps there are no limits to human knowledge. I’m thinking we’re a long way from determining that. However, I think we do know that there are human limits to applying knowledge. Is it more reliable for teachers to always have in mind that they are teaching according to some set of discovered principles. Or is it more reliable for teachers to have in mind that they love what they are doing and teach by those same principles unconsciously. I think this is exactly the story the Diana related. My general understanding of human performance leads me to concur. Perhaps you know different.