Seneca, “idle busyness,” and relevance

How relevant is “relevance” to good curriculum?

Earlier this term, I had my tenth-grade students read Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life” (De brevitate vitae). The letter contains the phrase desidiosa occupatio, which could be translated as “idle occupation” or “idle busyness.” The students seized on this phrase and cited it frequently.

In this letter to Paulinus (presumably his father-in-law, who oversaw Rome’s grain supply and was old enough to retire), Seneca argues against trivial occupations and for the study of philosophy. People complain that life is short, says Seneca, but it is actually long. People make it short by wasting it. He gives the example of the man getting a haircut:

Tell me, would you say that those men are at leisure who pass many hours at the barber’s while they are being stripped of whatever grew out the night before? while a solemn debate is held over each separate hair? while either disarranged locks are restored to their place or thinning ones drawn from this side and that toward the forehead? How angry they get if the barber has been a bit too careless, just as if he were shearing a real man! How they flare up if any of their mane is lopped off, if any of it lies out of order, if it does not all fall into its proper ringlets! Who of these would not rather have the state disordered than his hair? Who is not more concerned to have his head trim rather than safe? Who would not rather be well barbered than upright?

Seneca provides many more examples of “idle busyness”—leaders embroiled in battles and public affairs; men concerned with the ornamentation of their lives rather than the essence; and, worst of all, people who give themselves over to wine and lust. All of these people, in occupying themselves with many things, fail to accomplish anything of importance, as true accomplishment requires dedication and focus.

Finally, everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things—eloquence cannot, nor the liberal studies—since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.

What way of life, according to Seneca, allows for dedication to the important things? The immersion in philosophical works, or works of wisdom (sapientia).

Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex ever age to their own; all the years that have gone ore them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life. By other men’s labours we are led to the sight of things most beautiful that have been wrested from darkness and brought into light; from no age are we shut out, we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam.

My students said that they could relate it to their lives; they cited Facebook, TV, and other kinds of “idle busyness.” One student told me that this letter inspired her to change her priorities. Now, this sort of “relating,” while in many ways illuminating, has its drawbacks; students might overlook parts of the letter that don’t quite mesh with their understanding. Take this, for instance:

And what of those who are engaged in composing, hearing, and learning songs, while they twist the voice, whose best and simplest movement Nature designed to be straightforward, into the meanderings of some indolent tune, who are always snapping their fingers as they beat time to some song they have in their head, who are overheard humming a tune when they have been summoned to serious, often even melancholy, matters? These have not leisure, but idle occupation.

I, for one, take exception to this, and that is part of the point of reading. If Seneca’s points were exactly my own, then I would learn nothing from his letter. What is wrong with snapping your fingers to some tune, I ask, if that is what you love to do? But Seneca is not talking about what you love to do. He is not saying, “do what matters to you.” Though the letter is to one person, and therefore not framed as universal advice, Seneca unequivocally ranks some activities above others. That stumbling point (for many a modern reader) makes the letter more difficult and in some ways more interesting.

What does that say about “relevance?” Many educators insist that a curriculum should reflect the students’ own experience and cultural backgrounds, at least in part. Now, it’s easy to scoff at this, but it isn’t entirely wrong. It’s just a limited version of a truth. What’s most important is that students find meaning in subject matter (or lack of meaning, if that is its point). This meaning might not apply to their lives, at least not directly. It may not translate easily or completely into everyday language. It certainly doesn’t have to boil down to a maxim or moral. Meaning is the sense or significance of something.

Now, sometimes the meaning is immediate. You read a story and recognize the situation. You may even recognize the characters right away. The life of the story seems close to your own life. In other cases, the meaning doesn’t come for a while. You struggle a bit with the language and ideas. But eventually something comes clear, and with time, still more.

While students may enjoy “relating” to subject matter, they must learn to grapple with difficult and unfamiliar things. The relating may lead to the grappling but doesn’t do so automatically.  Nor is the former a prerequisite for the latter. The former does not require much education; the latter does. Doesn’t it follow, then, that schools should focus on taking students to meaning, not on making things immediately relevant?

Many districts aren’t ready for new standards

Only half of school districts are working on implementing the Common Core Standards their states have adopted, according to a Center on Education Policy survey. Some are waiting for state guidance on how to adapt curriculum, instruction and assessment and add learning materials.

“What it says to me is that there is a large percentage that don’t seem to understand the train that is about to hit them,” said William H. Schmidt, a Michigan State University education professor who is conducting his own research on districts’ readiness for the new standards. “That, to me, is somewhat scary.”

Superintendents disagree on whether the new standards are more demanding, reports Education Week.

Fewer than 60 percent of the districts said they view the new standards as more rigorous than their states’ previous guidelines. Fewer still—55 percent in math, and 58 percent in English/language arts—said they believed the standards would improve students’ skills.

Two-thirds of the districts anticipate the need for new curriculum materials in math, and 56 percent anticipate a similar need for the literacy standards. About half the respondents said they thought the new standards would demand “fundamental changes” in instruction.

Surveying superintendents overstates districts’ readiness for the new standards, Schmidt told Ed Week.  “In his work surveying 700 districts, he said, he has found that teachers know less about the standards than do staff members at district headquarters.”

 

Big, bad Brockton High turns around

Shocked by horrible test scores on Massachusetts’ state exam, teachers at Brockton High began meeting on Saturdays to discuss how to improve the school. Brockton High, with 4,100 mostly low-income, mostly black and Hispanic students, is a success story, reports the New York Times. For the last two years, the school outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools in improving English Language Arts scores. (In overall performance, Brockton is below average, but much higher than it used to be.)

Shamed by low scores in 1999, the teachers’ committee asked every educator in the building to teach reading, writing, speaking and reasoning skills. The administration stood aside and let the committee take the lead. In 2004, Susan Szachowicz, one of the teachers who led the committee,  took over as principal.

Writing exercises took many forms, but encouraged students to think methodically. A science teacher, for example, had her students write out, step by step, how to make a sandwich, starting with opening the cupboard to fetch the peanut butter, through washing the knife once the sandwich was made. Other writing exercises, of course, were much more sophisticated.

The schools elaborate tracking system, which had five levels, was eliminated because low-track students weren’t learning.

As scores rose, teachers bought in to the schoolwide focus on literacy. There were no mass firings of teachers and no union opposition. Szachowicz works within the union contract.

Athletics had traditionally been valued above academic success, and coaches had routinely pressured teachers to raise the grades of star players to maintain their eligibility. Dr. Szachowicz said she put an end to any exceptions.

But the school retained all varsity sports, as well as its several bands and choruses, extensive drama program and scores of student clubs.

Teachers continue to meet on Saturday to discuss improving the school. The priority now is improving math instruction.

Brockton High is one of the schools profiled in How High Schools Become Exemplary, by Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard economist who studies the minority achievement gap. Exemplary schools share a key characteristic, the report concludes: “Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.”

Colleges spend less on teaching

With the exception of private research universities, most colleges are spending less on teaching, reports the Delta Cost Project.  From USA Today.

Most of the nation’s colleges are gradually paring back their investments in classroom teaching, an analysis of federal data shows. And all colleges have in recent years been spending a greater share of their revenue on expenses other than instruction, including computing centers, student services, administrative salaries and lawn care.

Overall, spending declined or remained flat from 2002 to 2006, the report found. Most private four-year colleges now spend more on administrative and academic support than on instruction. Research universities, protected by large endowments, have bucked the trend but those endowments’ values have fallen with the stock market.