The Work of the Mind

2018 was the year of the Stoic Journal. I benefited greatly from the bite-sized but profound selections from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus and from the daily prompts to write something of my own reflections on them. Not coincidentally, I think 2018 was also the year that taught me how much I need more discipline in the management of my emotions. Sometimes you only learn that the hard way.

This year I’m going a bit deeper by reading the companion volume, The Daily Stoic, as well as supplementing with additional readings from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Today’s passage prompted a few thoughts on the sequence of the seven exercises that Epictetus posits as the “proper work of the mind:” choice, refusal, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent.

I think that the order of these exercises is important. Making choices is the first thing we have to do. Choice and refusal are two sides of the same mental action, and (at least in the English translation) they both seem to be cognitive functions.

Yearning and repulsion are a pair as well, but these fall more into the realm of the moral “tastes” as described in Jonathan Haidt’s indispensible The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Disgust is one of the six pre-rational moral dimensions, and its opposite would be attraction.

Preparation and purpose seem again to fall into the realm of cognitive functions. We normally think of purpose as necessarily preceding preparation (at least that’s what most self-help gurus teach). But what if it’s not? More on that below.

Assent – how exactly is this different than choice? Faithful readers will not be shocked that I suggest we turn to the original language for some insights.

The verb translated above as “to choose” is ὁρμᾶν. Its meaning is closer to stir up, set in motion, or simply, start. The word choice in English implies a weighing of options, pro and con. But that’s not what the Greek suggests.

Which gets us to how this might be different than “assent.” The verb in Greek is συνκατατίθημι, to set down together or at the same time with. It’s used to describe voting the same way as someone else or entirely agreeing with someone else. Assent is an extended meaning, and in the passage there is no suggestion of someone else with whom we may agree.

We assume that the order of our actions looks like this: deliberate choice of purpose, careful planning of tactics, execution of tactics, success.

I think Epictetus is suggesting something very different. We have a pre-rational impulse, whether for or against a particular object (ὁρμᾶν / ἀφορμᾶν), which then sets into motion a feeling of either disgust or yearning, which in turn leads to us preparing for our end, which is only really clear to us after we’ve made the preparations, and then finally, we actively vote for this purpose (which was already set in motion by our pre-rational consciousness) with our rational faculty.

What is far more important than thinking we can plan our lives or even our short/medium/long term goals is training that part of ourselves that is really in charge — the source of our impulses and yearnings.

Epictetus says that only corrupt κρίματα (“decisions”) can pollute the mind. κρίμα is explicitly a word used of weighing and judging in Greek. The seven works of the mind add up to κρίματα.

Corrupt κρίματα happen when somewhere in that chain of impulses and mental activity there is a flaw. If our first impulse is bad that can lead us to assent to a wrong action. If we are not repulsed by a bad idea, that can also lead to a bad outcome. In other words, all along the way, we have to be aware that our judgement is subject to corruption.

In the new year I want to work on finding ways to become more conscious of each of these steps in the process of forming judgements. This includes becoming more aware of the moral dimensions that motivate me, as well as more empathetic to those those that motivate others.

Trial by Fire

In August, 1997 I arrived at college with a lot of curiosity but without a lot of direction.  I knew that I wanted to study history.  As an avid numismatist with a specific interest in ancient coins, I wanted to know enough Latin to read inscriptions with facility.

Reverse of silver denarius, struck by Marcus Antonius in 42 B.C. to celebrate the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.

So far, so nerdy.  I enrolled in Latin with the vague idea that archaeologists of classical sites needed to know Latin, and that maybe that would be my path.

I found that Latin was really hard, at least for me.  This had a lot to do with the fact that I lacked study skills and was pretty bad at managing my time.  Throw into the mix that on the afternoon my sweet family was moving me into the dorm, there was a fire.  My poor parents had to drive all the way home from Michigan to Texas knowing that I would be spending a good part of my first semester in temporary housing.  

It was a fun but chaotic first few weeks.  It felt like summer camp with some classes thrown in.  Not exactly the best conditions for developing strong habits, but I don’t blame the fire.  Other girls in my situation didn’t struggle as badly — the far more likely culprit was my lack of discipline.

To struggle academically was a new thing for me.  I was homeschooled, and while I had taken community college classes, co-op classes, and a variety of correspondence graded courses, I really hadn’t had to try very hard.  I read voraciously, listened to BBC Radio 4, tinkered, and generally spent a lot of time pursuing my interests (see above, numismatics).

There is much to recommend homeschooling, but I will say that there is one big potential downside — it can incentivize not sticking with subjects that are worthwhile but difficult.  I think the wide availability of online courses and diffusion of hybrid homeschooling programs, like Classical Conversations, has largely mitigated this risk.  

Furthermore, my difficulties in Latin really didn’t relate to how much I wanted to learn it.  I truly enjoyed the subject and the classes.  

But enjoying and wanting to learn weren’t enough.  I wasn’t doing the work.  I was still dabbling.

Latin required a sort of precision that I simply hadn’t had to master before.  But I realized that if I wanted to learn the language, I’d have to put in the work.  It wasn’t impossible, but it would be hard.

Over Christmas Break, in between shifts working as a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant, I (finally) made and studied flashcards for vocabulary and grammatical forms.  I went back and looked at the quizzes and tests I’d flubbed and corrected my errors.

That was a pivotal four-ish weeks of my life.  When I returned for the Spring term, my grades dramatically improved, not just in Latin but in my other subjects.

Why?  I think it was because I realized that while professors could give grades and assignments, I was the owner of my education.  Only I could decide what and how to alter my long-term memory.  They could (and did) inspire, encourage, and correct, but only I could sit down and do the work.

I found that, once I put the time in, Latin became fun — so much fun that I decided to take Greek the following fall.  The rest, as they say, is history.  

I credit that Latin class and the faculty of the Hillsdale Classics Department, especially Professor Joe Garnjobst, with helping me to take a critical step forward in my maturity as a human being.  It was only the beginning, but as I learned there, initium dimidium facti.

My hope is that we who have a role in education, whether as parents, teachers, tutors, or school leaders, will remember that what we are doing is formation.  We are helping other human beings accomplish not just higher levels of knowledge of the world, but ideally, a better understanding of themselves in the world.

We don’t really know what we’re capable of until we bump up against challenges.  May we take our jobs so seriously that we only remove the obstacles that a child truly can’t move, and leave in place the ones that only seem insurmountable. 

Home for Christmas

Last week I shared a few thoughts on the vital importance of the books that we select to read aloud to children.  Today I’d like to reflect a little on how being read to was a key way that we got through a difficult transition, and became stronger as a family.  

Regular readers of this blog know that Mom’s recordkeeping from back in our homeschooling days was pretty meticulous.  I don’t think the list above is exhaustive, but it is representative of the kinds of books Mom wanted us to experience in an audio format.  While we were reading a lot on our own, listening to Mom read us stories was different and special – it gave us a shared experience with her and with each other that formed memories and references that we share. 

I got to thinking about all of this because of an entry on the second page for December 1990 – The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  Just in case you decide to check it out — let me be clear, this book is not Great Literature.  It’s a silly but moving little tale about generosity of spirit and the True Meaning of Christmas.  Yet its warm and genuinely funny observations about how self-righteous we can all be made it an instant classic in the Davis household.

1990 was a memorable year for us.  In November, we moved to central Texas from central Florida, and Mom and Dad were doing their best to help us with the transition by creating “new traditions” for us as a family.  Not being close to grandparents, aunts, and uncles was tough on all of us.  We felt (and were) very far away from home.

Mom read the book in installments, beginning on the first Sunday of Advent.  Dad did the Scripture readings and let us light the candles on the Advent wreath.  (The evangelical churches we attended growing up didn’t emphasize these rituals, so Dad shared the tradition with us at home).

At the risk of sounding a little sacrilegious, Mom’s readings from TBCPE kind of stole the show.  What made it so great was that from the moment she started reading the memorable opening paragraph to the end, she was always (unsuccessfully) trying to suppress laughter:

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.  They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse”

Laughing together as a family is one of the things that made that season so special.  We could have read the book individually and silently on our own, and it would never have stuck in our collective memory the way that it did when Mom read it to us.  

Culture thrives by means of shared rituals — sacred and secular.  Mom and Dad helped all of us put down new roots in a new home by giving us meaningful and memorable stories.  There was a kind of perfect balance of solemnity and mirthfulness that our Advent Sundays embodied.  You know, a little lesson in the Incarnation itself.

As Gladys Herdman reminds us, “Hey!  Unto you a child is born!”

Education is Curation

What we select, what we leave out, what we do, what we don’t do.  These are the essential ingredients of education.

We are swimming in an ocean of information.  But there has always been more to know than any one person can possibly know.  We are just more aware of that now.  We have better tools to access the far-flung, abstruse, and recherché.

Which calls into question our notion of what “knowing” anything means. The classic argument against teaching that focuses on particular content (“knowledge rich”) is that it’s pointless to spend time in second grade learning about, say, the War of 1812 when a) who cares and b) if you need/want to learn about it, just ask Siri.

Book: Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras – This illustration is from the 1816 book, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras. The source holder of this book is the U.S. Library of Congress., Public Domain, Link

This argument doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and mostly because background knowledge is just another way of saying “literacy.”

Allow me to make a stronger case for the “knowledge acquisition is a waste of time” crowd than the one above.  This one is based on the idea that we don’t know what we think we know, and that if you think you know everything about the War of 1812 because you had a unit on it in second grade, you will be less curious/more falsely confident.

Now that is a good point.  Which is why I think (and I think most people on either side of this issue do) that education has to be about more than just the facts.  But here’s the thing – the facts are a pretty darn good starting point to discuss the big ideas and questions that have been part of our human experience for millenia.

There is a lot of belly-aching about fake news these days.  And it mostly comes from people who are worried that we no longer have any consensus on the facts.  These are sometimes the same people who (under different political regimes) argue in favor of constructivist models of education – i.e., students learn best through discovery and through constructing meaning with their peers in groups.  The same crowd that gets worked into a lather about the “industrial model” of education.  The same crowd that hopes the government will regulate speech because we’re all just too stupid now to distinguish truth from lies.

Hmm. I wonder if there is a correlation between schools de-emphasizing knowledge (as opposed to “strategies” or “skills” or “critical thinking” or “practical” subjects) and our sense that there is a crisis of both civic life and civics education.

I don’t believe that all schools have to teach the same curriculum for schools to do a better job of teaching citizens that facts matter.  It’s not the explicit but the implicit curriculum of schools that has taught Americans to care less about facts, knowledge, or what a person says that matters, and to put a far higher premium on subjective interpretations or constructions of reality.

Learning that there was a war that happened in 1812 may seem pointless.  But if a school’s curriculum is otherwise healthy, it will use this fact to help students understand, as they grow more mature, that our republic is fragile.  It has been from basically the beginning.  Sometimes the threats have been external, sometimes internal.  And this realization should point us towards the virtue of moderation.  And a shared sense of moderation is a pretty good basis for a civil society.

What we select, what we leave out, what we do, what we don’t do.  These are the essential ingredients of education.

Reading Aloud

I wrote this quick post Monday before I had a chance to see Daniel Willingham’s piece in the NYT on the same theme – please check it out.  It’s brilliant and balanced, as you’d expect.

Audio story-telling is blowing up.  According to a June 28 story from Forbes:

“Audiobooks are up 29.5% in net revenue over 2016 according to the Association of American Publishers and up 22.7% in unit sales over 2016 by the Audio Publishers Association’s estimate.”

And it’s not just audiobooks – according to the same story:

“podcast revenues clocked in a $314 million, still small but up 86 percent from the year before,”

Moreover, just take a look at what apps are doing – for instance, it seems “sleep stories” are having a moment – consider podcasts like Sleep with Me and the catalog of bedtime stories from the app Calm, both for adults and kids.

Does this phenomenon signal an end of literacy?

There is an academic controversy concerning whether it was a norm in the ancient world to read aloud.  Whether it was or not, it was certainly the case that private readings of poetry were a common form of entertainment, especially among the elite.  Public recitations, speeches, and of course, theater, were also forms of amusement for wider and more popular audiences.

It may be that we are simply rediscovering the power of the voice to make stories come alive.  Great audiobook narrators bring out meaning and flourishes that we may miss by reading words on a page.

Yet, undoubtedly, listening to a book does not give us as easy an opportunity to stop and ponder as reading the text.

Both modalities bring richness to our reading lives, and perhaps the next revolution will be a technology that can more easily coordinate the experiences (Audible’s WhisperSync is a great start, but it does require that you purchase the book twice – in audio and Kindle formats).  Perhaps head-ups displays synced to ear buds will be the next iteration of reading.

In the world of edu-speak, the books that teachers read to students, typically from kindergarten to 2nd grade, before most students can read text fluently, are called “read-alouds.”  I think there are few areas in education that need to be more carefully considered than the books presented to children in these formative settings.

Often the approach is to give them stories that are “relatable.”  And certainly, there is nothing wrong with sprinkling in these kinds of tales.  But the opportunity is wasted if children’s imaginations aren’t stretched a little to include magical or far-flung places and times.

Think about how powerful it is to read a book to a child  — you are communicating that not only have you chosen a book for a child, but that you think it’s so important that you are reading it aloud to them, allowing yourself and them a chance to be immersed in a story.

That’s an awe-inspiring interaction.  Let’s approach these teaching moments with careful thought to the lessons, both implicit and explicit, that students pick up from the stories we share with them.

On Seneca & Sasse

This is a re-post from a blog I wrote at Ricochet.com.

As I watched the livestream of Senator Ben Sasse’s keynote address kicking off this year’s ExcelInEd Conference, I was reminded of a fairly famous Latin phrase: non scholae sed vitae discimus – we learn not for school but for life.

Senator Sasse is a smart guy, a former college president, and well-read.  I’m a fan of his frequent appearances on Jonah Goldberg’s podcast.  His thesis this morning was “Education and schooling are not the same thing.”  It’s a pretty bold thing to say that to a group of people whose livings depend on … schools.  So kudos to him for speaking the truth.

It’s because I’m a fan and supporter that I thought it was worthwhile to point out a couple of issues that tend to undermine rather than bolster his thesis.  He leads with a talking point that has been used ad naseum by the fans of John Dewey — whom Sasse rightly goes on to critique.

He characterizes the current form of education that we have as based on a “Prussian” model, in which students sit in age-segregated rows and learn primarily through lecture.  He describes it as an “industrial model” of education, designed to maximize social control and prepare students for jobs in factories.  This banality is trotted out by those advocating progressive (i.e. Dewey-an) reforms, such as more group work (“cooperative learning”) and constructivist approaches to learning.

Yet Dewey was Senator Sasse’s target as the popularizer of the “industrial model.”  Something isn’t adding up here.

And, I have to add, this idea that lecture is the primary mode for most student instruction in public schools and that they all sit in rows is a strawman.  Teachers, especially in elementary grades, are taught in schools of education (and therefore heavily influenced by Dewey) that young children should work in groups, precisely in order to achieve the “socializing” effect that Dewey wanted to achieve.  Students would “construct” meaning not based on truth or on facts that the teacher might have been in position to share, but based on interactions and input from their peers.

The old-timey pictures of kids sitting in rows and learning by lecture, well, they exemplified Catholic education in the 19th and part of the 20th centuries.  And guess what?  Up to mid-century, these schools may have been the best poverty intervention program ever introduced into American cities.  It was a school like this (St. Pius X in Savannah, GA) that shaped and set Justice Clarence Thomas on his path in life, for instance.

Anyway, back to Dewey.  He had a strong distrust/dislike of Catholic education, a point which Sasse correctly invokes.  Dewey did not like the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, an older and (yes) classical notion of education.

When people who favor educational freedom, revolutionizing funding structures, and generally shaking up the way we think about what school (i.e., my tribe) trot out the “industrial model” argument, it sets my teeth on edge.  Lots and lots of schools used (and still use) a lecture mode, with a teacher doing teacher things, and students doing student things, like paying attention, taking notes, and asking/answering questions.  A lot of these were Catholic schools.  I truly don’t think you can blame this convenient set-up (which we know dates back millenia, v.i.) for all the problems with education in this country.

Relief found in Neumagen near Trier, a teacher with three students (180-185 AD) Photo: Wikipedia / Shakko

The bigger issue is that we ask schools to do too much.  This goes back to Dewey’s articulation of the idea that the school should be the vehicle through which the child is “socialized.”  And these social ends tend to be measurable outcomes like employment.

This is the verse in the hymn where conservatives and libertarians join the choir — obviously, employment/economic productivity is an outcome that we want, and since taxpayers are footing the bill whether someone learns to read or ends up incarcerated, let’s make sure schools are focused on skills-acquisition.

You hear a lot these days about career and technical education (CTE) and I’m very much in favor of there being lots more available.  But I’ve also heard industry leaders basically make the Bismarkian case that public school systems should be responsive to their workforce needs (based on 5 and 10 year projections).  They tend to be the same folks who talk about 21st Century Skills and Critical Thinking.  Because these seem to support the idea that students will be employable/economically productive after graduation, lots of education reformers (especially on the right, broadly understood) get on board.

Other flavors prefer schools to be in the business of making good citizens or creating entrepreneurs.  These too, are both a little too narrow and too broad.

Which brings me back to that Latin phrase.  Guess what?  While that phrase is attributed to Seneca the Younger, it was actually an inversion of what he wrote.  He was anticipating an argument against a literary (classical) education from his correspondent, Lucilius.  These letters, by the way, have gotten additional attention lately given an English edition that Tim Ferriss recently published, based on Gummere’s translation.

So who inverted the phrase?  That’s right.  Germans.

It is exceedingly easy to say that we should learn things for life and not for school.  But by placing “life” or “practical considerations” as the end of education, those in power are predetermining the course that families, absent a context of full choice, can make.  There are choices that schools and school systems make about what is out and what is in – the selection of some texts, the absence of others.  And if the system decides that its job is to fit students for “life” (whatever the trendy or cronyistic definition of skills happens to be at the moment), the results will be poor.

My Stoic point of view may be showing here, but the point of education ought to be self-governance.  Socialization, in the Deweyan sense, is the exact opposite of this goal.  I urge my fellow travelers to avoid adopting the progressive the “industrial model” line of argumentation (complete with invocation of paper tigers like drill/kill, sage on the stage, etc.), and realize that when they make arguments in favor of schools that will adapt students better to a new age of disruption, they are simply following in the footsteps of Dewey, and replacing one measurable, socially acceptable goal with another.

Senator Sasse rounds out his talk by reminding his audience that students “aren’t widgets, they are souls.”  And I think this is a far more compelling line of argumentation to pursue.  Since it is folks like him who shape the narrative of policy discussions, I’d urge him to resist the use hackneyed progressive tropes about “industrial education” and instead make the case from first principles.

The moral high ground in this debate is that parents and families should be in charge of defining both the end towards which and the means by which they educate their children.  Some may just choose to put their kids in desks that are in (heaven forbid) rows.

What does practice make?

One of the striking points I took away from Anders Ericsson’s Peak is that he establishes a very clear distinction between knowledge and skills, with a strong preference for developing skills.  Towards the end of the book, he suggests that humanity may have mis-named itself — instead of homo sapiens, we ought to say that we are homo exercens.

(Faithful readers can find an obligatory classics-nerd quibble over the nomenclature at the end of this post).

Developing skills as opposed to simply having knowledge of a topic is clearly the approach we’d want to take in domains that have clear skill-based milestones and markers of achievement.  These include the domains explored in Peak — chess, violin, memory competitions.  They would also include foreign language and math, I think.  The techniques he describes are incredibly useful for developing expertise in these kinds of domains.

What they do not include is reading comprehension.  And here’s where it’s important to get our terms right.  When advocates make the case for knowledge-rich curriculum, it is inevitably met by those who counter that exploration and active learning are the most effective ways for students to grow.  And they have a point.  Wonder is the only beginning of the love of wisdom (this line from Plato’s Theatetus is often misquoted as “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”).  That’s why knowledge-rich curriculum advocates should at the same time insist on methodologies that support inquiry, such as Socratic seminars and class discussions around “big questions.”  Wit & Wisdom’s ELA program is to be commended for incorporating these practices very thoughtfully.

For math, it’s becoming clear that personalized learning platforms, which rely on purposeful practice algorithms, can really boost students’ basic math abilities.  Incorporating well-designed programs that support students in their efforts to develop automaticity seems like a smart move for most schools.  I hypothesize that it will result in more students feeling confident enough to pursue higher math and science.

The same kind of approach can be used for developing some basic skills in foreign languages, where vocabulary knowledge is a steep obstacle for students seeking to read a text or express an idea.  Gabriel Wyner has done some amazing work showing how it can be overcome through using digital flashcard platforms like Anki that use research-based review/repetition models to ensure full mastery.  Speaking and writing fluently are different matters – they are not something you can achieve through flashcards alone.  Having a fluent speaker/writer of the target language to give you deliberate practice using the vocabulary you’ve built is crucial.  Duolingo is great for vocab-building, and is really starting to build out its capabilities for supporting conversations with native speakers.

But it’s simply a categorical error to argue that reading comprehension can be effectively taught in the same way.  Decoding, yes – Direct Instruction in phonics is pretty much as skills-based as you can possibly get, and it works.

If you’re interested in the research supporting the claim that reading comprehension is not a “skill,” my former boss, Jason Caros, does a really good job summarizing it here.

As promised, I’d like to go back to the distinction Ericsson draws between homo sapiens and homo exercens for a moment.

From Peak, p. 258:

The small issue I take here is that “knowing” is an inadequate translation of sapiens.  That could have been covered with sciensSapiens is from the verb sapio, the original meaning of which was to have a taste for, savor.  Savor is itself a derivative, as is the Spanish sabor.  It’s the root of the word sapientia, which the Romans used to translate σοφία.

The Latin language associated the idea of wisdom with having a taste for something.  I really like that.  To me, having a taste for something really does capture something essential about the characteristic of wisdom.  A wise person has something that we used to call discernment.  It’s more than just knowing something.

You build up a taste for something by repeated exposure and reflection, by talking about it with others who appreciate the same thing, and seeking to experience the best manifestations of that thing.

Perhaps the origin of sapiens is a useful reminder that wisdom emerges from a broad range of areas (domains) in which we have, if not mastery, at least facility.

Keeping a clear the distinction between what we can learn to do via skill-building and what we can discern via knowledge-building is essential in debates about approaches to literacy.  We need both modes, and I’m grateful that there are researchers like Ericsson out there showing us the way to increase our human potential through purposeful and deliberate practice.

School Choice, Civics, and Schumpeter

This is a repost from a blog I wrote at Ricochet.com.

I had the opportunity to watch a livestream of an event hosted by the Fordham Institute, Education 20/20. Jonah Goldberg was one of the two featured speakers. It was great, and I appreciated that Michael Petrelli, who was the moderator, highlighted that the best approach to addressing the issue was persuasion.

Mr. Goldberg mentioned that the private schools in his area (the DMV) are highly progressive in their approach, relying on the Howard Zinn narrative of American history. He noted that “school choice” may not solve the issue of kids not learning civics, tying this issue to the larger Schumpeterian phenomenon of the elites failing to pass along the values that made their position and wealth (capitalism itself) possible.

I wanted to bring up a couple of points that I think may be of interest in the context of what seems to be a contradiction – on the one hand, we want to expand the choices that families have in educating their students, and on the other hand, that we are concerned that too many kids are not learning civics.

First, here’s an excerpt from Corey DeAngelis’s recent work on the outcomes for students in private schools, specifically related to positive civics outcomes:

It’s time we set the record straight. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that private school choice improves test scores, high school graduation rates, tolerance, civic engagement, criminality, racial integration, and public school performance. And, of course, all of these benefits come at a lower cost to the taxpayer.

It supports Mr. Goldberg’s hunch that stronger local ties and local control would actually increase the sense of belonging and sense of gratitude, not to mention the “thickness” of social networks.

Second, I wanted to highlight the work of an organization that is doing EXACTLY what Mr. Goldberg identified as a need in schools, and doing it through voluntary, rather than compulsory, means. The Bill of Rights Institute, led by Dr. David Bobb. Their mission, “Educating Individuals about a Free Society,” is focused on reaching middle and high school students, largely in public schools, to read and interpret primary texts, understand both sides of the debate, and have civil and informed conversations. They also do amazing work to educate teachers in founding ideas and documents.

If you are inclined to support and organization that has been dedicated to the importance of civics before it was the latest “sexy” trend in education, you really couldn’t do better than BRI. Also, if you happen to live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and would like to see one of BRI’s events in action, Dr. Bobb will be speaking at the Bill of Rights Day at Founders Classical Academy in Lewisville, TX.

Right Aim, Right Preparation

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been working through the Daily Stoic Journal, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. I’ve been thinking about what ritual I’d like to replace this one with once 2018 is behind us. I’m leaning towards it starting all over again.
I have made progress, but I don’t think I’ll ever exhaust the opportunities that the twice daily prompts give me to reflect purposefully and honestly on my day.
At the beginning of the week, there is a selection of readings from Stoic philosophy on a theme. This week’s is “Balance the Books of Life Daily.” I was struck by this passage:

Epictetus relies on choice as the fundamental building block of this ambitious educational program – “I am your teacher and you are learning in my school.”  As a student, you’ve bought into this journey with me.  As Seth Godin would put it, “people like us do things like this.”

The student and teacher then share the same “right aim.”  That’s crucial, but it’s not enough.  The teacher’s value proposition, so to speak, is that he brings the “right preparation” to the mix.  He can help the student, but only if the student trusts him enough to actually start “diligent practice.”

In a K-12 context I think providing families agency in chosing a school that shares their aims is part of what makes learning stick.  It is the role of parents, at least for younger students, to choose the aims that support their family culture and that in turn support the teacher’s efforts to help the child attain the aims.  The key is that this is a voluntary interaction.  The teacher says “Here is my aim, and if you share it, I can help you get there, too.”  The family or students says, “Yes, that’s our aim, too, please help us get there.”

Would this solve all the problems plaguing our educational system?  Of course not.  But it would help teachers, who would be free to define their goals and methods, and it would help families and students, who could then find the teachers/schools who share their aims.

Epictetus is offering a truly liberal education.  He is relying on the choice of participation to be equally as free.  He invites those who want to get to this summit the opportunity to journey with him, an experienced guide.  His role is quite active — no “guide on the side” nonsense here.  He’s the one who can show you the paths and strong footholds.  But you have to do the work.  And if you want what he wants, and trust his experience, you’ll get there, too.

This is both a thrilling and daunting way to think about what education is.  It involves on the one hand a radical toleration of the idea that families will have different notions of the Good, and on the other hand, a belief that they will all want their children to flourish.  Outside of edge cases, the default position of policy-makers should be to respect this voluntary interaction between families and teachers.

Paradoxically, this will allow teachers to define up what they are trying to do.  They will be able to say things like “My aim is to help you become free, flourishing, and happy – want to join me?” and not simply, “My aim is to provide you with enough test prep to meet our state’s minimum standards.”  As Epictetus makes clear, diligent practice is absolutely necessary.  This is clearly not a call to rid students of the necessity for hard work — quite the opposite.  It is a call to those who see the world the same way to join their talents together in a way that gives meaning to their efforts.

Five Reasons to be Thankful for Twitter

While Twitter can be a narcissistic cesspool of irredeemable depravity, it can also be a total delight. I was reminded of this as I scrolled through my feed this morning while I waited on the oven to finish it’s magic on the bread.

This morning the Fordham Institute posted a link to an intelligent critique of Sir Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools written by Robert Pondiscio back in 2015.  Fortunately, the conversation among education reformers seems increasingly to acknowledge the important contributions that cognitive science can make to this whole teaching and learning endeavor.

Here are my top five education Twitter follows (a little early for a #FF, but just in time to browse instead of a post-turkey nap):

  • Robert Pondiscio (@rpondiscio) posts frequently about the importance of curriculum, school culture, and educational choice.  He uses his platform to keep the conversation in education focused on what matters — helping all students get the kind of education that will enable them to flourish.  BTW, one heart is not enough to express how much I “favorite” this one:

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  • Matthew Ladner (@matthewladner) is the man to follow for the hottest (and smartest) takes on school choice policy, both in Arizona and around the country.  Also, his memes are pretty dank.
  • Lenore Skenazy (@FreeRangeKids ‏) is the founder and president of Free Range Kids, an organization whose mission is to challenge the culture of “safetyism” in parenting and schools.  She has practical advice for teachers, parents, school leaders, and policy-makers on how to create the conditions for kids to develop antifragility.
  • researchED (@researchED) is an organization that seeks to help teachers put the insights of cognitive science into practice.  Their feed is full of useful links to the latest research and journalism in the field.
  • Derrell Bradford (@Drynwyn) is one of the country’s most effective coalition-builders in school choice policy.  His strong support for educational freedom and advocacy for this issue arise from clear convictions, which give him the ability to work with anyone who shares those beliefs, regardless of other policy disagreements.

Let’s follow suit, and seek to find agreement, rather than division, around our Thanksgiving tables today, and everyday.