Monday, October 3, 2016

More on St. Midas, Part 1: Identifying the Problem

­­­­Thanks to Commonweal for running my piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Catholic schools. It's online now and is forthcoming in their print magazine. It’s been a while since I wrote the article, and in revisiting it in recent weeks, I realized that I have quite a bit more to say on the topic of the achievement culture and Catholic Ed.

For starters, see my recent post in response to William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep. I mentioned Deresiewicz’s book in the article, and he addresses many of the same issues I’m concerned with in relation to the culture surrounding elite universities, especially the Ivy League.

I don’t think that the issues I brought up in the article are ones that necessarily stem from the affluence of a school community. Sure, Fitzgerald’s St. Midas School is an exaggeration of his experience at an exclusive prep school, but we have to remember that this is F. Scott we’re talking about. American wealth and its adherents were to him what sharp angles and distended figures were to Picasso: they were his medium. The problem he presents in the examples of the ultra-rich Braddock Washington and St. Midas is not so much one of having too much money as it is one of having the wrong attitude towards the world. The prevailing evil spirit in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is one that attempts to render the gift of the world into symbols that may be put to use for one’s own intentions. The diamond inside the Washington family’s mountain is not something they want to preserve for its natural beauty but rather for its value as a piece of exchange for their salvation. In other words, they repurpose it as an arbitrary sign that may be used for whatever they need. The world exists for them.

In my opinion the problem with modern education is a similar one. In the end, any school must take one of two directions: Are students meant to think that their school is a machine that allows them to acquire skills and information that they can exchange at a later date for security, status, etc.? Or are its students meant to think that school should be an entry into something larger than themselves, into things like art, the workings of nature, and the big questions of life? The issues I wrote about in my article are addressed, I would argue, by working to make the culture of Catholic schools resemble the latter vision.

Let me say more about what I mean by the first approach—school as the machine that chops the world up and shovels it down students’ gullets. Though I held up Fitzgerald’s caricature of an ultra-rich Catholic boarding school as an omen for us today, I didn’t actually have modern Catholic boarding schools in mind when I wrote the article. Instead, in talking about the presence of the meritocracy in Catholic Ed, I was drawing from my experience of large-enrollment, parochial, tuition-driven schools. Because these schools have fewer resources, classes tend to be large (somewhere in the range of 25 students). It varies from school to school, but it’s not unusual to see more teachers with undergraduate degrees in education rather than in their subject areas. Because they cannot rely on an endowment, these schools have to survive by making themselves attractive to the current market and thus tend to be followers, rather than leaders, in educational practice (of course they have to make themselves sound like leaders in their marketing, but not so much so that they appear to be trying something unfamiliar). Textbooks for English and History classes are frequently the same ones used in public schools, and, in terms of curricula, these kinds of parochial schools look identical to public ones, save for Theology class.

What happens—and as I mentioned in my article, this is the fault of the system, not of nefarious individuals—is that under this model, Catholic high school risks becoming a place for students simply to learn facts and perform well in order to achieve good marks so that they can go on to a good college and get good jobs when they graduate. All of these are good things, of course. Students should have to learn lots of information in high school, and they should try to get good grades and go to the best college that they can. But if their school asks nothing more from them in their academic experience, their education becomes a matter of consuming symbols (facts, grades, plaudits) for their own use. They learn that the world exists for them.

Online gradebooks exacerbate this problem more than any other one factor, in my experience. I’m talking about the kind that are visible to teachers, students, parents, and administrators, and that teachers are usually asked to update frequently (each week or two). There is a logic to them, of course. Open gradebooks aim at keeping parents in the loop so Junior can’t hide the fact that he hasn’t done his homework in weeks; they also are an attempt to keep teachers accountable so that they can’t fudge grades at the end of the quarter because they spent the whole time watching movies and only gave one quiz. But it’s important to keep in mind that the online gradebook is a mechanical solution to problems that arise when the relationships among students, teachers, parents, and administrators falter. And it’s much easier for these relationships to falter when class sizes are large and teachers can’t pay adequate attention to each student’s progress. The quickest way to turn a profit is to increase your student:teacher ratio, and large class sizes are inevitable in a school that does not have the luxury of relying upon an endowment.

Inevitable though they may be, I would argue that online gradebooks are inimical to the spirit of the humanities, and to any hope of fostering the sense of wonder in our students. What happens when grades dominate is that a student’s experience in any given class becomes a matter of getting an average up and keeping it there. Where the “there” is depends on the student. Some, in my experience, are only happy with top grades. Others aren’t as motivated, but their parents are. And still others are happy with Bs or Cs or even simply passing marks. With open gradebooks, maintaining a certain mark becomes a matter of calculated effort. Does a student have a B going into a final exam, but would be happy with a B- for the year? All she has to do is figure out how much the exam is weighted, and then only study as hard as she needs to in order to earn the grade on the exam that will give her the B- overall. Perhaps that would be a C or even a C-. It’s a bit like playing Fantasy Football. No one is really interested in who wins the game—just if your starting lineup earns more points than the other guy’s in a given week.

Fantasy Football doesn’t claim to be real football, though. The kind of educational experience I’ve been talking about does often claim to be Catholic.

If we want to have students think that their study is made for them, then the school environment I’ve described above is a good model, perhaps with a few kinks to work out here and there for the sake of efficiency and propriety. But it’s clear from the cross that Christians are called to give themselves to the world, and from the teachings of Christ that we are to become like children in our relation to it, standing in awe at the wonders of creation. That is, Catholic students should be made to realize that they were made for study, not the other way around.

How do we do that? More to come in Part 2.

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