A version of this article appeared originally in educational Horizons Winter 2008

The Public School's Sorest Need: To Transfigure the Trivial

Wade A. Carpenter
Berry College

edited 2/13/18

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. . . . I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?. . . . What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity. —Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

By nice coincidence,1 it was my turn as lay reader this morning, and that was the First Reading. Yes, it was startling to see it rendered in a modern translation as "says the Teacher" instead of the more familiar "Preacher" from the King James Version, but a quick check of the Hebrew root indicates that "Teacher" is equally appropriate. And after thirty-three years in teaching, which I sometimes worry may end up in vain, and may well be inherited by way too many fools, it was good to read it that way, thanks be to God.

I never thought I would have to struggle with this passage. The more I've studied Ecclesiastes, the more I suspect that it might have been originally written by Solomon after all, as Jewish tradition holds. The questions raised by Qoheleth, the Teacher, are precisely the kinds of questions that would be raised by a king who had been told by Almighty God Himself that his nation would see no king greater or wiser than he.2 They are the kinds of questions that would be raised by a leader who knew beyond question that after him, everything would go downhill for his people. I could sympathize: I cannot imagine a worse revelation for a king or for a teacher.3 But I've always been able to console myself that quite a number of "my kids" have gone on to surpass my achievements, some by a wide margin. In that sense, I have no regrets as I approach my winter years, and have been blessed mightily with a good legacy. I've paid my dues, and I live happily.

But in another sense, maybe Qoheleth turns out to have been right after all: the task of public schoolteaching is increasingly being turned into simple transmission of trivia, the written output of schools is increasingly obsessed with testimonies to the trifling, and the time and times of our kids are increasingly directed toward the tracery of the tiresome. That makes me sad.

Transmission of Trivia

First, let me say that I'm an old history teacher, and there is nobody around who loves history more than I do. I've always been content oriented, and suspicious and sometimes disdainful of too much "warm-andfuzzy" stuff. But to be perfectly honest, I really don't give a rat's (bottom) whether or not Little Johnny knows who Charlemagne was. And at the risk of upsetting my more progressive friends, I'll also say that I'm not much more concerned with whether Little Johnny develops good study skills or even study habits — the "process" orientation. Most of our students will never be called upon to use good study skills after they graduate, and I suspect we might be entering a very upbeat era of "flex-time" in which most white-collar workers can choose their work hours to suit themselves, just so long as they get their jobs done. So, although neither content nor process nor even time-management skills are life-and-death matters to me, I do care very much what kind of person that kid becomes.

Likewise, I can also now say aloud that in thirty-three years of teaching, acquiring a doctorate, and professoring in a selective liberal arts college, I have never in the real world used any mathematical function more complex than calculating the mean. I really don't care where one train leaving New York and traveling at 50 mph will meet another leaving Salt Lake City and traveling at 60. (Somewhere around Indiana, I suppose, so I'll let my editor worry about it.) But I am very thankful that the architect who designed that five-level overpass just east of Atlanta and the engineers who contracted it had to consider ethics at some point in their preparation.4 I've never had to determine an electron's valence, conjugate hablar, or estimate the density of Shylock's "pound of flesh." Much of what schools value really is a chasing after wind for many of the kids, and it's getting worse. What's important is what kind of people we develop and become.

For many years the first concern for most teachers was not with content or process, much less with standardized test scores. The first question most teachers had to deal with on most days was something along the lines of "How do I reach ol' Fred?" or "How do we help Janie turn her life around?" I don't hear too much about that sort of thing anymore. And what I read is mostly . . .

Testimonies to the Trifling.

C'mon, let's be honest. How many taxpayers really care whether no child is left behind in the quest for the intersection of east- and westbound trains? How many administrators really care what percentage of your students understand the deep significance of Brother Lawrence's character in Romeo and Juliet? How many presidential candidates really care whether the kids from the hood or the barrio or the trailer park can list the steps in meiosis?5 Education, alas, is of interest only to the educated, and in Georgia, that limits our constituency (and in your state too, in case you hadn't noticed) — but everybody is interested in success, and the first step in achieving success is avoiding failure. And since NCLB, all schools are obsessed with avoiding failure.

For many years I've told my teacher ed students that the primary letters in teaching are not A, B, and C, but C,Y, and A. That has never been more true. Avoiding unfavorable publicity and unpleasant litigation6 is the principal worry of every principal, and a smart principal will make sure you are correspondingly principled. For better or for worse, the Psalm that encourages us not to occupy ourselves with things too great and too hard for us7 could easily become the motto of technique-driven, education-averse professional preparation.8 We all want our statistics and portfolios and accreditation reports to be flattering, or at least not shameful. That in itself is human, but nowadays, I hear about little else, and that is anything but humane.

Tracery of the Tiresome

I have mentioned elsewhere how much more often I'm seeing smart kids bored out of their minds in school, so I won't belabor it overmuch now.9 But for the first time in my life, I'm also seeing smart teachers bored. Until now, I've always been able to tell my teacher-ed students truthfully that I'd never seen a good teacher who was bored: "The kids provide endless hours of entertainment." But now I am seeing people whom I know to be very good teachers suffering a most oppressive and stifling ennui. As several tearful teacher-ed students have told me in recent years, "What I'm seeing just isn't worth doing."

It doesn't have to be that way. A cheery exception crossed my desk the other day in the form of William W. Purkey's Teaching Class Clowns (And What They Can Teach Us).10 This delightful little volume ought to be read by every teacher at least twice: at the beginning of a career, and at that miserable midpoint when you could go either way. While there's little new or earthshaking in it, and most of what the author recommends ought to be SOP for any good teacher, it's chock full of anecdotes from the brighter side of the real world: rib ticklers on every page, and at least one good belly laugh in every chapter.11 Even more important, Purkey shows a generous affection for the little so-and-sos — an affection I'm not seeing enough nowadays.

He's right, of course: teaching (like studenting) is often only as good as what we put into it, and one's enjoyment of one's deeds and toil is largely within one's own locus of control.12 But as every adult knows, there are environments in which one is not allowed to do the right thing. Increasingly, school is becoming one of them. Rote memorization of textbook glossaries in ninth-grade science, tracing the major developments of Western art (sometimes literally!), and writing piles and piles of dreary accounts of Bobby's latest outrage or Fran's IEP or accreditation-compliance efforts are not the stuff of which career ambitions are made for smart college students — hence, my concern over the profession being inherited by the foolish.

Maybe I'm a dinosaur; maybe the "career teacher" is outmoded and the public is willing to settle for well-managed short-timers. Maybe I was wrong to title a themed issue of Educational Horizons "A Secular Contract, a Sacred Calling"13; maybe it's now just a job. But if I'm right that teaching is indeed sinking from the level of a calling or even a profession to the level of a job, we needn't expect especially bright people to engage with it. That would be sad, and it might take us a generation or more to repair once we finally do figure out that we've been plain damn stupid.

My Church's prayer for education reads:

Almighty God, fountain of all wisdom, enlighten by thy Holy Spirit those who teach and those who learn, that, rejoicing in the knowledge of thy Truth, they may worship thee and serve thee from generation to generation. . . .

That is, pretty comprehensively, what the public schools do not do.

While it might please those who are more purist than I about the separation of church and state14 and those who are more puritanical might opt out of the publics entirely, I doubt that anybody will long be satisfied with a school system that steers clear of all considerations of anything that's really important. I believe there is a via media that, if not ideal, is at least acceptable to both God and man.


1 That's okay, I don't believe in coincidences much, either.

2  2 Chron. 1:12.

3 Louis Auchincloss gives a wonderful and elegant exploration of this theme in The Rector of Justin (New York: Mariner, 1964/2002).

4 See National Society of Professional Engineers, <http://www.nspe.org/ethics/eh1-code.asp>, and American Institute of Architects, <http://www.aia.org/about_ethics/#code>. Needless to say, this past summer's tragedy in Minneapolis brings that thought to mind dramatically, regardless of whether there turns out to be a blameworthy cause or not.

5 The politicians are concerned about two things, once they get past not being the personal and sole cause of the destruction of Western civilization: votes and campaign contributions. Period. If education reformers really wanted to change the schools or better the kids, they'd be writing fewer articles and grant proposals, attending fundraisers, and buying drinks for bigshots. To be fair, I must admit that regardless of the sincerity of political candidates' emotional investment in kids' learning, as elected officials they will have enormous responsibilities, which we should respect and must insist upon.

6 An especially teacher-friendly resource is Louis Fischer, David Schimmel, and Leslie Stallman, Teachers and the Law, 6th ed. (Boston:Allyn and Bacon, 2002).

7 Ps. 131: 2.

8 I am not suggesting that a preoccupation with the technical elements of teacher preparation at the expense of the liberal is anything new: it is that those elements are now just about all that matters. For an introduction to the history of the subject see Merle Borrowman's The Liberal and the Technical in Teacher Preparation (New York:Teachers College Press, 1956);Jurgen Herbst's And Sadly Teach (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986); and Arthur Bestor, Educational Wastelands:The Retreat from Learning in Our Public Schools, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985). I'm afraid I cannot claim much superiority here: I now find myself reluctantly shifting my foundations courses from a "let's be more educative" approach to a "first, do no harm" emphasis, since teacher empowerment of any sort is currently beyond even the bounds of lip service, and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future. There is no use burdening these young people with problems they cannot do anything about; that would only be unkind, and I am tired of being unkind.

9 See "For Those We Won't Reach: An Alternative." Educational Horizons 85:3 (Spring 2007): 146–155.

10 Okay, so it's often tawdry entertainment. That's not your fault.

11 Two of my favorites: The teacher asks the kid to list two pronouns. The kid responds,"Who, me?" (p. 25); and the teacher tells the class that if anybody has to go to the bathroom they should raise their hands. The kid asks "How's that gonna help?" (p. 11).

12 educational Horizons 83:4 (Summer 2005).

13 My apologies to all my graduates: I don't mean to sound like an educational psychologist, but not even they can be wrong all the time! And of course, that is part of the main theme of Ecclesiastes as well: to be in awe of God, live (grace)fully, and rejoice in His gifts, regardless of the outcomes.

14 E.g., my good friend and fellow contributing editor Ed Rozycki. See "Trading Off 'Sacred'Values: Why Public Schools Should Not Try to 'Educate,'" Educational Horizons 85:3 (Spring 2007): 136–140, for an intelligent argument with which I respectfully disagree.