Sunday, January 27, 2013

Stanley Kubrick on interest vs. fear

Not much time to post today, but I’ve been meaning to post this excerpt from John Baxter’s biography of Stanley Kubrick:
Kubrick’s three years at [Taft High School in the Bronx], from 1943 to 1945, were the unhappiest of his life. IQ tests rated him above average, but formal learning bored him. Alex Singer recalls, “Stanley and I had boundless curiosity, but not about the things they were teaching.” Kubrick agrees. “I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker. I never learned anything at school and I never read a book for pleasure until I was nineteen years old.”

His school days were dominated less by a search for learning than by fear: “Fear of getting failing grades,” he wrote later, “fear of not staying with your class.” He got Fs by betraying his lack of interest in set books like George Eliot’s Silas Marner and failed English totally one year, forcing him to make up the lost grade during the summer. When he graduated, it was with a mediocre 70.1 average, his only high marks those in Physics.

Grades, however, don’t tell the whole story. Kubrick could and would work if his interest was engaged: this was the man who, despite his disdain for George Eliot, created in Barry Lyndon the cinema’s best adaptation of Thackeray. Once he left school and was no longer required to do so, he read voraciously.
I suppose this is anecdotal evidence of the worst kind. Maybe Kubrick was just an oppositional prima donna, or a unique “genius” from whose experience we shouldn’t generalize. But it’s not as if the world is made up of a lot of people who are basically the same and a few who are different. Isn’t everyone different from everyone else? Who are these standardized students who learn equally well whatever is dished up, regardless of whether they are interested? I’d like to meet them!


ortals said...

So happy I found your blog, and especially this post. Check out this question I posted recently on Quora:
I don't think children are really "not interested", they're just turned off by the school environment sometimes.
I'd also love to connect about the question "What do parents want?" isn't is simply to keep the fire in our kids' eyes lit?

Doris said...

If the Wikipedia entry on Kubrick is accurate, his father was a prominent physician. The father taught him to play chess, bought him a nice camera at a young age, and, eventually, when his grades proved not strong enough for entry to college because of the influx of returning soldiers, his parents sent him out to LA (from New York City) to stay with relatives and broaden his horizons. Prior to that his father had encouraged him to read in the family's home library.

I always find your blog entertaining and educational to read, but, I have to say, I consistently feel that there is something really missing in the way you present arguments in favor of "unschooling" type approaches. The thing I find missing is sufficient attention to how dramatically children's experience of unschooling would vary depending on the context of their birth--family, class position, location of upbringing, etc.

It sounds to me as though Kubrick was very much groomed by his father in a lot of ways.

Chris said...

Thanks, Doris. I wish more people would come on here and argue with me. What you’re saying (about my arguments being incomplete) is definitely true, and I wish I could make a more extended argument than I can in the vehicle of a blog (but I can barely find time to do even this).

As you already know, I don’t buy that people—any people, advantaged or disadvantaged—learn better when they are forced to learn things against their will than when they are given more freedom and autonomy over what (and at what pace) they learn. I also don’t buy that a lot of what we think of as essential instruction (trigonometry?) makes much of a difference in people’s adult lives (except to the extent that society chooses to use those things as sorting principles as, for example, on the SAT).

At the same time, I’m not advocating that everyone just let their kids run free all day. Since I think schools have gone way overboard in the direction of coercive instruction, a big part of what I’m saying is just that the pendulum should swing back the other way. How far? I don’t know. I fall back on my principle that we should err on the side of a non-coercive approach unless we have a strong reason to believe that the coercion is necessary, and the more coercion, the more compelling the justification should be. So I’m waiting for someone to convince me that the coercive approach is not only unharmful but necessary.

As for Kubrick, I wasn’t trying to say that his later success proved coercive schooling wrong—rather that his failure in school was evidence that it doesn’t work, for at least some people. I think school turns a big chunk of kids off to learning, even if it succeeds in dragging them across the high school graduation finish line. Is the counterargument that some (less advantaged?) kids will just never be interested in anything, so we have to force learning on them in this way?

Chris said...

By the way, Doris -- I haven't forgotten your comment on the Roger Schank post -- hoping to revisit it soon...

Karen W said...

There's a pretty big space between what we have in public schools now and radical unschooling. Montessori, for example, offers a well-rounded curriculum: language arts, math, science, geography, history, music, and art. But it is driven by independent choice--so kids have some control over timing but also the depth to which they'd like to explore any given subject.

College offers independent choice in a different model--choose your major, choose your electives, choose your professor.

As for Trig, it isn't hard to find some (or many!) adults that don't use any particular knowledge or skill we might learn at school--I'm not convinced that is quite the right test of what ought to be offered to K-12 students.

Anonymous said...

Don't think I'd agree about college offering more individual choice. College can be constraining as well. Choice of prof? More than often there is only one profwho teaches a mandatory course that is only offered once a year. And half the stuff taught a University is either BS or not applicable.

Doris said...

Hi, Chris--Thanks for the clarification. I basically agree with everything you say here.

One thing I have long appreciated is that you don't mount those arguments that I so despise suggesting that practices you disapprove of as applied to your own children must be tolerated as necessary evils to remedy the supposed defects of other people's children and households. (E.g., "My children don't need PBIS, but those other children do.") I appreciate that.

At the same time, although I don't think the counterargument is even remotely that less advantaged kids (or slower learners) will never be interested in anything, I do think that public education can play a very important role in helping expose children to important areas of knowledge and inquiry that they might not have access to otherwise. And I think that E.D. Hirsch is pretty persuasive in some of the arguments he makes as far as the importance of gaining various kinds of content knowledge if you want to achieve economic mobility. As I think back on my own trajectory, I'd have to say that one of the biggest challenges of my life was trying to make the transition from a tiny liberal arts college in KY to a highly competitive graduate program. I simply lacked the cultural capital necessary to navigate that world, and the process of acquiring it took a substantial toll. In some respects I don't think I ever recovered.

I do think, too, that some children benefit from closer guidance, and others benefit from having more space. Interestingly, Karen W (I like your blog, Karen, btw), I had a conversation the other night with a woman whose son, like my children, had attended a local Montessori school for a while. Her son is a 99th percentile sort of scoring kid, and he had not fared well in the Montessori model, nor had my older child who has developmental delays. We were comparing notes and ended up agreeing that the ideal that all children are natural learners meant that neither of our children had gotten, from the Montessori model, the kind of help and support that they really needed at the time they were there. I won't speak here about her son and the nature of his particular needs, but at that stage my daughter really struggled so much with issues of executive function and motor skills that she was just frustrated--sort of like car stuck in a ditch, spinning its wheels.

I remember that I used to joke with Chris about how much more "authoritarian" we are as parents than he seems to be. In retrospect I can see that maybe that's not quite the right word choice, but we did find, especially in those early years, that our daughter really needed us to create an unusual degree of structure for her. I don't think she had much ability to separate signal from noise, as it were, to plan, to sequence, etc. So, based on that experience, I can see that an educational model that might seem highly coercive as applied to one child might be what another child needs in order to have enough stability to grow and learn. But I fully acknowledge that there can be a very fine line between helpful structure and excessive coercion.

I agree with Karen W that I don't think the ultimate test for what we should teach children is whether or not they use it as adults. To a certain extent I guess I think about it in terms of what kinds of shared knowledges would be important in allowing us to have a vibrant civic sphere.

Great month of posts, Chris (and Karen W and Nicholas J, too!) Congrats and thanks!

Chris said...

Doris -- Too many thoughts, too little time, but here are a couple of quick reactions, after which I hope we'll keep this going.

I was dashing that post off last night and didn't mean to sound flippant with that last question. One thing that has frustrated me on this blog is that I just come on here and spout off, and almost nobody ever tries to pursue counterarguments and get into some real debate. I try to anticipate some criticisms, but I just don't feel compelled to articulate all the counterarguments to the things I'm saying, and so I wish more commenters would take up that role. But wouldn't you know, you've recently been raising these good points, and I've been too strung out with the darn blogathon to respond properly. And I'm still not able to respond as fully as I'd like (I'm hoping that February is the month when I catch up on the lost sleep from January), but am still intending to, and am hoping to promote this whole conversation to another post soon.

But in brief: Again, I feel like that question in my last post was too simplistic, but when you bring up E.D. Hirsch, I kind of want to ask it again. It's as if he's completely excluded psychology from learning theory. What role is there in his work for the subjective experience of being on the receiving end of the kind of instruction he's advocating? One of my first posts here was about him, and as I read it now, I still feel pretty much the same. So much of what I think is dreadful about today's schools is a completely foreseeable result of thinking about education the way he does, so seemingly divorced from motivation, interest, and individual differences. You've read him more than I have, so you can probably point out where I'm getting him wrong, but that sure is the sense I've got from what I've read of him.

I agree completely that different kids have different needs, educationally. My own feeling is I'd be more apt to intervene if I sensed that one of my kids was being made unhappy by the lack of structure, as opposed to if I was worried about meeting some "grade-level" benchmark (though those things can't be entirely separated). It sounds like the former might be what you were experiencing with Montessori. In any event, I'm not arguing against that kind of play-it-by-ear intervention. What bothers me is the idea (not coming from you) that the non-universal effectiveness of unschooling somehow justifies putting *all* kids in heavily structured, coercive educational environments. Clearly those can't be good for everyone either, right? I wouldn't want to choose one polar extreme over the other and apply it to everyone, but if we had to, I wouldn't immediately conclude that the coercive one would do more good or less harm than the unschoolish one. Yet it appears to be the default.

Chris said...


Finally, I'm certainly not against kids learning things that might not be valuable in adulthood, but that for me is where choice and voluntariness start to weigh heavily on the scale. I'm not very compelled by the idea that there's so much value in creating a universally shared knowledge base that it outweighs the value of being free to pursue whatever you'd rather pursue. I actually kind of like the idea of putting schools in the position of *persuading* kids to try a Shakespeare play or a trigonometry class, rather than simply forcing it on them, and have a possibly starry-eyed optimism that more kids than you'd expect would, over the course of thirteen years, choose to cover a good amount of the ground that you'd like them to cover, and learn it better for having freely chosen it. We just don't know if the gains of shifting to that approach would outweigh the losses, but at least that approach would have the added benefit of not constantly modeling authoritarian values.

Again, if the current system was a smashing success, I could understand why people would look askance at the kind of system I'm imagining. But when people say, "What about the kids who don't choose to learn what we hope they'll learn?", I think, Compared to what? We have kids doing that every day in the current system.

Chris said...

Ortals, Karen, and Anonymous -- Thanks for commenting! As for college: in my view, from age 18 until the end of life, everyone is unschooled. Some aspects of higher education are constraining -- just look at the first year of law school, where I do my teaching -- but the difference is that no one is forcing you to be there. I think that really means something, even though I'm sure many students are in college primarily because it's expected of them (by their parents, peers, etc.). I still think it matters that you are free to leave--that it can't help but influence how you experience college classes, even at a school with a heavy dose of required courses.

So, Anonymous, I'm not bothered if people *choose* to take courses that are of no use to them later in life. I think that can be great. It's forcing people to take them that bothers me. College students aren't forced to do anything, because they don't have to be there at all, and because there are often other colleges they could have chosen that might have had different requirements.

One thing to remember is that even the most "unschooled" kids sometimes choose to take classes and to learn through more traditional types of instruction. An unschooled kid who chooses to go to classes at her local high school is still 100% unschooled, because it's the freedom from compulsion, not the freedom from instruction, that defines unschooling.

Doris said...

Hey, Chris--I'm in the same boat as you as far as work overload. Tonight I will be finishing writing a grant application, not pondering ed theory. But here goes a quick run:

I can offer no viable counterargument to your critique of Hirsch. I concede the validity of your concern with his relative lack of attention to how children subjectively experience school.

So I am not sure where that leaves me. Do I have to abandon him entirely? Let me try to think about the nature of the attraction (for lack of a better word).

I studied literary theory with Hirsch for my first two semesters in graduate school at the University of Virginia. This would have been in 1984-85. He would soon become a very controversial figure there because of his work on cultural literacy.

I can very definitely understand why you would attach the term "hubris" to his undertaking: Is it not the height of arrogance to arrogate to oneself the role of compiling a list of what literate people do/should know? ("Do" and "should" mark an important distinction, but I won't pursue that issue here.)

At the same time, getting back to what I was writing last night, classes like that and his very matter-of-fact approach to teaching them were a lifeline thrown to a student such as myself who was desperately trying to play catch-up. Because Hirsch was thinking in the direction of asking what students needed to know to be able to succeed in a given context, he was able to teach those courses--which were very heavily courses in continental philosophy, particularly in the second semester--in a way that didn't by default disenfranchise the students who came in with the least relevant knowledge. That's a big deal. He may come across as authoritarian in theory, but in my experience his practice was one that attempted to broaden access to the academy and thus help democratize it. (Bear in mind, too, that in 1984 it was by no means all that hard to find oneself faced with professors who would have preferred that women and racial minorities not set foot on the vaunted campus of Mr. Jefferson's University.)

It'll take me a little longer to go back and refresh my memory of his book The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, which I read last year. I don't think I'll find anything in there that actually rebuts your perception, but he did have some interesting commentary to make about why it is problematic to assume that people who promote a "core" knowledge type of curriculum are necessarily authoritarian in personality or teaching style.

So give me a few days to carve out some time and I'll see if I can provide a bit more grist for the mill. Again, I don't view myself as the great defender of E.D. Hirsch. I am simply trying to explain why the issues he talks about feel meaningful to me and important to discuss.

Get some sleep! You've earned it after last month.

Chris said...

Thanks, Doris. I just happened to run across this yesterday:

"Hirsch has always been a committed political liberal: he has consistently stated that he wants a stronger educational system in order to address inequality and give the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised a better chance to succeed in American society."

Although I have to say that my first thought was: some of the most conservative people see themselves as wanting to "give the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised a better chance to succeed in American society."

In any event, I don't doubt that his intentions are good. As our friend Scott has pointed out to me, though, saying that someone's intentions are good is practically the definition of damning with faint praise...

Still, your experience with him is good to hear and does speak well of him.

Let's continue this (at our leisure!).

Doris said...

In my backpack right now I am carrying around a well-worn copy of The Quiet American, which I'm teaching right now. One of the more apt lines from Fowler about Pyle: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." LOL.

Hirsch was vilified by the political left for his liberal do-gooderism, which in that context was re-inscribed as conservative paternalism (among other less printable epithets). Two decades ago I would never have defended him for fear of being accused of similar failings.

And I still wouldn't endorse foisting a mandatory standardized curriculum on every school child in the country and insisting that each child devote him or herself to mastering the information. I'm just arguing for awareness of how debilitating it can feel to try to operate in a context where you lack assumed knowledge.

But, granted, that's precisely where good intentions can go so far astray, as evidenced by a program such as PBIS, whose advocates presumably view themselves as leveling the playing field by making rules explicit.

In the end, I come down on the side of advocating for exposure and encouragement. And persuasion, too, as you suggest.

This is much more interesting than the other thing I am working on tonight.

Another Chris said...

I have found much to admire in Hirsch's curricula. As a veteran classroom teacher I could definitely use, with modification, much of the cultural literacy curriculum without question, if allowed professional autonomy, which Hirsch does not brook, fidelity and all that.

What bothers me the most, however, is the base assumption that by teaching the secret codes of the current ruling class (a profoundly unequal social stratification in the USA that dooms millions to misery and suffering) that somehow those now excluded from the top echelons will be allowed to enter the rarified venues of power and success without a challenge, simply because they know the code. Really?

What about those of us who teach so as to subvert that age-old discrimination and to help our students gain the tools to change the way things are? I'm more Freire than Hirsch, myself.

How far does Hirsch's theory go in perpetuating and supporting (perhaps unintentionally? I can't really tell from Hirsch himself) the social inequality while upholding its peculiar values and world views?

Where are the next steps in Hirsch's cultural literacy programs that teach minority and poor students to move with strength in dismantling the status quo? I've never found them.

Hirsch, like Zig Englemann (Direct Instruction founder) has been the worst enemy of his own theories due to his personal arrogance. Both Hirsch and Englemann have valuable ideas and programs that have proved useful and quite successful in certain places with certain groups.

Both, however, stormed the education establishment with haughty cries of ineptitude, ignorance, and downright bad-faith investment from all stakeholders who's lifework predated them and who might also disagree with them. They then acted shocked when they were universally reviled and ignored.

A little more humility and a lot less hubris from 2 outsiders who stormed the ivory towers of the education establishment while mocking all the work and research of thousands that came before them might have seen their ideas and programs given a much wider trial and more willingness to give them a chance.

Instead both continue to produce offensive polemics that degrade and mock their enemies (anyone who doesn't acknowledge that they have found the grail) and their ideas are lost in the politics of grand personality. Something that doesn't speak well of Hirsch's own cultural literacy. He can't seem to resist blaming everyone else while refusing to be self-reflective enough to admit it might be at least partly himself that is to blame for his energetic opposition.

Doris said...

Hi, Another Chris--Your critique of Hirsch makes much sense to me.

Chris said...

Another Chris -- Thanks for the comment. (Sorry I'm so slow responding!) It's that leap from "I have a good idea" to "therefore I must impose it on everyone" that's a problem. Discussion continued here.