Saturday, February 16, 2013

Does “teach” conceal more than it reveals?

I’ve argued (here and here) that people often use the verb “to teach” to mean “to impose one’s will on another person.” One problem with the word is that it not only enables people to avoid confronting that fact, but also to avoid discussing the actual mechanics of imposing your will on another person. “We need to teach kids not to do drugs!” Okay, but easier said than done, no?

Here’s a passage from an essay by Diana Senechal:
Beyond giving students a foundation, schools must teach them what commitment means. Without apology, they should teach students to read, write, and practice without any distractions from the Internet, cell phone, or TV, and to make a daily habit of this. It doesn’t matter if they claim to know how to “multi-task”; multi-tasking amounts to compromise, and they need to learn to offer more of themselves. . . . Teachers should not hesitate to correct students, as students need to strive for accuracy when working alone. Students should learn how to put their full mind into their work, sometimes heartily, sometimes grudgingly, but with regularity and determination.
I don’t really understand how Senechal is using the word “teach” in this passage. It seems like a roundabout way of saying: here is a desirable outcome. To assert that schools should “teach” students, “without apology,” to do these things adds nothing that I can comprehend. Later in the same essay, she writes:
Many practices of solitude can be conveyed only through example. Teachers who practice their subjects—who think about them and work on them in their own time—can show students a way of life. They need not “model” for the students in any canned way; their very conduct is a model. When a teacher reads a poem aloud or presents a mathematical proof, her tone conveys whether she has thought about it at length, played with it, argued about it, and more. Students will likewise learn from teachers’ handling of conflicts that arise in class and in school. Problems and dilemmas will arise, and teachers will be put to the test. How does a teacher respond when one student taunts another, when one student seems far more advanced (or less advanced) than the others, or when one of the students objects to the tenor of the discussion or the premises of the lesson? How does a teacher respond to events affecting the whole school—a new principal, a change in the rules, or an emergency? A teacher’s bearing in these situations is complex and influences students enormously.
Is this by the same author? The first passage seemed to endorse unapologetic instruction to indoctrinate children into certain values. The second endorses a much more light-handed (and, I think, sensible) approach to transmitting values. The second paragraph completely avoids using “teach” as a verb, and ends up conveying a much more specific meaning.

Even if I were to believe that we should extensively intervene to shape kids to fit our desires (I don’t), I’d still concede that there’s a world of difference between wanting an outcome and making it happen. Our most common word for what schools do—“teach”—seems to function to conceal that gap.

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