There Are No Perfect Formulas for the Classroom

The true believers on the left—and they populate academia in droves, especially as the higher education system churns out more and more through ideological echo chambers—are primarily concerned with manufacturing politically correct attitudes and beliefs. They are looking for the formula for social correctness. This formula can take many shapes and sizes; it can pose in flowery language (though its preferred camouflage is jargon); it can be scaled up or down as magnitude demands. The point is that it is applied through institutions, that academics influence without political accountability, to real human beings who experience real consequences as a result. No where is this more harmful than in how it can limit or damn the educational prospects, and thereby life prospects, of children.

Leftists tend to think reductively about people, who are more dynamic and dimensional than operational definitions can accommodate. Individuals are greater than the sum of their parts, and when it comes to human beings and their myriad choices and affairs, there are an incalculable amount of variables. Accounting for this kaleidoscope of variables is secondary in the Marxist view; they do not care about the human cost of their projects, so long as they succeed in enacting their vision, the collateral human suffering and economic inefficiencies be damned.

Leftists view statecraft as a controlled experiment. Part of the strength of charter schools is that they are able to get around the designs of these tinkerers, with the result being that they have more freedom to hire subject matter experts who can exercise their best judgment, rather than being hobbled by a standardized agenda. Teachers are permitted to use their common sense—without regulation.

Intellectualization of common sense is one of the favorite past-times of social scientists. I am reminded of one of the speakers at the Franklin Center’s Conference for School Choice, Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute, who seemed to take pleasure in heckling his captive conservative audience with such quips as, “If you’re education bloggers, I’m sure you’re well read,” and who after asking if anyone could define “excrescence,” talked over me when I did so. He preened that his wife and himself were very educated people, and that he “explains the radish” to his daughter when they are in the produce section.

Teaching your daughter what something is, is normal, not theoretical.

No one should be surprised that someone who would mistake talking for theory also advocates Common Core (though paradoxically, Pondiscio praised Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, which advocates teaching the Western canon). The archipelago of thinking exercises that is Common Core does not constitute a real education. There is no substitute for traditional learning, and ever-evolving theoretical models for teaching are often little better than intellectualized hucksterism.

If it seems like those who become involved in community organization do so because they are predatorily curious as to how they can organize political correctness, it’s because that’s often what motivates them. Many undoubtedly have better intentions, but are nonetheless duped by the reductive, formulaic approach to human affairs endemic in the field, that indeed, constitute its foundational assumptions. This assumption is one born of hubris, that gains its purported legitimacy from its popularity amongst a coterie, not its serviceability and accuracy as a model of reality. Ray Fishman, Columbia (that greenhouse of Communism) economics professor, grumbles in a piece otherwise sour to the introduction of market incentives to schooling:

“There’s surely a lot that can be learned from trying to uncover the secret formula that makes these high-performing charters do so well, ideas that can then be applied more broadly in public and charter schools alike.”

The point of charter schools is that they meet the unique education needs of a group of students in a given community; applying a one-size-fits-all model is perfectly statist, but perfectly defeats the flexibility that allows charter schools to excel. The art of life— and the art of teaching—cannot be broken down to a set of formulas that can be “applied” to people like cattle. Students will rebel against the boring thought exercises that are presented to them as “learning,” because they will recognize the fraudulence of it. When students become suspicious of their teachers and view what they are being asked to do as pointless, they will become disenchanted with learning, and the altar of their minds will be as bare, cold marble.