Genuine Praise

by Todd Walton, July 13, 2010

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” — Carl Jung

My recent essay on the shams of mockeries of traves­ties that masquerade as Creative Writing programs in America’s universities inspired a wide range of responses, including miniature treatises on the disinte­gration of American education, the impact of mass media and real-seeming special effects on human psyches, the validity of vampires as cultural metaphors, and a general theory of mediocrity. To wit:

“From a systems analyst’s point of view we can see that vampire novels turned into movies or boy-wizard novels turned into movies inspire similar art formats in that systems follow the myriad paths of least resistance; and so whenever there is a popular something on TV, movies, theatre, books, music, etc. the purveyors of those things will copy that something ad nauseum. Thus our cultural reality, from a systems perspective, is that the more consumers of system output there are, the more influence those consumers have on what is purveyed, and if you accept that what is purveyed is driven by the most common of popular culture, i.e. what has the broadest appeal, then all successful art forms can only become more and more common as population increases.”

This same correspondent, a successful Internet Tech­nology consultant, said there are hundreds of jobs avail­able in the Bay Area for people with decent computer skills and competence in Word and Excel, two programs found on nearly everybody’s computer. But these jobs go unfilled by Americans and necessitate outsourcing and/or the importation of foreign labor. This seems crazy in the face of millions of unemployed and the ease with which any moderately intelligent and literate person can become proficient at Word and Excel. So what’s up? The key word here is literate. For the past 30 years our high schools have churned out tens of millions of graduates who cannot write well enough to be of much use to any but the lowest tech employers. Our youth may send forth billions of impromptu text messages at lightning speed, but most of these same youth cannot construct coherent sentences, let alone useful paragraphs. In short, our pub­lic schools don’t work. Why not? Is it because teaching has devolved to crowd control and forced memorization? And if so, what caused this devolution?

One correspondent suggested that the ethos of non-criticism underlies the demise of our educational system. “Circa 1975 and for decades thereafter it was verboten in public elementary schools to correct kids’ grammar and spelling for fear of injuring their self-esteem. Further­more, children were praised for anything they did, even if what they were doing was wrong. You can see the results today. It isn’t that our young people aren’t intelli­gent, it’s that they are essentially illiterate and incapable of critical thinking, and so don’t even have the option of educating themselves.”

Which would leave out learning how to use Word and Excel.

When I lived in Berkeley, I tutored a Berkeley High School senior, a brilliant young woman who, at the out­set of our working together, could not construct the aforementioned proper sentences. And verily she said unto me of her regular English class at one of the better public schools in the Bay Area, “If you show up most of the time and don’t cause any trouble, you’ll get a C. If you try to do some of the assignments, you’ll get a B. And if you do all the assignments and run them through spell check, you’re golden.”

A Special Education teacher had this to say about praise. “Praise is a primary tool teachers use to engage their students, assuming the praise is authentic and spe­cific. As long as teachers are also passing along founda­tion skills as well as some rationale for doing good in the world, I see no problem with praise in that context.”

Another teacher wrote, “Far more important than praise is engagement. My best response is one that ignites or continues discussion. Otherwise, I’m just pat­ting people on the head for knowing the right answers. Answers are only valuable if they further investigation, and learning to investigate, to uncover the intricacies of a subject, that’s the essence of learning. And, of course, nothing meaningful can take place if a class is out of control or the students have tuned out.”

A high school English teacher wrote, “I teach five classes a day, 35 students in each class. If I assign one short essay per week, which isn’t nearly enough to pro­vide sufficient writing practice, that makes 175 essays I have to read and correct and grade. Every week. Where would I possibly find the time to do that even remotely well? And remember, most of these students, this is regular English, not remedial, haven’t mastered even the most basic writing skills. What they were doing in elementary school and junior high, I don’t know, but they come to me with terrible skills. And people wonder why English teachers burn out so quickly. It’s an impos­sible task. We should be refining their skills at this point, working one-on-one, not teaching basic grammar. As for praise, I don’t have time to praise anybody.”

Some years ago I was hired to teach a one-week course of creative writing at a GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) elementary school in Sacramento. I worked with seven different classes, kindergarten through sixth grade, twenty kids in a class, and each day I spent an hour with each class. I suggested to the folks who hired me that it would be better for all involved if we spread the work out over several weeks, but that didn’t fit the school’s learning schedule, so I endeavored to do my best under those rather concentrated circum­stances.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the shocking revela­tion of the decimation of individuality and creative thinking that intensifies with each step up the educational ladder. My kindergarteners did not yet know how to write, but their inventiveness was remarkable and their lack of creative inhibition thrilling. Sparks of such inventiveness remained in some of the first and second graders, but most of these youngsters already exhibited profound symptoms of numbness and stress from being penned up in classrooms for months on end and having to know answers to irrelevant questions hour after hour under fluorescent lights. By the third grade, the grapes, if you will, were thoroughly crushed. Conform or be ridi­culed (by the teacher or your peers) had become the fully operational default setting for the group mind; and this governing ordinance would only strengthen thereafter, so that by the fifth and sixth grades I might as well have been talking to child soldiers trained to only reveal their names, ranks, serial numbers, fart jokes, and the plots of popular television shows about morons.

And though it was tempting to blame the individual teachers, the sameness of their styles and techniques made it clear they were only following the dictates of wholly inadequate teacher training for people who are not necessarily themselves well educated. And therein, I think, is a primary source of the decline and fall of our educational system: poorly educated teachers trained by misguided educators to be behaviorist drill sergeants otherwise incapable of actually teaching anything.

Consider your own education. Can you not recall a moment in fifth or seventh or tenth grade when it dawned on your benumbed consciousness that the older person standing in front of the class was not very bright and might possibly be a moron? Sure you can. And trust me, you didn’t think this person was an idiot simply because you were a surly, disenchanted teenager. No. You thought this person was an idiot because he really didn’t know what he was talking about.

When I was in my late 20s I attended a New Year’s Eve party at the home of my high school Drama teacher, one of two excellent teachers I was fortunate to have in high school and with whom, not coincidentally, I devel­oped a lifelong friendship. Attending this party was another of my former teachers, an English teacher I labored under for two of my four years in high school. In the course of my conversations with her that evening, as she grew drunker and drunker, she confessed that she found teaching so stressful she frequently resorted to alcohol and/or valium on the job, she was addicted to pornography, she fantasized constantly about having sex with her teen charges, and she felt like an utter failure.

And I said to her in all honesty, “What I most appreci­ated about your teaching was how you encour­aged us to engage in lengthy discussions, and how you only intervened to keep us on topic.”

To which she responded by bursting into tears and saying that in her 25 years of teaching no student had ever sincerely praised her for anything. ¥¥

(Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com. Praise, flattery, or MacArthur Genius Grants may be sent to him there.)

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