Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Education Model of Miss Brodie, & Us

I want to expand slightly on Miss Brodie's expressed model of education, and how it relates to my own teaching methods. An example of the doubleness of Muriel Spark's portrait of her titular character, Miss Brodie's description of her teaching philosophy is clearly presented in favourable contrast to the pedagogy around her at Marcia Blaine's.

The word "education" comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of what is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay's method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil's head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education, as is proved by the root meaning.
This is certainly high comedic. It is also Socrates' & Plato's education theory. It is also, as the word "root" may have already suggested to you, an horticultural understanding of the process of teaching.

Put into my terms, the student is a seed, or a sapling, as you prefer it, and will develop to knowledge by forces and by programming already inside him or her: via DNA, in current scientistic jargon. The function, then, of the teacher - the Professor -- is that of the horticulturist: to create the conditions and provide the natural materials (water and fertilisation) conducive to the pupil's -- the plant's -- growth.

Opposing this is the Enlightenment model: in our present case, we should specify the Scottish Enlightenment, and in particular one of its major figures, David Hume. In this, the pupil's mind is a blank slate -- tabula rasa -- or a void into which stuff is built. The classroom image of this is that the Professor gives a blueprint at the start of term -- "this is a Wall made of one hundred and thirty bricks" -- and then the first week of class says, "this is brick one, this is brick two .... this is brick ten. Now we have the foundation row." Second week, it's "this is brick eleven, this is brick twelve .... this is brick twenty. Now we have the second row." Et cetera to week thirteen.

Going back to the Enlightenment origins of this pedagody (which, as I mentioned, has complete domination in the current-day Public Education system in North America,) the assumptions of it are a degraded vestige of what the Enlightenment retained of the deductive system of the Classical and Mediæval ages: the deductive, syllogistic, arangement of Major Premis, Minor Premis, Conclusion, where the major premis is a statement of Universal Truth, given by authority. For example:
  • Major Premis: All men are pigs
  • Minor Premis: Stephen is a man.
  • Conclusion: Stephen is a pig.
You may note that this logical system pervades even our model of the scholarly essay. The major premis is your statement of thesis -- a universal truth from the work or works under study, such as "Muriel Spark presents Miss Jean Brodie as a Calvinist God" -- in your opening paragraph; the minor premises are individual supporting examples from the text comprising the body of your essay; the conclusion is the spelling out of how the examples supported the Major Premis.

This, however, is only one possible form of essay. In Japan, for instance, they don't use -- indeed, they don't readily comprehend -- the deductive form of essay writing, but instead work intuitively from a civilisation-fundamental conception known as ki-sho-ten-ketsu.
Japanese rhetoric exhibits the textual characteristics that Hinds suggests. When
it comes to expository writing, this sequence of ki-sho-ten-ketsu is most frequently used (Ostler 1987, Hinds 1990, Kubota 1992). The sequence displays reader-responsibility and takes the quasi-inductive pattern. As the Japanese rhetorical pattern does not match that of English, English native speakers who encounter Japanese rhetoric feel that composition in Japanese is disorganized, unfocused or ineffective (Hinds 1990). But Japanese essays are not disorganized: they are just not organized for the native English speaker audience. Japanese readers rely on their knowledge of culture for interpretation, a knowledge English speakers don't have. Because the implied intention of composition normally comes at the end of the essay and because the essay does not take either the inductive or deductive style, it is difficult for native English readers to predict where the essay is heading before the final paragraph. As a result, when Japanese ESL students write an English essay using their native rhetorical pattern, their teachers are likely to find the essay hard to understand.
Ki is an unobtrustive introduction of a new topic or idea. Sho is a calm and organic development of that topic or idea. Ten is a turning, according to some principle of culture, history, or writer's individual character. Finally in the series is the ketsu, the tying-together, as with a bundle of twigs, where the ketsu is not explict in the essay, and in consequence is a koan, or an individual interpretation -- but one made with the broader apparatus of the Japanese civilisation.

So, for us, as for Miss Jean Brodie, the alternatives for education are between a system based on organic conception of the student's active and, in fact, necessary, participation in his or her intellectual growth, or a mechanistic, formal-mathematical model of instruction in which the student is passive, and, indeed, a mere unit of education, identical to -- and easily replacable by -- any other unit. This is, as you will have recognised, the idea animating Muriel Spark's description of the Marcia Blaine upper form teachers at the opening of chapter four:
The teachers here seemed to have no thoughts of anyone's personalities apart from the specialty in life, whether it was mathematics, Latin, or science. The treated the new first-formers as if they were not real, but only to be dealt with, like symbols of algebra.
By "not real," Spark means the students are conceived of as not human beings: Spark writes of these teachers that their pupil's days ".... were now so brisk with the getting of knowledge from unsoulful experts."

The matter, of course, is that the mechanistic and passive conception of learning is safe and ultimately undemanding. However, the organic model where winds blow, the environment is bio-diverse, and the student must participate and even struggle (to invoke a Darwinism) in order to obtain growth, is demanding and has, by definition, the absence of certainly that is uncomfortable and in fact frightening if it is not embraced -- but learning is exciting, stimulating and far, far more efficacious when the challenge is taken up.

No comments: