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In the latest issue of Jacobin, Shawn Gude argues that the neoliberal education reform movement, in pushing for standardized testing, privatizations, and union breaking, represents a top-down attempt to implement the industrial techniques of Taylorism in the modern classroom. Standardized testing, score-based individual compensation, and the “dumbing down and narrowing of curricula” are corporate schemes to implant the logic of the factory into public schools. The result is the dehumanization of the American classroom – where education becomes another input in the production process.

Gude’s historical description of Taylorism is dead-on. Just as Gude describes, Taylorism was a keystone of industrial organization: a philosophy of scientific management aimed at mechanizing and regulating manufacturing to maximize worker productivity. The neoliberal project in education “reform” can rightly be compared to Frederick Taylor’s attempt, through careful measurement and readjustment, to regulate the production process and remove what management considered “inefficiencies.” However, Gude leaves us with the implied message that the classroom is just now becoming industrialized. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“There must be comparative uniformity”1

Public schooling in the Anglo-American world only took its current form in terms of pedagogical method, the classroom space, and structural organization in the beginning of the industrial era. The American public school – then, the “common” school – was produced by a constellation of socioeconomic and political concerns prompted by the market revolutions and industrialization in the Northeast.

It was in the post-revolutionary American republic that education was to take on a serious political significance. Statesmen like Benjamin Rush argued that education, first and foremost, would be necessary for producing responsible men who could participate in governance, and women who could raise those men. As lexicographer and teacher Noah Webster wrote in 1788, “[The] school should be kept by the most reputable and well informed man in the district. Here children should be taught the usual branches of learning; submission to superiors and to laws; moral or social duties… The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities;and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.”

Education was not understood primarily as an economic necessity, though it certainly became just that, but as an institution capable of producing a particular moral subjectivity in pupils. Elites concerned themselves with producing obedient, pliable citizens – but it was, despite frequent clashes between parents and school officials, only the ultimate economic utility of this new pedagogy which pushed the population to accept the new model of education.2 A proper disciplinary education, as is the case in the present day, was an economic imperative to fit pupils into the industrial economy.

Antebellum education reform, between the 1820’s and 1850’s, was a continual battle between the monitorial pedagogy of Joseph Lancaster and the Lockean-Pestalozzian influenced pedagogy of Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, Catherine Beecher, John Griscom, and many others. As David Hogan argues, the reformers “challenged the reliance of conventional pedagogy on a traditional hierarchy of authority and the use of corporal punishment. On the other hand, they also challenged the reliance of Lancasterian pedagogy on a highly rationalized system of school discipline based on continuous surveillance and impersonal authority.”3 Reforms transformed the impersonal character of the school, at arriving at a pedagogy that “would promote the internalization of authority and develop the conscience and the capacity for what John Locke called “rational obedience” and “self-government.””

In 1800, the Providence School Committee recommended “[schoolmasters] exclude corporal punishment from the schools; and in particular that they never inflict it on Females.”4 In the same period violent beatings were outlawed in the military and prohibited as punishment for crimes against the state.5 This was part of a general trend that saw institutions move toward a subtler application of techniques focused on the body and conscience, aimed primarily at producing subjects capable of “self-discipline.” Teachers were encouraged by the reformers to nurture their students and lead by example, offering themselves up as exemplars of a life of temperance and industry. At the very same time, the Northeast saw the proliferation of “normal schools,” or teacher training colleges, where a modernized pedagogy could be more uniformly imparted.

Reformist classrooms were well-provisioned according to the standards of the time. Henry Barnard hailed one “attractive, convenient, and complete” classroom in Barrington, Rhode Island for its ample heating and cast iron desks. In fact, the standardization of the classroom model led to the development of a distinct and still largely prevalent classroom geography: straight rows of desks, limited horizontal vision and communication for students, maximized vertical observation for teachers, a focus on lecturing, an economical and hierarchical system of grading, and so on and so forth.

Or, the birth of the modern classroom.

Plans for the Cranston, Rhode Island schoolhouse, 1848

Rote tasks – the repetitive discipline of handwriting exercises, or the need to memorize lists of facts – became one of the primary measures of a pupil’s intellectual capability. More pressingly, the body of the student came under increasing discipline: the utility of the uncomfortable classroom setting was precisely its ability to produce subjects capable of limiting bodily movement and focusing on singular tasks with a limited economy of wasted energy. All together, the most successfully socialized pupils were, and are, increasingly disembodied and skilled in a limited series of “intellectual” pursuits.

Technologies of discipline used to more-or-less effectively internalize social norms, despite their often explicitly anti-mercantile aims, produced subjects well-suited to the demands of industrial production and an increasingly bourgeois society. The industry, temperance, and obedience expected of revivalist Christians were, as Max Weber has so famously argued, adapted perfectly to the expansion of a market economy and the encroachment of industrialization upon the social body. As Hogan explains, “the true irony of New England school reform is that for all their fear of a commercialized pedagogy, the affectionate individualism of the New England reformers… promoted the embourgeoisement of American pedagogy just as much as the possessive individualism of Lancasterianism or the hybrid pedagogy of the Boston grammar school masters.”6

It may not surprise us that a classroom organized along the lines of the factory effectively prepared the working class – or shall we say a working class that was just being manufactured – for laboring in a factory setting under dehumanizing conditions with minimized resistance, even when wages were frequently insufficient if they were not already significantly in arrears. We must compare those early abortive attempts at industrialization with the post-reform environment: where laborers had been prepared for their discovered industrial utility, and the serious work of turning a pre-industrial mass into the modern working class had been begun in earnest.7

Incipit Neoliberalism

To be certain, new mechanisms have been injected into the education system: the growing securitization of schools and the criminalization of students, the neoliberal effort to close schools, privatize, and capitalize education, and the ‘Taylorist’ focus on uniform, standardized testing. These developments do not help, or actively worsen students’ educational experience, and have been deliberately targeted at dismantling the teachers’ unions.

But Gude seems to imply that a return to the glory days of union control would largely erase our problems. This is simply not the case. Our educational system still operates largely according to the now-forgotten dictates and desires of reformers from the early 19th century. We live in the shadow of an industrial system of education – one that still echoes in the prevalent desire for more standardization, for a supposedly utilitarian STEM-focused education system, and in fact even down to the organization of individual classrooms and the prevailing paradigms in pedagogy. We have almost completely forgotten that the origin of the modern classroom as a space and technique lies in a distant era. A critique of the education system that fails to address its structural orientation – the production of factory workers, or useful bodies – cannot hope to challenge the parasitic, destructive, and disciplinary norms that have produced the new wave of neoliberal reformism in the American classroom.

Matt Bruenig’s response to Gude’s article was self-consciously circumscribed. He correctly argues that the “problem with [Gude's] argument is that it does not deal with the impact of these proposed methods on students.” Unfortunately, he goes on to assume that a system that harms both teachers and students could not possibly garner any support, aside from phantom “neoliberal conspirators.” Discounting the corporate and political interests in extracting profits from the education system and breaking teachers’ unions, this ignores the central thrust of our argument: the education system reflects the dominant values that govern the socioeconomic structure. Education is the very center of a public industry that produces subjectivity. Those who believe that the values of the industrial era must be left behind fall outside Bruenig’s matrix of possibilities.

To borrow perhaps too obviously, Bruenig is only half right when he chides against “squishy Marxism” — the purpose of the industrial classroom is not to “repress and alienate” workers and teachers, its purpose is to produce them in a particular way. We have serious qualms with a system of education designed, in effect, to produce docile bodies for consumption in the production line. But Gude’s error comes in assuming that this is a new effect of the neoliberal reform-and-privatize movements. The ‘Taylorist’ classroom is rather the intensification of certain techniques of measurement and discipline in a classroom that has, since its inception, always been a mirror of industrialized society.

Bruenig’s alternative to Gude’s historicism, however, is not intrinsically convincing. He suggests a sort of utilitarian calculus whereby the beneficial and detrimental effects of neoliberal education reform are to be weighed, and a proper data-driven solution arrived at. Is this not the same logic that produces the need for perennial testing, for continuous observation, and more importantly, for the creation of a metric of observation that can quantify ‘education’? Are we to be content with producing students who simply regurgitate information on command? Or are we better served envisioning a student who cannot be standardized, a student who looks and behaves more and more like a complete individual? Such a student would defy the very logic under which the industrial classroom operates.

We cannot be satisfied with half-solutions and a backwards gaze. Education demands a conceptual revolution. At the very least, we must abandon the disciplinary impulses and intellectual stagnation of a classroom that is becoming increasingly destructive and has now become totally obsolete.

by Ben Reynolds and Zack Quaratella

1 Horace Mann, Lectures and Annual Reports on Education. 337. (1872)

2 Carl Kaestle, “School Change, Discipline, and the Common School in Early America,” p. 8. (1978)

3 David Hogan, “Modes of Discipline: Affective Individualism and Pedagogical Reform in New England, 1820-1850,” p. 3. (1990)

4 Nathan Jackson, clerk. “School Committee Minutes: 1800-1828.” Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 214, sub group 4.

5 Zack Quaratella, “The Ornament of Human Society,” p. 30. (2013)

6 David Hogan, “Modes of Discipline,” p. 41.

7 Cynthia Shelton, “Labor and Capital in the Early Period of Manufacturing: The Failure of John Nicholson’s Manufacturing Complex, 1793-1797.” (1982) See for an example of the difficulties associated with the dual-problem of ‘pre-industrial work habits’ alongside a skilled labor force that could effectively halt production when the prompt delivery of wages had ceased.

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18 thoughts on “The Taylorist Classroom?

  1. Great post, Ben. (I should clarify that Ben wrote pretty much all of this.) I particularly liked your comment that we must look to the foundations of this system of education to understand why and how to change it. It could be an effective way to give meaning and direction to these new reforms.

    Your rhetorical questions at the end of the post are especially useful because they get at the heart of the problem. Even as we (Americans) say we would like innovative students, we impose standards that cherish rote memorization. Teachers cannot be expected to be magicians, juggling disparate and dichotomous ideals and cramming them into a curriculum.

    My question for you: is there a way to quantify a “successful” education?

    • As I am what Marx would call a latent bourgeois individualist, I’d like to say “no.” I think the measurement of the “utility” of an education should primarily focus on the experience of the student and their necessarily non-standardizable desires. It should be up to the student to both choose their preferred areas of study and decide whether or not their education has been personally beneficial.

      I understand the “need” to quantify educational gains at a bureaucratic statistical level. Nonetheless, I think the primary methods used – grading, which assigns a single letter to a semester or year’s worth of effort; and testing, which assigns a single number to a year’s worth of knowledge – are pretty limited when they’re not outright useless. If I were envisioning a reporting system, it would focus on qualitative description of the individual student’s progress.

      All that said, I’m not a standardized testing company, so I suppose we amateurs should leave these questions up to the experts. Thanks for the question Zack.

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  4. You guys every try to teach in an American public middle school? Fifteen minutes will show you we need MORE discipline, not LESS. Discipline is not oppression; it’s a necessary precondition for kids to shut off the damn iPhone and learn something about Galileo! Every been to a hippie “free” school that implements your utopian ideals? Anarchy; desultory skulking about. Hopefully these kids learned a lot from their parents because they’re not learning much at school. It seems to me you guys need to get out of your theoretical cloud and come visit Earth; false theories are one of the banes of education today.

    • You seem to offer a false dichotomy between “discipline” and pure, reckless anarchy in the school setting that simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. There are many different kinds of discipline and different techniques for achieving it. Children are unlikely to retain knowledge when you sit them down against their will and lecture in order to “make them learn.” Consider the possibility that attempting to beat knowledge into pupils is counter-productive and ends up preventing them from ever desiring to acquire it in the first place, which is probably why they’re more interested in their iPhones.

      And what would “more discipline,” in the Lancastrian sense that you seem to prefer, actually yield? Smarter kids? More intelligent individuals? Or a nation of people who can listen to commands and ace standardized tests? That’s how America will “win the future!”

      To quote my esteemed colleague: “I have personally visited a middle school Montessori program and was blown away. Every kid was in a different work group collaborating on a project. That week’s task? Presentations on themes in economics. One group was filming a PSA on monetary policy. Another was working on supply and demand curves. Another was creating a live-action play to show how the stock market works. Anarchy? I think not. And yet, the teacher did not need to nail their desks to the floor, or give them permission to use the bathroom, or ring bells to compel them to stop working on interesting projects. They have a number of assignments due each Friday. They all must be completed; students choose how much of their time to give each assignment. I was visiting on a Friday afternoon. In a class of fifteen, one kid was scrambling to finish up an assignment he’d nearly forgotten about. It was a nice school, with nice teachers, and an environment that fostered learning. In middle school, did I understand supply side economics? I hardly got it in 11th grade. But these kids, in the midst of your “anarchy,” were able to not only grasp such a concept, but also created a multimedia presentation which they used to teach the rest of their classmates.”

      There’s absolutely nothing theoretical about this. If you want weak, apathetic citizens, please continue to teach children about Galileo using methods that were already obsolete in the mid-1800’s.

      • Confucius preached that kids should be totally compliant to parents and teachers. What an idiot, right? You can view this as oppression, or you can view it as smart piece of cultural “software” that enables one generation to transmit important knowledge to the next with maximum efficiency. I teach in a middle class public school and I succeed at teaching my kids a lot of history, but I know I could teach twice as much if I had complete control and complete compliance from the students, instead of having to siphon off my teaching energies to asking so-and-so to stop tilting in his chair or face forward and listen ten thousand times per year. I don’t think it’s cruel or unreasonable to expect total compliance from kids. It allows adults to give them the powerful knowledge they need to become free-thinking and powerful adults. A kid doesn’t become empowered by acting empowered vis-a-vis his teacher. He becomes empowered by acquiring knowledge of the world and skills. Thus out-of-control, “empowered” kids are more likely to become merely disempowered adults with attitude. Loosey-goosey with upper class kids is no tragedy –they’ll still acquire tons’ of vocab and world knowledge from their parents –but with lower class kids it is tantamount to child neglect.

        Sure, there are upper-class private schools where 12 year olds display self-control and intellectual aptitude. Not all kids are like that, unfortunately. There’s a reason many nerdy young teachers leave public schools screaming: it’s tough. I’ve been teaching 16 years, but apparently I should hire you as a consultant to help me. I have little respect for educational theorists who spin beautiful theories and then have the arrogance to preach them to teachers with vast experience as if their idle theorizing is in any way equal to vast experience.

        Please, go teach before you make any further pronouncements about education.

  5. By the way I agree with most of Gude’s points about Taylorism. I am very left-leaning, though I think many leftists are very wrong-headed in their ideas about education. Gramsci had it right: the poor need knowledge, not inefficient “progressive” pedagogy. Freire et. al. unwittingly help perpetuate oppression.

  6. It seems like you need to reread the article we posted. The word “oppression” does not come up even once in it, despite how much you keep repeating it. I’ve never intended to disrespect you or your profession, I’m sure you’re a capable teacher. But when you come in blustering about “hippie ‘free’ schools” and “desultory skulking about,” you’re going to get called out for it. [See: Account from a Montessori Middle School, Quaratella]

    As previously said, there is no such thing as a straight line between discipline and “anarchy.” There are many different kinds of disciplinary techniques. I doubt that I need to repeat the earlier point about lecturing to uninterested students, other than to remind you that telling kids to listen “a thousand times a year” seems to be a repetitive process that could be better approached in other ways.

    In point of fact, the very conception of knowledge as a series of incontestable facts that you “fill” students with is part of the problem we’re trying to talk about. Children need to understand how to think and analyze as much as they need to memorize sets of ‘facts.’ Taking pupils and teaching them to act submissively (“total compliance,” in your words) for twelve straight years does not produce empowered individuals.

    I think it’s more interesting that you take the same tack old Lancasterians took with regard to public education – the rich children can discipline themselves, but it’s the poor ones who need to be disciplined (by well-meaning teachers, of course) so that they can be made productive. What would Gramsci think about that?

    • My comment about anarchic free schools is based on reading and a visit to an hippie-influenced alternative high school that is part of the Alameda CA public school system –it is exactly as I described.

      I do like knowledge. I like the knowledge that too much soda can make me diabetic. I think kids should have useful knowledge like this, don’t you? I think kids should know what the Reformation was, don’t you? I think kids should know that not all of our Founding Fathers were Christian zealots, don’t you? Knowledge beats ignorance, don’t you think? I think kids should know that the middle class was built on the work of labor unions, don’t you? How do you know that filling kids’ brains with knowledge is not, in fact, what will most effectively empower kids? Is it just because Paolo Freire said so? Do you accept everything he says uncritically? In fact, reading comprehension and many other intellectual feats depend on having long-term memory banks stocked with a ton of general knowledge (see E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit). Rich kids get this from their chatty, knowledgeable and didactic parents; poor kids don’t. (don’t believe me: search the New York Times for the recent study showing rich kids hear 30 million more words by age three than poor kids.) The only way to shrink the achievement gap is to have schools flood poor kids’ brains with the knowledge that rich kids get at home. Knowledge optimizes and empowers our inborn thinking faculties; schools can impart knowledge, but they cannot impart thinking faculties. Kant was right: thinking skills are built in.

      What if it’s empirically true that most rich kids CAN control themselves better than most poor kids? Just because you don’t like to believe something doesn’t make it untrue. In my experience, generally speaking, this is absolutely true. Help me out: am I just hallucinating?

      • If thinking skills are “built in,” couldn’t they just replace you with a textbook and arrive at the same result?

      • This is a great discussion, guys. Exactly what I was hoping for when I thought of making a blog.

        I think I can see two sides of this issue. As a teacher-in-training myself, and having gone through many hours of observation and volunteer work, I agree with some of the observations made by ponderosa. By working in many low-income schools, I have seen first-hand the horrifying achievement gap played out as early as pre-kindergarten. At this age, ponderosa is absolutely spot-on: teachers simply need to elucidate a list of disciplinary measures in oder for a student to even be able to read.

        And, as ponderosa alludes to, this process of reading and discipline does not play out evenly. Some students are introduced to millions more words than others! Some cannot (or will not) sit still. The question that rings in my mind, though, is what do we do with these kids? Are they doomed to either jail, or Burger King, or something worse?

        We cannot (readily) change the home environment. Some parents will be terrible. How does a teacher (ponderosa, please speak to this if you’d like) manage these differences, even if she/he has complete disciplinary control? I haven’t finished my teaching classes, nor have I ever had to manage such a situation, and I’m interested to see how it works.

        What I struggle with is the difference between ideal-sounding thoughts of people like Freire and what actually happens on the ground in classroom. I guess it can be a teacher-to-teacher philosophy, but ponderosa, in an ideal setting would you rather have a classroom that was teacher-centered (i.e. total disciplinary control, full period lectures) or student-centered (i.e. group oriented, discussion based learning) or both?

        My personal inclination is towards a student-centered learning environment, but that inclination is not tempered by 16 years of hard experience. However, I do know, for example, that my mom is a teacher of 26 years and still employs a student-centered model with her elementary school students.

        Thanks for your comments. I have read this debate with great interest.

      • Ben: a teacher’s value is in embodying the knowledge and explaining it with tools that the textbook lacks: the human voice, the ability to read his audience and respond to verbal and non-verbal cues, emotion… These tools can be very powerful. Plus, if you read about how textbooks are actually made these days (see Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police), you’ll see that they are necessarily unreadable, useless pieces of shit (at least in the realm of k-12 English and history textbooks). A teacher can give coherence and convey a sense of the relative importance of things that modern textbooks cannot. In the realm of the humanities at least, a human teacher is still indispensable.

        Zack: I’m glad you’ve liked the debate. The best advice I could give you as a beginning teacher is to read E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit. It’s short and brilliant. And you’re unlikely to read it in most education schools because of the Stalin-esque group-think that prevails in most of them. Hirsch is viewed as a heretic and vilified –in large part because of his book Cultural LIteracy, which many leftists wrongly construed as a Bill Bennett-likeconservative argument for the superiority of Dead White Male culture. In fact, Hirsch is a liberal Democrat whose deep thinking and research led him to the inescapable conclusion that reading (once decoding is mastered) and writing are not simply formal skills (as Lucy Calkins and the ed school orthodoxy hold) but heavily dependent on world knowledge. Ergo you cannot teach reading without teaching about the world. Unfortunately most educators don’t get this, and so we get counterproductive policies like NCLB that narrow the curriculum to math and “literacy” –drilling in ineffective reading strategies –rather than rich curricula in science, geography, history, economics, literature, etc. that show the kids the world and how it works, and in the process, give them the words used to describe the world. Without words built-into long-term memory, people struggle to comprehend what they are reading. Reading strategies like looking for context clues do not come close to suffiicing. Hirsch makes this argument much better than I do: I strongly suggest you read his book.

        Student-centered activities can be great, but they’re hard to do well and they tend to be inefficient at transmitting knowledge. For my first 5 years of teaching middle school history, I did lots of student-centered activities from the Teachers Curriculum Institute. Some of these were very high quality. If you don’t believe that transmitting knowledge is important, then you should have no qualms about this approach. However if you care about maximizing the amount of knowledge-transmission, as I do, you will probably want to do a lot of direct instruction. Over the years I’ve developed a pretty effective style in which I do tons of research on a topic, take tons of notes, then make multiple drafts of a hand-drawn slide show that uses cartoons and lots of graphics. I do it on paper and show it using a document camera and digital projector. I have kids copy the non-complex slides. I have an artistic bent so this works for me a lot better than PowerPoint, which has huge inherent limitations for clearly conveying content (see Tufte’s “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”) Ed schools will tell you that TELLING is ineffective; they’re wrong. Sure a bad lecture is bad; a good lecture is extremely effective. Don’t admit this a job interviews, but know it in your heart.

  7. Thanks for the great reply ponderosa, that’s what I was trying to get at with my question. A teacher does a lot more than simply offer information, the transfer of knowledge (and in my opinion, building thinking skills) requires multiple different methods of explaining information and trying to get students to engage with what they’re learning. The point I’m trying to make (not that you’ve ever been in disagreement) is that education requires a human connection between teachers and students that cannot be modeled by standardized testing.

    I definitely don’t doubt that great lectures can be an excellent tool for teaching students. The initial purpose of the article was to give an admittedly cursory review of the historical background behind modern teaching practices and briefly question some of the assumptions under-girding them.

    • Ponderosa:

      Speaking to your point towards Ben: I’ve read a few of Ravitch’s books, as well as that old classic of high school social studies classes “Lies my Teacher Told Me.” I agree that textbooks are ineffective. Do you often employ primary sources in your class? I have found that to be the case in college, and somewhat so in high school. Do your kids struggle with documents, or is it a useful exercise?

      Your second point: In my own high school experience, I had two master teachers for whom I had the highest respect. One taught using exclusively the method you described (although she used very basic powerpoint slides that generally only contained a visual). The other did not use any powerpoint when lecturing, but rather used his encyclopedic knowledge to inform his talks. The second teacher also frequently engaged us during his lectures with non-rhetorical questions. I found that this style (for lack of a better way of saying it) kept me engaged. He would often introduce us to historiographical debates in this manner (and to this day, I love to discuss historiography of all sorts), and students would often debate one another to intellectual stalemates just as historians often do.

      Do you find this to be the effective in your own classroom? I know that dialectic education is probably not as efficient as lecturing, but can students learn more/better through these sorts of debates? Have you found yourself grappling with NCLB-esque standards that require “socratic seminars” or are those nonexistent?

      I’ll definitely be checking out Hirsch. As a funny aside, one of my professors, before she got married had Hirsch as her maiden name. And her first name starts with an E, so before she arrived many of her colleagues actually thought she was the famous author! Interestingly, that’s all my m.ed program has offered about Hirsch thus far…

      Thanks again for your input.

  8. Thanks for the validations of lecture! You might want to share your impressions with your education school professors and see what they say.

    I have started to use more primary sources with my seventh graders, and plan to use more. They tend to be much more vivid and interesting than textbooks. Most kids can’t tackle them alone; we read them aloud together and I interject explanations as needed, sometimes going to the board to make quick illustrations (in ed school jargon I believe this is called “scaffolding”). Sometimes I prepare drawings or graphic organizers ahead of time to give kids the gestalt/schema; e.g. a map of Cuba and the Yucatan when reading an excerpt from Diaz’ The Conquest of New Spain.

    Debates can be great. I don’t do them enough, partly because they can be very difficult to manage with rambunctious seventh graders. I don’t do formal debates, but sometimes encourage an informal debate in the course of a lecture; e.g. on Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s views of human nature. I am not skillful enough at this point to get the heterogeneous seventh graders I have to conduct a Socratic seminar. Part of my reason for not cultivating these skills more assiduously is that I feel that in some way it’s putting the cart before the horse. My main mission is give the kids background knowledge so that they have the ability to do close readings and make intelligent comments at later stages of their education. That said, I think debates and seminars can help make the material sink in more deeply which is important, and they can be bring joy into the classroom which is also important. And they break up the monotony of daily lecture, which is advisable.

  9. One last comment regarding Socratic seminars; I went to a college that employed these a great deal, and even there, at the college level, I found a lot of my classmates’ comments wanting. My favorite seminars were those that were dominated by an intelligent professor who had a much deeper grasp of the text than any of the students. These were more profitable. This has made me think that student-talk is often overrated. On the other hand, I did enjoy being able to make comments and ask questions. So then maybe an interactive lecture is ideal?

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