Of Food and Education, part III

Here is part II
Here is part I

It is with increasing dismay that I have reached the conclusion that culturally, our approach to schooling has done to education, to the life of the mind, what Michael Pollan says we have done to food- we have separated it out into unrelated, unconnected strands, teased it to bits, and turned it into fancily labeled (active enzymes!  New! Improved! ) package of cardboard within and cardboard without.  Here is a Michael Pollan essay on food which I’ll use to make my comparison (excerpts from Pollan’s writing highlighted in light blue):

Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

And here- my one quibble is that he puts this shift far too late.  I would move it back to the 1900s when corn syrup was marketed as a better product that honey because of its ‘sterility’ and lab-created hygienic purity (think, too, of the reasons doctors once preferred, and some still do, formula over breast-milk- it’s measurable and quantifiable qualities, its scientific manufacture- all so much tidier than breastmilk, easier to quantify and test):

FROM FOODS TO NUTRIENTS

It was in the 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by ”nutrients,” which are not the same thing. Where once the familiar names of recognizable comestibles — things like eggs or breakfast cereal or cookies — claimed pride of place on the brightly colored packages crowding the aisles, now new terms like ”fiber” and ”cholesterol” and ”saturated fat” rose to large-type prominence. More important than mere foods, the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were coarse, old-fashioned and decidedly unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really? But nutrients — those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases.

Just as in education, the government, of course, must be involved somewhere, because whenever basic, simple, organic realities are tampered with and made more complex and costly, we can look to the meddling hand of government stirring that pot:

No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, though in retrospect a little-noticed political dust-up in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American food culture down this dimly lighted path. Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called ”Dietary Goals for the United States.”

And here, to me at least, the parallels between our approach to food and our approach to education are striking:

In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.

That similarity is even more pronounced here:

Another potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that it has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions between foods. So fish, beef and chicken through the nutritionists’ lens become mere delivery systems for varying quantities of fats and proteins and whatever other nutrients are on their scope. Similarly, any qualitative distinctions between processed foods and whole foods disappear when your focus is on quantifying the nutrients they contain (or, more precisely, the known nutrients).

In the same way, books, excellent works of literature in their various fields, are seen as mere delivery systems for varying quantities and qualities of  the dissected dry matter now called education- things like vocabulary, critical thinking skills,
And if those books are merely delivery systems, then it no longer matters exactly what the children are reading- any book will do, after all, the children are at least reading, some will say, or others will insist it doesn’t matter what they learn as long as we teach them how to learn.
But is this true?  Is it even desirable to teach how to learn without teaching important, meaningful, generous and wide ‘whats’?
And since the books are only mere delivery systems, and after a sufficiently stale diet of dried up chunks of education where wonderful books full of deep insights on the human condition are seen as only a ways to an end, then eventually the children are no longer able to handle them.  They find Dickens, Eliot, Shakespeare, Plutarch and other great works of lasting meaning dry, dull, too stuff, boring- and it doesn’t matter to their educators.  The educators do not re-examine their basic premises which have resulted now in books that children have loved for centuries being impossibly inaccessible to the children of today- because the meat of those books never mattered.  Other books, more accessible books, can be used in their place.  And eventually we needn’t bother with books at all- we can have specially written monographs written not to communicate ideas and inspire and inform the imagination, but written instead for the purpose of giving the children adequate data points, enough vocabulary words, conjunctions, and the punctuation practice for the week.

There’s no indication that these tests actually measure education in a meaningful way, or whether we still have the same issues of a hundred years ago-

“Of the means we employ to hinder the growth of mind perhaps none is more subtle than the questionnaire. [tests] It is as though one required a child to produce for inspection at its various stages of assimilation the food he consumed for his dinner; we see at once how the digestive processes would be hindered, how, in a word, the child would cease to be fed. But the mind also requires its food and leave to carry on those quiet processes of digestion and assimilation which it must accomplish for itself. The child with capacity, which implies depth, is stupified by a long rigmarole on the lines of,––”If John’s father is Tom’s son, what relation is Tom to John?” The shallow child guesses the riddle and scores; and it is by the use of tests of this kind that we turn out young people sharp as needles but with no power of reflection, no intelligent interests, nothing but the aptness of the city gamin.” Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 86 (Charlotte Mason)

The first questions every parent, indeed, every thinking person with a stake in the minds of our future voters, should be asking is ‘What is education?  How does it occur?  What does it mean?  How do we know a child is being educated?”

According California’s state standards , children will ‘identify the use of rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration in poetry.”
It is one of several forms of literature they will ‘distinguish’.  As part of their “Organization and Delivery of Oral Communication” they will “read prose and poetry aloud with fluency, rhythm, and pace. Using appropriate intonation and vocal patterns, they will emphasize important passages of a text being read.”
They will ‘identify and analyze the characteristics of poetry” and other literary forms, and ‘explain the appropriateness of the literary forms chosen by an author…”
In the sixth grade they will  “define how tone or meaning is conveyed in poetry through word choice, figurative language, sentence structure, line length, punctuation, rhythm, repetition, and rhyme.”

This page offers a rote memorization of the terms via rap song for teaching these topics, and a number links to other lesson plan ideas to help states meet their standards (helpfully reproduced at the bottom of the page).  Here’s the first two verses of the rap:

When beautiful lyrics start to take form
At that very moment a poem is born
It’s like an emotion you feel in your chest
Sincere words you may find hard to express
But when we look under the hood to see what’s up
You’ll find some basic principles that make it up
It’s more than words that pour from your soul you see
There’s a couple of standard elements of poetry

The rhyme, for instance, is broken down
To a couple of word play styles that change the sound
What usually happens we see all the time
The words sound alike at the end of the lines
But it goes even deeper from there
There a variation in the styles of the rhymes that we hear
There’s perfect and off rhymes, but we can break it down more
So much in store, let’s take our time

In the eighth grade the standards set this goal:
“Literary Response and Analysis 3.1 – Determine and articulate the relationship between the purposes and different forms of poetry (e.g., ballad, lyric, couplet, epic, elegy, ode, sonnet).”

You get the idea.  Notice what’s missing?  Any mention of real poems, or expression of a desire that the children will learn to love fine poems, develop a favorite poet or genre of poetry, recognize the great poets of the past and their themes.  The standards lack any suggestion that poetry serves as anything other than a vehicle, a delivery system for learning about sentence structure, line length, and repetition and rhyme.  The poems used to meet these standards are interchangeable,  anybody can make them up, familiarity with a Dickenson or a Blake is not necessary.

One gets the impression that real poetry would be a distraction.

 More tomorrow

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3 Comments

  1. DeputyHeadmistress
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it is possible.=) Keep trying.

  2. Celeste
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Just want to say that having just finished books last month by both Pollan and ED Hirsch, I am absolutely loving the connection you've drawn here between "skills" and "nutrients"–so true, so true. Eagerly waiting for more…

  3. Suze
    Posted April 15, 2010 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    I tried to draw a similar connection when my mother-in-law said about a granddaughter, "Well, at least she's reading! It doesn't really matter what…" I pointed out that reading bad books was like eating junk food. Then again, the girl was probably consuming lots of that, too, so I don't know if my point made much of a difference.

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