Thursday, December 31, 2020

This Is What Happens When Students (and Their Teachers) Do Not Read Homer


There has been some recent controversy over attempts to remove books like Homer's Odyssey from school curricula to be replaced with more woke friendly material. In the Disrupt Texts Guide, they recommend the book Before the Ever After, which deals with CTE in professional athletes. I have not read the book so I have no position as to whether this book should be taught in schools. What struck me is the following comment from the guide: "In a capitalist society, the allure of fame and fortune connected with the pro sports world seduces many into risking their lives or long-term futures for immediate rewards." 

It seems obvious that whoever wrote this has no understanding of human history in general and particularly has never read Homer. Ancient Greece was not a capitalist society yet the character of Achilles revolves around the idea that he would exchange a long life in return for long-lived glory. The search for glory is important for Odysseus as well. Glory, particularly of the military kind, is a distinctly uncapitalist concept. In fact, one of the virtues of capitalism has been precisely its ability to convince young men that success in business is an acceptable alternative to the glory of victory on the battlefield. Without this, you do not have a capitalist society. 

In truth, every human society in history has possessed some version of encouraging young people to risk their health and physical safety for some larger goal. By definition, society means people organizing around something that they value above their personal self-interest. This applied to ancient Greeks marching off to war, knowing that there is a good chance they will die, so that their families could be part of the small minority of people who got to lie on couches, being served meat and wine by slaves. It applies today with professional football players risking their health for fame and fortune. It also applies to BLM protesters taking to the streets even though they would be personally better off staying home and letting someone else do the hard work of building a more woke society.    

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Is Hogwarts Actually a Good School?

I have been reading the Harry Potter series with Kalman and homeschooling him through first grade. Reading Harry Potter as a parent and a teacher raises different issues from when I was in high school. Hagrid insists that Hogwarts is the best magic school in the world. We are told little about how other magic schools like Baubaxtons and Durmstrang operate. That being said, from an educational point of view, it is difficult to defend how Hogwarts teaches magic. 

Let us first agree to put aside the examples of Gilderoy Lockheart and Dolores Umbridge as they are meant to be bad teachers. Let us also put aside the slightly less obvious example of Severus Snape, who is a case of a very smart and knowledgeable person who should never be allowed near children. He is a bully and his classes are not teaching but child abuse. There is a more fundamental problem with the teaching at Hogwarts is it founded upon the assumption that all students with a baseline of magical ability can take their classes. Even if we assume that teachers can fill their students' heads with the information needed for regular topics, that would not work for many branches of magic. Magic is not simply an intellectual exercise but requires a metaphysical component as well. This means that for many classes, many if not most students can never truly learn the material and it is a waste of time or worse to encourage them to try. 

Imagine me attending a class on dunking a basketball. While I might benefit from learning about the physics and cultural history of dunking, it would be useless to try to teach me to dunk. This has nothing to do with how smart I am or my desire to dunk. The physical reality is that, as a non-athletic person of average height approaching middle age, I might be able to work on jumping higher but will never be capable of dunking on a regulation basketball hoop. It would be irresponsible if not outright fraud for a basketball program to try to teach me to dunk. Similarly, while it is an indisputable fact that my acceptance letter to Hogwarts never reached me due to a bureaucratic mishap, at this point I have to admit that it would be pointless to accept me as I clearly no longer have the knack for magic. I would argue, similarly, that much of Hogwarts' curriculum is wasted on the majority of students.  

One can divide the classes at Hogwarts into three types. First, there are the intellectual classes like potions, herbology, care of magical creatures, and the history of magic. In theory, at least, these do not require any magical abilities and could be taught even by muggles who are knowledgeable about magic as a theory even as they cannot perform magic in practice. What these classes require is the ability to absorb information and a willingness to closely follow instructions. We can grant, for the moment, that such classes might be taught to all students. 

Second, you have classes like transfiguration, charms, and defense against the dark arts that clearly require some magical ability. As students at Hogwarts are supposed to have some baseline magical ability, we are supposed to assume that everyone at Hogwarts meets this standard and can reasonably be expected to succeed. What abilities these classes require is not altogether clear. Despite the fact that Hermoine combines a bookish intelligence with a talent for charms and transfiguration, such classes do not seem to require you to absorb that much information. There are not that many spells to memorize and knowing the right Latin words is clearly not enough to succeed. This suggests that spells require a proper frame of mind in order to perform. Perhaps, it is like riding a bicycle, difficult to intellectualize but quite easy once you have a physical sense of the process.   

Third, you have those types of magic clearly inaccessible even to most wizards as they require something beyond the general ability to perform magic. In this category, you would have divination but also the patronus charm, occlumency, and the ability to resist the imperius curse. In the case of the patronus and occlumency, Harry is introduced to them through out-of-class tutoring from Remus Lupin and Snape, unsuccessfully in the latter case. The fake Madeye Moody teaches students about the imperius curse and performs it upon them to alert them to its existence not because he expects anyone to be able to resist it. Judging from the later books, Harry's ability to resist the imperius is more remarkable than his ability to produce a patronus as it is something that even most high-ranking members of the Ministry of Magic and the goblins of Gringotts cannot do.    

Divination is clearly a subject that few wizards, including the teacher, are capable of mastering. This raises a question as to why divination is taught as a class at all. It would be one thing if Dumbledore kept Trelawney at the school to tutor the once in a generation student with the gift. As it stands, the whole structure of the class is designed to encourage students to cheat and make up prophecies, a truly corrupting pedagogical exercise.   

Once we admit to the existence of a class like divination, where most students can never honestly succeed, we have to ask whether the problem also applies to the second category of classes. Do transfiguration, charms, and defense against the dark arts require something besides a general ability to perform magic, memorize spells, and personal discipline? Clearly, magical talent is not evenly distributed within the wizarding world and Dumbledore and Voldemort have something innately about them that other wizards could never hope to emulate much as the genes I was allotted at birth were never going to allow me to play in the NBA. It is not unreasonable to assume that Neville Longbottom was never going to succeed at transfiguration no matter how hard he tried and should never have been made to take it. This would free him to focus on herbology.

We can even work our way down to the first category and question whether certain students ever had the ability to succeed at such classes despite them not requiring magic. Snape basically makes this point when he compares the challenge of occlumency to that of potions. Harry struggles with both of them because he has little skill for making fine distinctions. This is an important part of his character. What makes him a successful hero is that he is a heart as opposed to a head sort of person. Harry is loyal to his friends and throws himself into danger to protect them. The flip side of this is that he has little talent for the details which is why he needs Hermoine. If this is the case, putting Harry in a potions class makes as much sense as trying to teach him occlumency. Instead, he should be focusing on defense against the dark arts.    

I am forced to conclude that if I were a wizarding parent, I would not want to send my kids to Hogwarts but would instead homeschool them or send them abroad to a different school. Putting Rowling's magical world aside, there is a serious question here about conventional schools. Are there classes that are the equivalents of divination or dunking a basketball that students are encouraged to take or even made mandatory despite the fact that many of them are unlikely to benefit from them? One might even go so far as to put the burden of proof on the school to show that a student would benefit from a class before allowing them to enroll. Does it make sense to pretend to offer special needs students "grade-level assignments?" For that matter, does it make sense to assign average students Shakespeare?