Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Hermeneutic Imperative of Elementary Education

Last night's story by Associated Press Writer Samantha Young about the politicization of mathematics education in the State of California reminded me that the arguments that Chris Hedges explored in his "America the Illiterate" column for Truthdig are as relevant to the study of mathematics as they are to the "basics" of reading and writing. Let us begin with what Young was reporting in the account she filed from Sacramento:

A judge on Friday blocked a plan to make California the first state in the nation to require algebra testing for all eighth-graders.

The ruling sidelines an ambitious mandate approved by the state Board of Education in July after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recommended it over the concerns of California's school superintendent and education groups.

The board pushed through the effort in order for the state to meet federal testing requirements or face losing up to $4.1 million in funding. The mandate would have affected students in the 2011-12 school year.

But the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators sued in September to overturn the requirement. They questioned whether the state had the money, staff and training to comply with the state board's decision.

The idea that the education of young Californians should be determined by either the Executive or Judiciary branches of California government (not to mention conditions on Federal funding) to the exclusion of the boots-on-the-ground realities that confront the teachers of those kids may tell us more about our incapacities for getting on in the world than any of Hedges' talents for intellectual inquiry. Basically, this is just a story about the latest chickens that have come home to roost in a fundamentally flawed educational system that appears to reflect our national priorities. We need some reality checking, and the professional activities of neither judges nor governors are going to inform them of those realities.

Bringing reality to the practice of education has a long and troubled history. Leo Tolstoy was trying to do it back in 1862:

Among people who stand on a low level of education we notice that the knowledge or ignorance of reading and writing in no way changes the degree of their education. We see people who are well acquainted with all the facts necessary for farming, and with a large number of interrelations of these facts, who can neither read nor write; or excellent military commanders, excellent merchants, managers, superintendents of work, master mechanics, artisans, contractors, and people simply educated by life, who possess a great store of information and sound reasoning, based on that information, who can neither read nor write. On the other hand, we see those who can read and write, and who on account of that skill have acquired no new information. Everybody who will seriously examine the education of the people, not only in Russia, but also in Europe, will involuntarily come to the conclusion that education is acquired by the people quite independently of the knowledge of reading and writing, and that these rudiments, with the rare exceptions of extraordinary ability, remain in the majority of cases an unapplied skill, even a dangerous skill,—dangerous because nothing in life may remain indifferent. If the rudiments are inapplicable and useless, they must become injurious.

Later in this particular essay, "On Methods of Teaching the Rudiments," Tolstoy added:

The rudiments are necessary for the beginning of education, and we persist in leading the masses by that road up to our education. Considering the education which I possess, it would please me very much to agree with that opinion; I am even convinced that the rudiments are a necessary condition of a certain degree of education, but I cannot be convinced that my education is good, that the road over which science is travelling is the right one, and, above all, I cannot leave out of account three-fourths of the human race, who receive their education without the rudiments.

Tolstoy tried to examine education from the perspective of "being in the world" long before Martin Heidegger started milking that phrase for all it was worth; but our own culture has preferred to view his perspective as the opinions of a crackpot revolutionary. Instead, as Raymond Callahan demonstrated so effectively (and painfully), we chose to view education as just another manufacturing process, best administered through the Principles of Scientific Management of Frederick Winslow Taylor. From this point of view, the dispute between Governor Schwarzenegger and Judge Shelleyanne Chang is not about what eight-graders learn and how they demonstrate what they learn but only about where Algebra I fits in the State-defined assembly line that "manages" the education of its children.

Tolstoy was neither the first nor the last to grab the bull (double meaning vigorously intended) of assembly-line thinking about education by the horns. Nevertheless, the idea that education should serve being-in-the-world remains left in the dust, which is why my own reflections on Hedges' essay tried to bring the very concept of "literacy" back on this track:

At the end of the day, we negotiate the world in terms of how we perceive it; and what is often critically overlooked is that the act of perception is fundamentally an act of interpretation. We have to interpret all sorts of things, including the signals we acquire through our sense organs, the kinesthetic sensations of our own bodies, and, of course, all those signs that confront us, which form the basis for semiotic theory. If we want to invoke the noun "literacy," we should invoke it in terms of "reading the world," rather than just reading all the many sign-based artifacts (otherwise known as "texts") of semiotics.

In the context of the current dispute here in California, I would append the observation that those "sign-based artifacts" include the mathematical expressions that are introduced to students in Algebra I. My point, however, is that education is not about the artifacts but about how those artifacts are interpreted. So the challenge of education is to arrive at a better understanding of acts of interpretation through which we may better prepare student skills in those acts. I would like to submit that one way to approach this challenge is through a better appreciation of hermeneutic thinking, which, in many respects, is one of the oldest disciplines to take on the nature of interpretation itself.

As I wrote on my previous blog, my own appreciation has been shaped significantly by the work of Paul Ricœur. Here is a summary of Ricœur's approach that I attempted back in my earliest days of blogging:

He begins with the exploration of two opposing concepts: explanation and understanding. From his point of view, "explanation" means "structural explanation," a syntactic perspective that can be generalized beyond the sentence to the broader scale of a paragraph or an entire work (if not an entire corpus). "Understanding," on the other hand, is concerned with interpretation and thus involves a semantic perspective. The opposition comes from the fact that, often, you cannot determine the syntactic structure of the text unless you know what it is trying to say; and you cannot interpret the text without knowing how it has been structured.

The bottom line is that all of those sign-based artifacts through which we read the world, whether the signs are linguistic or mathematical, have structure. Grasping the structure is prerequisite to understanding what they mean, but recognizing that structure often requires a grasp of the meaning trying to be conveyed. This is what puts those sign-based artifacts in a league entirely different from the world of computer languages and the programs they express; and, as I previously tried to argue, the very messiness of the relationship between explanation and understanding has a lot to do with what makes us humans, rather than biology-based computers.

The danger of taking this approach, of course, is that, if the bureaucrats decide to run with it, they will begin to argue over where Hermeneutics I belongs in the assembly line, thus failing to recognize that hermeneutic thinking is the ultimate wooden shoe that can bring the mind-numbing workings of that assembly line to a grinding halt. The only sensible political reaction to such a proposal is to write it off as the same sort of crackpot revolutionary thinking behind Tolstoy's proposals. We may thus have to live with the conclusions of a subsequent Hedges column, "The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff" and cede the responsibility for education to other countries that take the role of education far more seriously. In other words we recognize that we are now a culture that is more content to live with our failures than to muster the will to do anything about them. That would certainly be one way to address the nationwide shortcomings of education budgets!

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