Tuesday, September 08, 2009


I wish to speak of the students I know. What I say will not apply to all students everywhere, but it will apply to most in the West. (No doubt it will apply to many elsewhere as well. But I know only the West. Let those who know better speak of other places.) In the West, most children find themselves in a classroom by their 5th year (if not before); most remain in the classroom until at least their 16th. Their teachers do vary in quality. But all (or almost all) have teachers, and all are taught; and if they would but work, they would learn.

The question I wish to address is this: What is that which make students succeed? My answer (I hope) will come as a surprise. The obvious answer - that mastery of content brings success - is at best a shallow truth. What is the truth that underlies? Why do some master what is taught while others do not?

I do not doubt that knowledge is essential to success. If I know nothing, I cannot succeed at anything. But if we would make our students successful, we cannot aim first, or primarily, at an increase in knowledge. For if a student is not ready to learn, nothing we can convey to that student, nothing that we attempt to teach, will be learned. Rather it will pass over the student and leave no sign that it ever touched her.

But how then is a student made ready to learn? What distinguishes those students in my classes who are ready from those who are not? I have embraced an answer that, I suspect, puts me at odds with much of the education establishment. They would say that, when a student appears unready to learn, the reason is ignorance of that which should have been learned before. The view is thus that present failure is bred by past failure and thus that, to remedy that failure, all we need do is teach what had not been learned before. I reject this view. Readiness to learn is first and primarily a matter of character, not of knowledge. Proper character leads to acquisition of knowledge; improper character makes that acquisition impossible.

What is proper character here? What habits of thought and of behavior must the successful student evince? No doubt a good answer must be a long answer; no doubt a good answer must name many traits. But here are the ones that at present seem to me most important:

1. Discipline of mind and of body. A mind prone to constant distraction or a body that cannot obey the dictates of mind makes failure inevitable.

2. Trust in authority. If one believes that the teacher does not know her field or that she cares nothing for the student's welfare, she will be ignored. But when a teacher is ignored, her lessons cannot be learned.

3. Desire to succeed. There will be no success where there is no desire for success. Success must be valued in its own right; it must be sought for its own sake.

4. Desire to know. The desire to know is not present to the same degree in all students who succeed; nor is it present to the same degree at all times in a student's life. (I would suggest that in most cases it increases; and it should.) But it is still there; and among the duties of teacher and of parent is to instill it.

5. Tenacity. The successful student does not give up when the tasks set before her are difficult. Rather she digs in and does what it necessary to succeed.

The best sort of pedagogy inculcates these traits first, and never neglects them when any other lesson is taught. Thus the lessons that are most important are moral in nature, and those lessons must begin early. If a students possesses these traits, then she will learn. If she possesses these traits, she will come to class ready to learn; and as she works her way through the grades, she will learn what she is expected to learn.

I assume (as I said) that in most classrooms in the West, teachers do teach; and of course they do. Not all teach equally well. Not all teach equally well at all times in their careers. (Most get better. A few get worse.) But they do teach, and if the student will but listen and work, she will learn. The teacher is thus not a barrier to success. The student is the barrier when a barrier exists. Teachers are not to blame. The bad habits of their students are to blame; and if, as seems likely, we do not blame those bad habits on the students themselves, we must blame those whose primary responsibility it was to instill those habits. On parents, then, the primary blame must be placed. (Do we dig deeper at this point and blame the culture of which the parents are part? Are there cultures of failure? I would say that this is so. But still we must look to the individual for a remedy. "Culture" is but a name for a shared attitude thus way of life; culture thus entails a plurality of like-minded individuals, and from those individuals and those individuals alone can change come.)

In sum: the ultimate explanation of failure is not ignorance, for ignorance itself is something to be explained. From whence does ignorance come? Bad habit. Good habit leads to success, bad habit to failure. To teach our children well, then, is to teach them the habits of successful students.

Parents, do not take this as an invitation to ignore acquisition of knowledge. Rather I ask that you think clearly about what it means to teach well. Make them do, I say. Make them act as good students act, for as Aristotle noted we learn good habits by activity of a sort evinced by those who already possess those good habits. Do it by praise; do it by censure. Do it however it can be done, but make sure to do it.

Last I'd like to end with a little corollary. But before, let me note an obvious fact. Students forget most of what they are taught. But though this is inevitable, success is still quite real and is quite important. But what is success, then, if it is not possession of knowledge? What is the real import of my work if most of my students will forget most of what I teach?

Here is my answer. Success consists in going on, and I am a gatekeeper to advance. The successful students shows herself in possession of those traits that make success possible, and when I judge a student a success - when I, for instance, give her an A - I testify to her possession of those traits. Her possession of those traits is what's most important; and my primary task is to determine which of those students have those traits and then create the paper-trail that will allow others - either teachers or employers - to know that they have them.

I sift, but I do not sift for knowledge (at least not in the first place). I sift for virtue.

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