Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Against Docility

Last week in class we talked briefly about what gets valued in school. Or, at least, that's what I hoped to introduce. Remember: the way docility (which means passive) is rooted in the Latin word for "teachable"?

I was reminded of that topic again when I came across this Onion piece: The headline makes the point right away: "English Professor Suddenly Realizes Students Will Believe Literally Anything She Says."  (They really do. Trust me).

While the piece is funny, I think it also reveals a deeper truth. William Deresciewicz, a Yale writing professor, explores this topic in his compelling essay "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education." Here's a brief excerpt of his condemnation of "elite educations":
"Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. 
Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities." (bold, mine).
It is out of our hope that you become intellectuals that Mr. B and I urge you to create your own philosophies on the issue of civil liberties and why it is paramount that you stake out your own positions on your blogs!

How does our school promote individual thinking, the questioning of authority? Where does it fall short? How might we do better?


Noah Low said...

As a proud Hoop-Jumper at New Trier, I find it very difficult to question authority. The majority of teachers at NT do not encourage individual thinking like our AS class does. Teachers often talk about the importance of critical thinking, but individual thinking is usually overlooked. Teachers could improve by being less obvious about what they hope to derive from a lesson plan, and instead let kids come to their own conclusions. New Trier does A LOT of things very well, but encouraging individual thinking may not be one of them.

William E. said...

I wouldn't necessarily say that our school promotes critical or individual thinking. Teachers often stand at the front of a classroom and spit out facts that are then written down and regurgitated back for the test. It happens it many classes and very rarely do students get to take a step back and understand why something works or why something happened. I feel like i have heard the expression, "oh you'll learn that next year" or "we dont have time to explore that topic" too many times while being in this high school.

I'm not sure how our school as a whole could improve upon increasing our critical thinking skills but it does seem like an issue that students are becoming robots, dedicated to only remembering equations, vocabulary or other meaningless things that are just forgotten and left untouched after any type of assessment or final exam.

Audrey K. said...

I agree with Noah and Will. From the way I have been influenced by New Trier teachers, I would say that our school does promote individual thinking, but I think it is hard to say whether or not our school as a whole promotes individual thinking. Different students have different experiences at New Trier and I, personally, have had teachers who love answering questions that students have. They want us to think deeper than the surface and relate what we are learning to the real world. At the same time, I know that other teachers have different styles of teaching.

Like Will, I am not sure how New Trier can promote individual thinking. Even though some teachers do not promote individual thinking, I think that students also need to learn to speak up and ask questions. Sometimes teachers need to explicitly show their willingness to answer questions or talk about how students can apply certain subjects to their own lives.

Josh Sussman said...

I agree Audrey, many teachers at New Trier have different teaching styles. For the most part, I feel that most of my teachers have strongly encouraged students to question what they are being taught rather than memorize facts. Though there are times when I feel "like a robot," as Will said, because I find myself mindlessly copying down every word written on the board, I think most teachers at New Trier have veered away from the "old-fashioned" way of writing notes on an overhead projector and expecting students to memorize every word on the transparency sheet.

Callie Walsh said...

I actually disagree with Dereciewicz because while New Trier is clearly an elite educational institution, I have not found it's teachers or administrators to be encouraging of a docile student body. In fact, I would like to point out that the very first line of New Trier's mission statement is "to commit minds to inquiry". Mission statements spell out the overall goal of an organization by providing a path and guide for decision making. New Trier's guiding statement is to call upon its students to use their own "minds" to question the authorities, beliefs,and ideas around them.

I have personally found New Trier to be very promoting of individual inquiry and intellectual thought. For example, last year in Mr. Strom's english class we were always being called upon to argue positions that we aren't normally conditioned to believe. For example, using the viewpoints of theorists such as Freud, Nietzsche, and Foucault, I had to explain why Hitler was hero, why 9-11 was a good thing, and why humans unconscious minds are what create the worlds greatest monsters. The purpose of this exercise wasn't to try and make you believe what you were arguing, but to expand your mind and force you to look at the whole spectrum of ideas. Such an exercised allowed me to look beyond the beliefs of my parents, teachers, and society, and let me question and discover for myself what I really thought, what I really believed. It's teachers like these, who do in fact commit their students minds to inquiry, that I have learned from everyday at New Trier. So, I'm not sure, maybe New Trier really is one of just a few elite schools that promotes students to question the norm., maybe I'm just really lucky to have gotten the teachers I have, or maybe Deresciewicz argument that elite schools create expert scantron bubblers but poor thinkers is greatly flawed.

Alex Wyse said...

I agree with Callie - I think New Trier actually does encourage students to question their teachers, and that it is generally against docility. No class can be perfectly unbiased, because every teacher is going to have their own opinion, but as long as teachers allow questions and encourage students to develop their own ideas, as my AS teachers do, I do not think that it is a problem. In fact, if the teachers are open to questions, like the teachers at my school are, I think the responsibility falls on the students to make sure that they are not being shown only one side of an argument, because no teacher is going to be 100% unbiased.