Despite the intuitive and empirical evidence for the case that academics alone aren't the key to the long-term flourishing of our young people, our schools are wise to focus on academic mastery for all students.
Why? Because the work of mastering something — be it writing or biology or physical fitness or music — has, as its byproduct, the noncognitive fruits that do seem most integral to a flourishing life — things like perseverance and focus and curiosity and reflection. When you work to improve your running performance, you get increased focus, resilience, and engagement as a result. When you wrestle with how logarithmic functions compare to linear functions, you're building a thirst for learning and ownership of your life that can be applied in other areas of life.
The disciplines — of economics and mathematics and research and painting — are wonderful because they are both hard and fruitful. Mastering them absolutely is something one aspires to for a lifetime, but mastering them bit by bit is something we invite our students into each school year. As we do that, we give them the gift of civilization.
What we call civilization — the accumulation of knowledge which has come to us from our forefathers — is the fruit of thousands of years of human thoughts and toil… It is by right the common heritage of all.
— Robert Tressell, as cited in Ben Newmark's blog post “Why teach?”, which Georgia colleague Michelle Brake recommended to me
So we do work to help our students master the disciplines because that work has value in and of itself, and that work is hard enough to produce positive noncognitive fruits, too.
The teacher, then, must be animated by three loves: love for the discipline, love for the young people, and love for the challenge of helping young people master the discipline. (Thank you to John Strebe's book on mathematics for first introducing me to these.)
One of the highest compliments that I can receive from a student at the end of the school year is that they learned a great deal about world history (or literature, or writing, or argument) and also a great deal about themselves or about life. (Perhaps the least desirable compliment is that I was their favorite teacher — after all, for education to work it must not be a popularity contest.)
If all I have done is taught them a great deal about life, then what I've done is misallocated the time I was given. Indeed, my job description is not to teach the kids about life — it is to teach them about world history. Teaching the kids about life and about themselves is the job of all of the adults — and the peers, and the siblings — in their lives. It is the sum curriculum of childhood, and then adolescence, and then adulthood. But my small part in that curriculum is to teach the kids about world history, and as we work toward mastering this tough discipline, there are myriad chances to also learn about life — and to help them develop the noncognitive skills we've been discussing.
This is a bit of an off-tune message in a world obsessed with the mistaken notion that skill can somehow be divorced from knowledge and mastery. It seems the general sense today that knowledge and mastery and the disciplines are not as important as one's individual desires and preferences and choices. Upon appraising world history for a number of years, as well as current trends in the ways we work and live and relate, as well as cognitive science and social psychology and educational research, I must say that this view is foolishly neomaniacal. It exalts the now, the present, the vaporous moment we live in, and it diminishes the treasures stored up for us by past generations.
The whole trick of this series of posts then (the previous here and here), is to hold in view what seems to be a paradox: academic achievement is not the best predictor of a flourishing life, but it is a wonderful thing to focus on as we seek to develop both academic mastery and noncognitive strengths in our young people.
So how are we to take these ideas into a world that is still irrationally obsessed with testing, testing, testing, testing, testing?
I'm still working on that. But eventually, we need to have a talk about measurement. Because it's not tests that are the problem: it's crappy tests attached to carrots and sticks (especially sticks).