Friday, January 18, 2019

Brooksy Gets Tingly

Pola Negri in Ernst Lubitsch's The Wildcat (1921).

David Brooks, "Students Learn From People They Love":
A few years ago, when I was teaching at Yale, I made an announcement to my class. I said that I was going to have to cancel office hours that day because I was dealing with some personal issues and a friend was coming up to help me sort through them.
I was no more specific than that, but that evening 10 or 15 students emailed me to say they were thinking of me or praying for me. For the rest of the term the tenor of that seminar was different. We were closer. That one tiny whiff of vulnerability meant that I wasn’t aloof Professor Brooks, I was just another schmo trying to get through life.
That unplanned moment illustrated for me the connection between emotional relationships and learning. We used to have this top-down notion that reason was on a teeter-totter with emotion. If you wanted to be rational and think well, you had to suppress those primitive gremlins, the emotions. Teaching consisted of dispassionately downloading knowledge into students’ brains.
This is apparently from when he was teaching Humility at Yale and his wife threw him out and his girlfriend fled to Houston and it's very sweet, except as you see there's no attempt whatever to demonstrate his point. He doesn't say how this glimpse of the Brooksian humanity helped his students learn more or better of what he was teaching them, or even betray any knowledge of whether they were learning anything at all or display any interest in it. He's only interested in what he himself learned about how likable he is.

In point of fact he is acting like that person he was complaining about only a few weeks ago: "Picture yourself shopping at a farmers market where everything’s locally grown. Do you feel the tingly meaningful feeling welling up inside? Of course you do!"

No doubt about the truth of the motto, good teaching is emotionally invested and students need to know it, and I don't really have a clear idea of who's publicly disagreeing with it (it's implementation that's the big problem), but you don't want to be learning it from David F. Brooks.

Today's column is a book report on something he'd like to present himself as involved with (the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development), though he isn't:
The good news is the social and emotional learning movement has been steadily gaining strength. This week the Aspen Institute (where I lead a program) published national commission report called “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.” Social and emotional learning is not an add-on curriculum; one educator said at the report’s launch, “It’s the way we do school.” Some schools, for example, do no academic instruction the first week. To start, everybody just gets to know one another. Other schools replaced the cops at the door with security officers who could also serve as student coaches.
My bold. His program, started in March, doesn't as far as I can learn have a name yet (it's to "understand and reduce the growing fragmentation, alienation, and division around the country" and "reweave the nation’s social fabric" by turning "all the wonderful work local community healers are doing" into "a social movement"). It sounds like a kind of parodic exaggeration of everything that's wrong with the Aspen Institute, assessing the needs of poor folk by asking the local gentry, and as we know it's a Brooksy as it gets. As Anand Giridharadas says:
Aspen would do well to spend its time listening to more of society’s losers, and fewer winners. “The powerful are very good at disseminating their own bullshit,” he says. “They don’t need the intellectual reputation laundering of ideas festivals to make their heavily marketed bullshit smell even sweeter.”
“I sincerely believe,” he says, “that had more of the institutions of this country – and particularly those involved in thinking and ideas, not just conferences but all kinds of things – been more skeptical of elite fantasies and more mindful of what was actually going on in other people’s lives in this country, I think it’s very possible we wouldn’t have orange Mussolini in the White House.”
The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development thingy, in contrast, looks like it might be an actual attempt to follow Giridharadas's advice, an effort to gather a lot of research into a coherent picture of what's going on in real life:
In fact, the basis of this approach is not ideological at all. It is rooted in the experience of teachers, parents, and students supported by the best educational research of the past few decades. More than nine in 10 teachers and parents believe that social and emotional learning is important to education.1 At least two-thirds of current and recent high school students think similarly.2 As one student said, “Success in school should not be defined just by our test scores … but also by the ability to think for ourselves, work with others, and contribute to our communities.” 
Amazing that its first two footnotes are to studies of teachers on the ground and direct interviews with kids.

David Brooks's approach is, as we've seen, to ask himself about how great he feels.

When you start thinking this way it opens up the wide possibilities for change. How would you design a school if you wanted to put relationship quality at the core? Come to think of it, how would you design a Congress?
I'm the worst Donovan-loving moral-relativist hippie you ever want to meet, but imagining a Congress that puts relationship quality at the core makes me throw up a little in my mouth.

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