Monday, August 17, 2009

There’s an interesting on-line debate in the NY Times today regarding higher degrees for teachers. In the back and forth discussion, the value of education degrees is debated, as the numbers of teachers seeking higher degrees has skyrocketed in the last eight years as a result of the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

As a general rule, I tend to come down on the side that great teachers aren’t necessarily made, but that the combination of crucial thinking skills, communicative ability, and desire for learning in oneself and in others (educational ambition/optimism) is often a part of an individual’s very core being. The ‘not made but born’ construction is one applied to every manner of profession (including historians) and is one with many problems. But, I think at the heart of this construction is a fundamental truth that some people make for better teachers than others simply because they have the aptitude and personality to make it in the classroom.

In my own experience, some of the best teachers I have had, by far, have been those who lacked formal educational training. Some of the worst teachers I have had were those who could only be described as educational methodology pedagogs. The best encouraged me to think critically, to read broadly, and to write sceptically. The worst had us doing group projects that often went nowhere.

My evidence, however, is purely anecdotal and I am by no means an educational expert. I will say that in higher education, the desire for specialist master’s degrees has led to these programs being seen as ‘cash cows’ for universities intent on making the master’s an occupational degree, rather than advanced training in a particular subject. New masters programs are popping up all the time leading one to wonder how many of those with these degrees have any sense of mastery of their subjects beyond a few extra credit hours or a few extra papers.

Surely, who would want a degree in education unless you simply had to get one? For secondary and high school teachers, wouldn’t a degree in your subject field have more educational (and personal) value? For elementary school teachers, wouldn’t you rather have a specialist’s degree in early childhood development or child psychology? Educational certification is one thing: two to four years of required graduate classes in what most good teachers already know is quite another.

Anyone who has spent any time in front of a classroom knows that the best training for a would-be educator is on the job. In time, they’ll either succeed or fail regardless of advanced training initiatives, study days, or continuing education in education.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

I spent part of last week in Leeds. There are few cities I would rather not visit again. I know – I’m perhaps not being fair. Well after visiting I can say that Leeds wasn’t very fair to me either.

On my first night in my ‘guesthouse’, a British term that loosely means a mediocre cross between a youth hostel and a B&B, I asked the hotel ‘manager’ where a chap could procure some decent victuals. He replied, ‘Everything around is good. Just walk up the street.’

So I did and I found the world’s longest stretch of kebab shops. I passed ‘Homer Chicken’ and two pizza joints. I looked in on a chippie that by the state of mould on the walls, doubled as a homegrown penicillin factory. I sauntered to a corner pub, which disappointingly looked like the very place where a fellow could get a pint of Tetley’s, a social disease, and a knife in the kidney. I kept walking.

After nearly an hour circling the University of Leeds, I was back where I started. I popped into a corner shop across the street from the campus to buy a paper. They didn’t sell newspapers, or so I was told, so I bought some ginger snaps and walked on.

Eventually, I made it to a pub called “The Library” a name that would appear witty there wasn’t a bar by the same name in every university town in the United Kingdom and quite a few in America as well. Upon entering, I went to the bar and ordered a hamburger. While waiting for my change, a 18 year-old came up to order drinks for his mates and cordially asked if ‘this lady’ was being served. By ‘this lady’ he meant me. I said ‘no’ and he said ‘oh, sorry mate’ before ordering 5 double vodka red bulls.

All this on a Monday night.

On Tuesday I decided to walk into the city after a disappointing lunch on campus consisting of a yogurt pot and some instant coffee. I made it just past the nicest building in the city, the juvenile court, when two aggressive drunks, begging for change, began heckling me with many loud expletives. Defeated, I went back to my ‘guesthouse’ for some decaf Nescafe and ginger snaps.

I have no small experience with drunken people, but for some reason the UK produces a very high number of talkative drunks that seem drawn to Americans. They are compelled to tell us three things: that they are drunk, that they are unhappy about something in their lives causing said drunkeness, and that they have been to Florida. Last night, while sitting down for a pub dinner at 6 PM in Glasgow, a morbidly intoxicated vagrant in sweatpants fell into our table and then began telling us of his marital problems. Then he kept telling my wife that A: he wasn’t gay and B: her husband was a very attractive man. And that he had been to Florida.

We eased him away after a very laboured conversation, and he fell out the door with the same dexterity he exhibited in falling into our table. It was most enlightening and a fateful warning against getting too close to anyone who would wear sweatpants in a public house.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Big news in the United Kingdom today is about the possible release of the Pan Am Flight 103 bomber Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi. The Times and the Daily Telegraph both have called his possible release a travesty of justice and it certainly is. He’s a mass murderer and a terrorist but many people in the United Kingdom, and organizations such as the Church of Scotland, believe he should be returned to his homeland to die. Americans, well, aren’t so forgiving, in particular the relatives of his victims.

Also, a Times blogger has an interesting post on a possible American apocalypse. Anyone else think this has a touch of anti-Americanism to it?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Though I am contented to be cynical in my views toward the motivations of those in political power, I am an optimist to a large degree, about the progress of American life in this new century. In my youth we were a nation still ascendant. The last ten years have had many trials and have seen many political developments which have contradicted that ascendancy. War, torture, lying, scandal, and of course, the fragmentation of once great parties into screaming bands of brigands and political hooligans.

People have short memories. The media this week has been all a twitter about Conservative activists mad as hell about socialized medicine and President Obama. Liberal activists, who have been complaining about conservative activists (most who are cut from the same activist cloth as themselves) were no less vociferous while they were burning Bush in effigy. What makes the conservative case something different, to me rather disturbing, is that activism, by itself, is not fundamentally conservative.

Make no mistake about it; the people shouting at Members of Congress, spouting their paranoid eyewash about protecting the Constitution, are self-aggrandizing anti-democrats. The very nature of representative government, in the American form at least, is based on Congressional debate and not catch-phrases regurgitated from extremists radio show hosts. The same right wing people who are now so concerned about the Constitution and ‘socialism’ are the ones who voted for George Bush who advocated direct government aid to the banking industry, the Medicare Prescription Drug Act, and the explosion of federal spending after 9-11 by Republican Members of Congress who have landed us in the greatest federal deficit in the history of the Republic.

I suppose what really bothers me about this turn to GOP activism is that it is simply undignified. When we are identified as a party with the lowest common denominator, with the ignoramuses and conspiracy theorists spewing their venom in all directions, we are losing the policy debate. We need an alternative vision for healthcare: rising prices and coverage restrictions are problems that desperately need to be confronted. Not by signs and not by slogans but by legislation, policy, and debate.

Conservativism is found in restraint. It is moderation. It is discussion. It is, fundamentally opposed to rabble rousing and sceptical of mobs. It is founded in anti-extremism. I would argue that those speaking the loudest at these so-called Town Hall meetings are right wing extremists – but they aren’t conservatives. If they are the future of the Republican Party, well, then the great elephant of the GOP deserves to die at the hands of its own gun toting mob.