Sunday, 17 April 2011

School of Hard Knocks

Is it ever justified to crush a student or knowingly allow them to fail spectacularly?
"You might want to improve the student by first crushing him, as then you can recruit his pride to the love of learning. […] You do this not out of malice, but because you sense rare possibilities in him, and take your task to be that of cultivating in the young man (or woman) a taste for the most difficult studies. Such studies are likely to embolden him against timid conventionality, and humble him against the self-satisfaction of the age.” -Matthew Crawford, 2009
I've just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s largely excellent book “The Case for Working with Your Hands (or why office work is bad for you and fixing things feels good)”. Crawford evidently believes that the school of hard knocks has some valuable lessons for our self-satisfied age:
"There may be something to be said, then, for having gifted students learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their egos will be repeatedly crushed before they go on to run the country.”
Whilst we might be sympathetic with the idea of our leaders being exposed to some genuine and instructive failure as part of their training, I think Crawford's argument misses a vital aspect: the scalability of experience. Consider the following analogy: my seven month old son, Angus, crawled into my studio for the first time today. The room is filled with all manner of deadly and dangerous things and my first impulse was to immediately whisk him away. Instead though, I decided to watch very carefully and to allow him to stumble around the less threatening parts of the room. My partner, Lesley, couldn't bear to see this and left us to our risky game. During this Angus twice propped himself up on unsteady objects and inevitably found himself bringing them - and himself - to the ground with a noisy clatter, no injury and no tears (this time at least). Fortunately Angus has never had a full fall from a standing height but whenever he's in an upright position it's very clear that he's keenly aware of how dangerous it could be. Familiarity with minor knocks has evidently chastened him against an over extension of his abilities.

The point I'm making is that our more modest errors are quite sufficient to prepare us for life's larger dangers. It's rarely, if ever, necessary for us to burn our entire arm in the unforgiving flames of instructive experience.

So I don't believe it's ever justifiable to crush a student, even if you are fully prepared and equipped (and who ever is actually?) to pick up the pieces and “cultivate their taste for the most difficult studies”. If they exhibit the arrogance of "self-satisfaction" then it might be appropriate to allow them to them see the 'error of their ways' in stark reality but this surely needs to be done through having them engage in something they actually care about rather than forcing them to take up some random trade during the summer that, in all probability, they would view with supercilious contempt for the rest of their lives.


Anonymous said...

I think as with so many supposed universals in teaching and learning its appropriateness depends on what you are teaching, how sure you are that it is true, how important it is, what sort of student you are dealing with, and whether you have what it takes to do it.

This sort of knock them down and rebuild them approach is entirely appropriate to remoulding personalities towards very important aims by hard-cases teaching life-saving hard facts - for example in military training.

But when you are dealing with a well-formed, and pre-hardened personality, what you are teaching is at best trivial opinion, and you are a wussy academic, you will not teach what you think you are teaching:

OTOH, I do not see the value of entirely protecting students from the consequences of their actions. If we do this we teach them that actions have no consequences, and leave them ill-prepared for life. Not that academics know much about real life...

As far as Crawford is concerned, if he can't see through Pirsig (as it seems he can't), he's a dick, as we say in the world of manual labour.

J. Hamlyn said...

"I do not see the value of entirely protecting students from the consequences of their actions."
Absolutely not, I'm just not in the least convinced that castigating people for their failures, as so many trades are wont to do, really has the potential to effect the ontological change that Crawford supposes.

On the subject of military training I think Kubrick made the point as clearly as needs be (as I know you know).

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