David Brooks, Schools and Wisdom (Part 1 of 2)

David Brooks dedicated his October 16, 2015 New York Times column to the film “Most Likely to Succeed” and, implicitly, to the question of the ends of education–meaning, what are high school educations for? What are its purposes? I enjoy a lot of what Brooks writes and folks on campus have had to put up with me quoting him even more often than usual since his book The Road to Character appeared last spring. So I was particularly glad that Brooks addressed “Most Likely to Succeed.” A couple of people closely involved with the film’s conception and production I know well, and they are great, thoughtful educators. From what I can tell in the film, the school it features, High Tech High, is an impressive model of pedagogy. The students and faculty that animate the film do amazing things in the classroom–which, by the way, look nothing like traditional classrooms. I recommend the film highly, particularly if you can watch it with a group of educators.

The film reflects the latest and greatest in educational theory, and therein lies the problem. Educational theory today–and maybe always, but I don’t know it well enough to make that claim–does a great job on means–the Xs and Os of how to teach, incorporating the most recent neuroscience, findings from positive psychology, etc.–while remaining fairly silent on questions of ends and purpose. We know we need “to prepare students for a global, interconnected, 21st marketplace,” and we do. But we also have a responsibility to prepare them to identify, once they enter that world (if not before), where they want to go in it and the reasons underlying the path they choose. As most adults for whom being employed is basically a given know, setting out to be “a productive worker” will leave a person empty at precisely the moments in life when one most needs to know one’s purpose, or at least to have a sense of how to begin identifying one’s purpose.

Brooks focuses his critique not on broader questions of purpose but on important and fundamental assumptions that animate all schools and classrooms. “What matters is not how well you can collaborate in groups,” Brooks writes, “but the quality of the mind you bring to the group.” Amen. It is easier to teach and assess (easier is different from easy) the former than the latter. He goes on to point out that the film “ignores the distinction between information processing, which computers are good at, and knowledge, which they are not.” And with his next sentence, Brooks gets to the heart of the matter: “If we want to produce wise people, what are the stages that produce it?” It’s not clear to me that we, at least in independent schools, have agreed that we want to produce wise people. That would actually be a fairly interesting discussion to have. It would lead quickly and obviously to the question of how we define wisdom. That would be a really important, fun conversation to have. I think that doing so would upend so much of the momentum of educational theory today–a momentum that is increasingly good at information processing but not at wisdom.

Brooks’s suggestions for how to structure learning so that it leads to (or at least points students toward) wisdom diverge from much of the current thinking in schools and graduate schools of education today. I won’t spend as much time on each of these as they deserve but will at least try to start.

Brooks suggests that we have to begin with “basic factual acquisition.” This statement of the obvious has gotten lost within schools these days as we hear increasingly that in a world where we can pull up the latest information on any topic at a moment’s notice, it’s more important that students know how to find the right information and how to use it once they find it then that they memorize facts. (I hope I am doing at least a basic level of justice to this assertion. This is the “skills versus content” dichotomy in which skills has emerged as the clear winner even though, in my mind, it’s a false dichotomy. Certainly rote memorization with no larger purpose is not the goal.) Of course, any argument for “core knowledge” (Brooks’s phrase) leads to accusations that we privilege one culture over another in the act of choosing (the dead, white, male literary cannon with which many of us grew up as an obvious example). But Brooks is on to something in pointing out that to understand American history, for example, a student needs to know that the Civil War preceded the Progressive Era. We should not give up on this too easily and, in fact, need to make up some ground. Doing so while helping students and faculty acknowledge the cultural power plays involved in emphasizing some information over other information (an inevitable, unending process) is critically important, to be sure, but the fact that we have to make those choices shouldn’t prevent us from doing so according to the purposes and goals we identify for our schools.

More to come. In the meantime find out more about The Road to Character.