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Schools Are a Place to Learn to Reason


Editor's note: Due to a busy travel schedule, Deborah Meier composed this entry before Tuesday's presidential election.

Dear Diane,

I'm on the road and writing you before Election Day (even though this won't be posted until after the big day). But I can't wait until Wednesday to respond since I'll be on my way to the Coalition of Essential Schools' Annual Fall Forum in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday. Some thoughts on my recent experiences...

Canvassing in Franklin County, Penn., is intriguing. Sitting eating lunch on Sunday with my Obama cap on, a lady came over and whispered to me that she was voting for Obama. Her husband, too, she added, nodding toward him. He was keeping a discreet distance. The three young people behind the counter included an outspokenly enthusiastic Obama supporter, but alas 34 days short of being 18; a young woman who is 18, she told us proudly, but has absolutely no interest in politics and is voting for no one. A young (black) man came around the corner to announce that he was voting for Obama. So, Obama won there, 1 to zero.

My friends here are amazing and are making sure they reach every Independent and Democrat, covering the polls, and keeping spirits up with food and chat. We have a small office in Greencastle (population a few thousand) with an Obama cut-out in front. Two local young women have come back from college to campaign and wanted to be sure to get a picture of Obama with them in it. The cut-out served perfectly.

A small, shabby house by the roadside with a huge McCain-Palin sign was intriguing. It was larger than the house itself.

So, on with your questions. Yes, human reason is fundamental. If we fail to use such reasoning power we fail to take advantage of one of our uniquely human characteristics. And schools ought to be the place where we learn to reason together, to find the languages that enable us to meet across diverse ground to reach new common ground together. Reason doesn't exclude the existence of our equally powerful social and emotional character. But reason helps enormously when we want to make sense of ourselves and others. (Equally critical is a social setting in which we have to take others into account, and opportunities to exercise our imaginations in ways that broaden opportunities.) I wasn't being "cute" the other day when I commented that my natural inability to memorize—my poor rote memory—has predisposed me to perhaps over-emphasize other aspects of learning that don't rest on rote memory. Math became a passion for me once, and only once, I discovered that it rested on something else entirely—on a way of seeing the world, on patterns and relationships in a particular format. In short, I discovered that one could reason with math, not just memorize it!

To imagine that democracy can flourish in a society in which the large majority of people have been—intentionally?—misled about what it means to be an "educated" adult is embarrassing. The reasoning behind our sometimes irrational systems needs uncovering, layer by layer. It might not make us any happier with our system of governance, but it can help us understand how better to change or not change it. For example, no doubt the average student has learned that democracy means voting, and that the majority wins. It just so happens, as we remind ourselves every four years, that this is not the case in the system of governance that we call democracy. A good use of mathematics might be to imagine how this campaign might look if other forms of counting votes were applied. Ditto for the way we read polls. (It makes me appreciate some of the plusses of our absurd system.) What a wonderful opportunity such a curriculum would offer to uncover the nature of sampling, to see how different assumptions alter poll results. In short, to exercise the "what if" habit. What might elections look like if candidates knew that 90 percent of those listening to them were asking, "What's the evidence for that?"

It so happens these are also the intellectual traits of a strong academy, and indeed the academic disciplines can be useful in deepening our democratic habits, and vice versa. But the critical feature of a good school, for me, is that it forces young people and their teachers, to practice, over and over again, the habits that make democracy conceivable. That (this to Diana S.) means selecting topics that have no yes/no, Google-able answer and pursuing them in ways that require us to listen to many views, to weigh evidence, to look for patterns, to conjecture, and to wonder why it matters. It limits what we can study respectfully, above all with respect for knowledge.

But how to get "the larger picture"?? That was always our dilemma. The traditional assumption is that first we teach, by rote, the larger narrative story of humanity, and then if and when they become scholars in post-graduate courses they can learn how to really think critically. I want to reverse this! But.....

Incidentally, there are two new books out questioning the capacity of the vast majority, to engage in that "critical" intellectual work. It's at that point that you and I are solidly united, joined at the hip, as they say. But, I would argue, that no amount of chanting that "all children can learn" can undermine this centuries'-old belief in the bell curve of intelligence and the ineptness of the average human mind for "higher" forms of learning. If this were to be true, democracy would be not merely flawed, but in the end unredeemable.

Nothing in my experience—even canvassing here in south central Pennsylvania—has convinced me that what we are contending with is our human nature, our limited mental power. We've barely ever tried to use our public education system to develop the habits of a powerful adult citizenry.




I've always believed all children CAN learn, they just progress at different rates.

Yes, I just read Charles Murray's Real Education and agree with some of his suppositions (not every American high school grad has to go to college and Hirsch's Core Knowledge Theory) but disagree with a number of his other theories. The book clearly has many discussable moments and once he got past Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences it got interesting


Even when we focus on fundamentals, we can and should make room for "selecting topics that have no yes/no, Google-able answer and pursuing them in ways that require us to listen to many views, to weigh evidence, to look for patterns, to conjecture, and to wonder why it matters."

But this need not negate traditional approaches to education. I question your characterization of the "traditional assumption": "that first we teach, by rote, the larger narrative story of humanity, and then if and when they become scholars in post-graduate courses they can learn how to really think critically."

Whose "traditional" assumption is that? I don't find it in the writings of my favorite so-called traditional educators. Nor do I find it in my own experience as student and teacher. I don't know anyone who would advocate postponing critical thought until college, let alone graduate school. Good teachers have always found ways to bring the subject to life and to get the students thinking.

Traditional and progressive classrooms can both be deadening if the curriculum is lacking, if the school's priorities are not on education, or if the teachers lack preparation and love for what they do. Conversely, a Latin declension can dance in your mind if you repeat it enough times. I remember the delight of learning the declension of "hic, haec, hoc"--the vowel gradations, the inflections, the strange associations, the semblance of a song. Today, instead of memorizing, we would likely be directed to "turn and talk" to a partner about what the genitive case might be used for. Such turning and talking amounts to gyration and noise if we don't know the genitive case to begin with.

Some enjoy memorization; some dislike science experiments. (I generally disliked science lab--I tended to spill things and draw lines askew.) But a declension and an experiment are both conducive to good thinking.

I love what Demiashkevich had to say about this in The Activity School (1926):

"We can scarcely accept a reasoning which hurls at us dilemmas such as: Do you wish the child to have his head crammed with rules and information or do you prefer him to be able to think independently? Or, do you want the school to be the bookish school, the school of words, the school of authority, the state educational factory or would you like to make of it the agency of untrammeled and boisterous development of children? Or, do you desire the school to be dominated by the teacher who is bent upon 'keeping children under,' 'breaking their spirit,' and upon training them 'to be seen and not heard,' or are you willing to side with the school of unhampered self-expression? The point is that we cannot but reject everyone of these alternatives and refuse to surrender to the maximalist dialectics. Any other course of action would be as unsound as engaging for our family doctor a man who would say to us that before he starts his medical ministrations to the physical well being of ours and our own people we must choose between being left, in consequence of his actions, with our teeth in perfect order and with legs paralyzed, or with our arm biceps in excellent condition, but somewhat dulled about the brain."

Diana Senechal

P.S. Just a little anecdote about the interplay of memorization and creativity:

Today I rounded up a group of second graders to rehearse A Midsummer Night's Dream. The second graders play the fairies and elves. As we mounted the stairs, I told them, "Walk the way fairies would walk up the stairs."

A girl chimed in, quoting from the play, "And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear!"

That was one of the lines that they had memorized, and she made meaning of it, on the spot, on the stairs.

Diana Senechal

Diana Senechal questions Deborah's idea that there is a traditional assumption that we teach, by rote, the story of humanity up through secondary education. And the traditional assumption is that a critique of our national story starts in college-- if you are lucky enough to attend.

Senechal doubts the existence of that traditional assumption. I withhold judgment on the validity of the assumption, but quote Richard Rorty in his book Philosophy and Social Hope to affirm the existence of the assumption.

"Dewey's great contribution to the theory of education was to help up get rid of the idea that education is a matter of either inducing or educing truth. Primary and secondary education will always be a matter of familiarizing the young with what their elders take to be true, whether it is true or not. It is not, and never will be, the function of lower-level education to challenge the prevailing consensus about what is true."

Rorty ideas here are slightly out of context, but nonetheless make a case that in order to critique the system, you need to know what makes up the system.

He continues: "Socialization has to come before individuation, and education for freedom cannot begin before some constraints have been imposed."

Now to get slightly back on track. The original post is titled "Schools are a place to learn reason."

I don't see why the reasoning capacity cannot be strengthened by some rote learning that provides substance to any critique. I believe there is a question lurking under the surface of this topic. Can "rote learning" be structured in a more meaningful way that embodies reasoning skills above pure memorization?

For this question to make sense you have to stretch the definition of rote learning beyond memorization of historical dates, formulas, etc.

And probably the definition of rote learning cannot be stretched far enough. It has a somewhat charged connotation, and maybe for that reason we would be better served not to use the term.

Would "learning ideas" be a better substitute?


Thank you for bringing up interesting points and questions. You are right to ask what we mean by "rote." Indeed it is a charged term; indeed its meaning stretches at times beyond the learning of names, dates, and formulas. Conversely, "creativity" stretches into those very names, dates, and formulas.

For the sake of clarity, let's say "rote" learning is that which you more or less repeat back, and "creative" learning is that which you transform in some way, at least in your mind.

Even the most basic learning of fundamentals can and must be in some way creative, and creativity conversely requires fundamentals. To learn names and dates, you make sense of them in your mind, or else you devise patterns. Those meanings and patterns take on their own life. William Torrey Harris wrote, "The pupil can, through the properly prepared recitation, seize the subject of his lesson through many minds. He learns to add to his power of insight the various insights of his fellow pupils."

Many assume that serious or creative thought must involve questioning the "system." Why so? I would agree with you that students need to learn the parts of a system before they can question it on a large scale. But there is much questioning they can do along the way--questioning that prepares them for a broader perspective. For some, the greatest beauty may lie in those particulars.

No matter how basic your level of learning, you can think about what you are learning and consider it from different angles. Mental arithmetic is conducive to such tossing and turning: if you multiply 32 by 29, you learn to see it as (32 x 30) - 32, or else (29 x 30) + (2 x 29). Or you can see it as 16 x 58, or 8 x 116, etc. This to me is anything but rote. (And yes, a teacher can combine this with lessons on the history of arithmetic, so that students do not take their number system or base 10 for granted.)

But back to "traditional" education. Yes, as you point out, one needs to know the field before one can question it on a large scale. But why should that be deemed rote learning? What about the lecture combined with lively class discussion? What about the material itself, which often fires up questions and ideas in a student's mind? How can you read the Lincoln-Douglas debates passively, without a debate starting up in your head? How can you read "The Bells" of Edgar Allen Poe and still hear church bells in the same way as before? How can you identify a dangling modifier without subsequently spotting them in the newspaper or online, and laughing over the unintended meanings?

Could any of that be called "rote" learning?

Diana Senechal

That was a great post. I will have to bookmark this site so I can read more later.

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