Category Archives: Purpose of Education

Class Action

The other day, I heard an interview with Eva Moskowitz, an educator in New York City who runs and avocates for charter schools. She was defending the article that she wrote for the Washington Post. Have a look at what she wrote:

Her argument, as far as I can understand it, is that when we limit class sizes, we also limit the number of gadgets that we can give to each child.

Let’s run the numbers. She wants each student to have a laptop and a Kindle. The cheapest laptops run around $250, and a Kindle, without the 3-G option, goes for $140. It’s difficult to figure out how much Smart Boards cost, largely because there are the typical profusion of needless features and associated accessories to factor in, but $2,000 looks like a reasonable estimate for the low end.

This makes a minimum cost of around $400 per student, plus the costs for the classroom devices. We’re not taking into account the upgrades. Inevitably, once we become addicted to some new product of technology, the dealer comes around with the latest thrill that we must have. And what about the prices of the books that will be loaded on the Kindles? E-books run anywhere from free to fuggetaboutit, just like physical books, but not all books are equal. The good ones are the spendy ones.

Compare those costs to teacher salaries. According to the New York City Department of Education (, the base annual salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is $45,000. The maximum that a teacher can earn by gaining degrees and years of teaching, is $100,000 a year. That means that an individual teacher is worth between 112 and 250 laptop-Kindle combinations.

Moskowitz doesn’t let us know one embarassing fact: her own salary. Juan Gonzalez, reporter for the New York Daily News, tells us that she receives more than $300,000 per annum ( It’s good to be an administrator.

But so much for the numbers. We can tweak the balance sheet in a variety of ways to argue that one solution is more economically effective than another. The real question here is what we mean by education.

Did you notice in Moskowtiz’s argument that increasing class size will allow “access to a catalogue of lesson plans and videotaped lessons”? This looks a lot like outsourcing teaching. Think of how much money we could save by buying lessons from a “master teacher” in Freedonia (who gets paid the exorbitant figure of a dollar a day) and then showing them to all the students of a city who will be gathered together in a warehouse. My objection to this is that we are taking the humanity out of school. Certainly, we have to afford buildings and supplies and teachers. What are our priorities?

What we need in our school system is teachers. A teacher is someone who has the skill of imparting knowledge and (more importantly) wisdom to students. That’s not something that can be measured on a scale. Education is a human process: the human interactions that happen in a classroom that isn’t crowded. My priority in this age of technological inflation is to preserve what makes us human. Moskowitz obviously has other goals.

The Semester Is Dead; Long Live the Semester!

Fall 2010 is now over.  I have submitted grades on-line, turned in a printout of the submission page, and turned in a photocopy of each page of my grade book to the Office of Departmental Excessively Repeated Redundancy.  As always, I’m feeling the combination of melancholy and relief that comes at the end of a semester.

The cause for relief is easy to understand.  There comes a point, especially with some students, when I feel that I’ve done all that I can do.  Grades these days are mostly a bureaucratic exercise that bear no reflection on the actual knowledge and skill of the student, especially since school administrators are unwilling to support strict professors, and the truth is that I’m not teaching marksmanship or brain surgery.  No one who needs killing will live and no one who ought to be saved will die (in the physical sense, at least) because of what my students fail to learn.

I wish that my classes would understand that what I am teaching isn’t meant to get them a job.  It’s meant to make them better citizens and better human beings.  Grades don’t measure that.  Many of my students learn early on that I’m not going to give them the three secret rules to becoming rich in any endeavor, and so they stop paying attention to where commas go and why something cannot be very unique.  To them, I give this curse:  May you get out of life exactly what you want from it.

But even with regard to my good students, I am relieved that the hours of work–the careful editing of grammar, usage, and content–are over.  I hope that they will carry on without my help, and I hope that they will seek out the knowledge and wisdom that we didn’t get to cover.

Therein lies some of the melancholy.  I explain to my classes that we’re taking the fountains-and-statues tour of whatever the subject happens to be.  Today we stop in this town, snap a few photographs, and move on to the next destination.  Next semester, I’m teaching Survey of World Literature I.  I’m expected to give a respectable overview of every worthy text that was written from the beginning of writing to 1650 C. E.

It is painful having to decide what to include and what to leave out.  Regardless of the subect, I get three months of three hours a week minus holidays to share as much as I can give and my students can absorb.  At times I feel guilty over what gets missed, but I’ve come to accept that I’m giving them something that many of them would never have seen otherwise.

Imagine a physician who knows that eating a good diet, engaging in moderate exercise, and taking an aspirin a day are all good for the heart.  But what if said medico has time only to recommend one of those to a patient?  There is benefit to be gained from any of the three.  I had a student in a World Lit. class who had read hardly anything before I got to him.  I assigned The Aeneid to the class, and for some reason, that work out of all the texts that we read turned him on to reading.  The lesson here is that we do what we can, and sometimes, that’s good enough.

The main cause of my blues at this time, though, is the fact that I’ve spent three intensive months with persons that I’m unlikely ever to see again.  Yes, in some cases, that’s a mercy, but the fellowship that forms over the course of a semester is something to be savored.  Once it’s gone, that particular fellowship will not return.  There will be others, and they in their own ways will be just as meaningful, but this semester is lost to time.

But this is what Achilles learns when Priam begs for the return of his son’s body:  The fleeting connections that we make with each other are what make our lives meaningful.  The gods are immortal and therefore have nothing to lose.  We, on the other hand, must squeeze what we can out of each moment.