I have followed with morbid fascination the downfall of Jonah Lehrer. I’ll admit to really enjoying Proust was a Neuroscientist, as well as How We Decide. I still see value in each of these books, and I will continue to assign the chapter on vision and Paul Cezanne, because it is a wonderful introduction to how the science of perception can interact with the world of visual art. The problem of vision scientists in explaining how the eye works are sometimes remarkably similar to the challenges of artists in depicting a realistic world. But I also had misgivings about some of his neuro-reductionism, well before his more public integrity problems. Here are a few of those criticisms which came out before the scandal: a particularly harsh one from Isaac Chotiner, a dialogue with Christopher Chabris, and another harsh one from Steven Poole.
I thought that the recent summative piece in New York Magazine, by Boris Kachka, did a very good job of tying all the strands of this story together. It’s long, but worth it. But one little throwaway line really stuck with me, and I thought I would share it with you. It is right before Michael Moynihan, a reporter originally sympathetic to Lehrer, published his critical expose of Lehrer’s outright fabrications, further documenting that Lehrer’s crimes reached well past journalistic misdemeanors.
The next morning, a desperate Lehrer finally managed to reach Moynihan. Didn’t he realize, Lehrer pleaded, that if Moynihan went forward, he would never write again—would end up nothing more than a schoolteacher?
Boris Kachka – “Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist, Neither Was Jonah Lehrer“
“Nothing more than a schoolteacher?” With that, I am sure Lehrer lost the last bit of sympathy he had with many of his former defenders. I too was disappointed with this, but not terribly surprised, because this attitude is not nearly as rare as it should be.
That’s why we can’t have better schools, US. People who pass for intellectuals here can say “nothing but a schoolteacher” as if it= failure
— Cedar Riener (@criener) October 29, 2012
Poke the anxiety of many ambitious academics and intellectuals, whether Ph.D.’s on the job market, or even practicing research scientists, and you find that when they imagine themselves in front of a high school classroom they imagine nothing but shame and failure.
@criener Walter White isn’t exactly helping that stereotype. No greater disgrace for a Chem PhD than to end up teaching high school
— Jeramia Ory (@DrLabRatOry) October 29, 2012
To me, this is not just, as science writer extraordinaire Ed Yong put it, awful snobbery, but fundamentally a failure of imagination. Which is ironic, not just because “Imagine” is the title of the book that began Lehrer’s end, but because Lehrer has shown, for both good and bad, that he has a wonderfully active imagination.
This failure of imagination is a failure to see beyond the overwhelmed schoolteacher caricature. The effects of this caricature in this case reflect Lehrer’s impending sense of shame and disgrace, but also reflect other myths of K-12 education. I am going to pick on Ed here, because I think his response is well-meaning but incomplete. He tweeted:
— Ed Yong(@edyong209) October 29, 2012
Yes, education is daunting and difficult, but that is not the problem with Lehrer’s quote. Cleaning the elephant cage at the zoo is also daunting and difficult. Teaching is important, (and in fairness, so is cleaning the elephant house, at the very least to the elephants) and Lehrer’s words do diminish teaching as unimportant. But ultimately, I think Ed’s view leans too far in the other direction, towards a mythology of teachers as noble saints, doing noble yet difficult, daunting drudgery. To me, the tragedy of what Lehrer misses, as well as the tragedy of most popular depictions of teaching, is that they miss the intellectual challenges and rewards of teaching students of any age.
Yes, teaching can be intellectually rewarding to a Rhodes Scholar. Yes, teaching can be rewarding to a bench scientist. Yes, teaching can be rewarding to a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Probing the minds of high school students (and even kindergardeners) can be immensely challenging and rewarding, not just in a “woohoo! I got these crazy kids to sit down and look like they are paying attention!” but in a “wow, real learning and engagement is difficult with many students, but when it happens it is magical.”
It can require extensive background knowledge, sophisticated problem-solving and yes, even creativity. One of my high school psychology teacher friends chimed in:
— Rob McEntarffer (@rmcenta) October 29, 2012
another college prof remembered his great high school science classes
@criener agreed. TV high school never looks like my high school of 20 yrs ago, even. I had research methods, Chem, Physics that were awesome
— Jeramia Ory (@DrLabRatOry) October 29, 2012
I could go on and on about this, but for a curious, open mind, teaching at any age can be a fascinating intellectual exercise. This past summer I taught 6 and 7 year old’s chess in 3 hour sessions (ok, there was lunch, and art breaks, but still, even chess for 1 hour for 17 six-year-olds is kind of a big deal). And it was really interesting to me to consider their process of learning. Why is it so hard to learn how a knight moves? What is going on as they decide to move their rook pawns first? Why are some moves more interesting to them than others? Later on, over a long fascinating dinner conversation with the other instructors, the camp director, International Grandmaster Maurice Ashley was talking about the interesting math of the chess board, for example, that “distance” on the chess board, while we may see it, does not really exist in the rules of the game. For example, for a rook, one move may mean moving 1 square or 7 squares. In the rules of the game, these are “equidistant.” Anyways, considering both this advanced math, as well as what are the steps to best convey this advanced, struck me as an immense intellectual challenge. The same could hold of reading, or chemistry.
Here’s the big caveat to all of the above. Teaching is not just an intellectual challenge, there is also discipline and some other crap. Many of those 6-year-olds didn’t want to sit still for twenty minutes, much less an hour, to learn the game of chess. I had to hold their attention, recognize when it was beyond holding, separate kids who couldn’t keep their hands off each other, tell them not to treat the chess pieces as weapons or toothpicks. Schoolteachers do have to control the discipline of the classroom. At any age, you can’t just interact with a student’s mind, but you have to convince them you are addressing their hearts too (which are sometimes sitting in a toxic vat of hormones). Some of this is unavoidable, but some of the other crap that teachers have to deal with is not in the nature of teaching, but rather a particular and often arbitrary circumstance of our current system.
Yes, dealing with discipline in their classroom is an unavoidable part of any teacher’s job. Dealing with discipline in the lunchroom is not. Advising students on how to deal with math-related frustrations is part of the job of every math teacher. Advising students on how to deal with other frustrations need not be. Every time a teacher has to do test prep for a test they don’t believe helps learning, or endure a BS professional development seminar on dubious neurobabble, it can saps their energy and resolve for the other challenges they want to face.
Which brings us to my (not-so) modest proposal. For those who think we should seek to improve education by improving teacher quality, or teacher talent, by somehow selecting better teachers, I ask them to consider Lehrer’s quote. Instead of aiming to fire ineffective teachers, I think a great way to recruit and maintain a more intellectually engaged teacher corps would to emphasize and encourage the things that creative nerds like Lehrer (and me) value; intellectual freedom and independence, challenge, creativity. Here is a great post fleshing out what helps draw and keep great thoughtful teachers in the profession. At its heart, teaching is a set of marvelous, challenging but workable intellectual puzzles. The more we acknowledge this and move towards it, the better for the profession.
Despite the constraints and shortcomings of our current system, I still have many teacher heroes who shared reflected joy in introducing me to the marvelous world of ideas. And I gather more as my kids continue in their schooling. I bet Lehrer would make a fantastic high school biology teacher. He might even enjoy moving beyond the page and seeing the light in people’s eyes when his words spark a latent wonder. What’s standing in his way is his own imagination.