Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pascal: Geometry, Finesse and Which is Which

Nearly 400 years ago, the French philosopher and mathematician Pascal posited two ways of knowing about the world...two fundamental capacities of the human mind. One he called the "geometrical bent", meaning the capacity to break things down, analyze, calculate, predict with precision, and apply unalterable principles such as those that characterize mathematics and (with some limits) the physical sciences.

The second human capacity he called (pardon my French) 'esprit de finesse', which Jacques Barzun (whose essay 'Culture High and Dry' informs this posting) translates as 'intuitive understanding'. Intellectual finesse (which seems to me closer to what Pascal called it) is necessary for understanding and succeeding in those areas of human endeavor that do not lend themselves to measurement, analysis, calculation, precise prediction and the application of unalterable principles. Finesse is necessary to the apprehension of those things that can't be 'broken down' (the literal meaning of analysis), rearranged and improved through engineering.

What could be more evident than that education is an endeavor of this second sort? What could be ironic than that contemporary educators somehow became so enamored of Pascals 'geometric bent' that they continually misapply it to an endeavor that he himself would have said was clearly a matter of 'esprit de finesse'? A geometry of teaching? A science of education? An utterly preposterous, though clearly profitable, notion. Charlatans playing on the fears and anxieties of parents and governing boards are all too ready to insist that a geometry of education is not only possible but is (forever, it seems) just around the corner as the result of each year's revolutionary new scientifically-based methods of delivery! Today they even offer it over the internet!

But what about the criterion of predictability? At what point does generation after generation of abject failure add up to evidence that the 'geometry of education' possesses no predictive power and is therefor (by it's own standards) a failure? When do we admit that such an approach has borne no fruit for decades and holds no promise for the future? Why do we cling so desperately to a failed model (all in the name of Continuous Improvement!)?

I suggest that it is because the alternative is unthinkable, and perhaps in two senses of that word.

First, it is politically unthinkable because a reliance on the experience, judgment and (yes) finesse of expert teachers strips the state of the appearance of control over the process. ODE, TSPC, Schools of Education, all depend on the myth that teachers and teaching can be mass-produced in accordance with the principles of scientific management. The unfortunate thing about the current level of state control is that while government agencies have some control over the behavior of some of the adults (mostly the administrators and support staff at district offices) they clearly have no control over the quality of education or the experience of the students in our schools. Still, this appearance of control evidently plays an important role in someone's thinking about how 'the education question' ought to be addressed. (That they can only address 'the education question' and not education itself ought to be apparent from the lack of progress over the past 20 years).

Second, perhaps finesse with regard to education is simply outside the experience of the current generation of 'deciders'. The illusion of scientific management, which was born outside of education, can be learned elsewhere, imported, and easily (mis)applied to schools and schooling. It requires no knowledge of education per se. Perhaps those who (whether from inside or outside the field) understand so little about education as to imagine that it can be scientifically managed are simply incapable of rethinking schools as places where finesse drives success. Perhaps they have never seen success up close, thus their infatuation with 'improvement' and their despairing of real results.

But even given all of that, why the appeal to Pascal? What makes him a reliable guide? Is this just a case of dragging up the name of some old European because he supports my take on things? Maybe. But Pascal understood 'the geometrical bent' that drives education policy today. And he could have predicted that it's application to education would produce disastrous results. It has. And he proposed an alternative way of thinking about problems that don't lend themselves to technical/geometrical solutions. What Pascal called 'intuitive understanding' is a viable alternative to what has repeatedly proved to be a failed stance toward education. Maybe it shouldn't matter that he wrote nearly 400 years ago. Maybe it should matter more that he appears to have been on to something that we have missed to the detriment of our kids. Maybe we should take a break from planning and think instead. Every year that we delay, we misdirect hundreds of millions of dollars toward wasteful activity and we fail to keep the promise that we make to our children each time we invite them to spend a day at school.

We can do better. But if we lack the commitment to revisit some basic assumptions then we must continue to grind inevitably toward to the same failed conclusions that got us to this point. That's not going to be good enough. That's not going to be good enough even if there is adequate funding for education over the next three years. Given the more likely scenario of near-historic shortfalls, the risk represented by a commitment to the educational status quo is simply unacceptable. We may not, in either practical or moral terms, fail to change.