Clive James on Pedagogy

Isn’t a form of teaching that avoids all prescription really a form of therapy? In a course called Classical Studies taught by teachers who possess scarcely a word of Latin or Greek, suffering is avoided, but isn’t it true that nothing is gained except the absence of suffering? In his best novel, White Noise, Don DeLillo made a running joke out of a professor of German history who could not read German. But the time has already arrived when such a joke does not register as funny. What have we gained, except a classroom in which no one need feel excluded?

Of course, today’s pedagogue will say that nobody feeling excluded is so valuable that nothing else matters in comparison. In the USSR, it was believed that the only reason why a student is getting bad grades is that the teacher is undertrained and needs more training. But today things are worse. If a student isn’t doing great it can only mean that the teacher is racist / sexist / classist / homophobic, etc. This is a lot worse than being undertrained because it’s a moral failing.

So hey, Americans, congratulations! You out-dumbed the USSR. What an achievement.

9 thoughts on “Clive James on Pedagogy

  1. “In the USSR, it was believed that the only reason why a student is getting bad grades is that the teacher is undertrained”

    In communist Poland (and for a good long while afterward) the only reason why a student is getting bad grades that the student is lazy and doesn’t study enough…. (and maybe the parents are making them study enough).


      1. “Both versions are quite crazy”

        Agreed…. many years ago where I work there was a problem with some foreign teachers because they were given no guidance whatsoever… about anything (the local attitude was that giving them information might be taken as an insult to their competence and training). I finally prevailed and was temporarily even given a meaningless title of coordinator of foreign teachers so they were a bit better prepared and were ready to deal with problems that might appear (very different from those that might show up in their home countries).


  2. I can believe that in the schools for the masses the teachers were blamed endlessly, but I’ve seen the better products of the Soviet school system. Their teachers must have held them to high standards. You don’t get outcomes like that if the teachers have to cower and quiver and give good grades lest they be accused of thoughtcrime.

    I assume that, like any totalitarian system, the USSR educational system was two-tiered and hypocritical. I mean, has there ever been a more self-serving elite class than the upper class of the Soviet “classless society”? Whatever they might have imposed on the masses, I’m quite certain that their own kids went to the sorts of schools that uphold excellence and accomplishment.

    Granted, I wasn’t there, but I do know a thing or two about hypocritical elites who impose ideological fads on the masses while giving their own kids rigorous traditional educations.


    1. I assume that, like any totalitarian system, the USSR educational system was two-tiered and hypocritical.

      I worry that we’re headed towards this situation in science education as the idea that everyone deserves a STEM degree and if you don’t think so you’re evil takes hold. There are already stories of pressure to drop standards. I could see us ending up with a track for the students who are actually going to acquire the necessary skills and eventually get the jobs the require them, and a track for handing out those nice shiny STEM degrees to anyone who can pay for them.

      In the book Paying for the Party: How College maintains Inequality, which I recommend, the school that’s the case study for the book is quite open about the fact that they have a “real” business program which is highly regarded and whose graduates have good employment outcomes, and a watered down “party track” business program that is absurdly easy and whose graduates don’t find good jobs. They’re very shameless about steering naive students towards the party track program, and keeping the real program for the ones who they believe can handle it.


    2. It so happens that I went to the school for the children of our local party apparatchiks and their rich personnel. Our education was actually worse than in any proletarian school of the worker barracks. We really got no education at all. Everything was based on bribes. Bring a gift for the teacher, get a grade. Education of any sort was despised. Intelligence was despised.

      So it wasn’t an elite that valued education.

      However, there were families of the intelligentsia, such as mine, who barely had enough to eat or wear but who were obsessed with education and gave exquisite education to their children completely outside of any secondary education system. (In the higher education, yes, you could get good professors. The ratio was about one good one per 20 quacks).

      So the brilliant people you met weren’t children of the Soviet elite. These were children of the poor schmucks in leaky shoes. 🙂


      1. That’s a feature of a monopoly. Competence is not required because the party faces no competition. Marginalizing brilliant people isn’t so smart when they have the option of joining opposition parties.


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