Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Washington Post vs. Mr. Miyagi

I recently came across this post on the Washington Post website, by Valerie Strauss but actually by Roger Schank, which explains, subject by subject, why kids hate school.  The overall gist of the column is that students are not taught any knowledge that is of immediate relevance to their lives, and therefore they are bored and disillusioned with their education, simply counting off days and filling in scantron bubbles until graduation.

Anticipating the inevitable blowback, the author mentions criticism that he has received for writing similar articles in the past, most of that criticism coming from teachers, and condescendingly forgives the teachers for their ire, noting that it is not their fault, they are only teaching what they are ordered to teach by a larger and faceless system.


It seems to me that Mr. Schank has regrettably never seen the Karate Kid.  If he had, perhaps he would recall how Mr. Miyagi, one of the greatest of all movie teachers, taught karate to young Daniel-San.  No calisthenics, no kicks, no chops, no nothing that looks at all like karate.  Rather, he had Daniel program what seemed like slave labor - paint the fence, wax the car, sand the deck - every time with a specific motion, and every time until Daniel reached theist of exhaustion.  The true climax of the movie is not the final scene when Daniel defeats his nemesis (I would give a spoiler alert, but if you have not seen it yet, I take no responsibility), but rather when Mr. Miyagi demonstrates to Daniel that all of that hard labor was in fact teaching him the proper techniques that he would need in order to master karate.

(For those who prefer literature to cinema, the same thing takes place in T. H. White's The Once and Future King, as Merlin gives Wart a curious education, all of which comes into play during the climactic scene of the novel.)

Back to Mr. Schank.  On one level, he is on to something.  It is much easier to learn something when you can see its immediate relevance.  In fact, that is a large part of my motivation behind project-based learning.  However, not every thing that we learn has an immediate connection to the world around us. Many parts of our education have a slow and steady impact on us, shaping our character, molding the way that we think, broadening our horizons and the way that we view the world and the people in it.  The purpose of a broad and deep liberal arts education, something that is under severe assault in our society on several fronts, is not to create future professors of liberal arts, but to create thoughtful, discerning, and sensitive citizens.  

I would be interested to hear the type of curriculum that Mr. Schank would propose.  But more than that, I would be interested to see the type of students and citizens that he would intend to produce.  I am keeping my money on the Miyagi approach.  After all, it worked the first time.


M Laster said...

I very much agree that the point about not needing immediate application is well made. However, I think the point is only valid to the extent that you could confidently say that what you are doing in school is truly helping advance these long-term goals. The fictional Mr. Miyagi is only able to do what he does due to a clearly refined poise that assures his student that all he is doing will, ultimately, pay off. The question is, to what extent could schools say that?

Thalia said...