Sunday, March 05, 2006

Good Teacher. . . Bad Teacher



Much has been made of the Denver, Colorado teacher who was unwittingly recorded while unleashing some unhinged anti-US commentary in his World Geography class.
So I listened to teacher Jay Bennish’s diatribe against many things last week (Anti - Bush mostly, but there were screeds against capitalism, Israel, America, Christopher Columbus, globalization, the Military Industrial Complex, and more of the usual suspects that can only be seen clearly on the far, far left).

Am I surprised to find that a teacher would provide such an unbalanced lecture to students? Absolutely not. After all, I spent the last two years in successive Master’s programs, so I have experienced a wide range of hinged and unhinged teachers. And I am still young enough to remember the good and bad (and absolutely terrible) teachers from my high school days of yore.

Apparently Mr. Bennish has now been suspended, pending a review to determine if he violated any policies, or deviated too far from the curriculum in his World Geography class. Bennish's situation is nothing new; in reality, this is an age old problem that students, parents and administrators have faced, and will continue to deal with far into the future. Hence, a relevant topic to be addressed here in the Wilsonizer.

At one point in his lecture, Bennish admonishes his students to “think for themselves, don’t just take what he is saying as gospel [I am paraphrasing of course, and I am not motivated enough at this point to listen to that tenth grade geography class once again to quote Bennish exactly. I completed 10th grade geography, after all!]. Indeed, a good liberal arts teacher is one who inspires students to seek the truth of a matter for themselves. A good way to help students seek truth for themselves is to expose them to numerous viewpoints on a subject, or competing theories. For example, while attending the School for Advanced Military Studies (or SAMS, as it is lovingly called) last year, most of our study modules included readings by authors who held opposing views on the same subject. Reading through two different theoretical arguments helped SAMS students develop a clearer view of the topic at hand. This was very important to us, as each of us had to prepare a thesis backed by logical argument, and seeing how different people develop theories to explain the world around them helped us ultimately to conclude our theses in a rational, logical manner.

This, then, is where Mr Bennish falls critically short as a teacher. True, he tells students to think for themselves, to make their own decisions; but what does he, as a teacher, offer his students to help them in that endeavor? Nothing at all, save for his own unbalanced screed. Where are the recommended readings for alternative viewpoints, or references to people who might see the world differently? There is no trace of any of these things in the recording and transcripts I have seen or listened to.

So this leaves me to question Bennish’s true motivation in the way he presents course material in his World Geography class. Is he attempting to challenge his students by presenting a worldview that compels students to study course material and argue against him (Teacher as a Challenger to Compel Learning)? Or does Bennish simply want his students to see the world the way he sees it (Teacher as Cadre)? I hope it truly is the former rather than the latter, and that Bennish is simply doing a bad job of presenting course material.

And what of the students in this class? I find it disturbing that more of them are not questioning some of the things Bennish declares to them during lecture. Only the student who recorded the class seems to be making any points countering Bennish’s own stated opinions. Hopefully, more of them will challenge or argue points for the rest of their academic careers, now that such attention has been brought on Mr. Bennish and his teaching methods.

There will always be good teachers and bad teachers. The technology out there today makes it a little easier to expose those in the latter category (turn my ipod into a recorder? I didn’t even know I could do that!!!), although it will by no means make bad teachers disappear. It is up to parents to pay attention to the goings-on in schools, and make their feelings known when a teacher is believed to be deficient (or unhinged). Finally, it is up to the students themselves, who are interested in learning, to determine the best way to seek the truth. I would have made a point to prepare myself each day to counter all of Bennish’s arguments that I disagreed with. Those who simply wish to nod their heads and parrot what the Bennishes of the world say will never truly learn anything of value in school, anyway.

Edukation UPDATE 1. Since we're talking about education, check out this story about a mock tribunal set up in a New Jersey classroom to determine if President Bush is guilty of War Crimes.

Edukation UPDATE 2. And of course, lest I be accused of not being fair and balanced, HERE is yet another teacher (this time in Michigan) who definitely has some, uh, issues. . .

41 comments:

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