Why Johnny can’t X

David Brin, “Why Johnny Can’t Code,” Salon (2006)

Mike Davidow, Why Johnny Can’t Read and Ivan Can (1977)

Tommy Dreyfus, “Why Johnny Can’t Prove,” Educational Studies in Mathematics (1999)

Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955) and Why Johnny Still Can’t Read (1981)

Thomas Frank, “Dark Age: Why Johnny Can’t Dissent,” The Baffler (1995)

Konstantin Kakaes, “Why Johnny Can’t Add Without a Calculator,” Salon (2012)

Walter Karp, “Why Johnny Can’t Think,” Harper’s (1985)

William Kilpatrick, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong (1992)

Morris Kline, Why Johnny Can’t Add: The Failure of the New Math (1974)

Myra Linden and Arthur Whimbey, Why Johnny Can’t Write (2012)

Opal Moore, Why Johnny Can’t Learn (1975)

Douglas Rushkoff, “Why Johnny Can’t Program,” Huffington Post (2010)

Arthur Trace, What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t (1961)

Magnified into a miracle

Leonard Bernstein’s introduction to Heinrich Gebhard’s The Art of Pedaling (1963):

Reading this beautiful book has been in the nature of a recaptured experience for me—the tenderly nostalgic re-experiencing of an old set of emotions. So clearly does the essence of the Gebhard personality emerge in his writing that it transported me almost physically back into his gracious studio in Brookline, Massachusetts, absorbing again the gentle urging, the massive charm, the malice-free wit, and the overwhelming love for music (romantic as a young lover is romantic) that stamped each piano lesson I had with him as a major event. We would sit at two fine old Mason and Hamlins, abreast: I would play, he would play: he would leap up, with that light, deer-like energy, and over my shoulder coax my Mason and Hamlin to sigh and sing like his. Anything I did that pleased him was magnified into a miracle by his enthusiasms: my failures were minimized and lovingly corrected. And all was bathed in the glow of wonder, of constant astonishment at the golden streams of Chopin, the subtle might of Beethoven, the fevered imaginings of Schumann, and the cooler images of Debussy. But nothing ever became really cool. Sound, in itself, was passion; the disposition of sound into constellations for the piano was life itself. I never once left that studio on my own two feet: I floated out.

During my last year of study with this Delphic fountain, I came upon, and was infatuated with, the Variations by Aaron Copland. A new world of music had opened to me in this work—extreme, prophetic, clangorous, fiercely dissonant, intoxicating. The work was unknown to Heinrich. “Teach it to me,” he said, “and then, by Jove, I’ll teach it back to you.” And that is precisely what happened. Obviously Gebhard’s greatness as a teacher resided mainly in his greatness as a student. Not long before his death he wrote me that he was in the midst of “reviewing” the works of Bach and The Ring of the Nibelungen. By Jove, that was a great man.

The rewards of creative activity

the second paragraph of Allan Forte’s Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice (1962):

We hold the conviction that the primary aim of serious music study is to illuminate the subject, not to surround it with trivia and bury it beneath detail. At the same time one must realize that a technical approach to music, like a technical approach to any subject, involves specific tasks which are often detailed. These include the learning of a new terminology, the memorizing of certain facts, and the intelligent working out of exercises in order to achieve basic skills. Without these one cannot hope to approach the general concepts essential to the art, nor can one a ain that level of minimal ability which will enable him to enjoy the rewards of creative activity.

Why not be, rather, fully human?

Schönberg, preface to the first edition, Harmonielehre, 1911, translated by Roy E. Carter; on searching for the sake of searching, cf. Walker Percy:

This book I have learned from my pupils.

In my teaching I never sought merely ‘to tell the pupil what I know’. Better to tell him what he did not know. Yet that was not my chief aim either, although it was reason enough for me to devise something new for each pupil. I labored rather to show him the nature of the matter from the ground up. Hence, I never imposed those fixed rules with which a pupil’s brain is so carefully tied up in knots. Everything was formulated as instructions that were no more binding upon the pupil than upon the teacher. If the pupil can do something better without the instructions, then let him do so. But the teacher must have the courage to admit his own mistakes. He does not have to pose as infallible, as one who knows all and never errs; he must rather be tireless, constantly searching, perhaps sometimes finding. Why pose as a demigod? Why not be, rather, fully human?

I have never tried to talk my pupils into believe me infallible—only a ‘Gesangsprofessor’ (professor of singing) finds that necessary. On the contrary, I have often risked saying something that I had later to retract; I have often risked giving instructions that, when applied, proved to be wrong and so had to be corrected. Perhaps my mistakes did not benefit the pupil, but they hardly caused him much harm. Indeed, the fact that I openly acknowledged them may have set him to thinking. As for myself, since the instructions I gave were untested products of my own thought, I was compelled by my errors, which were quickly exposed, to examine my instructions anew and improve their formulation.

This, then, is the way this book came into being. From the errors made by my pupils as a result of inadequate or wrong instructions I learned how to give the right instructions. Successful completion of assignments by the pupils established the soundness of my efforts without luring me into the fallacy that I had solve the problem definitively. And I think neither the pupils nor I have fared badly that way. Had I told them merely what I know, then they would have known just that and nothing more. As it is, they know perhaps even less. But they do know what matters: the search itself!

I hope my pupils will commit themselves to searching! Because they will know that one search for the sake of searching. That finding, which is indeed the goal, can easily put an end to striving.

Our age seeks many things. What is had found, however, is above all: comfort. Comfort, with all its implications, intrudes even into the world of ideas and makes us far more content than we should ever be. We understand today better than ever how to make life pleasant. We solve problems to remove an unpleasantness. But, how do we solve them? And what presumption, even to think we have really solved them! Here we can see most distinctly what the prerequisite of comfort is: superficiality. It is thus easy to have a ‘Weltanschauung’, a ‘philosophy’, if one contemplates only what is pleasant and gives no heed to the rest. The rest—which is just what matters most. In the light of the ‘rest’ these philosophies may very well seem made to order for those who hold to them, whereas, in that light, the tenets which constitute these philosophies are are seen to spring above all from the attempt at self-vindication. For, curiously enough, people of our time who formulate new laws of morality (or, even more to their liking, overthrow old ones) cannot live with guilt! Yet comfort does not consider self-discipline; and so guilt is either repudiated or transformed into virtue. Herein, for one who sees through it all, the recognition of guilt expresses itself as guilt. The thinker, who keeps on searching, does the opposite. He shows that there are problems and that they are unsolved. As does Strindberg: ‘Life makes everything ugly.’ Or Maeterlinck: ‘Three quarters of our brothers [are] condemned to misery.’ Or Weininger and all others who have thought earnestly.

Comfort as a philosophy of life! The least possible commotion, nothing shocking. Those who so love comfort will never seek where there is not definitely something to find.

There is a mechanical puzzle that consists of three small metal tubes of different diameters sealed in a glass-covered box. The problem is to get the smaller tubes inside the larger. Now one can try to do it methodically; then it usually takes quite a long time. But it can also be done another way. One can just shake the box at random until the tubes are inside one another. Does that happen by chance? It looks that way, but I don’t think so. For an idea lurks behind this method. Namely, that movement alone can succeed where deliberation fails. Is it not the same with the learner? What does the teacher accomplish through methodology? At most, activity. If everything goes well! But things can also go badly, and then what he accomplishes is lethargy. Yet lethargy produces nothing. Only activity, movement is productive. Then why not start moving right away? But comfort!? Comfort avoids movement; it therefore does not take up the search.

Either [tentative, perhaps random] movement generates searching or else searching generates movement—one or the other way must be taken. It does not matter which. Only action, movement, produces what could truly be called education or culture (Bildung): namely, training (Ausbildung), discipline and cultivation (Durchbildung). The teacher who does not exert himself because he tells only ‘what he knows’ does not exert his pupils either. Action must start with the teacher himself; his unrest must infect the pupils. Then they will search as he does. Then he will not be disseminating education (Bildung), and that is good. For ‘education’ means today: to know something of everything without understanding anything at all. Yet, the sense of this beautiful word, Bildung, is entirely different; and, since the word now carries a derogatory connotation, it should be replaced by Ausbildung and Durchbildung.

It should be clear, then, that the teacher’s first task is to shake up the pupil thoroughly. When the resultant tumult subsides, everything will have presumably found its proper place.

Or it will never happen!

Too comfortable in his own skin

Arthur Krystal on Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling:

As students and instructors at Columbia they had only a nodding acquaintance. Barzun, tall, fair-haired, Gallically handsome, was self-assured and interested in history, theater, music, and detective stories. Trilling, shy, intense, on the short side, was keen on Freud, Marx, and American fiction. To a budding and brooding intellectual like Trilling, the young Barzun seemed too comfortable in his own skin; there was no angst, no alienation. “Such awareness as we first had of each other,” Trilling recalled, “was across a barrier which had about it something of a barricade.” Meanwhile, in Barzun’s eyes, Trilling seemed “content to do well, with little exertion, in what he liked and to stumble through the rest.” Upon learning they would be paired up, neither one jumped at the prospect.

The garden of letters

From the Phaedrus, 275d ff., circa 370 BC, translated by Harold N. Fowler:

Socrates
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

Phaedrus
You are quite right about that, too.

Socrates
Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?

Phaedrus
What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?

Socrates
The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.

Phaedrus
You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.

Socrates
Exactly. Now tell me this. Would a sensible husbandman, who has seeds which he cares for and which he wishes to bear fruit, plant them with serious purpose in the heat of summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in seeing them appear in beauty in eight days, or would he do that sort of thing, when he did it at all, only in play and for amusement? Would he not, when he was in earnest, follow the rules of husbandry, plant his seeds in fitting ground, and be pleased when those which he had sowed reached their perfection in the eighth month?

Phaedrus
Yes, Socrates, he would, as you say, act in that way when in earnest and in the other way only for amusement.

Socrates
And shall we suppose that he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful has less sense about his seeds than the husbandman?

Phaedrus
By no means.

Socrates
Then he will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually.

Phaedrus
No, at least, probably not.

Socrates
No. The gardens of letters he will, it seems, plant for amusement, and will write, when he writes, to treasure up reminders for himself, when he comes to the forgetfulness of old age, and for others who follow the same path, and he will be pleased when he sees them putting forth tender leaves. When others engage in other amusements, refreshing themselves with banquets and kindred entertainments, he will pass the time in such pleasures as I have suggested.

Phaedrus
A noble pastime, Socrates, and a contrast to those base pleasures, the pastime of the man who can find amusement in discourse, telling stories about justice, and the other subjects of which you speak.

Socrates
Yes, Phaedrus, so it is; but, in my opinion, serious discourse about them is far nobler, when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless, but yield seed from which there spring up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever, and which make their possessor happy, to the farthest possible limit of human happiness.

Phaedrus
Yes, that is far nobler.

Not results, but powers

George Eliot on Thomas Carlyle, 1855:

It has been well said that the highest aim in education is analogous to the highest aim in mathematics, namely, to obtain not results but powers, not particular solutions, but the means by which endless solutions may be wrought. He is the most effective educator who aims less at perfecting specific acquirements than at producing that mental condition which renders acquirements easy, and leads to their useful application; who does not seek to make his pupils moral by enjoining particular courses of action, but by bringing into activity the feelings and sympathies that must issue in noble action. On the same ground it may be said that the most effective writer is not he who announces a particular discovery, who convinced men of a particular conclusion, who demonstrates that this measure is right and that measure wrong; but he who rouses in others that activities that must issue in discovery, who awakes men from their indifference to right and wrong, who nerves their energies to seek for the truth and live up to it at whatever cost. The influence of such a writer is dynamic. He does not teach men how to use sword and musket, but he inspires their souls with courage and sends a strong will into their muscles. He does not, perhaps, enrich your stock of data, but he clears away the film from your eyes that you may search for data to some purpose. He does not, perhaps, convince you, but he strikes you, undeceives you, animates you. You are not directly fed by his books, but you are braced as by a walk up to an alpine summit, and yet subdued to calm and reverence as by the sublime things to be seen from that summit.

The hazards of learning

Dewey, from Chapter 4, §3, How We Think, 1910:

Studies are conventionally and conveniently grouped under these heads: (1) Those especially involving the acquisition of skill in performance—the school arts, such as reading, writing, figuring, and music. (2) Those mainly concerned with acquiring knowledge—”informational” studies, such as geography and history. (3) Those in which skill in doing and bulk of information are relatively less important, and appeal to abstract thinking, to “reasoning,” is most marked—”disciplinary” studies, such as arithmetic and formal grammar. Each of these groups of subjects has its own special pitfalls.

(a) In the case of the so-called disciplinary or pre-eminently logical studies, there is danger of the isolation of intellectual activity from the ordinary affairs of life. Teacher and student alike tend to set up a chasm between logical thought as something abstract and remote, and the specific and concrete demands of everyday events. The abstract tends to become so aloof, so far away from application, as to be cut loose from practical and moral bearing. The gullibility of specialized scholars when out of their own lines, their extravagant habits of inference and speech, their ineptness in reaching conclusions in practical matters, their egotistical engrossment in their own subjects, are extreme examples of the bad effects of severing studies completely from their ordinary connections in life.

(b) The danger in those studies where the main emphasis is upon acquisition of skill is just the reverse. The tendency is to take the shortest cuts possible to gain the required end. This makes the subjects mechanical, and thus restrictive of intellectual power. In the mastery of reading, writing, drawing, laboratory technique, etc., the need of economy of time and material, of neatness and accuracy, of promptness and uniformity, is so great that these things tend to become ends in themselves, irrespective of their influence upon general mental attitude. Sheer imitation, dictation of steps to be taken, mechanical drill, may give results most quickly and yet strengthen traits likely to be fatal to reflective power. The pupil is enjoined to do this and that specific thing, with no knowledge of any reason except that by so doing he gets his result most speedily; his mistakes are pointed out and corrected for him; he is kept at pure repetition of certain acts till they become automatic. Later, teachers wonder why the pupil reads with so little expression, and figures with so little intelligent consideration of the terms of his problem. In some educational dogmas and practices, the very idea of training mind seems to be hopelessly confused with that of a drill which hardly touches mind at all—or touches it for the worse—since it is wholly taken up with training skill in external execution. This method reduces the “training” of human beings to the level of animal training. Practical skill, modes of effective technique, can be intelligently, non-mechanically used, only when intelligence has played a part in their acquisition.

(c) Much the same sort of thing is to be said regarding studies where emphasis traditionally falls upon bulk and accuracy of information. The distinction between information and wisdom is old, and yet requires constantly to be redrawn. Information is knowledge which is merely acquired and stored up; wisdom is knowledge operating in the direction of powers to the better living of life. Information, merely as information, implies no special training of intellectual capacity; wisdom is the finest fruit of that training. In school, amassing information always tends to escape from the ideal of wisdom or good judgment. The aim often seems to be—especially in such a subject as geography—to make the pupil what has been called a “cyclopedia of useless information.” “Covering the ground” is the primary necessity; the nurture of mind a bad second. Thinking cannot, of course, go on in a vacuum; suggestions and inferences can occur only upon a basis of information as to matters of fact.

But there is all the difference in the world whether the acquisition of information is treated as an end in itself, or is made an integral portion of the training of thought. The assumption that information which has been accumulated apart from use in the recognition and solution of a problem may later on be freely employed at will by thought is quite false. The skill at the ready command of intelligence is the skill acquired with the aid of intelligence; the only information which, otherwise than by accident, can be put to logical use is that acquired in the course of thinking. Because their knowledge has been achieved in connection with the needs of specific situations, men of little book-learning are often able to put to effective use every ounce of knowledge they possess; while men of vast erudition are often swamped by the mere bulk of their learning, because memory, rather than thinking, has been operative in obtaining it.

The glad news bubbling within him

Mencken, “Education,” in Prejudices: Third Series, 1922:

That ability to impart knowledge, it seems to me, has very little to do with technical method. It may operate at full function without any technical method at all, and contrariwise, the most elaborate of technical methods, whether out of Switzerland, Italy or Gary, Ind., cannot make it operate when it is not actually present.

And what does it consist of?

It consists, first, of a natural talent for dealing with children, for getting into their minds, for putting things in a way that they can comprehend. And it consists, secondly, of a deep belief in the interest and importance of the thing taught, a concern about it amounting to a sort of passion. A man who knows a subject thoroughly, a man so soaked in it that he eats it, sleeps it and dreams it—this man can always teach it with success, no matter how little he knows of technical pedagogy. That is because there is enthusiasm in him, and because enthusiasm is almost as contagious as fear or the barber’s itch.

An enthusiast is willing to go to any trouble to impart the glad news bubbling within him. He thinks that it is important and valuable for to know; given the slightest glow of interest in a pupil to start with, he will fan that glow to a flame. No hollow formalism cripples him and slows him down. He drags his best pupils along as fast as they can go, and he is so full of the thing that he never tires of expounding its elements to the dullest.

This passion, so unordered and yet so potent, explains the capacity for teaching that one frequently observes in scientific men of high attainments in their specialties—for example, Huxley, Ostwald, Karl Ludwig, Virchow, Billroth, Jowett, William G. Sumner, Halsted and Osler—men who knew nothing whatever about the so-called science of pedagogy, and would have derided its alleged principles if they had heard them stated.