Teaching as Shouting (or Tough Love Gets the Best Results)

Studies show that students flourish best when under constantly under a moderate amount of stress. 

So I’ve gotten several emails about this article by Joanne Lipman in the WSJ. The bottom line is that the teachers who get the best results are all about really tough love. The best way to motivate students is to challenge them with realistic (and therefore tough) assessments of their shortcomings. It’s a good idea to shout at them when they’re slacking off. And to let them fail when they’ve actually not made the grade through lack of effort or natural gifts.

Studies show that students flourish best when constantly under a moderate amount of stress. Those are the students who don’t think of themselves as stressed at all. The best way to handle stress is to routinely experience it. As Aristotle says, the best way to come to possess the moral virtue of courage is actually to be in situations where courage is required to live well. The more the virtue becomes you’re own, the easier it is to keep your head, choose well, and even be happy in risky situations. Now we should be happy that today’s students almost never find themselves in situations (such as battle) where their lives are on the line. The downside is that they really are a little less than than they might be. But they all face situations where they can display grace under pressure. The more they experience the pressure, the more they can handle the pressure, the more virtuous or self-possessed they really are.

Studies also show that catering to or flattering students actually undermines their self-esteem. Real self-esteem—pride as opposed to vanity—comes from pleasurable reflection on real accomplishments, on meeting real challenges, on magnanimously or generously displaying one’s personal greatness. So the best teachers are stingy with praise in order that it really mean something. And they praise students not only or even mainly for their intellectual accomplishments but for their “class.” Being classy is just knowing how to act as a responsibly relational being in a particular situation. It’s not some pretension of the privileged, unless by being privileged you mean having been given the challenge of living well as a free and relational person. Poverty is no barrier to being classy, as anyone with classy eyes notices every day.

Studies also show that the best teachers typically use what are viewed as relatively old-fashioned “teaching methods.” Those who do the studies expected the stellar educators be all about collaborative learning, high technology, and other allegedly “powerful” practices. But effectively tough teachers actually focus their efforts on challenging students by giving them personal responsibilities—attentively listening to lectures, memorization, and one’s own reading and writing. Mathematics—numerical calculation—doesn’t become one’s own without really knowing the multiplication tables. And the more of Shakespeare you’ve memorized, the more his poetic narratives really become a part of you. It’s not that memorization is everything, but it turns out to be foundation on which “higher order” learning is built. Those who write memorable novels or music know how indebted they are to their hugely time-consuming acquisition of the disciplined craft and insight of others. They know that “critical thinking” or “problem solving” can’t be divorced from the content of who we are and what we do.

Creativity, it turns out, has to be learned or, better, always depends on a huge amount of disciplined learning. What passes for creative innovation is sloppy and fashion-driven without really knowing what there is to know about history or philosophy or music. Telling students to “be your own person” or “be creative” without being clear on what you really have to do to achieve such high possibilities is especially pernicious flattery. It’s better to tell students to do as well as you can, do the duties you’ve been given, and even “make the difference” you really can make in the place where you live.

So the Aristotelian point of this article is that intellectual virtue depends on moral virtue. It’s relevant everywhere from grade school to graduate school. It’s the only point that can justify, for example, the continued existence of residential college these days. It explains why it’s only those colleges that have real missions that aim higher than productivity or wealth and power have much of a future.

I now have to admit that I really don’t teach like this. I’ll explain why later. But for now let me say that the article is a riff on the experience of a legendary teacher of music. It turns out to be a great argument for teaching music these days. Some say that nobody much need play music anymore, because it’s so easy to be a consumer of the productions of others. All we need do is to teach kids to appreciate music. But excellent musical performance requires all the virtues that I’ve been talking up, including grace under the pressure of performance. Maybe students these days should be pushed—even shouted at—to work on making their musical potential real, just to give them a realistic assessment of what’s required to be all you can be, as well of what’s required to be really creative and innovative. It's also, of course, a realistic assessment of what you can't be.

Those who possess musical excellence are a true meritocracy of talent and virtue. So too, it just occurred to me, are those who display excellence in competitive sports. So I’m tentatively dissenting from those who say high school and even non-scholarship college sports are nothing but an expensive diversion from real education. If you want to know more, watch the teaching method—including shouting—employed by the noble philosopher-coach Eric Taylor on the classic TV series Friday Night Lights. “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

I actually long for the day (which comes after I die) when lots of teachers of philosophy and literature can convince their students that what you’re doing in my class requires even more discipline—the right combination of intellectual and moral virtue—than football or music.

One reason for what might be regarded as my untough, unloving, and otherwise inferior teaching method is that I both stink at and was never pushed in sports and music.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.