Saith Ezekiel

Posted: September 27, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

“Years and years and years ago when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp shaped hills and it was snowing, always snowing, but it’s hard to remember if it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” These passages with some regularity course through my brain, as I wait in line at the Jewel, or Walgreens, or am walking the doggies in a muggy late July evening.

This guy....

This guy….

Not this guy....

Not this guy….

And sometimes I wonder about the rosy fingered dawn, as the sun rises over the Hogbutcher’sbroadshoulderedlake, again walking the doggies, perhaps, and similarly–in my mind anyway–conjure up Caesar–Great Caesar–dividing Gaul into three parts, and then crossing the Rubicon, so he can take to Rome and set up in a huge penthouse apartment at the Hyatt, his new lady love, the superstar famous Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, fluent in nine different languages, it was said, who then would hook up with Mark Antony (no, I don’t mean the singer) with memorably horrific results.

And I also was wondering about four score and seven years ago, what a nice ring that has vs. the more pedestrian, but no less accurate, 87 years ago, when our nation was founded establishing thereby a government of the people by the people and for the people which then issued in a great civil war testing whether this nation or any nation so dedicated and so conceived can long endure.

All of which now comes briefly to mind as I consider yet again teaching–the art of teaching– and how to do it and how to do it better and better and better. And this leads me to thinking again about the role of testing in teaching and of course in learning for ain’t that what teaching is all about? Obviously the answer is: Yes it is. Teaching’s goal is for students to learn.

And I again come to the conclusion that the current take on testing is dead wrong. The problem–or one of the problems in schools today–isn’t that they demand students take too many tests. I conclude this in part because I recall that I took tests and I never got the idea that I was taking too many of them. I just took them,

Peter Stern's grade school teacher.

Peter Stern’s grade school teacher.

and didn’t give much thought to how many I was taking. Obviously this proves nothing in and of itself. But I don’t remember fellow students complaining either. Maybe this doesn’t prove we weren’t taking too many tests. Indeed perhaps the opposite was the case: we simply were brain washed (our brains were scrubbed and scrubbed with Tide or All or Arm and Hammer until they were nice and shiny) and thus we were too dumb to know better.

Ezekiel Emanuel

Ezekiel Emanuel

That was then. But now–and I mean NOW!–I’ve got proof that I wasn’t taking too many tests nor were my confreres. For just yesterday Ezekiel J. Emanuel, holder of several very advanced degrees, extraordinarily gifted brother of our mayor, Rahm Emanuel, published an article in the New Republic–a top drawer, well regarded, highly literate magazine for intelligent people worldwide–with the title: “Tests make Kids Smarter: Let’s Give Them More.”

In his article, he cites a neuroscientist named Andrew Butler who showed conclusively and beyond a shadow of Cartesian doubt that tests make kids smarter and even more creative and even better critical thinkers. Better still: Professor Butler proved that the more tests test takers take the better they do on them and the smarter they become. This is because the brain’s neural powers “bulk up” or as Zeke puts it, they operate under the “use it or lose it” principle.

Well I’m most certainly not much of a number cruncher, nor can I claim expertise in neuroscience, but in all candor, and with no dearth of alacrity, I can say with absolute 100% Cartesian certitude that through different, more “intuitive” methods, I came to the exact same conclusion as Zeke and Professor Butler. Tests are good things; tests are our friends. Tests help rather than harm. And one of the data sets that give me confidence I’m on the right track here is that even today, many many years after first reading Chapman’s Homer and encountering Julius Caesar and Dylan Thomas I still remember a surprising amount of what they wrote. And I’m convinced this is due in part–not entirely of course– but nonetheless due in part to taking tests which, according to Zeke and Professor Butler–build up my neural powers just as carrying the groceries builds my biceps.

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