An Interview with Will Fitzhugh: Where Does the Buck Stop?

Mar 18, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Will, you and I remember the old Harry Truman slogan “The Buck Stops Here.” But it seems that in education, the buck is continually passed around—the principal blames the teacher for the child not learning—the teacher blames the parent, the parent blames the dull boring curriculum. Am I off on this?

Of course, when things don’t go well, there is always enough blame to go around, but when we leave the student out of the group of those responsible for his academic work, we miss the largest share of the problems.

2) In terms of personal responsibility—at what age should a student really be held accountable for his or her homework, or his or her learning?

I have no children, and have never taught kindergarten or elementary school, but my understanding is that babies start to learn as soon as they can hear and see the world they live in. Should we ask young people to do more than they are capable of doing?—of course not, but if Japanese youngsters can learn 6,000 characters early on, we should not hesitate to ask our kids to learn the alphabet, the colors, how to count, and many other learning basics as soon as ever they can. At present our focus both early on and even in high school seems to be on whether they are having enough fun or not. This is terrible for them and a large impediment to their academic progress.

3) I have to say I was impressed by the newly elected Pope Francis—one of his first official acts was to pay his hotel bill—shining example of personal responsibility?

Francis of Assisi, and Saint Ignatius of Loyola were both combat veterans before they became teachers and saints, and I am sure they knew a good deal about the world before they gave their lives to their faith. One of the problems with our education now is that we withhold too many examples of greatness from our students. Alfred North Whitehead wrote that “Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.” But, to give you a glimpse into the failure of our more contemporary view, when I sent the Dean of the School of Education at Boston University this quote from David Brooks: ““As the classical philosophers understood, examples of individual greatness inspire achievement more reliably than any other form of education,” he replied with this email: “The myth of individual greatness is a myth (sic).”

4) Now, I realize there are some single parents’ homes out there—should teachers take this into consideration?

We cannot let white quilt prevent teachers from recognizing the problems that result from 70% of black children being born to single mothers—with no father around to help teach the necessary lessons of responsibility and discipline, and of course, no father around to teach, by his example, how to live. This terrible handicap does not, however, mean that the student is not responsible for his academic work, and the teacher has too much to do as a teacher, to try to be a social worker as well. And the teacher should not be forced to allow the indiscipline of one or two kids to damage the learning chances of all the other students in the class.

5) In some countries—there is “the blame game “—blame the parents, blame the teachers—but are students given more responsibilities in certain countries?—I believe you have been to Asia…

I was recently in East Asia, and I was impressed by students’ fluency in English and by the interesting and intelligent questions they asked, but some years ago I read that in the old Imperial Examination system in China, if a student did well, becoming eligible for a job in the administration, the social status of his entire family rose. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess that everyone in the very large extended Chinese family of that student took a strong personal interest in that student’s attention to his homework, and certainly a residue of that concern can be seen in the Tiger Mothers of today. It is not my impression that parents in East Asia would tolerate their children spending 53 hours a week on electronic entertainment media (video games, etc.) as American parents routinely do. In Asia they believe students have something more important for which they are responsible—academic work.

6) Will, we have these people out there who think that by putting computers and technology into classes, that education will improve—your thoughts?

People who make computers and technology quite naturally are drawn to the multi-billion-dollar education marketplace, and both computers and software have made important contributions to the learning of scholars as well as schoolchildren. But it is good to remember that while now computers can even read books to the students, they still have to figure out the meaning for themselves. Computers are an aid to thinking and learning but they cannot relieve students of their responsibility to think and learn on their own.

7) Bill Gates seems to be pouring money into schools without considering personal values, and responsibility. Will his efforts be for naught?

Gates has been far, far more successful in business than the average college dropout, but that does not qualify him as the Grand Mufti for American education. It has been said of Nobel Prize winners that they often believe they must be wise in fields other than the ones in which they won their Prize . Something similar may happen to technology billionaires. They may say to themselves, “If I made more money than anyone else, I must be wiser than anyone else.” This seldom proves to be the case.

8) Julian Rotter years ago wrote about Locus of Control. What about a Locus of Responsibility?

The Hindu view of Karma is very straightforward: you are responsible for, and bear the level consequences for, everything you think and feel, and everything you do. They make no provision for blaming your parents, or your teacher, or your guidance counselor, or even Bill Gates. What you do in life is entirely on your account, and you will pay and be paid for every bit of it. Some of this approach might give students a more healthy attitude toward their academic achievement, and might even give the Edupundits the new insight that the most important variable in student academic achievement is not teacher quality, but student academic work.

9) Now, let me be clear here—there are some students who have suffered a head injury or brain trauma, and there are students with correctly diagnosed autism and intellectual disability. What should their responsibility be, and what should the schools be asking of children who have a proven, documented, traumatic brain injury or proven learning disability?

To the degree that society can afford it, we should all get the health care, and the compassion, that we need. Students who are incapable of the level of work done by their peers should be assisted to do whatever they can do.

10 ) What have I neglected to ask?

I am not sure why Edufunders and Edupundits, and just about everyone else interested in education in the United States these days, have decided to leave student academic work out of their beautiful equations. I know that students cannot be fired, like teachers and principals, and we cannot “turnaround” their families so they function better, but trying to relieve students of the responsibility for their own education does them a serious disservice.

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