It is commonly charged against teachers that Johnny can’t read–or write, or add without his fingers or a calculator, or find his way in the library door, or use a dictionary. A frequent suggestion is that teacher must work harder to motivate Johnny, the assumption being that if teacher doesn’t make the class as entertaining as an X-rated movie, teacher is muffing the job.
From what I have seen of students and teachers, I think it is quite as likely that Johnny is muffing the job; and that he is muffing it not because he is more stupid than he used to be but because he is less teachable; and that he is less teachable because something in his family, or his society, or himself, has broken down. The authority, parental or otherwise, that once made Johnny respect the hard process of stocking and exercising his mind, has been softened up and worn away, in considerable part by Johnny himself. Now Johnny makes up his own mind, or thinks he does, about what is important to him. Actually, what makes up his mind is the movies, television, and advertising, all the incessant repetitions of the mass media and the easy assumptions of popular culture. They tell him that book learning is a pain and a bore. He likes better to look at pictures than to work out the difficult symbolic system of print, and he looks at the easiest pictures. Years ago, when I worked for a while for Look magazine, it used to be a staff joke that Look was made for those too dumb to understand the pictures in Life. Look helped make things easy for Johnny, as some early Johnnies had helped make Look.
Johnny’s due and destiny, as the popular culture reads them to him, are satisfaction of desires, acquisition of things, gratification, stereos, dune buggies, ORV’s, trail bikes, laughing beautiful companions, rock, intimate whispers, fun: either that or envy of those who have these things. Johnny is a citizen of the world village that Marshall McLuhan wrote of. His world is oral, not printed; pictorial or musical, not verbal; immediate, not grounded in history; impromptu, not planned; experienced, not examined; free, not disciplined. To those who shoot down on the schools from protected places, I would suggest a possibility: that Johnny has been spoiled rotten by something entirely outside the formal educational process and beyond formal educational cure.
So far as I can see, a teacher has no professional obligation to turn his students on. His obligation is to know his subject and teach it. If students want to be entertained, let them go to the beach or the movies. I know: They do, they do! The teacher’s obligation is excellence and the pleasures of accomplishment, not entertainment in the usual sense, and students themselves are the first to acknowledge this fact in areas where they don’t need motivation. Of a basketball coach they don’t demand entertainment–in fact, they will put up with almost unlimited harshness and rigor. His job is to teach skills, and in this case the skills are skills the student wants to learn. How to dribble and shoot and pass, how to set a pick, how to go one on one, how to play zone or man-to-man, how to press and how to break the press–that is what it’s about, and a coach may work his team’s tongues out without drawing complaints. Players respect strictness, because the excellence demanded of them is an excellence coveted from away back. For this sort of excellence, moreover, there are rewards both immediate and delayed.... What a joy it is to a teacher–or would be–to come upon a student who is motivated in that way toward the calculus or the use of language! A certain portion of any class is so motivated–and makes teaching the profound satisfaction it sometimes is.(1)
1. Wallace Stegner, One Way to Spell Men, New York: Doubleday, 1982, pp. 56-60.