On luxury beliefs in education
Low cost, high return - for some
I’ve been thinking about the concept of luxury beliefs and how they might apply in education. A caveat: I realise that Twitter doesn’t represent the ‘real world’ of most educators but I do think a lot of the divisiveness stems from a trad/prog divide that does exist and shapes teaching practice in classrooms. Rob Henderson coined the term in this New York Post article, where he explains them like this:
We feel pressure to display our status in new ways. This is why fashionable clothing always changes. But as trendy clothes and other products become more accessible and affordable, there is increasingly less status attached to luxury goods.
The upper classes have found a clever solution to this problem: luxury beliefs. These are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.
He gives the example of the ‘luxury belief’ that marriage is unnecessary or out of date, a belief that the wealthy hold but usually disregard in their own relationship decisions. Wearing these fashionable beliefs like a handbag holds few consequences for the rich, while the lived realities of single parenthood are keenly felt by the poor.
I do think education is a little different to Henderson’s model. We tend to downplay this, but many of us are highly educated; participating in certain modes of online debate is a way to position ourselves as a part of the intellectual elite; we are (usually) by virtue of our education middle class. I’m not arrogant enough to exclude myself from this qualification. But rather than wealth signalling, teachers engage in other types of signalling. It may be that the position of saviour confers status and that particular progressive views qualify as luxury beliefs.
A few examples. You might remember Ilana Horn calling to cancel Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champ a couple of years ago. Terms like ‘carceral pedagogies,’ and her public concern with the oppression of black and brown bodies (looking at the teacher while they speak) confer status on Horn - note the retweets. She certainly qualifies as the kind of elite educator that I’m referring to and her call to action hurts nobody but students, whose teachers might then be inclined to not expect full student attention while they speak, believing normative (and effective) classroom expectations to be politicised and oppressive.
The Disordered Cosmos by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein @IBJIYONGII’ve seen a lot of people posting that they were going to #Strike4BlackLives and #ShutDownSTEM. Well? What did you do? What are your long term plans? Were you virtue signaling or do you have a real plan of action? What are you going to change?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and offer the idea that the ideas underpinning progressive reading and writing instruction are also luxury beliefs. A lot of progressive thought about reading and writing instruction is based on a kind of naturalistic fallacy. What is natural is considered good; student failure has no real consequence to the teacher, who is publicly affirmed for their beliefs about the inherent capability of the child to learn by osmosis.
Let’s start with balanced literacy: its proponents look at the way that adults seem to read in a ‘natural’ and effortless way, seeming to recognise whole words, or are able to infer with a little context. Believing this is ‘natural’ and completely skipping the part where letter sounds need to be recognised (a step that most adults have long since left behind), word recognition is promoted. Likewise, with writing instruction, teachers look at grown adults (and often they include professional writers in this) who ‘write about what they know,’ ignoring the fact that ‘what they know’ is likely to have formed from a lifetime of enriching knowledge and in a lot of cases, research.
Luxury beliefs about reading are well documented, writing not so much. There are two problems with the ‘just do it’ approach to writing. Take for example two creative writing samples of students at the same grade:
Student A writes from their own experience. Their experience is considered valid by their progressive teacher. They write about their Labrador who runs away.
Student B recognises, with their teacher’s support, that readers might not be engaged with stories about Labradors and that this might not enable them to show their creative range. They decide to research the peat bogs at the time of The Troubles and the hidden secrets beneath, drawing on the allusion of Seamus Heaney.
This luxury belief about writing stems from the same place as balanced literacy and presents a romanticised view of the writer. But Kazuo Ishiguro tends not to write about Japan. Joseph Conrad wrote in English about places far away from Poland. Progressive beliefs about writing instruction confer status on educators as they (often publicly) validate the backgrounds of disadvantaged students but do little to extend student skill, knowledge and understanding.
You might think this last example is a stretch. At first, I did too. But then I remembered that poor instruction is more likely to affect the disadvantaged. A student with highly educated and wealthy parents, who is ready to learn, will be one of the survivors. This is where luxury beliefs in education hurt our most vulnerable. But that Louis Vuitton looks good, doesn’t it?