Monday, March 24, 2008

Ta-Da: My Views of TJEd

Once again I'm writing a prologue to my essay, mostly to say that my remarks on this book are not going to be in essay form. Lo siento. Perhaps I will write an essay later, but I'm on vacation and I might just focus on responding to the remarks and essays already written. So here goes.

First of all, I wanted to list the things that really, really bugged me about this book.

1. "The truth is that this debate will continue until we realize that it is a fruitless discussion. Education will never be fixed, and in fact it doesn't need to be fixed. Any effort to "fix education" will fail for two reasons. First, education is so many things to so many people..." (pg 11-12).

"At the risk of being redundant, let me reiterate: the solution to America's educational dilemma is to get students to voluntarily and passionately study hard..." (pg. 104).

Is it just me, of did he just contradict himself? I think he did. And I think his first argument still trumps his second argument. His solution holds no weight because people will never agree on what an education is and so it's really no solution, it's just another "popular option" as he puts it, that "will not and cannot fix education." (pg. 12)

2. "Greatness isn't the work of a few geniuses, it is the purpose of each of us. It is why we were born. Every person you have ever met is a genius. Every one." (pg. 8)

I may be cynical, but I completely disagree. I think there are definitely people out there who are not so bright. Stupid, in fact. Very, very stupid. The whole IQ system--which yes I know, is flawed and biased and all that--was an attempt to measure self-evident differing levels of intelligence. Not every child will be able to read the books in his indexes. It just won't be possible for them. And even if they can read it, not every child will be able to understand it, and they never will, and no amount of teaching or mentoring will change that. Along with that, to go back his solution above to fix education, I really don't believe that all children simply can be motivated to teach themselves by a great mentor. Yes, it may work for a large portion of them, but there's no way you could motivate them all. So many other factors come in to play. The largest being that children are motivated and influenced first of all by their family and home life. I think his method would work if first you fixed all the homes in America. No more abusive, addiction driven, unloving parents, or lack of any parents, and replace them all with concerned, loving parents that prioritize education. Oh wait, that would be all the families and teachers that have so great success with his program in their homeschooling and charter schools. Hence, all his talk of how his method is proven to be successful is garbage, it's only worked in a limited settings as far as he's explained.

3. "Could anyone (in the class of 25 students) say anything about the Mayflower Compact? Complete silence. John Locke? Nope. James Madison? Silentia. Magna Carta? The Spanish Armada? The Battle of Yorktown? The Bull Moose party? Don Giovanni? William James? The Tenth Amendment? Zero. Zilch. Forget it. The embarrassment was acute." (pg 16)

Van DeMille assumes throughout the book that a classical liberal arts education is to be educated and that by lacking this education, you wouldn't know how to think and therefore could not be an effective leader. I once again disagree on every single point. First of all, he's extremely pompous in my mind to even dare label what an education is or should be. I think there are innumerable ways of being educated. And here's my pompous assertion, I think an education is whatever allows you to live, provide for yourself and family, navigate society successfully, and improve your status within that society. Knowing how to think is definitely a part of that, but I find it ridiculous to conclude that the African Bushman in the Kalahari don't know how to think simply because their education doesn't include liberal arts. I think their education was very well suited to their needs (well, until recently anyway) and I'm sure they knew how to think through problems facing them and that they have their share of brillant leaders among them as well. A liberal arts education is simply not necessary for everyone--even here in the US--to be able to learn how to think and lead. That being said, I do agree that a liberal arts education can help a person be more well-rounded and conversant about world events and such.

4. "The second type of education is the professional system... This is done by teaching them when to think. ...Their specialized knowledge makes them valuable as experts in their field, and an important part of an interdependent system where other other experts tell them when their knowledge is to be applied and what to do outside the scope of their expertise. ...The professional system has been very effective in achieving its goals, but it is not a substitute for leadership training." (pg. 23)

Are you kidding me? Obviously Van DeMille has never worked in a professional setting outside of education. As a nurse, yes I realize that often (at least in my field) benchmarks and formulas are set to follow of how to respond or treat certain conditions, made by other experts. Many nurses and doctors daily recognize something amiss before the patients have reached those benchmarks and develop treatments uniquely for a patient, outside of what a textbook or other "expert" recommends which work fabulously. Medicine and healthcare demand a extremely high level of imaginative and creative thinking, as no human is the same or reacts to treatments the same. To say that professionals are not capable leaders and thinkers is ridiculous. There are amazing leaders throughout the history of medicine just as much as there are throughout the history of statesman and politics. For instance, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, and Hippocrates. If professionals simply relied on being told when to think, no advances in medicine, chemistry, computer science, psychology, etc would ever occur.

5. "In class societies, the middle classes have tended toward the professions while the aristocracy received leadership education." (pg. 22)

Again, this argument is lost on me. He claims that those with the leadership training were the ones who changed and shaped and improved society. As I recall from history classes, it was the bourgeois--or middle classes, the ones from the "professional system"--that brought together the ideas and then put into action the formation of the United States. John Locke, Rousseau, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin etc. were all not members of the aristocracy. They were all members of the professional class: lawyers, farmers, and the like. (Which ties into my argument in #4.) So where does this leave his ill-thought out theory? Aristocrats received training on how to rule, not lead. That's why revolutions occurred.

6. "In addition to these considerable benefits of public schools, they often came with a down side. Consider two of the most successful cases: Eighteenth Century Germany, and Nineteenth Century Britain. Each instituted public schools to educate the poor, and the standard of living increased. But eventually the professional and leadership schools deteriorated because they simply couldn't compete with free, government-subsidized schools." (pg. 22)

I'm a little confused by this statement. First of all, without any specifics or explanation he expects me to believe that "professional and leadership schools deteriorated." Now, I don't know much about Eighteenth Century Germany, but as far as I know about Nineteenth Century Britain, they were pretty much at the top of the world still with their huge Empire, universities and colleges that people came from all over the world to attend, and were making vast contributions to science, literature, music and math. Van DeMille does this throughout his book: makes wide claims with no evidence. Thank you, I know how to think, and I do not swallow random examples without proof. He also makes the claim that teachers are "handcuffed." Now I don't deny that, but the only examples he gives are a list of mostly fictional movies on page 104. That's pathetic.

Another wild claim: free the teachers and they'll be able to inspire kids. To use one of his examples for this--Stand and Deliver, one of the few movies based on fact not fantasy he listed, is about a phenomenal teacher who does inspire his students. Do you know what happened to him ten or so years later? He was fired for allowing too many students in his class (now that is a valid example of teachers being handcuffed) and he started teaching in San Francisco whereas he had been in Los Angeles before. However, he didn't have nearly the success he'd had before, mostly because his classes were far more racially diverse and he didn't have the same connection he had had with his primarily Hispanic classes in Los Angeles. So my point is, even if you have a fabulous teacher (which due to my lame roommates in college I have a low opinion of a large portion of educators, so I consider a fabulous teacher quite rare) other factors can strongly influence their effectiveness.

7. In talking about grade schools: "What happens if you try to get ahead? A factory worker moves you back into place." (pg.25)

I don't believe it. Ever heard of AP programs, honor classes, skipping grades, besides the thousands of teachers that willingly work with advanced students to help them learn at their level.

"But once you're in that percentile, once you make it and say, 'I'm at Harvard,' you are required to get on the conveyor belt for several years until they stamp another diploma on your forehead. You say, 'But I want to think; I want to be a leader.' The institutional response is that there is time for that later, after you have graduated; for now you need to focus on your conveyor belt studies." (pg 26)

This seems to me the second half of the scenario he suggested in the first quote. Again, I don't believe it. In college, yes you still jump hoops, but I fail to see how any person who wants to "lead" as he puts it, could not find the opportunity to do so. In college and universities there are so many opportunities to influence whatever you set your mind too; just as many or more than you would find once you're graduated. Also, the conveyor belt studies, or gen ed classes, would fill some of his expectations for a more liberal arts education I would assume; as people would not generally take a literature or humanities class are required too. I really just can't accept his premise here, and again, he makes no attempt to validate his statements.

8. In his index sample questions, he lists a Jane Austen as being in a Victorian time period. They were set in the Georgian era. Nit picky of me? Yes. But he's the one that going on with lists of things that show how people aren't educated, and that seems like a basic knowledge of Jane Austen to me.

9. He doesn't like Lord of the Flies, in fact he calls it a broken novel. And then he suggests reading few "broken" stories. This whole concept or broken, bent, and whole stories seems highly idealized to me. (His whole method in fact, seem idealized to me). I personally love "broken" novels. I find them more realistic and believable, also more moving and emotionally charged. My favorite author is Edith Wharton and one of my favorite books is Catch-22, all of which are deeply broken. I guess this is personal taste, but I found his claim that everyone hates Lord of the Flies tasteless.

Well, now it is late, so I will have to save my list of things I did like about the book for tomorrow. But while I was writing I thought of a suitable essay topic, so I really may write one now.


Cath said...

I actually liked Lord of the Flies when I read it as a teenager.
Of course, I very much disagreed with much of Mr. Van DeMille's book, too.

Anonymous said...

Kami, I think you are right about DeMille using wild claims and coming to false conclusions. I think he actually uses people's ignorance of classics to get them on board with his ideas. If you didn't like a Thomas Jefferson Education, then you really wouldn't like the book Leadership Education by DeMille which came out this year. It's mostly about how a family should operate in training future leaders. Things like having a bookshelf a certain way, and having the father and mother operate as a "family executive committee," both of which are essential according to DeMille.

There is a blog ( that goes in depth in a review of TJEd and the two main books that go with it. If those 9 things were the things you griped at, just wait until you read what else is part of TJEd.

Pamela said...

I think it's sad that you would spend your precious time trying to break something down that has blessed so many lives, including mine. Things that are persecuted are usually good, like Christianity.
Natural aristocracy is what our Founders were, not artificial aristocracy. It has nothing to do with monetary wealth.

Ginger said...

I know you posted this two years ago, but I just want to say thanks for taking the time to voice your completely valid points about this book. I read it last night, and have been feeling slightly irritated since then. Reading some critical reviews on goodreads has given me some relief, knowing that not absolutely every person who read this book swallowed Van DeMille's unfounded and illogical arguments. I have nothing against homeschool or studying the classics, but I find it disturbing that someone who is training writing "mentors" is such a poor writer himself.
Pamela, this book review is not an attack on homeschooling.