Frank McCourt Is Not a Good Example

Literature does not good policy make, as some poet somewhere must have said. Consider Frank McCourt, who has become a spokesman for the now-controversial view that teachers should have more leeway in the classroom, not less. McCourt is the pixie-faced, white-haired, thick-brogued raconteur who wrote Angela’s Ashes, a Bildungsroman explaining how the bitterly poor son of an embittered drunk from Limerick, Ireland, became the kind of man who could write a witty, heartbreaking memoir about being the bitterly poor son of an embittered drunk, etc. He’s also the author of ’Tis–the sequel, in bookstores this month (click here to order the book). In ’Tis, the boy in Angela’s Ashes comes to America, finagles his way into college despite his lack of a high-school education, and turns himself into a New York City schoolteacher.

Having sold more than 4 million copies of Angela’s Ashes in more than 20 languages, McCourt is not only the most beloved teacher in America and maybe the world but also the most widely-read education expert too. Journalists call him up for his opinions on vouchers (he’s against them) and teachers unions (he’s for them, but thinks they’re too bureaucratic). But his philosophy is plainest to see in his books. For the growing numbers of experts advocating draconian “drill and practice” routines in which a teacher’s every gesture and word is preprogrammed, Angela’s Ashes offers a scene in which one of McCourt’s Irish teachers shocks him into paying attention by having an opinion on things. (“He tells us what is important and why. No master ever told us why before. If you asked why you’d be hit on the head.”) Standardized tests are dispatched wittily in a scene in ’Tis in which an “Academic Chairman” reels off a list of what McCourt, as a neophyte teacher, must do with a class full of angry, ignorant, rebellious teen-agers:

The chairman says there will be midterm exams in two weeks and my teaching should focus on areas that will be covered in exams. Students in English should have mastered spelling and vocabulary lists, one hundred of each which they are supposed to have in their notebooks and if they don’t points off, and be prepared to write essays on two novels. Economic Citizenship students should be more than halfway through Your World and You.

Since the students have studied neither spelling nor vocabulary and never  cracked their Economic Citizenship textbook, the advice could not have been more malapropos. Teaching eventually becomes easier but even more mindless:

I followed the teacher guides. I launched the prefabricated questions at my classes. I hit them with surprise quizzes and tests and destroyed them with the ponderous detailed examinations concocted by college professors who assemble high school textbooks.My students resisted and cheated and disliked me and I disliked them for disliking me.

Finally, McCourt throws the whole damn curriculum in the trash:

I couldn’t let days dribble by in the routine of high school grammar, spelling, vocabulary, digging for the deeper meaning in poetry, bits of literature doled out for the multiple choice tests that would follow so that universities can be supplied with the best and the brightest. I had to begin to enjoy the act of teaching and the only way I could do that was start over, teach what I loved and to hell with the curriculum.

Now here’s a truly humane theory of education: The more fully realized the teacher is, intellectually and personally, the better able he will be to communicate his passion for ideas and learning to the student. Conversely, the more uniform the curriculum and teaching method, the more soul-destroying they are for teacher and student alike.

Frank McCourt brims with intelligence and charisma (Culturebox has seen him speak) and must have been an unforgettable teacher whatever he did. But could other teachers follow his example? McCourt’s own story indicates that they could not. In Ireland, compassionate teachers would seem to be painfully rare. McCourt learns to love literature more in spite of his schooling than because of it, as a result of the ministrations of a kind librarian and a fellow patient in a hospital to which he is briefly confined. In America, his colleagues are mostly defeated (Miss Mudd, his predecessor on his first job, has retired early in disgust) when they aren’t sadistic. Considering how hard it was for the extraordinary Frank McCourt to learn how to teach, one has to wonder whether  individual teachers can really measure their own progress. That teaching, done right, requires all of a teacher’s emotional and intellectual resources; that we accord teachers neither the respect nor the pay they need to function well in their jobs; that few public school teachers come close to the ideal or leave the students with anything like what they need to get by–all this seems like a good argument for better pay scales and reform in the educational system that produces teachers. But in the absence of a nation of McCourts, it is also a  reason to insist on greater teacher oversight and accountability and less freedom to do as they please.