Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Camus's Teacher (Evaluate That)

I cam across this story on Maria Popova's unendingly swell website, Brain Pickings.

French philosopher and writer Albert Camus did not consider himself an existentialist (even though that's what my high school English teacher taught me he was); he was, however, a fairly relentless force for meaning, beauty and absurdity, arguing for "the total absence of hope, which has nothing to do with despair, a continual refusal, which must not be confused with renouncement - and a conscious dissatisfaction." Life may be hopeless, but that doesn't mean it has to suck.

Camus was rendered fatherless before he was even one year old, thanks to the Great European War, and that left him at the mercy of a mother and grandmother who were decidedly Not Awesome. But there was a teacher. As Popova puts it

In a testament to what happens when education lives up to its highest potential to ennoble the human spirit, a teacher named Louis Germaine saw in young Albert something special 

In 1957, Camus became the second-youngest to receive the Nobel Prize. Within days, he sent off this letter:

19 November 1957
Dear Monsieur Germain,
I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honor, one I neither sought nor solicited. But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened. I don’t make too much of this sort of honor. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.
Albert Camus

Is there any teacher who wouldn't be moved by such a letter from an accomplished former student who has just received one of human-kind's highest honors? Is there any teacher who thinks that such a letter would be inspired by diligently preparing students to get a good score on a pointless standardized test?

Never doubt that teachers make a positive difference, and a difference far beyond simply preparing students to successfully complete some pointless bureaucratic tasks.


  1. I was thinking the same thing about the standardized tests. Somehow teaches managed to teach and inspire and students managed to learn and become great in the past without all these tests.

    1. Surely the vast majority of tests your children will have going forward will be teacher written and graded ones. Multiple midterm exams, quizzes, and a final exam in each substantive class in high school. I would expect at least 15 a semester, but that is just a guess.

      These are the important tests. If you student fails these teacher written and graded tests in important classes, you student will not graduate from high school. If your student's class standing and GPA are insufficiently high, Chapel Hill and their fine philosophy department (well, a little tarnished after the fake classes for athletes scandal) will be out of reach.

    2. Does your comment have a point, or is it just supposed to mildly threatening?

      I said nothing about the testing within classes. My comment was about the extraneous standardized testing that has been layered on top of the normal assessments in classes.

      It's almost like there are two school systems operating in the same school. First, the traditional courses with traditional assessments controlled by the teacher. Second, the new regime of standardized testing controlled by the state and the federal government. You yourself seem to realize this with your idea that "going forward" the tests matter. The implication is that all of that standardized testing in K-8 didn't matter. That's right. It didn't. That's my point.

      In the past, teachers managed to teach without so many standardized tests. My K-8 education in California in the 1970's was better than what my children are getting now in K-8. Why? Because the teachers had more time to teach and do some experimental things. We read more in school. We painted. We even produced three plays at my elementary school. We went on a lot of field trips. Today, all of that time is spent on test preparation, taking exams, and tutoring the students who don't pass the first time.

      In grades 7-8, I don't even remember taking a single standardized test. It was called junior high school, and we had 7 periods per day. There was time to take a journalism class, learn how to type, do dissections in a zoology course, and so on. My children's middle school experience has simply been an extension of elementary school. They only have 6 periods, and one of those has been devoted to studying skills and strategies for passing the end-of-grade standardized tests. When the testing requirements change the schedule of the school throughout the year, then the testing is excessive.

      As I've said many times, excessive standardized testing is wasting instructional time. There is simply no need to test every child every year in K-8. The current testing regimes are changing education and not for the better.

    3. Eric,

      Certainly not a threat. I just think that you will find as your children enter high school the standardized tests will fade in importance compared to the tests and assignments that actually matter to your children's future. As Dr. Ravitch once said, no one has figured out how to get a teenager to care about an exam that has no impact on them. I did not even hear about exam day from my children after they entered high school.

      Since your children are above grade, likely the most frustrating thing for them will be mountains of assignments designed to help those below grade level pass the class. My middle son was certainly extremely frustrated with that work, and it reduced his GPA and class standing. As with most boys, his scores on standardized tests tended to balance this out, along with the grades in the courses he took as a special student at our local university.

  2. Dear Mr. Greene, and Commentators,

    This isn't Camus, but it is by one of my favorite cartoonists. One may read it for oneself:

    Be sure to read the story below the cartoon.

    I'm sure the Reformers would insist that the art teachers were just making an investment, and surely they expected to be selling the paintings they bought for millions at Sotheby's some day...I mean, that's a motive they could understand...ROI & all that.


  3. Wonderful strip. It shows the love and care that some teachers give their students.

    I like your comment about Reformers. Just think about Michelle Rhee eating a bee in front of her class or taping the mouths of her students to keep them quiet. She had no idea how to care for her students.