"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Demand for remedial instruction in colleges is on the rise. About 75 percent of New York City freshmen attending community college last year needed remedial math, reading or writing courses. The organization that administers the ACT found that only one in four of 2010 high school graduates who took the ACT exam were college-ready in four key subjects areas: English, math, reading and science. Statistics like these are startling, as they not only reveal serious flaws in our educational system, but also raise questions as to how these students will fare in the future if they are lacking the knowledge and critical skills needed to succeed in college and beyond.
In her new book, “The Republic of Noise,” New York City public school educator and curriculum advisor Diana Senechal argues that one reason for this problem is the students’ loss of solitude: the ability to think and reflect independently on a given topic. Schools have become more concerned with the business of keeping students busy in what Senechal deems is a flawed attempt to ensure student engagement. But as a result, students are not given the time and space to devote themselves completely to the study and understanding of one specific thing. It’s a need she finds reflected in our culture as a whole: We are a nation glued to smartphones and computer screens, checking email and Twitter feeds in our need to stay in some loop by reading and responding to rolling updates. Senechal is not advocating that we toss out our iPhones or unplug from social media, but rather that we think more slowly, give ourselves time for reflection — as such practice would only serve to enhance the very conversations new media and technology make possible.
Salon spoke to Senechal over the phone about the problems with our educational system, the meaning of solitude, and the dangers of immediacy.
What’s your definition of solitude?
The idea of solitude as an attribute of the mind goes back to antiquity. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus distinguished between a negative sort of isolation (helplessness, removal from others) and the strength that comes from relying on one’s own mental resources. Quintilian wrote about the importance of overcoming distractions through mental concentration and separation. “In the midst of crowds, therefore, on a journey, and even at festive meetings,” he wrote, “let thought secure for herself privacy.”
Solitude is not about being in a hut out in the woods or being out in the desert or living without other people around. I define solitude as a certain apartness that we always have, whether we’re among others or not. It is something that can be practiced — maybe to think just on one’s own, even when in a meeting or in a group and so forth — but that also has been nurtured by time alone. So there’s an ongoing solitude that’s always there, and there’s also a shaped or practiced solitude, which requires both time alone with things, to be thinking about things and working on things, and time among others when you nonetheless think independently.
You’re critical of certain educational philosophies in practice in schools today, especially the workshop model. Why?
The workshop model has an emphasis on group work and a de-emphasis on teacher presentation. What happens is the teacher is supposed to give a mini-lesson which is about 10 minutes long. From there students are supposed to work in groups on something related to that mini-lesson, sometimes independently, but most of the time in groups. At the end they are supposed to share about what they learned. This was mandated across the board, across the grades and subjects, in many schools. Every lesson is supposed to follow a workshop model. (Of course some schools were a little bit more flexible about this than others.)
The problem with that is that the workshop model is very wonderful for certain lessons and topics, but when you apply it across the board, you are constraining the subject matter. You need a variety of approaches in order to deal with a topic. You may need a lesson where the teacher gives an extended presentation to give the students necessary background. Or an extended discussion. For instance, the students may have a project that they will have to do together, but they have to work on their own to build up to that point.
Also, schools have put an enormous emphasis on skills – or what are called skills – at the expense of content. This has been going on for decades. No one wants to specify what students should read, but they say that they should be analyzing and comparing and contrasting. Well, none of this has meaning unless you know what it is you’re comparing and contrasting or analyzing. What happens is, students write essays that show that they haven’t read very closely, and yet this passes because it meets the checks on the checklist: that it has the right number of paragraphs; it has an introduction, body, conclusion; it seems as though they’re comparing something with something. There is a contagious vagueness because we don’t specify what we’re talking about and what students should learn. We then encourage in them a certain vagueness and carelessness. The problem perpetuates itself, and it turns up much later when students enter college and don’t know how to write a coherent essay. Well, the reason this comes up is that they’re in courses where they’re expected to read on specific topics, and that’s where things fall apart and it’s no longer about the rubric.
So the problem lies in the idea of putting the model above the actual subject. You have to think about the subject and think about how you’re going to bring this to the students, and think about the type of lesson that will do that best. Often you’ll find that you need a combination of types of lessons.
Are you advocating for more teacher autonomy?
Yes, but not for just everyone to do whatever they want. I’m advocating for careful thought about the subject itself.
You write that we “mistake distraction for engagement”? How so? How does it affect even mental cognition?
I’m not a psychologist, but in the classroom and in many discussions on education, what I see is an emphasis on keeping the students busy from start to finish. Not letting a moment creep in where they don’t have something specific to do, something concrete where they are actually producing something. So if you keep them busy, busy, busy, and doing something at every moment, then supposedly they’re engaged. And when supervisors walk into classrooms and look and see the students writing and turning and talking, their conclusion is “Oh! What an engaged class!” The problem with that is then students don’t learn how to handle moments of doubt, or moments of silence, or moments where they have to struggle with a problem and they can’t produce something right on the spot. So, the students themselves come to expect to be put to work at every moment. If you want to give them something more difficult, you have to expect a little uncertainty. You have to expect a little bit of silence, a little bit of an awkward pause where they don’t know exactly what to do right away. What happens in this focus on visible engagement, we lose something that may go deeper, where students may have a chance to wrestle with something that’s a little bit above his or her head and where the answer is not immediately apparent.
This spreads outside the classroom too.
What I see is people having great difficulty sitting with a book for a long time, or with a pad of paper. They want to have the stimulus right nearby – they want access to their email, they want access to their text messages no matter what they’re doing. You see people walking down the street with their phones and just staring at their phones; and you see people holding their phones in all situations – at a concert or when having dinner with a friend – so they can check that they don’t miss anything. Yes, there is a loss of ability to just sit with something.
In trying to instill a greater habit of solitude in educational curricula, how do you see this working in an overcrowded classroom with limited resources?
That’s also a problem with the workshop lesson. Students won’t necessarily be engaged or be following along. Perhaps the biggest problem you’ll see is some students doing the work and others just following along. You’ll see some students using it as a time to socialize and others taking it seriously. So that problem is going to be there across the board. What students do respond to – and the workshop can be a part of it – is a lesson that makes sense, where they understand that you’re going from point A to point B. They understand that now that they have a grasp on this material, you’re going to take them here with it.
How do we then measure how well a student is learning and progressing, and do so as early as possible?
That’s where content-specific tests come in. Where we’ve gone astray is with tests that test quite general skills – you know, reading comprehension tests. There isn’t a good way to prepare for those tests, so we have a rather amorphous program of literacy where students learn all kinds of reading strategies but the emphasis is not on reading concrete things. You can test students on their reading of the subject matter, and not just factual knowledge, but their understanding. But then you have to have an actual course with actual subject matter taught, and you have to have a test that is about that course.
Math is a different case, and that’s why we see more progress with math than with English-language arts, because there is more of a math curriculum. But even with math, many districts have curricula that just jump from topic to topic so that students don’t go deep into any topic. [Students] learn how to do all sorts of different things, but they don’t know how to do them especially well. Tests have a role, but the curriculum has to come first.
Do you think we are overemphasizing the need to have a standardized method of teaching or testing?
Yes and no. There has to be a certain need for standardized tests to compare from state to state, and district to district, and get a measure of what’s going on across the board. And because it’s politically close to impossible to agree on a common curriculum, it probably would not be a good idea to have a very specific national curriculum. Those tests are going to be on the general side, but because of that, they should not be the be-all and end-all. Because they are so general, they should not match what the curriculum actually is. The curriculum should be much richer, and the tests that go along with that curriculum should be given more importance.
What has been found in many cases is when a school actually does not hold those tests so high, doesn’t put them on a pedestal but instead teaches a curriculum that is very considered, substantial and valuable, the students end up doing very well on the [standardized] tests. One must, in a sense, go beyond the test to do well on them.
You write about what you see as our obsession with the idea of success and our desire to do away with failure. What do we lose in the process of striving for success?
There is nothing wrong with striving for success at something meaningful. But if the emphasis is on the success and not on the thing being accomplished, the latter almost inevitably gets reduced. You can be successful if you make the task easy enough or lower the standards enough. You can feel good about it temporarily and get temporary approval or applause. But it is much more valuable, in the end, to accomplish something concrete, even if it doesn’t manifest itself as success for a long time.
For instance, a student is having difficulty with fractions. Well, that student should work on fractions until that student feels comfortable and fluent with them. But the talk emphasizes that “the student succeeds.” We hear about successful schools, successful students, successful people and so forth. Usually this means having some attainment of high stature, high score or high salary. The true accomplishments come often in the absence of these immediate, visible results; and if you sit and work with a subject, or you sit and struggle with a language, you may go for months without feeling you’re succeeding necessarily, but what you’re getting is something that won’t go away. Over time, after that constant practice and struggle, you find that you have attained something: You come to know that language. So the attention must go to the thing itself that you’re trying to do.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)