One thing that amazes me as I navigate my 62nd year on this earth is the number of people I have known who are gone. I saw a posting on Facebook about the death of Bill Rathje and it brought a flood of feelings that I hadn’t thought of in a long time.
A colleague of his at Stanford, Michael Shanks writes eloquently of Bill 1) and if you have any interest in modern archaeology theory you probably already know his name. I know him because he was one of the young lions in the University of Arizona, Anthropology department when I was studying archaeology back in the late 60s and early 70s.
One particular incident I remember is they day I had car trouble and showed up late for a test. I shrugged and held up my hands as if to say, “What do you expect? I’m 18 years old.” Shaking his head and saying something close to, “Severson, you’re incorrigible.” he smiled that amazing smile of his and took me to his office so I could take the test there. He was that kind of teacher.
But it wasn’t always hearts and roses. I remember later in a graduate level course I was aghast that he did not know on sight, the difference between the two main towns of Chaco Canyon, Chettro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito and I told him so in class. I was full of myself as a southwestern archaeologist because at 21 I’d already been in the field several seasons, but at the same time I was way out of line. I was actually “swift boating ” Bill by saying he did not really know his stuff. Though he was obviously embarrassed at my reproof he took it well and chose not to destroy me, which as a full professor in archaeology talking to a kid who still hadn’t finished his BA, he had every right to do.
The one thing that I remember most about Bill Rathje was that he was a teacher. Of all the anthropology classes I had at the university his were the most exciting and interesting. And this was with an array of instructors that included Bernard Fontana, William Longacre, Edward Spicer, Keith Basso, T. Patrick Culbert and Jerrold Levy among others; an amazing collection of anthropological minds.
If you are interested in reading more about Bill you can go here: http://uanews.org/node/47560
But I have chosen to focus on him now in death for another reason than his pioneering work in the theory of archaeology. Writing in the New York Times, Gary Gutting discusses the nature of teaching specific to the ancient technique of lecture. He argues that K-12 schools should adopt a similar style of recruiting teachers as colleges do. 2)
He says: So why not make use of all this talent to develop an elite class of professionals — like those who teach in our colleges — and give them primary responsibility for K-12 education? One objection is that teaching children and teenagers requires a set of social/emotional abilities — to empathize, to nurture, to discipline — that have little connection with the intellectual qualities of the “best” college students. But there is no reason to think that people who are smart, articulate and enthusiastic about ideas are in general less likely to have these non-intellectual abilities. The idea is to choose those who have both high intellectual ability and the qualities needed to work successfully with children at a given grade level. Moreover, it’s important that teachers be — as they now often are not — credible authority figures, a status readily supported by the justified self-confidence and prestige of an elite professional.
I, for one, must take offense at the idea that K-12 teachers, sans doctorates in most cases, are any less qualified to teach children than a college professor. I also argue that the lack of teachers as ‘credible authority figures’ is due to the current “swift boating” campaign that has been launched against them.
If you have forgotten, “swift boating” involves attacking someone at the area of their strength, denying over and over again, despite proof to the contrary, that they are competent and lacking somehow in that particular quality that they have previously been recognized for.
Responding to Gutting in his Blog, Walt Gardner 3) says that just because you are knowledgeable does not mean you can convey that knowledge to others; as nearly all of the math teachers I came into contact with over the years have proven.
But when I think of great lecturers, who could make you think and engage you even as he stood there and told you information, Bill Rathje comes to mind. When he talked about the things he knew about, you could not help but listen and laugh and remember. He was, above all, a consummate teacher.
And that is really the crux of my argument. The “swift boating” of American teachers is faceless and general. It does not focus on individuals though they all suffer the indictment no matter how unfair. Teachers teach to their strengths, their styles are as myriad as they are, but their effectiveness can not be graded by one measure, no matter what that is. Do we need to reform American education? Of course we do, and we have reformed and we continue to do so. There has never been a time in my 33 odd years as an educator that I have not worked to refine my craft and improve my instruction and most of my colleagues have been even more diligent than I have in this respect.
Oh, and about that time I called Dr Rathje out; I did not entirely escape his wrath. But good teacher that he was he chose to unleash it, fully warranted I may add, when he reviewed my next paper. The flames of red ink rising off that document are still mentally visible in my mind’s eye, even after nearly 40 years. Whew, hot stuff!