Educating the Educators

The Turtle Hypodermic Of Sickenpods: Liberal Studies In The Corporate Age

By P. Scott Lawrence

A review of The Turtle Hypodermic Of Sickenpods: Liberal Studies In The Corporate Age by David Solway

Published on October 1, 2000

The Turtle Hypodermic Of Sickenpods: Liberal Studies In The Corporate Age
David Solway

McGill-Queen’s University Press
$200
cloth
60pp
0-7735-2111-9

This is the third book David Solway has written on education and its place in contemporary culture. The series began with Education Lost and was followed, three years ago, by Lying About the Wolf. Turtle offers up probably the most excoriating critique of the current educational landscape, and to my mind wins the race. The book is focused around scrupulous, raging examinations – and thorough dismantlings – of two pedagogical theories that for the moment have bewitched (and, as Solway demonstrates, bewildered) academe’s theorists and administrators: Outcomes-based education and the Programs Approach.

The two systems have much in common. Both are implemented by administrative fiat, both are ostensibly student-centred but are in fact informed by corporatist, utilitarian concerns that would do Dickens’ Gradgrind proud, and both effectively reduce the teacher to a mere conduit of discrete packets of information.

Solway’s greatest fear, precisely and persuasively expressed, is that these pedagogies, far from remedying the dismal condition of contemporary education – in which students commonly enrol in university without the linguistic dexterity needed to write a coherent sentence, or even to read and understand one, and lack utterly a sense of intellectual tradition (“Was Shakespeare the guy in that Gwyneth Paltrow movie?”) – actually serve to retard the mysterious, multi-tentacled process of learning. He argues that any professional skills that students may acquire under these dispensations do not equip them to interpret or even approach in any comprehensive way the “infinite text” that is the world.

One need look no further than the book’s title – a malapropism taken from a student essay, in which the writer meant to refer to the proliferation of educational technocrats as “the total epidemic of psychopaths” – to understand the extent of the malaise that Solway describes.

At its heart, though, Turtle is really a passionate, scathing petition for the renovation of contemporary culture, and a restatement of the inestimable virtues of an education built on the bedrock of the humanities.

Solway champions a liberal education that is book-based, that attends to the arc of time that precedes our own, that values the difficult-to-plumb depths of human knowledge over the more accessible siren calls of surface, that privileges contemplation over instant sensory gratification, and that distinguishes between understanding and data acquisition. At stake is nothing less than the recovery of our selves.

Though I do take issue with a couple of Solway’s contentions – my view of teachers (some of whom moonlight as the theorists Solway attacks) is not as sunny as his, nor am I as quick to see educational reform as necessarily conspiratorial – I am thoroughly convinced by his essential arguments here.

The highest praise I can give this book is to say that Solway practices what he preaches: he is a teacher by example: erudite, witty, part historian, part poet, part social philosopher. To follow his mind through these pages is to be educated, and to have one’s desire to learn reignited. mRb

P. Scott Lawrence is a writer who lives in Hudson.

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