Campbell, David. The Coriolanus Syndrome.
April 1997. Pages 640-643.
Phi Delta Kappan. Volume 78, Number 8.
[The current educational system] is no longer appropriate or useful. It is a
horse and buggy rambling down a dirt road in a Third World society,
without meaning or direction, simply doing what it has always done and
pretending to change.]
So concludes David Campbell in his article The Coriolanus1
I have to admit that I selected the article because of the title--I misread it at first and
thought it might have something to do with classification. In a way it does, but not in the
way I thought.
Campbell begins with a description of a restructuring meeting. Admittedly, the meeting he
describes is in a college, but it is germane never the less since it reminds me of nearly all
meeting on that topic I attended at my high school. The debate rages over whether to
increase the math requirement of all education students at the college. Campbell, acting as
a Socratic voice, questions the need for such an increase since:
most science education majors already took a number of calculus courses
that they would never use and that those in other majors had selected their
specialties to avoid taking more math whenever possible.
The response from the others in attendance at the meeting he describes as an immediate
oxygen deprivation situation as they inhale collectively. After also questioning the need for
longer research papers since "I don't know any schoolteachers who write 'papers' except
when they are forced to by us [the colleges]," he is banished from the committee.
He then takes a day to visit a local high school. He returns "enraged and depressed after
watching lesson after lesson filled with the memorization of trivia, mindless assignments,
incessant testing, and 'covering the material'." His assessment, after only one six-hour
visitation, is chillingly accurate.
Campbell does not limit his discussion to avant-garde reform ideas. When discussing
"back to basics," he waxes eloquent as well.
Let's get back to those good old basics. I'll drive with you in your car to
the nearest garage, where the mechanic will remove your automatic
transmission, radio, air conditional and heater, defroster, tapedeck, bucket
seats, windshield wiper and turn signals. You'll feel good sticking your
arm out in the rain and snow to signal for a turn while reaching around to
wipe the dirt off your windshield. At home I'll remove your microwave
and remote control (a good old 12" black-and-white set with three snowy
channels on for four hours each evening is certainly adequate)... And let's
replace that central heating and air with a good old basic coal furnace. The
exercise of hauling coal and ashes will be good for you. Now that's getting
back to basics.
Campbell contends that nearly all "skills" (sitting in rows of desks, filling in worksheets,
and getting 80% right while choosing the "correct" answer from a list of four possibilities)
students learn in school do nothing to promote societal goals and, in fact, might just get
you fired in business situations. Real, significant education does not occur. He supports
this contention by stating:
It is as if all that time [twelve years of schooling] never happened. I never
see people camped out overnight to purchase tickets for the symphony,
theater, or ballet. I cannot find "Nova," "Masterpiece Theater," or "Nature"
among the top 25 television shows... Try to have a conversation with any
high school (or even college) graduate about Rembrandt...
The overall tone of this article is one of discouragement. However, Campbell is not a
quitter. He speaks of raising academic standards, and the need for improving the quality of
teaching as well. By improving the quality of teaching, Campbell is referring to a
progressive constructivist approach to content delivery--exploring, doing, engaging in
process. If our classes fulfilled this goal of high standards and improved teaching, think of
what our lives as teachers (and as world citizens) would be like.
Learning more is neither the problem or the goal. True understanding--
connecting and making sense of information and integrating it into a
coherent picture of reality--is what [students] need to achieve. [Emphasis
I encourage you to read this article and to become more Coriolanic in your approach.
Choriolanus is a Shakespearean character famous for cutting to the chase or being "too