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Palaima: Knowledge is its own reward

Austin American-Statesman Monday, August 25, 2008

At a recent international conference on ancient medicine at the University of Texas organized by my colleague Lesley Dean-Jones, scholars discussed whether ancient Greek medical practice could be considered a "tekhnê." The words "technical" and "technique" come from "tekhnê," which means something like a "learned professional discipline."

As Dean-Jones explains, the ancient Greeks applied two main criteria. To be a "tekhnê," an area of expertise should be fairly consistently successful and be generally teachable.

Greek thinkers advanced arguments against the idea that "paideia" (education) was a "tekhnê." If it were, they reasoned, its practitioners would know, and be able to predict, results. So they would, first, agree on what to do, and, second, be correct in the advice they gave.

To be considered true experts, modern educational theorists and reformers should define what kind of success they intend to achieve and adopt policies that will have a fair measure of success. They should follow the Hippocratic dictum "to help or at least to do no harm."

A prevailing assumption nowadays is that students are consumers who control an educational marketplace. Education is a commodity with economic goals and incentives. This view drives the 2006 report commissioned by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and shaped by Charles Miller, a career investment manager and for 20 years a leading proponent of accountability and outcomes-oriented education. Ironically, the downward trends in American education the report identifies occurred during the 20-year period when standardized testing and "teaching to the test" took over.

This way of thinking about education has led to the experiment in the public schools of Coshocton, Ohio, where random third- to eighth-graders are being paid $20 to $100 for getting passing grades. These incentives are bankrolled by a local businessman. This fall, Exxon Mobil Corp. will pay students in six states $100 if they pass Advanced Placement tests.

Does this give you the creeps, too? Think back to your experience in education. Did your memorable teachers inspire you with payoffs? Do you prize and value facts drilled into you ahead of rote knowledge tests?

I come from a background where money and education were scarce commodities. My paternal grandparents couldn't read or write. Still, in my 24 years of formal education, beginning in 1956, no teacher even mentioned financial rewards. My best teachers inspired us by their passions for their subjects, by encouraging us to think and share our thoughts, by respecting and empowering us. They modeled love of learning for its own sake and stressed what we could do for society.

It is no surprise that the expert monitoring the Coshocton experiment is an economist who reasons that since "so much of society is now based on incentives" that there is no harm in using 8- to 14-year-olds as guinea pigs. Why have teachers, parents and school administrators handed their children's educational futures over to economists, fund managers and TAKS-test ideologues?

Is it good for our society that citizens learn not to strive for knowledge, or do anything, unless they get cash rewards? The payments in Coshocton have not improved reading, social studies or science scores, only those in math.

I asked Jim Parker, language arts teacher and middle school coordinator at St. Francis School in Austin, what he thought. He told me that the Coshocton experiment left him with a bad taste. He pointed me to Jonathan C. Erwin's book, "The Classroom of Choice," where we learn: "When a student hears, 'If you do this, then you'll get that,' the message to the learner is, 'There must be something wrong with this if you have to give me that to get me to do it.' '' Erwin also cites many studies that demonstrated that motivation by external incentives fails.

The "tekhnę" of teaching is no less mysterious now than it was for the Greeks. But when the first great teacher in Western culture, Socrates, was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, it was not with cash incentives. He taught them to use their minds, something people keen on controlling power in all periods of history have considered dangerous.

Palaima ( is a professor of classics at the University of Texas.

Palaima is Dickson Centennial professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin. He recommends Bill Moyers' PBS Journal, at, which examines the effects of subprime deregulation.

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