Out With The Old, In With The New. Well, Maybe.

Toni and I just got SlingTV a month ago, and for the first time in two years, we can watch HGTV. At last.

First, let me just say that this “a la carte TV” thing is starting to work out. We first killed our cable (though at that time it was Dish) in 2006, because we had been watching too much and paying far too much for the privilege. For two years, we got all of our news from the internet, and watched DVDs. It was good, for a time; this was when Blockbuster was still renting movies, and we had a store in our town, and they had their mail-order service working; so we would get DVDs of interesting movies in the mail, and then we would go and trade them in at the store for a free rental of another interesting movie. We watched some TV shows that way, too – Deadwood, if I recall, and The Sopranos, and the first season of Dexter. It was tough to manage the TV shows, though, because you only got them one disc at a time, and you had to space them well in the queue of discs you wanted to rent so that you could get the next one when you wanted it, but not be inundated with show discs.

But then Blockbuster went bankrupt, and the store in our town closed, and the mail-order service folded soon after; the go-to entertainment activity of my youth went away, to be replaced by “Netflix and chill.” (I have only recently discovered that this is the slang for “Come over and let’s have sex.” Back in my day, we just said “Come over and let’s have sex.”) We looked into cable again, because we had Comcast for internet, and we decided to get regular broadcast television again. It was nice, to go back to watching actual shows as they were broadcast instead of months or years after they had ended, though our movie consumption went down again as we didn’t have to fill up a queue with movies that we thought we might want to watch; on the plus side, we stopped watching so many bad movies. Plus we had HGTV, and Animal Planet, and Bravo and AMC; we got to watch The Dog Whisperer, and Millionaire Matchmaker, and The Amazing Race – and our beloved House Hunters. This period ended when Comcast just got too expensive for the package we wanted: it became our highest bill, and we just weren’t watching enough TV to justify it.

But we had heard of Hulu, and Amazon had TV now, and of course there was Netflix, that flimsy cover for teenage hormones. We had just bought a Playstation 3, and we decided we’d try out streaming all of our TV and movies. The price was wonderful, and the convenience, as well; there was also a Redbox, now, that we could walk to when our streaming TV had nothing worth watching – which frequently happened, as they didn’t have a lot of good stuff on there, none of the premium channel shows we had been watching on cable, no Nurse Jackie, no Shameless. But we knew we would be moving, and we didn’t want to get caught up in contracts.

So we moved, and because Comcast didn’t cover Tucson, we had to change internet providers; fortunately – I guess it was fortunate – Comcast had a sister company, another tentacle of its media juggernaut beast-parent company, that ran the cable business in southern Arizona. So we went to Cox and signed up for internet service – and they offered us a bundle with TV, for the same price. Only the basic channels, but with HBO and Starz, free for a year. Sure, we said, free TV? Why not? Well, because the basic service had about two channels that weren’t home shopping, religious, or local access, and those two channnels were generally filled with shows we didn’t much want to watch. And we still had the Playstation and subscriptions to Hulu and Amazon – we would have kept the Amazon Prime regardless, as it gave us free shipping on our frequent Amazon orders. Plus they had Downton Abbey and Sons of Anarchy.

But of course, Cox jacked up the price at the end of our free year of TV bundling (That’s what they used to call sex back when the Puritans had cable), and so we shut them off and went back to streaming. And now, after two years without HGTV or the Food Network, we found SlingTV, and signed up for a three months’ subscription which got us a free Roku. Now, once more, we can watch House Hunters. And see broadcast news on CNN, and even ESPN, if I ever decide to follow basketball again.

All of which is not the topic I meant to discuss. (Don’t worry; this will all come together in the end. Which is what they used to call sex back in the 60’s.) I was going to use House Hunters to introduce the conflict I am interested in: the tension between tradition and progress. So let me get to that. (That was how they asked for sex in the 70’s. At least that’s how Shaft did it. And his woman understands him, even if no one else does.)

House Hunters, if you are not a devotee, shows people, usually a couple, who are looking for a new home. The show and its spin-offs span the globe, though the majority are in the US; they have people looking to rent $500-a-month apartments, and to buy $5 million islands. There is no host, just a camera crew and some voiceovers and graphics added later, and the pattern is always the same: the realtor shows the client three places, and the client tours them, complains incessantly about minor deviations from perfection, and then makes a choice, first eliminating one and then picking between the other two. The last minute of the half-hour program shows them after a few days or months living in their new home and talking about how happy they are with their purchase. It’s a great show, and it will never run out of episodes, because there will always be people looking to buy homes and be on TV, and the only overhead is the camera crews (I presume there are several working all at once, as they pump out episodes at an amazing rate; you can watch two of these a night and never see a repeat.) and the one woman’s voiceover salary. No host, no script, no studio, nothing but homes. And carping clients.

The inevitable tension on the show comes from the different wish lists of the people buying the home; I presume the show prefers couples so they can have that drama, because they always play it up. And the conflict is almost always the same: he wants modern/contemporary, clean lines and open spaces, and she wants traditional, with historical charm and cozy comfort. He wants it to be move-in ready, and she wants a fixer-upper, or at least some projects, so she can put her stamp on it, make it her own.

Since we’ve been watching this show at least once a day since we got the Roku, I’ve been thinking about this conflict a fair amount. And it occurred to me that it related to the question a friend of mine posed after the last blog I wrote about education – You Have Been Weighed, You Have Been Measured – which was this: Trend v. tradition. The powers that be seem to thrive on pushing us deeper and deeper into proficiencies and standards, yet they cling to an archaic grading system of A-F? Once the dust settles from all the rubric scores we then assign a letter grade??? What gives?”

Why is that? Why is there a strain between conservative and progressive, between clinging to the past and reaching for the future?

I have at least something of an answer. (Thanks, HGTV.) Though I’ll have to stretch a bit to make it suit the actual question about education. Here goes.

When we are trying to do something that will last, like buy a home or teach a class, we look back to the experiences we have had ourselves: we buy homes based on the ones we lived in, we teach based on the way we learned. This probably goes for everything: I write the way I do because of the authors I have read; Toni paints the way she does because of the art she has seen. We raise Sammy the way we have because of our experiences with Charlie, and, I would assume, people raise their human children using their own parents as a model.

But not everything we have experienced is positive, and so we use our past experiences as both examples and warnings, things to do and things not to do. If I were to have children, my children would read the same way my parents had me read: they gave me the best children’s books in the world, Harold and the Purple Crayon and Where the Wild Things Are and of course Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham and The Fox in Socks and The King’s Stilts. My mother read me the books she had loved as a child, like The Land of the Lost and Uncle Wiggily and Freddy the Pig. When I was past that stage, my father read stories to the entire family: Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe and J.R.R. Tolkien. My kids would have that same experience, with the addition of books that are more recent but also awesome – my kids would read Harry Potter. But on the other hand: my parents gave me the opportunity to participate in the classic team sports, soccer and baseball – which I absolutely loathed. So my child would not suffer through that experience. My child would do something more awesome, like rockclimbing or kayaking or hiking or martial arts. (My parents did put me in martial arts, which I liked but was no good at, so it didn’t last long.) Or fencing and sailing. I’d like to make my child into a pirate. But that’s not the point.

The point is that we try to keep the things we like, and replace the things we don’t like. I think it telling but not surprising that this plays out along gender lines on House Hunters: traditionally speaking, women have the role of nesters, seeking to make things comfortable and welcoming; hence traditional and cozy and charming. Men traditionally seek to build things and make things bigger and better and newer, to conquer new heights and expand into new territory, partly for the glory and partly to improve their family’s situation. And so, when looking for a home, men seek modern things, things that are new and don’t need to be patched up, things that require little maintenance – because they have to go out there and get to work bringing home the bacon, hunting down a mastodon, subjugating the neighboring tribes. You know – man stuff. And of course this isn’t always the way it breaks down: I hate modern and contemporary styles, and while Toni also dislikes the coldness of modern homes, she does like to have as little maintenance as possible: when we are watching someone coo over their enormous bathroom with its walk-in shower, Toni’s inevitable thought and frequent comment is “Do you know how long it would take to clean that?” There are sometimes couples that agree, or with the reversed preferences; because traditional gender roles are sometimes discarded for something more new, something that works better than what was done in the past.

So that explains both House Hunters and a la carte television, which allows us to watch the shows we’ve liked for years, and also try new things like Mozart in the Jungle and Orange is the New Black, which never appeared on broadcast television. But does it answer the original question?

I think it does. I think people teach based on the way they learned, and they keep what they liked and they try to replace what they didn’t. So those of us who didn’t like handwriting instruction embrace word processing, and those who write a lovely script bewail the demise of cursive. People who have fond memories of running track or making it to the state championships in softball argue that sports are an integral part of schooling, and people who eschewed jocks and embraced the arts consider music and drama and painting to be the linchpin of education. And even in the classroom: my favorite teachers used to discuss the subject matter at length; they would joke with us and tell stories. There were very few worksheets and not a lot of group work – I hated group work. I hated having to be teamed up with people I couldn’t stand, and I hated doing all the work for them. I didn’t mind doing all the work, but I hated the freeloaders getting a grade that I earned them, that they couldn’t have gotten without me – because it was unjust, and even worse, the pricks were never grateful enough to stop picking on me.

So what does my classroom look like? It’s fun; we discuss and tell stories; I love my subject and I show that to my students. And there is never, ever, any groupwork, and there are only worksheets when I’m angry and want to punish them. Other than vocabulary. I loved vocabulary. And silent reading, though that doesn’t work very well, since my students don’t really love to read.

This is not merely an emotional reaction to our own childhood (though I think the power of that should never be discounted): there is logic in keeping what works and replacing what doesn’t. The only question remaining, and it’s a difficult one with education, is – how do you decide what works? And when something doesn’t, how do you get rid of it? Because letter grades, as I argued before, don’t work: they really don’t work when, as my friend pointed out, we use more modern assessment methods, like rubrics and working portfolios and the like, which clash with the overly simplistic letter grades.

The answer, I think, is that those things stay because the people making the decisions like them, and think they work just fine. Because most of the people in charge are the ones who won their spots on top of the heap because they work well within the current system, the same one they came up through. When our current politicians and superintendents were in school, they were popular; they were elected to class office; they had great GPAs because they wrote neat papers and did well on multiple-choice tests. They were proud of their A’s, and they remember fondly how happy their parents were when they got that report card at the end of the semester, how they called Grandma to brag, and posted the grade printout on the fridge with a magnet. (This also describes the majority of teachers, by the way.) Those people think that system works beautifully, and so long as it continues to produce people just like them, and reward those people for doing those specific things well, then they will continue to believe the system works well. And as long as the system puts people like that into positions of authority, they will keep making the same decisions; and as long as people keep thinking that certain things have to be the way they’ve always been – as long as we keep telling our students, and they keep believing, that grades are a valid means of figuring out how well or how poorly one is doing in a class, and as long as we keep thinking of an A as a reward and an F as a punishment, and telling our students that they have to do the work in order to get the grade, the system will remain in place. I really don’t think the commercial education industry (which is the other major driving force behind changes in education, though that is only partly for the sake of improving what doesn’t work, with the other half coming from what is most profitable) cares at all about letter grades. But my students’ parents certainly do. So here we are.

And here I am. Facing the truth: that I don’t want either a traditional Victorian or a modern loft: I want a castle. On top of the Cliffs of Insanity, with a pirate ship docked below. I don’t want the past, or the future – I want the fantastic. I want the epic. I want the legendary.

I’m just not sure where to find it.

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