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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Inadequacy by Design

The most recent picture of our grand-daughter, Beatriz, shows me a little girl who does not want to go to school. I don't blame her. I didn't much want to go to school myself. I skipped school a lot when I was growing up, right up to the 15 day per term limit. I even skipped so much kindergarten that the teacher, a friend of my mother's, suggested I wasn't ready for school. (In my family, this is referred to as "when Mary flunked kindergarten.") There were a lot of reasons to dislike school -- algebra, jocks, assemblies -- but most of all it was the mind-numbing dullness of the whole institution.

The tedium of schools is ironic. Enter "engage students" into Google, and you'll get about 25 million hits. Everyone wants students to be engaged so they will in turn learn their skills, be able to locate and apply information, and think critically about the world they live in. What's more, we have learned a great deal about teaching and learning. Numerous teaching approaches and strategies actually do engage students and support critical thinking.The problem is that schools weren't designed to encourage thinking to begin with. Here's a little history:

In 1892, the Democratic Party adopted a platform plank to ban factory employment for children under 15. This was the same year that Ellis Island opened in response to staggeringly high numbers of immigrants. The question was, if all these immigrant children are coming and we can't put most of them in factories, what do we do with them? The answer was, "Get them ready to be good factory employees." Have you never wondered about the school system's obsession with punctuality? School bell or factory bell, we want students to be on time. What about following instructions? Waiting to be called on? Sound like good training for a factory worker? It's no accident. By 1892, they were reading the handwriting on the blackboard.

1892 was also the year the Committee of Ten, chaired by Harvard's president Charles William Eliot, was formed to standardize the curriculum of high schools in preparation for the onslaught of  immigrant children. Eliot argued that the purpose of education was to prepare students for their “evident and probable destinies in life.” Children of factory workers should be educated as if that were their destiny. Children of more elevated parents, typically enrolled in private academies or studying under a tutor rather than attending public schools, would continue to be educated for a variety of possibilities.

Although the demographics have changed, schools are much the same as they were in the 19th century, despite access to iPads and the Internet. The most recent major legislation affecting schools was No Child Left Behind, and its effects were just as insidious as those of the Committee of Ten. Whatever its intentions, the effect of NCLB was to honor standardized testing above any other measure of success -- which meant that teachers were focusing on regurgitation rather than thinking. Further, NCLB didn't seek excellence. Rather, the goal for each school was adequate yearly progress. Adequate!

In whose interest is this subtle campaign against thought? I would guess the same as it was in 1892. The factory owners of yesterday are the 1% of today. A thinking populace is not in the best interests of those who would maintain their elite status. Those who think are inclined to protest. Those in power attempt to put them in their places. As Carl Gibson notes in a recent article, "The recent Black Friday mobs of consumers pitching tents in parking lots and rioting over $2 waffle irons were met with silence from the police." Yet pitching tents on public property and protesting peacefully merit pepper spray and billy clubs. The difference? One group showed up punctually to follow a marketing campaign's instructions. The other group? It was just saying No.

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  1. Mary, I must return to read this more thoroughly. What strikes me is that I somehow had to repeat kindergarten. I guess I didn't get why we had to string all those beads.

  2. Or color the squares red and the circles blue...

  3. Very good job on the blog. As a teacher who was lucky enough to work with unique students either one on one or in small groups, I know how it should work and that for most it doesn't. It certainly didn't for me.

    And as I have said many times, it is easy to be a crappy teacher and VERY hard to be a good one.

  4. Thanks, JD. I know many good teachers, but they have to be subversive to get the job done.