Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Ideas about education: An exercise in oxymoronicism

So, just for a little background, I'm taking an undergraduate course this semester. This was a bit of a mistake and I knew it would be, since I'm better off in a seminar-style course with a lot of excited discussion, and have been ever since I was an undergrad. Being totally burned out on school has not exactly helped. But I wanted to take a course on postmodern literature, and there's a dearth at the graduate level.

In Monday's class (I would have blogged this earlier, but see the previous post on publishing issues), the professor took a minute to discuss the potential harmfulness of across-the-board relativism. This, I am totally in favor of. I noticed a trend towards ending an argument with relativism in my senior year of college, and I hated it. My anthropology class, for instance, had an online discussion forum (quite ahead of its time), which allowed us to talk about things we hadn't gotten to in class or have additional discussion about class issues. Someone mentioned Scientology in class, and this was followed up on the forum by a lot of posts along the lines of "well who are we to say they're a cult" and "but if it's true for them..." Of course my response involved links to some definitions of "cult" and a few choice sentences about how WORDS MEAN THINGS. I don't believe that every thought is equally valid, and I can't stand it when people try to use that "logic" to end or avoid an argument.

In my mind, the best example of relativism's dangers is intelligent design. The idea that we should "teach the controversy" requires the assumption that any crackpot cosmogeny must be put on an equal level with well-supported scientific theory -- it is this assumption that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster so beautifully exploits. Instead of ID, though, my postmodernism professor chose to discuss relativism by way of an article in the Post about a nearby Sudbury model school. (If you can read that page without choking up, you had a better education experience than I did.) The assertion was that such a school is relativist because it derails the idea of expert knowledge and puts childhood desires on the same level as adult obligations.

The students, as students are wont to do, picked up on the fact that they were meant to find this ridiculous, and got accordingly derisive. They'll be forced into creative jobs... support them for the rest of their lives... never learn how to function in the real world... play video games all day... my friend teaches at a Montessori school and the kids are monsters.... Non-standard jobs were maligned, lack of enforced education was equated with discipline problems, and overall the students showed themselves to be true believers in the idea of education as a way of racking up employability points. At one point, a kid who I'd assumed to be quite bright said "What am I talking about, we're English majors, we'll never get jobs." I told him that was 100% false. Call me a relativist.

But of course, in a certain sense the kids were right, because if you didn't tell them what to study they really would play video games (or drink) all day. Learning is an obligation that they seek to be released from; the same students who snicker that Sudbury kids can't function in the real world complain about having to read, having to write, having to think. My comp students resent learning how to structure an argument, because for god's sake they're going to be engineers and how does this relate to what they care about. One of my lit students doesn't like literature because the characters aren't enough like him, so how can he relate? Others complain that they used to enjoy reading, but college "ruined it forever." Who's the real discipline problem -- a kid who goes to chemistry class but feels comfortable asking questions and doesn't call his teacher "Mr." or "Ms.," or one who no longer knows how to want to learn? I know which one I'd rather raise.

And which one I'd rather have been. Maybe the problem is that these kids had idyllic educations, or maybe they're just average smart. But I'm not ashamed to say that I really needed gifted education, and not just one pull-you-out-of-class session a day. I spent my elementary years being pushed aside and neglected -- "go find your own vocabulary words" -- and without my two shining years at the Program for the Highly Underserved by Regular Education and two summers at the Center for Badly Disaffected Youth, I would have dropped out well before I hit college. True, we still got grades in Ms. Lakomy's amazing 6th grade class, but we also spent our days inventing things; or doing lateral thinking puzzles; or making, burying, and digging up artifacts. At CTY things were more regimented, but we were only there in the first place because we wanted to learn, so we never resented doing our homework (Laura, you can correct me on this if I'm being too rose-colored, but I remember sitting in the Star Trek Room doing sorites, silently, and kinda loving it, even though I would have relished an extra hour of Mandatory Fun). All I needed, all we needed, was for someone to assume that we didn't have to be bullied into learning. And to believe that education wasn't all about priming us for acceptable, lucrative jobs.

Which is why, when I first found out about the Sudbury Valley school in 8th grade, I wanted to go there so badly my teeth hurt. Imagine being given freedom over what you learned, being treated like someone who's qualified to make such choices! Imagine getting to study subjects that weren't on any standardized test, just because you wanted to! Because I wanted to. And I don't think it's wrong to imagine that I was the only one. In the end, the Sudbury model is a little too hands-off, a little too hippyish, mostly because I doubt it will attract qualified science teachers, which will lead to a lopsided education. And it certainly wouldn't work for everyone. But in my mind, it's a few hundred miles better than the other end of the spectrum, the end where most public schools live.

Kids who are given freedom over their school day will only play video games 24/7 if they have come to think of learning as a chore. And I'm not saying that the concept of expertise should be fully eroded, or that a teacher shouldn't have a certain amount of guaranteed respect just because they know more, but I don't see that treating a child more like an adult is the same as treating adults more like children. I don't know any teachers I've respected more than Ms. Lakomy; Brian and Aeon and Jonathan at CTY; Mr. Donaldson who had us study history of science by designing water clocks; Bill Oram who led my mindblowing five-person Faerie Queene seminar. The teachers who acted as though, given a choice, we might still be there, wanting to know more.

Smart kids deserve more credit, and I think that if all kids got more credit, more kids would be smart. Maybe I'm making the mistake my family so often accuses me of making -- maybe I'm assuming that everyone is like me. Maybe students shouldn't be given more freedom across the board; maybe some of them need to see high school as something you endure so you can go to college which is something you endure to get a career which is something you endure to get money to retire on. But that seems joyless to me, and I know from observing my students (who are smart and dedicated and hate college and just want to get through it so they can make some money) that it will lead to a generation that doesn't value knowledge, that sees creative jobs as a burden, that believes your worth is determined by your salary. I don't want to teach those students. I'm glad I narrowly escaped being one.


Laura said...

Yeah, I think everyone secretly loved study time, for a couple of reasons:
--We were genuinely interested in the topics.
--We knew that the next day, we would have an awesome day of class that dealt with what we read.
I mean, we were doing logic puzzles and truth tables, or we were talking about perception and thinking about Brian shoving cotton up his nose. Class time was really fun, and that made homework something to get excited about--maybe like doing exercise that you know is going to soon let you go on an awesome bike trip. It had a purpose that was directly related to curiosity and pleasure, two elements that fundamentally underlie love of learning.

Also that Star Trek Foom was pretty cool.

4/26/2006 10:38 PM  
jess said...

Also remember how if you were fast enough, you could get to sit on the windowsill in the IPSY room?

The thing that I can't get my head around, and this is why my opinions on this topic are far from unbiased, is this: Some people don't consider logic puzzles and truth tables to be fun, and if given the choice, would choose not to do them. Now, this isn't always about education; Dan doesn't really like logic puzzles, because he's so good at solving practical problems -- he'd rather figure out how to rig up an antenna that will allow him to work the Azores on 40 meters than find out whether all of Lewis Carroll's dreams are about bath buns. But I'm talking about kids who would choose not to do the logic problems because they were homework.

As I remember, it just didn't occur to us at CTY to imagine that class shouldn't be riotously fun. Which is not to say that I never had that opinion -- the reason I didn't go to CTY earlier was that I was so burned out on 7th grade that I couldn't imagine having fun with learning again. It took Mr. Donaldson's physics and geometry classes to snap me out of it. Who knows... without CTY I might not have gone to Smith (what good is a liberal arts education for getting you a job?), and might basically have had the joyless, calculating approach to education that I see in most of my students. A little credit is a marvellous thing.

Also, Star Trek Foom.

4/26/2006 10:51 PM  
Anna said...

My own personal bias on this topic is that I went to a very good school which I absolutely hated. CTY wasn't exactly filling an intellectual gap for me, though I had some great classes there. I just wanted more I guess, and cooler things like Psychology and Writing and Society rather than, say, Language Arts. But if I'm really going to be honest, the principal draw of CTY was the social reorganization that put nerds on top. That and the fact that I knew it represented my best chance of getting laid before college.

4/28/2006 1:05 PM  
jess said...

That and the fact that I knew it represented my best chance of getting laid before college.

This is of course an excellent point, and true even for those of us who didn't go to school solely with members of a sex we weren't attracted to. Wow, hadn't thought about how crucial good education has been to my sex life. I had one non-CTY boyfriend in high school, but that was only because I was in a magnet program.

You've pretty much put your finger on why I get so exercised over these issues... I do want an education system where nerds rule, or more accurately where wanting to know stuff actually isn't considered nerdy. Because that's really what it was at CTY -- it wasn't like the dorks were ruling the roost, it was just that we didn't think there was anything wrong with liking logic problems, or reciting "Jabberwocky" at the lunch table, or reading when you didn't have to, or singing "aleph null bottles of beer on the wall" (I still think that's funny). It wasn't a liability like it was most places. And I feel like it wouldn't be such a liability of education weren't made so generally unpleasant for most people -- if it were more malleable, more voluntary, and more fun, it might be considered more reasonable to engage in it of your own volition.

But I might well be getting my causality wrong.

4/28/2006 2:33 PM  
jess said...

By the way, I was going to have a parenthetical after "it wasn't like dorks were ruling the roost" saying "remember [guy's name]?" But then I couldn't remember his name. What was that one guy's name? You know who I mean.

4/28/2006 2:35 PM  
Laura said...

the principal draw of CTY was the social reorganization that put nerds on top.

IMO, that's a big part of what made class fun--no one was posturing or pretending that it somehow wasn't cool to get excited about sorites.

Man, I so did not get nooky at CTY. But that's what marching band was for, I guess.

4/28/2006 10:36 PM  
Anna said...

Let me clarify: CTY represented my best chance, but I utterly failed to capitalize on that opportunity.

Something I meant to post the first time but forgot was that learning at CTY wasn't tied to reward and punishment. That made a big difference. The whole concept of nerds is based on the idea of turning success derogatory. That was sort of irrelevant there, because there was no need to put other people down to defend ones own performance.

4/29/2006 8:27 PM  

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