Thursday, April 15, 2010

Man vs. The Machine

I just read this article about education reform at If you're not going to read it yourself, let me share the gist: our attempts at education reform (higher public school spending, vouchers, charter schools, magnets, etc.) have not lead to increased overall performance.

But this is America! We practically INVENTED progress! How could it be that we cannot come up with a workable solution that will make all of our kids test-acers and over-achievers! This just isn't possible! Everyone should be SMART, and everyone should be smart IN THE SAME WAY! That's how you build a nation of successful people!

My basic argument is that the fact that we even see this as a problem is a sign of our real problem. Modern thinking is that people should be like robots, and there is only one right worldview on what it means to be "successful." When I initially started thinking about why the idea that there has to be some way to turn us all into standardized test-acers rubs me wrong, my own argument made me sound like an elitist asshole who believes in a free market aristocracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I think it's true that some people are just naturally better at certain things than others and there's really no hope for changing this by influential degrees either way, that argument reads a lot different than it's meant. Why? Because I think that the real problem isn't that people are different and there's not a lot we can do about that. The real problem is that we live in a society that sees these differences as weaknesses.

Case in point: me. I'm bad at math. I'm unbelievably bad at math. My boyfriend will write down a list of amounts of money that I owe him for bills, and I'll add them up. Then, when I show him the piece of paper upon which lies my sum, he'll look at me bewildered and say, "Where did you get THAT number?" I'll be $30 for no reason. It's addition. People who are not tall enough to ride carnival rides can do it with no effort. I spent the greater part of my work day today (7 hours) trying to add numbers and coming up with a different sum every single time I added them. I consider the parabola my arch enemy. (Get it? Parabola? Arch? It's a math joke, so I could be off.) When I was in school, I had to rely on the kindness of teachers who were very understanding of my difficulties and liked me enough to let me retake the tests over and over until I at least passed. They knew I wasn't going to be building an entire life around this stuff. It wasn't like my poor math skills were going to be a danger to anyone. One teacher even told me when I was retaking an Algebra test for the third time that Einstein failed Algebra.

I'm pretty sure this is the only reason Algebra didn't lead to my committing suicide.

No amount of "good teaching" will ever change my math deficiency. I don't even really consider it a deficiency. It's just the way I am. I am a non-linear thinker. I look at most things from every angle. In math, there's one right way to do things. There's a point A and a point B, and you're supposed to go straight from one to the other. My mind cannot handle this. I think it's a dumb way to do things. I believe ANYTHING is possible. It's easy to see why this doesn't reconcile with the way addition works. Reconcile! Addition! I could make puns all night. You could send me to a charter school, give me a voucher, throw money at my education from all sides, and still I'd be horrible at math. My head is still in shock from today's 7 hour add-a-thon.

But when I was in college, the teacher once came to the answer 1066 for an equation. He asked, "And what happened in 1066?" I was the only one who raised my hand. "The Norman invasion!" I'm not completely useless after all.

I believe in the idea of multiple intelligences. Different people have different intelligences. Looking at this list, I'd say I'm verbally and existentially intelligent. In other words, that's how I see the world, therefore making it my strength. It's not good or bad--it just is what it is. "Gardner's theory argues that intelligence, particularly as it is traditionally defined, does not sufficiently encompass the wide variety of abilities humans display." When you standardize learning and what are considered successful outcomes for that learning, you ignore the way the natural world really works. We do this in the name of supposed progress, but what would cause far more progress would be to be open to the idea that everyone has strengths, and they're different for a reason. Nurture each child's strengths. That's what will really change the American educational system for the better.

This issue is extremely nuanced. There isn't just the problem of intelligences. There's the issue of temperament. A person could be very intelligent in some way but also have a very sensitive disposition, causing him or her to experience stress to such a degree that he or she cannot work as much for the same length of time as people with a higher tolerance to stress, for example. And there are environmental factors at play. Do the child's parents talk to him or her on a regular basis? Does he or she live in a poor neighborhood or an affluent one? And why is there such a disparity in what people are paid for different types of work? There is an idea in this country that intelligence is good, therefore "mentally taxing" jobs often pay much higher than physically taxing ones. But why should this be so? I would argue that it's just the idea we latched onto at some point long ago. It's arbitrary, really, what we value in this case. All of these factors and more are the reasons that I cannot wrap my mind around how we could possibly believe that there even could be one standard for measuring educational and, ultimately, life success, let alone why there should be one.

If there's one thing I've noticed through the course of my life, it's that whenever a single standard is set, things become hopelessly inefficient and unnecessarily hard. A lot of time goes into trying to herd people to the standard, and this is inefficient and hard because many people rightfully can't or don't want to go there. In all actuality, I don't see "low test scores" as a problem at all. People fail at things. People do well at other things--many of which aren't even considered part of the standard because our society has lost all respect for that which does not make you money. Are you a good friend? Who cares? The robot has love for no one. He can work and produce ad infinitum, making things and more things without analyzing this action. There is an idea that the robot is a perfect being.

But people are not robots, and I can't imagine why we'd want to be.

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