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Yes! Given the Chance, I Cause Even More Confusion

with 5 comments

One of the fascinating things about writing this blog is the way in which, thinking I’m being perfectly clear, I suddenly realize that I haven’t managed to get my point across at all.

Those of you who posted after the last entry tended to concentrate on things like students who want to be carpenters or plumbers, or students who want to drop out at sixteen.

But I wasn’t talking about students like that.

I was talking about intellectually gifted students who want to go on to be historians, philosophers and lawyers.

I was saying that I  didn’t think the centrality of schools was good for them.

Actually, I more and more believe that it isn’t good for anybody, but we’ll get to that later.

I agree with Cheryl that there are certainly people out there whose behavior is so extreme that it might call for a mental health diagnosis, or even some intervention by professionals, although part of me says that the meaning of freedom is in being allowed to go to hell in you own handbasket.

But the kind of thing I’ve been talking about–the medicalizing of children who don’t “fit” the school’s (or their parents’) perceived notions of what they’re “supposed” to be like–occurs not with kids at the lower end of the intellectual scale, but kids at the upper end.

A kid with an IQ of 140 who thinks his classwork is endless, boring, and stupid and doesn’t bother to do the little make work homework because he’d much rather be playing Grand Theft Auto or writing his own screenplay is the kid who gets hit with Ritalin.

And if he’s writing his own screenplay, he’s likely to get hit as well with worries that he’s “psychotic” or “delusional” or possibly “schizophrenic.”  I don’t know what it is about certain of the “helping professions,” but they seem to attract a remarkably high percentage of people with no imagination at all, people who have never done things like heard music in a woodpecker’s peck or seen an elaborate picture in the way the branches of a tree have fallen to the ground after a storm.

What’s more, I’m more and more at a loss to see how traditional schools benefit intellectually gifted children.  Hell,  I’m more and more at a loss to see how they benefit much of anybody, with the exception of that small gruup that enjoys sucking up to authority.

In  my own field–talking literature as an academic discipline here–I have watched English classes in elementary and high schools disintegrate over the years into…well, I don’t know what it is exactly that these people think they’re doing.

Robert complains about being given Silas Marner, but I would kill to have my sons assigned something like that in “English” class.  What they get instead is one trendy book after another–“adventure” memoirs, stories about contemporary teens taking drugs or getting pregnant, and usually one or two volumes to satisfy “diversity” requirements. 

What’s more, what they’re then expected to do with these books is just silly, if not worse.  There’s some point in asking about Lear’s motivations in giving his estate to his daughters and their husbands.   There’s little point in asking about the “symbolism” of the mountain in some memoir about two guys who decide they’re going to climb a dangerous peak even though they know they are going into avalanche conditions.   Once you get past “I can’t believe they were stupid enough to do that” and “if this guy is so conflicted about his relationship with his father that he’s going to put himself and forty people on a rescue squad in mortal danger, he needs psychotropic drugs,” there really isn’t much to say.

If I was going to design a high school curriculum for English, I’d start by assigning The Iliad, Gilgamesh, Beowulf and a few other things along those lines, and then I’d talk about why poetry was the medium of choice in the ancient world and why it isn’t any more.   Then I’d move on to Chaucer and Dante and Shakespeare. Then I’d give a year of American literature that would include James Fenimore Cooper and Twain’s critique of him, John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth  Longfellow, all the way on up to Hemingway and Faulker and, yes, even Poe.

And I’d make sure the papers I assigned were long, required documentation, and dealth with subjects that made some difference in the reading of the work.

But I’m not much happier with the teaching of history, and I think I could design a better curriculum for that, too–let’s say take A People’s History of the United States AND A Patriot’s History of the United States and read them together, talking about point of view and the biases involved in the inclusion and exclusion of material and in the weight of the analyses.  

At the end of a course like the one above, you’d at least know the basic facts of America history and have been introduced to the dialogue on how to interpret that history, a dialogue that has been going on for as long as we’ve been a country. 

What seems to happen in schools, these days, is that students are assigned a course–“English” or “European History After 1815*–they’re given a smattering of material, graded on whether they do what the teacher wants them to do with that material, and then considered by everybody (including colleges) to have “studied” it and to “know” it.

As far as I know, the only students being held to account for whether or not they actually know this material are the ones being homeschooled, because, lacking the automatic credentialing system provided by schools, they have to produce some proof of what they’re supposed to have learned.

If, therefore, what we want is for students to actually know some particular things by the time they get to university–why is this the system we’re using?  The universities know that the students they admit don’t usually know the things their transcripts say they’re supposed to, but it’s as if we’re all in a dance whose steps were set so long ago nobody dares to question their validity.

I’m not advocating abolishing schools.  Certainly, as Lymaree says, they ones we have now serve other functions that parents might want to avail themselves of.

What I’d suggesting is removing the school as the default mode–the “normal” path–for learning. 

Rather, let’s find a way for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned–English, history, philosophy, math–right up to university level, no matter how they’ve managed to learn it.

When  I was seventeen,  I had never taken a course in medieval literature, but I could read middle English, I’d made y way through The Canterbury Tales in the original, I’d read a ton of stuff on  Christian iconography in the works of Geoffrey  Chaucer, and I could probably have passed a college course in the subject in my sleep.

But since I had never taken a “course,” it was assumed by everybody and anybody that I didn’t really know anything about the “subject,” and of course in college I had to sit through a semester of this stuff just to get a grade to “prove” I knew it.

I want to eliminate the semester.  I want to find a way to render schools just one of many options for ALL  students, maybe especially the ones on their way to university. 

It’s intellectually gifted students who are in the most danger from the therapeutically oriented regime now in place in most schools, both because they just don’t think like other people, and because a certain subset of them just isn’t inclined to put up with too much bullshit.

Written by janeh

March 14th, 2009 at 8:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Yes! Given the Chance, I Cause Even More Confusion'

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  1. Granted that gifted students aren’t well-served by time spent in schools doing the same work, at the same pace, as non-gifted kids.

    Allowing “testing out” of all sorts of skills and knowledge areas puts the power in the hands of the test-makers and test-graders, though. Are you sure you want to do that? Does each state/district get to construct their own tests, since you don’t like centralized curricula? If so, how does the Middle-English test in Texas stack up against the Middle-English test in Nebraska?

    If we go to standardized tests like the APs, doesn’t that then mandate that actual courses given also be standardized across the nation?

    And can any test given in a reasonable testing environment really present a full picture of knowledge gained?? Someone (gifted) who crammed could easily pass a test, and someone who knew the subject in depth could as well. Except how do you distinguish between cram-and-forget, and really-know-it?

    Well, I have more to say but I’m traveling from Key West to Los Angeles today, and have to run.


    14 Mar 09 at 9:18 am

  2. If you’re going to use “The Iliad” or “Beowulf” with high school students, they had better be prepared for literature of that ilk. Elementary and especially middle school reading and/or literature books are far more interested in works that deal with social issues than in thought-provoking, standard classical works. There is little by way of challenge in these works . . . not in the reading, the understanding, or the interpretation.

    And we wonder why our high school seniors graduate with a 5th grade reading level! Heck, that’s why so many states have abandoned the standard achievement tests (ITBS, CAT, etc.) and have written their own. I tell you, it sure made our state look a lot smarter when that happened 20+ years ago.

    There are private and parochial schools that are making their way back to classical education, but don’t expect that from the public school system.


    14 Mar 09 at 3:32 pm

  3. Jane wrote If I was going to design a high school curriculum for English, I’d start by assigning The Iliad, Gilgamesh, Beowulf and a few other things along those lines, and then I’d talk about why poetry was the medium of choice in the ancient world and why it isn’t any more. Then I’d move on to Chaucer and Dante and Shakespeare. Then I’d give a year of American literature that would include James Fenimore Cooper and Twain’s critique of him, John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, all the way on up to Hemingway and Faulker and, yes, even Poe.”

    I was a gifted student but that curriculum would have driven me up the wall. Hemingway and Faulkner might have been OK, but not Beowulf.

    There are many ways to be “gifted” and being interested in literature doesn not imply an interest in science or vice versa.

    On the other hand, I was reading university level soience books from the library while still in high school.


    14 Mar 09 at 6:42 pm

  4. I think I wasn’t gifted! I was often bored in school, but I STILL can’t read middle English!

    I do think that the curriculum could sometimes be more challenging – but as sarahartburn says, you probably won’t be doing that kind of work with students out of the present K-8 system.

    In the old days, even before courses, bright students were allowed to skip grades. The system I went through stopped doing that – it was said to screw up the students’ social development- some years back, but later introduced courses which theoretically should let better students progress faster – although scheduling constraints in small schools made that impossible. Then came online courses for rural students – depending on how they’re set up, they can be asynchronous, allowing anyone to take them regardless of their schedule, although the ones I knew of at an early stage of their introduction weren’t. And there used to be isolated cases of post-secondary institutions allowing people to challenge the final exams in some course.

    So some things have been tried for the brighter students, even in areas in which there are not the numbers or resources for special classes or specialized high schools.


    14 Mar 09 at 7:46 pm

  5. Dear Lord,

    This probably is going to get me thrown off the blog…but are you out of your mind???? Giving this kind of stuff to high school kids…many of whom are so hormonially challenged they have trouble tying their shoes? For many their contact with ‘literature’ consists of text messaging and emails? Why would you through such a heavy weight blanket over them? Surely you would smother any spark of interest in reading.

    Now I’ve read most of you ‘curriculum’ and I don’t consider myself a dumb person and I certainly do love to read. But most of this is intellectually pretentious. The Iliad, which in my mind is vastly overrated (much like Citizen Kane to film buffs), is nothing but an oral rendition of Men Behaving Badly. What would be the purpose of such stuff? Maybe to 1 out of 50 some of it might resonate, but to the other 49 it would leave a bad taste that might take years to rinse. I ended up loving literature in college, but that was in spite of and not because of the assignments of ‘classics’ such as Silas Marner (ugh) and Julius Caeser.

    Me…I’d give kids stuff that was well written and interesting. My goal would be to have them want to read for enjoyment. there are a lot of very, very good contemporary writers out there who raise interesting issues in ways that captivate the reader and invite discussion. Although it is only my very humble opinion, Beowulf and Gilgamesh don’t fit that bill.

    Janet Lewis

    19 Mar 09 at 10:21 am

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