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Pop Cult Epiphanies

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I suppose the real news is that fall is definitely coming.  This is the second day in a row I’ve woken up to find myself cold enough to want the heat on.  I haven’t actually put the heat on, mind you.  I’ve got some deep seated ideological resistance to putting the heat on before October. And later in the day, the air will warm up enough for me to want the air conditioner.

Still, just a week ago I’d come downstairs and wait the air on as fast a I could get the machine to work. 

So the term has started, the weather is cooler in the mornings, and I’m reading a book by a man who has always seen a great many similarities between the student unrest in Weimar and the student unrest in the US in the Sixties.

I’ve started getting up very early and going to bed very early and being nearly catatonic by midafternoon. 

Lately, I’ve been catatonic while watching a little movie called The Blind Side, which is one of those things based on a true story, and based on one whose main characters are all still living.

It would be something to consider, I think, just how close to reality we need things “based on a true story” to be, but for right now, I want to take the story in this movie as if it were completely real, because it’s made me think about something.

For those of you who have never seen it, The Blind Side is the story of  how a homeless black teenager named Michael Oher was taken in by the (very) well-off family of Sean and Leigh Ann Tuohy, shepherded through high school, helped through college and–well.

These days, Michael Oher is an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. 

I could use this story to go on a rant about the way we require people who are good at playing football and want to play football to suffer their way through college just to get a chance to play professionally, but there’s something else going on here.

If the movie is to be believed, Michael Oher only managed to make the minimal high school grade point average to be eligible for college football scholarships because the Tuohys provided him with a tutor, and he only maintained his eligibility at the University of Mississippi because the Tuohys paid for that same tutor through all four  years, including providing her with an apartment near campus.

In other words, Michael Oher was extremely talented athletically, but he was not talented at all academically.  In an everyday world, he might have stumbled through school with a D average and then out into the world to flip burgers.  In fact, athletic talent or not, that’s almost certainly what would have happened to him if the Tuohys hadn’t found him, assuming he managed to finish high school at all.

The Tuohys did find him, however, and the tutoring did work.   Oher even made the Dean’s list at Mississippi at least once. 

The chances are good that other kids, given that kind of intense tutoring, could learn at at least the same level. 

But lacking the athletic ability, or some other kind of talent, that would learn at that level in order to end up flipping the same burgers they would have flipped without it. 

Would it therefore make any sense for us to teach it to them, to push them until they reached a standard they could never reach without pushing and that they would almost certainly fall away from as their lives went out?

One of the things about discussions of schools and learning is that we all of us–no matter what side of the issues we’re on–tend to tacitly assume that the major function of education is sorting.  We separate smart people from less smart ones and shuffle them each off to their proper spheres of life.

This tacit assumption is the same for the people who want to maintain standards and allow a lot of kids to just plain fail, and for the people who know that if standards are maintained a lot of kids will fail and who therefore want to lower or corrupt the standards. 

For all the yelling and screaming about whether kids can find the United States on a globe or write a standard English sentence or divide 4,954 by 72, all we are really talking about is sorting, and how it ought to be done.

What if, instead of doing that, we do for every kid–and I mean every kid, not just “disadvantaged” ones or ones with “learning disabilities”–what the Tuohys did with Michael Oher. 

If there is some intrinsic worth to the information we want children and adolescents to learn in schools and colleges–if the standards they are asked to meet have some point beyond giving us a handy little tool to judge them , why aren’t we making sure that all children learn it, whether they’re academically gifted or not?

This would, of course, require a lot more than the kinds of “accommodations” now required under various forms of education policy. 

And it would cost a lot of money.

And if we mean “everyone,” then some children would be using that tutoring time to start learning differential equations in eighth grade or to read Moby Dick in fifth.

What I am suggesting here is not a plan for reducing inequality of results among students.  It might even exacerbate them, as children with higher levels of talent would almost certainly find themselves in a position to outpace their slower classmates even more than they do now.

But if we actually think it’s important for people to know how to do long division and what caused the War of 1812, then maybe we should do whatever it takes to get them to know it. 

And yes, I know that’s what all the educational reform projects say they’re trying to do, but it isn’t what they’re actually doing. 

It’s not even what they’re trying to do. 

A Michael Oher would never be able to sit in a classroom, absorb a bunch of information and then regurgitate it.  It doesn’t matter what kind of pedagogy is on offer, or how good his teacher is. 

Some students are simply not going to get it without truly heroic, and intensely i ndividualized, kinds of help.

The question is–does it make any sense to give it to them?  Is the content of the material we want them to learn valuable in and of itself, even if it doesn’t lead to a “good job” or a college education?

Will their lives be better in some way if they learn these things?  Will our lives be better in some way if they learn these things?

What is it we’re actually trying to do here?

Written by janeh

September 11th, 2012 at 7:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Pop Cult Epiphanies'

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  1. If you watch NFL football, you’ll see that an increasing number of players come from a high-school instead of a college. The colleges themselves discourage this (by offering scholarships to otherwise academically ineligible people) because they serve as the NFL’s minor-league teams, and in doing so, reap millions of dollars per college per year. There has been quite a lot of noise about the fact that the players themselves are the only ones not making any money from this arrangement. The few who graduate with meaningful degrees would have done so without football. The rest get through (if they do) with phys ed degrees and the careful understanding that actually learning anything other than the playbook is optional.

    But the NFL has woken to the fact that many of their best prospects don’t make it through their four or five years of college uninjured, and never get to play the bigs. These guys have a short shelf-life, most of them. So they recruit right out of high-school. Or before the end of high-school, but really most guys that age aren’t physically mature enough to take the pounding of NFL play.

    As to the intrinsic value to everyone of teaching the “important stuff” to the academically challenged, if the premise is that we actually desire an informed populace, I don’t think you can doubt it. What I’d like to see in addition to the hard facts and cultural literacy is a big emphasis on critical thinking, leading into lateral thinking, with a side dish of basic statistics.

    Obviously, we cannot afford the kind of one-to-one teacher/student ratio you’re talking about to impart all this to those who don’t absorb well in traditional classrooms. It took a good part of a wealthy family’s resources to do it for one kid.

    I suspect that what we’re actually trying to do here has very little to do with what we SAY we’re doing.


    11 Sep 12 at 11:44 am

  2. In fairness to Michel Oher, the book makes it clear that he was ignorant, not stupid. His schools didn’t care whether or not he showed up, and didn’t try to teach him when he did. Most of us, were we headed off to college for about our third year of formal education, could use a little extra help. But that’s not the point.

    In general terms, I’m in favor of working hard at kids’ education for about 12 years. By that time, they ought to know what they’re good at and what interests them. If they don’t, they should probably avoid paying tuition until they figure it out.

    The problem is that as described, it’s pretty open-ended. I’m not sure there’s any extra effort which won’t yield SOME additional education. But wealth has to be created and saved, and time and energy is not infinite. At some point, you’re saying to a taxpayer “we think little Johnny can master quadratic equations with a little more help. To pay for that help, you have to work two more years.” That may be a bad bargain even if little Johnny wants to learn quadratic equations. If he doesn’t and has no use for them, it’s insane.

    (I would, incidentally, check every politician who speaks of “investing in education” to make sure they understand the concept of “return on investment” and send the failures back to school. If they can’t learn, it will at least keep them out of public office.)

    It’s also not cost-free from the kid’s point of view. A special Ed teacher told me once that the most heart-breaking thing she experienced was bright parents with a damaged child pushing him right to his limits. By the day he’d mastered telling time at great effort, he’d forgotten how to count.

    But that’s all of us. Looking back, most of high school was spent teaching me things I haven’t used since. Yes, if I gave up reading for pleasure and working to save money for college, they might have pushed me through 20 more books of the English Literary Canon and another year of math–but it would have been a very poor trade. (I might never have read again for pleasure, for instance. It happens.)

    And what do we teach them, anyway, and who is the “we” who decides?

    I’d say a geat effort should be made to teach every child what they need to learn in order to support themselves, even in the cases where it might be cheaper to pay them welfare. And I’m not opposed to laws and customs which make sure there are jobs doing something for the least able. It’s called the dignity of honest labor, which is not a term I’ve heard much lately.

    Normally, I’d say the child should learn the bedrock principles and traditions of his civilization and nation. I think that’s what Jane means by being “good in itself.” But that’s precisely what’s in dispute at the moment. It’s not something I’d let the educational establishment decide, and you can’t make them teach something they disagree with. So in formal educational terms, we’re stuck. We’re going to have to see to that as families, clans, denominations and parties.

    But when the fuss is over and somebody’s won, it goes back in the curriculum.

    In general, yes: decide what the kids ought to learn, prioritize, and push hard to see they learn it. If they can handle more, work on that too. But remember there are trade-offs involved.


    11 Sep 12 at 4:59 pm

  3. And just to make everyone feel better about the product of the modern American education system, there is this:


    No wonder sane people despair about the drivel that passes for much “climate science”.


    12 Sep 12 at 1:34 am

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