Saturday, April 28, 2007
It's Educational

I have to get up painfully early tomorrow and make the three-hour trip to Indianola, Mississippi, to do long interviews with one teacher and two high school kids, and then shoot as much B-roll as I can cram into what's left of my daylight. I'm really not looking forward to it, and yet I am. I always sort of dread this work in anticipation, but I know that once I actually get into it and find my groove, I'll enjoy it a lot.

The last time I interviewed teenagers (for this same project) it was pretty agonizing -- black teens aren't particularly inclined to speak freely and honestly to a 30-ish white woman they've never met before. So tomorrow I'm going to try a different approach: I'm making sure their teacher, with whom they've already established a rapport, is on hand, and I'll be experimenting with interviewing them together as well. The theory is that they'll have enough that's familiar around them to get them to open up a little bit. It won't be a terribly intimate or in-depth interview, obviously -- that can take months or years of relationship-building to pull off -- but if I can just get them to say more than three words at a time, I'll be thrilled.

I've spent most of a year now watching my main subjects change from college kids into teachers. I've gotten to spend a little time in each of their classrooms, and I've talked to them about what the job is actually like (as opposed to what they thought it would be like). I've spent more time thinking about the educational system in this last year than I have since I left high school myself. And if there's one thing of which I have become absolutely convinced, it's this: our system is completely and irrevocably fucked.

I always did very well in school. I don't think I ever once pulled off straight A's, but I was always (or almost always) highly regarded by my teachers, placed in honors classes and G&T programs, granted special privileges both explicit and implicit, offered access to every high-level academic exam, and placed at the proverbial head of every class without question. By and large I managed to do it without breaking a sweat (math and chemistry were the exceptions), in spite of changing high schools over and over and over again. I scored a 32 on the ACT, which was in the 99th percentile that year. I got special recognition and my share of awards, and during my senior year my previous rural high school treated my National Merit Semifinalist status like it was the second fucking coming -- I was the first the district had ever had. I was objectively a very bright girl. And yet, it always felt hollow to me. I didn't feel like a fraud (isn't that how insecure smart kids are supposed to feel?), but I felt like none of it meant much, really.

For one thing, I was only doing what I was told to do and nothing more, and it came easily for me, so it wasn't a big deal. Other kids worked much harder than me and were still written off as mediocre. Doubtless some of them really were, but not all of them were. I remember one boy who was in all remedial classes -- he was functionally illiterate and innumerate, but he could look at an engine and understand it instinctively; he was a genius when it came to mechanics. And yet I was the smart one and he was the slow one, only by virtue of differing talents. But what does my assumed intellectual talent mean when someone who's obviously as talented, in a different way, is written off as an inferior mind?

Sadly, the situation in which I came up was still far better than the one that exists now. The kids in the delta are given only one objective: pass standardized tests. Their teachers, who are mostly good, generous people who take a genuine interest in all of their students regardless of their talents or abilities, want very much to teach in the expansive, challenging way that I always most appreciated when I was young. But they're not allowed to teach that way, or not much. The teacher I'm filming tomorrow, for example, approached his principal with an idea for a program that he wanted to start for his students, and which he proposed to fund himself and run on his own time. The principal turned him down flat. He's brought in his own personal library for his students to read, since they have no school or public library to speak of available to them. He's trying to teach them, and he's trying to engage each of them as an individual, but that doesn't change the fact that for the most part all he's allowed to do is teach to the many tests through which he has to shepherd his many students.

School, according to this model, is at best training for an unsatisfying job in the future -- learn how to do whatever you have to do without complaining, even if you hate it -- and at worst a mere legal formality. How much talent is going unfulfilled in public school these days? Especially in these isolated rural towns where it's assumed that nobody will ever really amount to anything? Shouldn't the point of education be to find and nurture talent wherever it springs up, and not stamp it down in order to numb its possessor to a dead-end life? Isn't a standardized model, in which students are treated like mass-produced products going through quality control, the very antithesis of anything that might support talent?

The other thing that I can't help but notice is that of the most brilliant, talented people I know personally, the one thing most of them have in common is that they are not "educated" in the conventional sense. They are each and every one of them highly skilled and learned in their particular fields, and often objectively expert in spite of a lack of formal training, so I don't mean to suggest in any way that they aren't intellectually fully-realized. But none of that is the product of what we normally refer to as education. A number of them never graduated from high school; if they did, they never went to college, or never completed a degree. That's not to say that I don't know anyone with a degree (or three) who isn't as brilliant as them, or that every high school drop-out I know is so talented. That's not true at all. But the general pattern seems to confirm that our educational system doesn't foster brilliance and talent. More often, formal education seems to alienate it.

And that seems like a real tragedy. I've been lucky enough to come into contact with some really unconventional educational models, and while there's always a certain amount of "system" involved, and always a requirement that a given student conform to that system to some extent, I know that education doesn't have to be as restrictive as it usually is. I've always taken an interest in alternative models; I'm a big fan of self-guided education; I'm also supportive of unconventional students. The only thing I regret about my tertiary education is that I did most of it while I was still too young to really appreciate or make the most of it. College shouldn't be for recent high school graduates -- for my part, I'd like to see them all sent overseas for a few years, letting them get a feel for the world and their own adult selves before asking them to apply themselves to focused studies. AT 31, I'd love nothing more than to go back for a second BA -- this time in biology, maybe, or computer science. I'm good at studying effectively on my own, but there are some things that only a good teacher can impart. The fact that I don't feel like I have access to that as an adult (which is more down to financial considerations than intellectual ones) is, I think, an absolute shame.

If I had a kid, hypothetically speaking, I don't know what I'd do with them. Some of the most interesting people I've known were home-schooled -- not in the fundie Christian way, but in the loopy hippie way. I knew one girl in high school -- her name was Sage, and she smelled every bit of it -- who was a skilled silversmith at 16. That's fucking amazing; I'd love nothing more for any hypothetical kid of mine. But there are some significant drawbacks to home education -- for one thing, if it were my kid, that would mean I'd have to be home all day teaching them, and there's just no way that's going to happen. The other problem is that it seems much too insular. School is a place where you can come into contact with people who are different from you -- you can be challenged, you have to learn to deal with people you don't like, and hopefully you learn how to appreciate differences for their own sake. Home school, then, most often becomes a place where you can be protected from challenges, isolated from differences, and which confirms to you that whatever you believe is best. That's the very antithesis of education, in my opinion.

I'm intrigued by the Steiner-Waldorf model, but I'm also a little skeptical. If anything, it seems like home school writ large -- it leaves a lot of room for creativity and a child's natural interest, but on the other hand, sometimes it seems as thought the lack of pressure to follow an agenda just becomes pressure in the opposite direction. There seems to be a big dose of borderline woo involved in Waldorf -- the "four temperaments" thing is something to which I don't think I'd be comfortable subjecting a young kid. And a child is forbidden to start reading before age 7? That's just stupid -- if a kid can read before then, and wants to, obviously they should be encouraged. And I think a little bit of pressure to engage subjects you aren't necessarily drawn to is a good thing. I never wanted to study algebra, and left to my own devices I wouldn't have. But that doesn't mean I regret having done it. Math was the only thing in my education that actually made me stretch a little.

Or I could do what most of us do, and send the hypothetical kid to the local public school and hope that they're strong enough to keep their brilliance intact while they're there. The corollary, I believe, is that you also have to be willing to trust them to know what they really need, and sometimes formal education isn't on their agenda. I look at the brilliant drop-outs I know, and I respect their decision to leave; I get it, I understand. I was there myself once, fed-up and bored with a system that was demanding all my time and energy and offering me nothing in return. My last high school counselor told me in 1994 that I was one of only three national merit semifinalists that year to drop out of school, and the only girl to do so. She was trying to convince me to come back to school; instead, it just made me feel proud of what seemed at the time like the most meaningful thing I'd accomplished as an honors student; it certainly meant more to me that the diploma would have. It wasn't the end of formal education for me, but it was a hard break with the standard model, and I've never regretted it for a minute. I wish my entire education had been as unconventional.

I want to hear from the parents and teachers I know on this subject. I'm not a teacher, and I have no child to educate, so my opinions might be too detached from reality. How do you teach your kids, and how do you want your kids to be taught?
5:25 PM ::
Amy :: permalink