End the Insanity, Part One

“You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” —Col. George Taylor (Charlton Heston) in Planet of the Apes (1968)

I’m so goddamn angry and sick and tired of the nonsense being inflicted on school children that I feel like screaming. But it would be a helpless, existential scream, which would only make me angrier. It’s time for students and parents who are suffering from the idiocy of clueless politicians and bureaucrats to take matters into their own hands, to say, “Teach me something!” Instead of meekly acquiescing to the requirements of No Child Left Behind or to further budget cuts to schools, students and parents need to stand up and say, “No more!” and they should do it now.

It’s impossible not to be angry at people more interested in processing children like fish fillets or computer chips than educating them. (And FYI I do not mean teachers, but those who arrange to make it impossible to teach in any true sense: bureaucrats, numbers crunchers, data-driven heads of public school systems and the like.) It’s one thing to use data to determine things that can be data-derived; it’s another to treat children as data, as if they had no existence outside of that role.

In this scene from Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, a young Nicholas has arrived at Dotheboys Hall to begin a teaching appointment; the boys have just been fed a bowl of thin gruel with a tiny piece of bread in it. What he encounters in 1838 is appallingly familiar in 2010:

Nicholas distended his stomach with a bowl of porridge, for much the same reason which induces some savages to swallow earth – lest they should be inconveniently hungry when there is nothing to eat. Having further disposed of a slice of bread and butter, allotted to him in virtue of his office, he sat himself down, to wait for school-time.

He could not but observe how silent and sad the boys all seemed to be. There was none of the noise and clamour of a schoolroom; none of its boisterous play, or hearty mirth. The children sat crouching and shivering together, and seemed to lack the spirit to move about. The only pupil who evinced the slightest tendency towards locomotion or playfulness was Master Squeers [Mr. Squeers’s son], and as his chief amusement was to tread upon the other boys’ toes in his new boots, his flow of spirits was rather disagreeable than otherwise.

After some half-hour’s delay, Mr Squeers reappeared, and the boys took their places and their books, of which latter commodity the average might be about one to eight learners. A few minutes having elapsed, during which Mr Squeers looked very profound, as if he had a perfect apprehension of what was inside all the books, and could say every word of their contents by heart if he only chose to take the trouble, that gentleman called up the first class.

Obedient to this summons there ranged themselves in front of the schoolmaster’s desk, half-a-dozen scarecrows, out at knees and elbows, one of whom placed a torn and filthy book beneath his learned eye.

‘This is the first class in English spelling and philosophy, Nickleby,’ said Squeers, beckoning Nicholas to stand beside him. ‘We’ll get up a Latin one, and hand that over to you. Now, then, where’s the first boy?’

‘Please, sir, he’s cleaning the back-parlour window,’ said the temporary head of the philosophical class.

‘So he is, to be sure,’ rejoined Squeers. ‘We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a- n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of book, he goes and does it. It’s just the same principle as the use of the globes. Where’s the second boy?’

‘Please, sir, he’s weeding the garden,’ replied a small voice.

‘To be sure,’ said Squeers, by no means disconcerted. ‘So he is. B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, bottin, n-e-y, ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants. When he has learned that bottinney means a knowledge of plants, he goes and knows ’em. That’s our system, Nickleby: what do you think of it?’

‘It’s very useful one, at any rate,’ answered Nicholas.

‘I believe you,’ rejoined Squeers, not remarking the emphasis of his usher. ‘Third boy, what’s horse?’

‘A beast, sir,’ replied the boy.

‘So it is,’ said Squeers. ‘Ain’t it, Nickleby?’

‘I believe there is no doubt of that, sir,’ answered Nicholas.

‘Of course there isn’t,’ said Squeers. ‘A horse is a quadruped, and quadruped’s Latin for beast, as everybody that’s gone through the grammar knows, or else where’s the use of having grammars at all?’

‘Where, indeed!’ said Nicholas abstractedly.

‘As you’re perfect in that,’ resumed Squeers, turning to the boy, ‘go and look after MY horse, and rub him down well, or I’ll rub you down. The rest of the class go and draw water up, till somebody tells you to leave off, for it’s washing-day tomorrow, and they want the coppers filled.’

So saying, he dismissed the first class to their experiments in practical philosophy, and eyed Nicholas with a look, half cunning and half doubtful, as if he were not altogether certain what he might think of him by this time.

‘That’s the way we do it, Nickleby,’ he said, after a pause.

Nicholas shrugged his shoulders in a manner that was scarcely perceptible, and said he saw it was.

‘And a very good way it is, too,’ said Squeers. ‘Now, just take them fourteen little boys and hear them some reading, because, you know, you must begin to be useful. Idling about here won’t do.’

Mr Squeers said this, as if it had suddenly occurred to him, either that he must not say too much to his assistant, or that his assistant did not say enough to him in praise of the establishment. The children were arranged in a semicircle round the new master, and he was soon listening to their dull, drawling, hesitating recital of those stories of engrossing interest which are to be found in the more antiquated spelling-books.

In this exciting occupation, the morning lagged heavily on. At one o’clock, the boys, having previously had their appetites thoroughly taken away by stir-about and potatoes, sat down in the kitchen to some hard salt beef, of which Nicholas was graciously permitted to take his portion to his own solitary desk, to eat it there in peace. After this, there was another hour of crouching in the schoolroom and shivering with cold, and then school began again.

It’s significant that Squeers and his wife are running a scam, taking boys in and keeping most of the money they get. Their “school” is little more than a workhouse where boys are stored until they can do something “useful.” And it goes on, day after day.

We should be red with rage when we read stories of schools here and now that sacrifice the pleasures of dinosaurs and poetry for the misery of standardized test preparation, or of students working without books, or in schoolrooms of 40 or more that can barely call up heat during the winter. It’s Dickens with more technology. We read of these things and we nod and say yes it’s too bad, but what can we do? The economy is bad, we have other things to deal with! Schools need to tighten their belts like everyone else.

But when we need money for war or for bank bailouts it seems magically to appear. Sanctimony makes it all look that much worse. Bureaucrats moan and wring their hands and do nothing. It’s time for those directly affected–children and their parents–to demand their right to be educated properly. And teachers should support them.

I’m calling for universal action by students and parents against do-nothing school systems. I’m suggesting that they refuse to attend rotten schools without textbooks or resources until they’re provided. I’m suggesting that students demand to be taught real, lively, challenging, and life-changing literature, science, art, mathematics, history, and the complete spectrum of knowledge so they’ll be ready for something more than the long trudge toward death. It’s immoral to teach test prep instead of Robert Frost or Maya Angelou; it’s criminal to make third graders fill in ovals instead of read real books.

Why do students hate school? There’s nothing there for them to learn. The ancients knew that humans naturally hunger for knowledge and we can see that in just about any small child; turn “knowledge” into “performance” and it’s a little death every day. For teachers, too.

So here’s my call to arms:

Kids, leave your classrooms and go to the school board meetings and your city’s government meetings and your public school oversight committee. Demand to be taught and don’t go back to school until you get that. You are being screwed every day by people who know nothing about you and care nothing except to achieve meaningless “standards.” Refuse to acquiesce in your own destruction. Do it now.

Parents, support your children while they’re on a Knowledge Strike by sending them to the local library, organizing neighborhood classes where you can take turns looking after your kids and teaching them yourselves: read to them, ask them to write about their communities, learn math, and so on. You can do it! You’re being screwed, too, but you don’t have to succumb to this insult to dignity and humanity.We’ve been neutered long enough.

As quixotic as this idea may seem, it can work. Here in Chicago a group of parents from Whittier Elementary School staged a month-long sit-in to have a field house turned into a library for their children. The school is located in Pilsen, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood where school resources are lacking. Whittier had no library, but it did have a field house scheduled for demolition. It was simply a group of parents who had had enough. Chicago Public Schools finally relented, leasing the school to the parent group for $1. (Can you imagine having to fight for something as basic as a school library? How far have we fallen?)

Students, stand up for your right to be properly educated! Parents, stand with them! You must insist that you be given what you need to be citizens of a great democracy, not warehoused and taught to perform until you are vomited into the world of work as semi-literate cogs in a machine. No one will save you but yourselves. Stop meekly accepting school budget cuts, agonizing hours of test prep, meaningless education fads, contentless books, and mind-numbing exercises! Demand your rights as citizens and humans!

Tell me when you take action and I’ll publish your progress.

Coda: Those of you without children, do what you can to help. A tsunami of the uneducated will carry you away with it as easily as it will everyone else.

Next: Stop whining and fix things.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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One Response to End the Insanity, Part One

  1. I am impressed and delighted with the heat of your anger at our advanced ages. Not sure the Nickleby excerpt is on point, at least at that length. You glance on two different subjects — making school engaging for students and how our society as a whole values free public schooling. They’re two separate problems, but money can influence both of them.

    It’s becoming apparent that as a nation we are coming under the control of a plutocracy that is not only greedy, but stupid. These people want tax cuts instead of money spent on job creation and infrastructure, not caring that when the economy is healthier they make more money, even net of the higher taxes. They can’t stand free public education, because it is an engine of opportunity for the underclasses, not realizing that they always need more and better workers.

    And all these people think the fix is more tests? I would like to ask them at what department in their company workers are assigned to take multiple choice tests all day?

    Like

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