[Updated August, 2017]
In 1974, philosopher and author Ayn Rand addressed the graduating class of West Point and said the following: “Nothing is given to man automatically, neither knowledge, nor self-confidence, nor inner serenity, nor the right way to use his mind. Every value he needs or wants has to be discovered, learned and acquired – even the proper posture of his body. … Well, philosophical training gives man the proper intellectual posture – a proud, disciplined control of his mind.”
Ready to stop reading at the mention of Ayn Rand's name? Not so fast. Read on. I won't be commenting on economics or politics today.
I love the field of education, because I love the capacity of the human mind to reach out to, grapple with, and ultimately tame, the abstract. More and more in contemporary education there is an emphasis on what I call the Gestalt of education: getting students to see the interdisciplinary relationships between and among the subjects they study, that they are not courses taken in a vacuum, but that they all interact and interrelate. I believe in education for its own sake, as an end in and of itself, and that the training of the rational mind, critical thinking, and exposure to new ideas that all come with a rigorous quality education is the single greatest asset any young adult can take into the world. This is true for students of ALL colors, creeds and backgrounds.
By the same token, I also believe that for that education to have any real value, objective standards and a certain level of rigor must apply. I have read that the group that struggles the most with the transition to college is the effortless “A” student, the child who coasts through his high school’s relatively unchallenging curriculum, earns good grades and the accolades of the staff, and then hits college like a brick wall. The student has never been challenged, so he never develops the capacity to do hard work. The student has never been truly tested, so he quails under the pressure of a truly high-stakes college midterm exam. The student has never been trained in organization and time management, so the increased autonomy required of a successful college student is not in his character make-up. His self-esteem has been so padded by the illusion of his academic success, that his crash, when he realizes that his 99th percentile work last year is only 25th percentile this year, is cataclysmic. According to the “data,” however, the collection of which is typically discontinued upon high school graduation, this child has been a meteoric success.
This is the thesis of the succinct and on point, albeit provocatively named and just a skosh hyperbolic, op-ed “Modern EducationKills,” by Edwin A. Locke. Many students who now struggle at the college level experienced success at the high school level, and it can be disorienting to the student in trouble, who is used to academic success, or at least to being told that he or she is a successful student. In 1987, when I graduated from a California public high school at the age of 16 and entered Cornell University, I was that student. The reconstruction process was long and painful. I would not wish that upon any student.
We do the same thing when we inflate the grades of the mediocre student or socially promote the failing student. When effusive praise becomes ubiquitous, it ceases to truly be praise. I believe in acknowledging, thanking and congratulating students for work well done. I speak to them in terms on honor, integrity, investment. If a student performs poorly, I will let him or her gently know that the work was unsatisfactory; I create no illusions that “just getting the work done” is even remotely good enough. The work will get re-done, if need be. Over time, there is real, measurable improvement, and what’s more, trust in the teacher who dares to be honest in this way (students are more perceptive than we often give them credit for being). Students eventually believe that they can do the things that they themselves have been holding back from doing, and with honesty and reliable constructive feedback, students will meet or exceed high expectations, instead of a teacher’s having to lower expectations in order to be able to say the same. This is true for students of ALL colors, creeds and backgrounds.
Teachers need to do everything in their power to empower students to be successful, to seek to help students understand that frustrating or unsuccessful formative educational experiences in no way need to translate to or preordain for them a frustrated or failed summative experience. It takes a sense of ego integrity to accept a setback or a failure and still move on productively; teachers must help students appreciate the value of hard work, a good work ethic, and the willingness to accept the occasional setback as a natural part of academic and professional development and evolution.
Popular myth and the standardized-test culture of American public education would have one think that education is about the massive and rapid accumulation of content, the purpose of which is to succeed on a state test; the error of this thinking is that it relegates the education process itself to a secondary status, making the test score the “prize” of education. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. We have become a nation of pure data, of test scores and dropout rates, ciphers which are at best simplified abstractions of critically important ideas – but raw numbers do not tell the whole story. Any educational process or notion that has at its heart the notion that it is the data that needs to be treated, and not the students, is fundamentally flawed. In a rush to engage the 21st century learner – modern, multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic, technologically savvy members of the Twitterati – we have forgotten the extent to which we are all in fact the same, and the extent to which we share the same basic human needs: I refer to the needs of young people to be engaged, challenged, given a sense of deliberate purpose, and to feel pride and a sense of value. This is true for students of ALL colors, creeds and backgrounds.
Back when people used to refer fondly to what was once called the “American Dream,” it was never the case that the Dream was different for different demographic groups – whether it was English separatists in the 1600s, freed African slaves, Italian or Irish immigrants to the East Coast, Chinese immigrants to the West Coast, Jews fleeing the Holocaust, Cubans fleeing Castro, or the Lost Boys of Africa, the American Dream has until recently been all about what your hard work could earn you, not about what the sense of entitlement you believed you had would coerce someone into giving you. The need for hard work as a means to earn one’s status has always been universal, that is, until perhaps the most recent of times. A sense of entitlement, one that borders upon a demand, has crept into American public schools. I have watched it happen over my 20+ years of teaching. There is now a sense that students must be given considerations and concessions as a precursor to being expected to achieve, almost like bribes, instead of as earned rewards. There is now more and more a sense that students have not an equal right to educational opportunity (students still have to do the work and earn their way by demonstrating achievement, mastery and understanding), but an equal right to the tangible fruits of an education (a diploma, certificate or degree, by hook or by crook, the ends justifying the means, otherwise the system is somehow depriving them of their prize). This has led in many cases to a gross relaxing of standards and many well-intentioned but ill-executed attempts to put pragmatics before principle.
But I believe this: We can be progressive, inclusive, cosmopolitan, and modern without sacrificing core principles of integrity, honor, rigor, and merit.
Carlos Fuentes wrote the following: Todo, las comunicaciones, la economía,… las revoluciones en la ciencia y la tecnología, nos indica que la variedad y no la monotonía, la diversidad más que la unidad, definirán la cultura del siglo venidero. (Everything, communication, the economy,… revolutions in science and technology, suggest that variety, not monotony – diversity, not homogeneity – will define culture in the century to come.) He called this El Encuentro con el Otro, “Encounter with the Other,” and it is one of the notions that made America great.
That notion, however, is being turned on its ear, by well-wishing ideologues who believe that one’s antecedents entitle one to unearned rewards, and that to level the playing field, we must hobble some while selectively enabling others, instead of making all comers go through the same juggernaut, and facilitation or providing support as needed to allow students to achieve. The trick – and the true test of the educator – is to enable all, through a combination of differentiated/individualized instruction; support systems, programs and aides; constant, consistent, honest communication with students and communities. This combination must then be set against a backdrop of consistently rigorous and objective standards, high expectations, and a commitment to educate all students. (And it is possible to do all this in an environment that is enjoyable, at least more often than not, for students!) That’s what is required of the educator.
For my part, I have worked for twenty-plus years in urban and diverse schools, teaching English, ESL and Spanish. I am a sociolinguist by avocation and training, and my Masters is in English/TESOL. I have taught multi-level, differentiated-instruction classes; I have taught “Inclusion” classes and participated in many CSE and IEP meetings; I have taught ESL at the college level, and worked with countless international students of a variety of backgrounds and statuses. My understanding and appreciation of the diversity of student and community populations informs everything I do professionally. I came from a school district recently where, instead of training ESL students to be successful on tests, students were forced to take standardized tests that they were not prepared for (and in some cases, were not even officially eligible to take), often a year earlier than the state required, in order to get them to fail the test enough times to be able to take an easier test, so they could “graduate.” This, to enhance the school's “numbers,” which were, and I suppose still are, published in the city papers and online. This is a perfect example of the kind of data-driven cravenness that is exactly what I am NOT about. There is no honor in manipulating students (who rely upon us) in order to satisfy the arbitrary requirements of a bureaucracy – be it state, country, district or site. Teachers should do their best, with integrity, at all times. I believe students can tell the difference, and I believe they will thank us.
On the part of the student, education is the ultimate test of character; in no other pursuit, save perhaps parenthood, is one asked to suffer the willingness to accept such an extreme delay of gratification. In third grade, you received a colorful sticker on your spelling test when you got a one-hundred. Maybe your seventh-grade teacher used to reward you with candy in class when you got a right answer. It is the educator’s job, however, to ensure that this kind of Pavlovian reward-response does not become a habit; habits become expectations, expectations become entitlements, and entitlements become an excuse later in life to avoid the rigors of honest hard work. The true rewards of education are long-term, hard-won, and rely heavily upon a deep faith in the human spirit and the rational mind. Hard work will be rewarded. Self-esteem does not always require external and explicit reward; in the proud and honorable student, self-esteem can sometimes be its own reward. Ayn Rand, in her address to the 1974 graduates of West Point, said, “Honor is self-esteem made visible in action.” It is our job, teachers’ job, to raise students who are honorable, who have the “proper intellectual posture,” and who will go forth into the world, proud of the education that they have worked for, and rightly earned. This is true for students of ALL colors, creeds and backgrounds.