Don’t Go There

It does seem to me, more and more, that the public schools have most of all failed because they’re hiding the truth from their students, the students’ parents, and from themselves. They’re saying, although not in so few words, Don’t Go There. They’re afraid of what might happen if they do.

What truth is that? Well the truth that among and between the kids there are enormous differences in what they can and will learn, much as among us. And instead, of confronting this unpalatable truth of student differences, teachers and administrators, almost from the first day of school, treat the kids as if they were all the same.

This behavior may be a form of political correctness, as it were, — for we would almost have it as a piece of our DNA that we don’t discriminate, that we don’t give special treatment. All students can learn.

And in fact once in school students are expected, although admittedly they are also helped, to learn the same things. Now there may very well be moments during their schooling when the kids are mostly the same, —as they learn to count, for example, learn the letters of the alphabet, read and write their first words, say please and thank you.

Such moments as these are a time of what I call the school idyll, the happy pretense of everyone being together in the joy of learning, and the idyll may even last a few years until, as both teachers and parents admit, the fourth grade.

But then, during the fourth year in school, things start to unravel, as teachers and parents, at least the truth tellers among them, will tell you. They will admit that, in respect to what their students are supposedly learning together, they are in fact growing further and further apart, beginning their own separate school journeys.

Public school teachers and administrators, probably since the time of Horace Mann’s Common or now Public School Movement, have never ceased to adopt one strategy after another to keep things as they are, to “not go there,” to keep things from flying apart and to somehow return things to the center where kids are all together listening and learning.

But they rarely succeed, and if they do, it’s only when the shared activity doesn’t demand special abilities or talents, those gifts that are not at all equally distributed among the participants. By fourth grade unequal learning ability is, if not out in the open, generally assumed to be the case, the general rule.

What are the non-demanding activities that at least early on do not demand special talents? There are a lot of them, and they are, as it were, the dark matter that keeps the school space if not alive from falling apart.

These activities are, for example, waiting in line, which kids do a lot of, being seated in a row and listening or at least pretending to listen to the teacher, going to lunch in the cafeteria etc. And there are also those more substantial and probably more interesting activities such as singing, playing games, doing a sport, playing in a band, doing theater, arts, and crafts, mostly all activities to which probably every child has something of its own, something special they may contribute and for which they will be recognized by the group.

But these sorts of activities, as kids learn well, by 4th grade if not before, are not what school is mostly about. School quickly becomes for them the place where their “intelligence”(whatever that may be) will be observed, measured, and judged, and in all too many instances found lacking, found not measuring up.

The kids will learn how more or less intelligent they are in respect to their age peers. They will learn their place in the “intelligence hierarchy,” the sort of place that our schools have become.

Now even that needn’t be the disaster it often is in children’s lives. If it is a disaster it’s because we not only pretend that the real differences don’t exist, but we do everything in our power to make sure that the kids themselves learn the truth, learn just how intelligent or what’s the opposite, stupid? they are.

It didn’t and doesn’t have to be that way. It probably wasn’t that way in the very best school environment there ever was, the one-room school building, when a group of children of all ages helped one another to learn, and there was ample intelligence and stupidity for everyone, and everyone really was the same.

The fault lies, perhaps, in the fact that our modern civilization gives great importance to two particular kinds of intelligence (see Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences), the verbal-linguistic, and the logical-mathematical, believing rightly that they are often the principal engines of our economic well being and that the kids who have them will do well both in school and out, and that the function of the school is to make sure that all kids be pushed and helped to acquire them.

The schools ought to have resisted the pressure from the outside because it’s just not possible to do this. Most kids just won’t acquire these two intelligences to any significant degree. But they didn’t resist. They went along with what the world outside of school was pressuring them to do with the result that those who are gifted in these two respects know it at a very young age, and that those who are not learn that horrible news about themselves, also at a very young age.

The expression, “Don’t Go There,” means don’t recognize the ways that ability and intelligence, the way we define them anyway, separate us, not only in school but throughout our lives. Now no one would ever defend the proposition that everyone could and should have the opportunity to learn and play chess at, say, a master’s level.

Yet most of our educational establishment does defend the proposition that college is for everyone even though no more than demonstrated widespread chess ability has anyone ever shown that any more than a strict minority of 18 year olds can successfully handle the intellectual demands of a 4 year liberal arts college. Yet we push them to do so.

But the remedy has always been there. The world outside ought to have given the schools a different message, that there are many kinds of intelligence, perhaps not as many as there are kids in the schools, but certainly more than math and verbal kind, and probably more even than Gardner’s 7 or is it 9 intelligences.

For in a very real sense every kid is intelligent. But just as every kid will not become a chess Master, every kid will not become a mathematician, or a writer whereas a large proportion of his time in school is passed in just these two activities alone. Schools have failed to be a place for every kid, and that’s the essence of the story of their failure.

The remedy, give every kid a place where he fits, his own niche. But it may be too late for the schools to do this. They’ve gone too far in just one or two directions. My own recommendation would be that they be closed and in their place there be tens of thousands of places opened up for the hundreds of thousands of different kids. That’s all it would take to keep alive the idyll of learning that was killed for most children when they first started to attend school.

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