Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
"You, 6655321, are to be reformed," said the prison chief governor from the horrible tale of a Clockwork Orange. In this part of the story, the main character, a young man named Alex goes by a number that the prison assigns him, 6655321. His crime of brutally murdering and robbing an elderly woman placed him behind bars. The faceless quality of the prison setting that reduces every inhabitant to a number and crams them into overcrowded cells muffling their cries. Alex seeks freedom from the colorless block even if that means sacrificing his free will in an operation that make him feel extreme queasiness at any wayward thought arising in his criminal mind. Ignoring admonitions from a sympathetic preacher, Alex foolishly accepts the operation that soon pushes him to eventual self-destruction. It never occurred to Alex to liberate himself from the authorities or his own wanton passions by taking a step towards personal responsibility. Rather, he sought to forfeit any personal responsibility and sedulously acted to preserve and careless life without a conscience as long as possible before it got boring.
Coincidentally, one will find quite a few similarities to the nightmare the between the aforesaid novel and an average public school. Like the prison, many American public schools also assign numbers to their students and cram them into overcrowded rooms. Like Alex, students will seek liberty at any price often sacrificing any viable future they could have had. They throw away personal responsibility and indulge every throbbing impulse of adolescence to the detriment of themselves and all those around them. The anonymity and oppressiveness of their surroundings completely obscures academic achievement, and it absolutely abhors independent and accountable thought.
The hierarchy starts from an unseen big brother, otherwise known as the superintendent. Below him begins a tall stack of district administrators, then school administrators, then department heads, then finally, the teachers. Each level also designates consultants assigned to facilitate the effectiveness of each level. Like the students, each cog in this marvelous machine has an employee number in which to identify oneself. This hierarchy strives to sterilize any community with its sheer vastness and its oppressive mandates to maintain the status quo.
Students and teachers in this system either fall into line with this environment or they are chastised and removed. Both parties make the best of a glum situation to which society has sentenced them. Students escape by doing the least work possible, forcing teachers to entertain them with summer camp activities. Teachers escape by satisfying the students and shedding any desire they formerly had to educate. Administrators will do their jobs by actually keeping the kids in school and taming their spirits for something useful like operating cash registers or picking up garbage. The few students with responsible parents might find a place to learn in the Honors classes where they will learn at grade level if they're lucky. If not, students will sink into a tolerable depression and embrace being dehumanized.
The beauty of this system is that it accommodates everyone. Districts have artfully managed to pack schools to the brim with students with minimal concessions. With so much funding, they have created a world that admits no freedom, no development, no logic, no beauty, and is so downright dystopian that even Orwell would cringe. Real humans are transformed into dogs that perform mindless tricks (i.e. standardized tests), waiting for their next treat and their new chew toy.
Unfortunately, the world does not care to have more mindless sheep to do stupid jobs and lead pointless lives. They can get those sheep in other countries for much less money. The world does need conscientious leaders who can lead the populace out of the doldrums of ignorance and into material and cultural prosperity. As it stands, most Americans are left to themselves to get an education on their own by teaching themselves or by paying absurd amounts of money for remedial classes in college. In present times, a decent education that a person should receive in their teens instead happens in their late twenties. By that time, they will be fixed cogs like their teachers in a vast machine that obfuscates their very humanity. Their youthful energy usually expires, leaving them powerless break the gloomy cycle.
To top off this lurid reality, public schools will continue as they are. Administrators will weed out the insiders who cry out for reform. Outsiders will be brushed off as uninformed about education and disgustingly elitist. Being a monopoly, public school districts will carry on since the competition can only address a small portion of the market. They will throw a bone to concerned parents, and they will give a nice little speech for the community. This is all a façade to please everyone accept the faculty and kids.
Perhaps a century ago, American kids could be likened to Huckleberry Finn or a Tom Sawyer eager to satisfy their abundant curiosities. Now, American kids carry a much greater affinity to a Winston Smith in 1984 or an Alex from A Clockwork Orange. They can choose between complete submission and utter depravity. Unfortunately, the United States has enough of these types and needs to change the institution that propagates it. A good start for this change might be giving students their names again.