Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tracking (Part 3: Allegory of the Thirsty Horse)


As far back as Ancient Greece, the poet Hesiod rightly acknowledged the natural hierarchy of civilized societies with three divisions: those who think for themselves (a small portion), those who think as others think (a big portion), and those who don’t think at all (a small portion that seems big). This hierarchy has carried over through the millennia with every society, thinkers teaching and guiding the doers to solve problems while the non thinkers create more problems. As history progresses, the thinkers have established schools to eliminate non-thinkers somehow. Today, American schools try to do this by forcing all students to learn the minimum in the same way whether the students comply or not. Despite the lack of logic in the policy, and the cultural and productive standards diminishing year after year, this is the fair system. This is also an educational system that creates more and more purposeless non-thinkers unable to cope with reality.

Acknowledging this failure of a principle that neglects those who think for themselves and nurtures more non-thinkers, a new policy must arise to spare young Americans from a damning ignorance that they don’t want. This policy must promote independent thinking among the elite (those that strive for excellence), an adherence to good thinking for the rest, and a merciless contempt for ignorance and incompetence that plague a vulnerable few. On this principle of satisfying all three groups, schools must create a relevant institution that will serve the needs of thirsty young minds eager for the power to affect their own destinies. As it stands, too many schools are utterly irrelevant, and they inadvertently lock formerly energetic human beings into vegetating derelicts.

The following allegory illustrates the solution to schools’ responsibility to nurture young minds, and how they have handled them instead. “You can guide a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Instead of heeding this advice, schools have perpetually tried to come up with new ways to make their horses drink. They have tried punishments, coaxing, and a myriad of mind games with the students, but to no avail. The horses resent being forced to drink water and ask for Coca-Cola instead. Finally, the schools give up and comply. They replace the life-giving water with dehydrating Coca-Cola and await praise for at least leading these horses somewhere instead letting the owners have to worry about it. While the owners would prefer their horses drinking water instead of Coca-Cola, they have no solutions of their own. These owners have no water of their own, and the horses don’t seem to like it even though they need it so badly.

One just needs to remember the quote of these recalcitrant drinkers and stop trying to force these horses to drink. Simply forget the Coca-Cola and let the horses drink the water on their own. They will appreciate the water more because it substantially slaked their thirst instead of the cheap sugary thrill that left them even thirstier. The conflict does not stop there though. Coca-Cola has much more power and influence with famous computer generated polar bears gracing their commercials as opposed to water, so the horses will still vehemently demand the soft drink even after they enjoy the refreshing glass of water. The owner knows that a lifetime of drinking soda will rot the young one’s teeth, make one fat, plague one’s brain with headaches, and leave one sluggish and dehydrated. The horse does not know this, but he does know that he is thirsty and that he will get his Coca-Cola if he holds out on water long enough. The adult will vacillate in his reasoning, “Well, I know he really needs water, but he doesn’t like it. I remember that we never gave Coca-Cola to these horses before. But things are different these days. Younger horses have computers and internet… maybe they need soft drinks to quench their thirst. After all, that’s what everyone else gives them. And he is much happier when I give him coke…. And though I hate to admit it, it IS a lot easier.” And the unknowing horse of so few years has now determined how he will live his life; first, with the consent of his owner; then with time, the sanctimonious approval of the owner. The horse will eventually get tired of Coca-Cola and desire something more nourishing, but it won’t be there. The adult will just force more coke down his throat until the horse forgets the idea of drinking anything altogether, and lives an unhappy and unhealthy life forever after.

Now, replace horse with student, water with relevant nourishing education, Coca-Cola with idiotic busywork (otherwise known as the “Crayola Curriculum”), drinking with thinking, and the owner with school. Schools give busywork to all kids equally, allowing students to not think. By the time their minds beg to be used, the schools reply with more pointless busywork. Even if their souls cry out to be useful and virtuous, schools will tell them to wait for college and leave them to listen to the rappers sponsored by Coca-Cola in the meantime. By the time they receive their piece of paper, they have already lost their dreams, their capacity to achieve those dreams -had they existed-, and they desire the life that will keep them from thinking and achieving, two things they have associated with their low self-esteem.

These poor students needs purpose, and school should have provided that purpose. Educators could have done this by removing all sources of time wasting in the young person’s distraction-filled life. They could have shown and provided all the paths to a productive life. They could have thwarted the destructive messages that inculcate young minds today. They could have let the horse find its own place to drink from the long waterway instead of leaving only one place in the river or providing a harmful soft drink. Although illiterates and pleasure-seeking drones graduate in higher and higher proportions every year, this trend can be reversed with a different approach to education. Schools should just allow the students to choose what they will learn and track them according to their abilities.

As it stands, all kids follow the same educational requirements, sit in the same classrooms, and learn at the same pace. The majority either hate what they learn or they hate how they are taught, and they eventually develop a dislike for any kind of learning whatsoever. They need to have a choice in what they learn and how they learn, so they will not learn to hate and blame school.

Of necessity, the choices provided to the student must actually serve a productive purpose in society. Normally, the students could choose between high academic disciplines or vocational disciplines. With the exception of a few necessities for every functioning citizen like literacy, basic math, and basic civics; the student will pursue the required studies of his chosen discipline. Each discipline should allow two tracks: one for the exceptional students who strive for excellence, and another for students who desire competence. As for the students who prove to desire neither excellence nor competence, they will remain isolated from the rest of school where the issues that cause such a aberration can be fully addressed and corrected without stopping the other students from learning. The number of students needing drastic intervention would decrease significantly if elementary schools employed these measures instead letting the problematic study habits fester until high school.

Moreover, when a school gives a student a choice, it also gives that student a goal to pursue. This goal can be an actual set of skills that can help the student and distinguish him from an ignorant child he once was. On the other hand, college is not a goal. Like school, college serves as a means to a goal in life rather than function as a goal in itself. When students have a real goal like obtaining skills for a profitable or fruitful enterprise, they will actively seek edification and develop the discipline necessary for it instead of escape it.

Those that object to tracking and individualizing education as a means to establishing elitism and unfair segregation should look at the rampant apathy that hits American children as soon as they leave elementary school. They find out that they are tiny anonymous ants in a huge mess of a school working with a floating standard of quality. The school has set their unsure path, and the students will have nothing to do with it except how well they comply. They will drift each year through classes and it’s up to their backgrounds in how they respond. However, they know their response, good or bad, will receive the same treatment, so they really don’t exert much of themselves. For their whole academic career, they have no goals except some ambiguous sequel to high school known as college, which many of them could care less about since it offers them little more than what they already have learned to resent in high school. Most of them end up where most people without goals end up, in a life of unceasing mediocrity.

It’s time to give them a choice and stop relegating American students to this vicious cycle. The world’s best educational systems like Finland, Taiwan, and South Korea have recognized the necessity to track student and diversify the curriculum to suit their needs. Maybe it’s time to learn from them, so American students can start learning themselves.

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