Tuesday, February 28, 2012

School as LEGO-land

Seth Godin rants eloquently and importantly on the question of “What is school for?” The Big Essay (or mini-book) is free and available for printing, reading on screen, or for download to your e-reader. It’s worth a read, and he wants feedback and commentary. Here is mine.

Godin takes a fairly extremist view that schooling, as we currently do it, can do nothing but kill dreams, squelch creativity, and teach kids to be obedient sheep. It’s an argument I first encountered in Jonathan Kozol’s early book, The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home. That book was written in the wake of the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, and Kozol’s thesis was that a few weeks of basic training could not have turned the perpetrators of that horror into mindless followers of orders; it could only have been done by years of public schooling. Like Godin’s manifesto, the book was impassioned and well-meaning, but a bit extreme. In fact, when the book was reissued in the ‘90s, Kozol annotated it to provide context and to tamp down some of (but not all of) the rhetoric.

As it happens, I am more in agreement with these two authors than not. I spent years in New York City telling my friends that the only kind of school reform I could see being effective was dynamite and a bulldozer. But that kind of extremist position makes it easy for doubters and critics to dismiss what may be valid and important in the argument. Godin seems to suggest that the creative and innovative people who have made this country dynamic and strong have prospered either outside of or in spite of school. All of them. And while we know this has been true of many influential, creative people, we know it’s not true of all of them. Many people come through our school systems with their creativity and drive intact, and they do so because they are lucky enough to have the right parents, the right teachers and the right schools. It can happen…it just doesn’t happen nearly enough.

When Godin attacks the way we do schooling, he seems to include all of our educators in his attack, as though there is a mass conspiracy afoot in our school system to destroy the humanity of our children in order to produce compliant workers and citizens. This is just not so. There are thousands upon thousands of well-meaning, well-intentioned educators out there in our schools, trying to do their best to teach creative and critical thinking skills. They do not believe their mission is to force compliance or to create a generation of sheep or automatons. They really don’t. The problem is that the mechanics of the system in which they work do want that, which means they are working against the very structure of their schools. When the work you do creates friction with the system, it’s more likely that you get worn down than that the system does. The machine endures, and the people who want to do something the machine wasn’t built to do, well, they burn out and walk away.

Godin is dead-right when he says that the problem lies in what Ken Robinson calls “batch processing” of children, the old factory model. That model was created to churn out compliant factory workers. The problem we face today is that our educational mission and vision has changed, but the machine we use to get there has not.  Go to any professional development workshop or sit in on any Masters class on instruction or curriculum design, and you'll hear all the right things. The problem is that we’re trying to broadcast TV shows over a radio. We’re trying to get from New York to Atlanta in a day, riding a horse. The medium we’re using cannot handle the message we intend. In fact, in many ways, it works against the message we intend.

Oh, you can teach against the model all you like, and try to differentiate, individualize, and personalize your instruction. Teachers do it every day. But the system isn’t set up to encourage or even accommodate that approach, especially in middle and high school. The system was built for mass-instruction: get them in, give them a lecture, give them a worksheet, move them along to the next station. That’s what it does best. If you work that way, the machine hums along very nicely.

The question for us is not whether we want to create compliant sheep. Most of us—the vast, overwhelming majority of us, do not. The question is whether we are brave enough to do something radically, structually different.

In business, there is always a tension between the innovators who want to try something different and the stalwarts who want to rely on what has worked in the past. There is no universally correct side to the argument; it all depends on what works. If the innovation saves money or makes money, the innovator wins, and a whole industry may begin to shift. If the innovation wastes money or destroys a company’s reputation, the status quo ante is reinforced as having been correct, and the company becomes more conservative. And who are we to tell them they were wrong?

The problem is that in education, there is no incentive to innovate, no reward beyond doing what you feel is right. A public school that does things differently and produces inventors, scholars, artists, or brilliant professionals gets no more money than a public school that churns out dropouts and fast-food workers. No one at the “winning” school gets a bonus or a raise, and no one gets to expand or franchise the school to serve more students. And the crappy school is rarely ever shut down. The incentives to innovate are all—100%--intrinsic: you do it because you know, deep down, it’s the right thing to do. And as I said, plenty of teachers act on those impulses every day.

But it’s so, so, so much easier not to. It’s so much easier to do things the way they’ve always been done, to go with the flow, to swim with the current. Not because these educators are bad people, but because they are people, and while there is a deep impulse to create, there is also a deep impulse to be safe. I agree with Godin that our schools can and should do a better job of liberating and nurturing the creative impulse in people, in teaching young people how to think, question, analyze, and create in unique and dynamic ways. But I don’t think for a minute, that our nation—or any nation—will ever get to a point where dynamic, creative, innovative free-thinkers are the majority or the totality of the population. Maybe I’m just cynical, but I think human nature has a deeply conservative, cautious strain that cannot be educated out. I would love to envision a world in which each person marches to the beat of a different drum. But I can’t. There is something in us that likes the regular beat and the steady march; there is something in us that likes knowing in what time we should all be stepping. Most of us are not simply conformists or non-conformists. We are not one thing or another. We live forever in the dynamic tension between the desire to be unique and creative, and the desire to be safe and protected—the desire to stand apart and the desire to hide within the herd.

This is where Godin’s LEGO analogy misses a crucial step. Yes, when LEGO started out, it sold bricks without any instructions. That’s what I played with as a child, and it’s what I loved. And yes, they moved away from that product and started selling nothing but pre-determined kits, which I hated, but which made the company far more profitable. And yes, that does speak to our innate fear of freedom and plan-less-ness. But that is not the end of the story. Today, you can buy both sets and mixed blocks, and when you go to one of their stores, you can root through enormous bins to create your own custom collections. Both kinds of customers are served. And the two types are not so clearly separated; there are many kids who take the kits and change them, adding new pieces from other kits. There are kids who use computer programs to design their own kits. There are kids who buy individual pieces in bulk from online wholesalers, to get just the pieces they need. There are public forums where kids bring enormous, insane, and wildly unique creations to display and share.

If given the freedom to play, we are improvisers at heart—people who like to tinker, adapt, and jerry-rig. We are jazz musicians. It’s in our national DNA—maybe even our human DNA. The people who create something new from scratch, ob ovo, may be rare in this world. But the people who play, who tinker, and who adapt—that’s all of us. A school system that remembered this and made room for it--for the kids and for the adults who work there--would go a long way toward liberating our creative impulses and honoring our dreams. 

PS: one minor correction for Mr. Godin. According to Snopes, Harvard never offered a professorship to Galileo. During Galileo’s lifetime, Harvard was nine students and a single teacher. And Galileo was under house arrest in Florence.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Lesson of the One Way

The herd will not have it. The herd hates outliers. It’s nothing personal; it’s just for protection. If you stray from the herd, you get eaten. It’s as simple as that. It’s natural selection. So stick together.

But nobody’s trying to eat us, so why can’t we get over our herd mentality? Why can’t we relax and let people be? Why do we even care?

You would think there would be strength—and comfort—in numbers. You would think that if 95% of the women you know are wearing Fashion X this year, they wouldn’t need to tease or sneer at the 5% who wear something different. You would think that if 95% of the men you know prefer drinking beer and watching football to drinking wine and watching opera, they wouldn’t feel the need to call the 5% fags. Who cares what the other 5% do, or like, or wear, or think?

But we do care. We’re a herd. And we care a lot. We can’t be “us” unless we’re all us. One weirdo makes us question our us-ness, our whole group. And we don’t like that. So we’d better bring the outliers back into line. It doesn’t have to be through violence or coercion—it can just be gentle mockery. We’re teasing. Don’t take everything so seriously. Don’t take it all to heart. Just take it.

If you’re lucky, as an adult, you find a place or make a place where this kind of nonsense doesn’t occur, where people are genuinely tolerant of difference—or, better, indifferent about it. Indifferent about difference. I don’t want you to tolerate what I am; I want you to not give a shit, one way or the other. I want you to accept the fact that who I am is none of your goddamned business, and live accordingly.

Ah, how much of American political discourse would vanish overnight if we could just apply this one, simple rule: About that which is none of your business, shut up.

Of course, in far too many places, people think that everything is their business. In far too many places, the message is clear: it’s not that we want you to be exactly like us; we need you to be exactly like us. We can have no bell curve here; the outliers must be brought into the fold. We must be one flat line, stretching across the horizon forever. It is an absolutist, totalitarian impulse buried deep in our heart of darkness, and the insecurity and fear it reveals is troubling.

And surprising. I mean, who knew a head cheerleader’s sense of self could be so precarious?

One of the hardest and most heartbreaking lessons to learn, as a child, is the Lesson of the One Way. Whether you’re a boy or a girl, you learn that, if you want to be accepted, if you want to live comfortably among your peers, there is One Way to be. For everything that happens during the day, there is One Way to do it correctly. You can obey the One Way and be accepted, or you can fight the One Way and be called names. Whatever choice you make, it’s a hard lesson to learn. Because we keep telling our children that they are special, and unique, and wonderful just the way they are, and then they hit school and find out that it’s all a lie.

Some kids learn the lesson in elementary school; others manage to escape it until middle school. But good luck getting through adolescence without being subjected to the Khmer-Rouge-like intensity of that scrutiny and judgment. “Live and let live” is not any Junior High School’s motto.

But we survive it, somehow. Most of us do. Of course, there are always a few kids who can’t take it, and kill themselves. But it's just a few. Probably. Whatever.

My son is in sixth grade this year. He is officially a “tween,” a category that didn’t exist when I was a kid. All of a sudden, the rules about who you can be friends with have changed. It used to be okay to be friendly with girls. Now it means you have a crush. Now it means you’re in loooooove. And you must be teased mercilessly for that. You must be punished…whether or not it’s true. And somehow, everyone else got the memo before him. He got left behind. And now they’re making fun of him.

It always feels that way, doesn’t it? It always feels like everyone else has gotten the memo, and you’re the only one who didn’t know. Why is that? Where does the memo come from? Who is the first one in the classroom to figure it out? There must be someone who either decides or discovers that girls now have cooties, or khaki pants are stupid, or Pokemon is for babies. Then, suddenly, everyone knows and everyone is in agreement. The herd has moved, and you have to catch up.

My son is confused. He doesn’t have a crush on this girl. He’s not in loooooove. But she has been a friend, and he has had precious few of those this year. He doesn’t understand why the One Way is telling him he has to stop, now. My son is hyper-rational; he has never known how to handle the insane, the inexplicable, and the irrational (in other words: children). When kids around him do things that, to him, make no sense, he is left bewildered and unsure what to do.

So now he has a friend that the One Way tells him he’s not allowed to have. They can’t hang out anymore. They shouldn’t talk to each other. They’re not supposed to. So the girl tells him, “We need to pretend we were going out, but now we’re broken up. Then they’ll leave us alone.” In other words, she tells him they have to lie to be left alone. The have to hide some small part of who they are.

But it’s no big deal, right? It’s a small thing. Sixth grade drama, for Christ’s sake. I should just tell my son: “Say what you’ve got to say, do what you’ve got to do, and move on. It’s not that important.” I should give him the counsel that will give him comfort.

Except that this is how it all starts. You stop wearing those pants. You stop watching that show. You stop playing that game. It’s no big deal—it’s just the stuff you liked. If the other kids say it’s stupid, give it up. Be who they want you to be—it’s easier that way. And then, once you’ve learned the Lesson of the One Way, you can move on to the next level: stop hanging out with the black kid/the gay kid/the Jewish kid. Chug this. Smoke that. Hate them. Carry the flag.

And I’m sure there are people—many, many people—who will roll their eyes at all of this and think I’m making mountains out of things that don’t even qualify as molehills. It's just sixth fucking grade. And they are entitled to their opinions. We are all entitled to our opinions.

This is mine: I will not sell out my son and tell him to join the herd. I will not tell him to go along just because it’s easier. Because there is a better way. Not an easier way--not the One Way--but it’s his own way. I can see him doing it already--carving out a sense of self, identifying the things that vibrate at the same frequency as his soul. I can see him collecting the kinds of people and things and ideas that make him feel good—that make him feel at home in the world. I can see him slowly building the home he’ll move into when he leaves his childhood—a unique and special home of self, where he can live happily and at peace. And I would not do anything to endanger that precious and fragile construction.

What he’ll have to do over the next few years to protect what he’s building, God only knows. It’s going to be a long, hard slog. Harder than what he's facing right now, for certain. But I’m in his corner, today and tomorrow, for whatever it’s worth.