Back in high school, I read Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations twice.
The first time I read it, I didn’t really read it. I skimmed some parts, but mostly studied the Sparknotes version well enough to get an A on the test.
The second time I read it was as a sophomore, after I’d transferred to a private boarding school. The small, intimate nature of our English classes made it impossible to hide the fact that I hadn’t done my reading, and so this time, I actually did read it.
And I dare say, I’ve never been quite the same.
I don’t fully remember the plot, but I do remember being engrossed by Pip’s transformation throughout the story: his pursuit of a high-class, gentlemanly life style, his descent into snobbery, and then his remarkable shift toward humility and kindness after discovering the truth about his financial benefactor.
And I also remember that as Pip transformed, I did too – at least a little. The story hit home in such a way that I do believe I myself became a bit kinder after reading it. Suddenly, my own “great expectations” – my own pursuit of outcomes of all sorts – began to take a backseat to thoughts themselves.
There were other books, too, that had a similar soul-stirring effect on me: All Quiet on the Western Front, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Shakespeare had a way of getting to me as well.
I wonder, now, what would have happened to me had I attended a school like the one in Deer Park, New York, where an administrator explained that in the new era of Common Core, “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across,” or a Summit Public School, where students are greeted on their laptops each day with a graph that looks like this:
According to Tom Vander Ark, Summit Public Schools have a “college and career readiness system will track growth trajectory of knowledge, skills, and success habits against college goals, and “students falling short of their planned growth trajectory, on any front, will see a big red warning system.”
Let that sink in.
“Students falling short of their planned growth trajectory, on any front, will see a big red warning system.”
Vander Ark describes the system with breathless admiration: “I don’t know of anyone else thinking about goal-focused tracking on these dimensions,” and at a White House summit on next-gen high schools, Isabelle Parker, CFO of Summit Public Schools, boasted: “We cultivate in our children the real-life habits and skills that lead to success in today’s world. And we ensure every minute of every day at school is supporting this type of student-centered learning.”
But I wonder: what kind of effect might an outcome-obsessed system like this have on a young person’s mind? What happens to those transformative literary experiences like the one I had with Great Expectations? Are students trapped into believing that the “outcomes” they are working toward are all there is?
If you’ve not yet read it, please take a moment to read this exceptional essay by Peter Greene called “One Wrong Move.”
Greene, who has taught for 30 years in the same town, describes an experience with a class of juniors who were “so paralyzed with fear they couldn’t do much of anything.”
“These were honor students,” Greene writes. “The top students that my rural/small town high school had to offer. And they couldn’t get past their fear-inflicted need to never do a thing unless they were sure it was right (because one way to avoid making One Wrong Move is to never move at all).”
I agree wholeheartedly with Greene that much of the ed reform movement has been a reflection of this mindset.
“We must set benchmarks,” he writes, “and we must get students to meet them because if they don’t meet those benchmarks, they will be failures and the nation will fail and our national defense will be compromised and our international standing will disintegrate and our seat at the United nations will be moved to a van down by the East River.”
The absurdity seems to only get worse with each passing year, and the paralysis extends long after students leave the classroom.
When I worked at a charter school in Brooklyn for a year, I was surrounded by many bright, highly accomplished TFAers, who were so determined to prove that they could jump through any hoops that were set for them that they seemed unable to recognize the harm they were inflicting on the young people in their classrooms.
The obsession with raising test scores was so blinding that I remember asking, once, if it would be okay to do a quick game with the kids to make a long morning of learning only about “procedures” (how to use the bathroom, walk in the hall, etc.) a bit more fun.
Our supervisor snapped at me: “Fun is absolutely not an appropriate objective.”
But the blindness, of course, can be even more sinister than eliminating “fun” from elementary schools in the name of outcomes.
In an article titled, “Why Philanthropy Actually Hurts Rather Than Helps Some of the World’s Worst Problems,” Linsey McGoey, author of No Such Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, notes yet another problem with the direction education reforms have taken us:
“High-profile, 19th-century authors such as Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens often wrote essays and fiction that satirized and denounced the way that philanthropy seemed to entrench inequalities rather than dissipate them,” says McGoey, of one of the mediating factors that once help to keep “philanthrocapitalism” in check. “That literary thread seems almost absent today.
If McGoey is right, this means that the types of soul-stirring, mind-awakening, independent-thought-provoking experiences that allow us to question powers that be are being pushed out of our schools by…the powers that be.
I have only one word for this:
Okay and three more: