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Troubling Trio

Three articles appearing within one week in The New York Times taken together illustrate one of the many difficulties in wishing that teaching and learning might be studied as a science: we must take education where we find it, not reduced to a lab-like artificiality from which few helpful conclusions can be drawn. They also suggest that the reality surrounding education is itself troubled and that research focused on an ideal but unreal classroom will yield results irrelevant to problems in the air around the real one, and that good education can take place only when larger troubles are recognized and dealt with.

The first article reported that ten law schools plan to add a blanket .333 to the grade point averages of their graduates. The reason for the raise is to make graduates’ transcripts more appealing to potential employers. The word “preposterous” seems to have been invented for this version of putting the cart before the horse. A grade should be given not to attract future notice but to evaluate past performance. In the reality of these law schools the future invades the past, hijacks it, and alters it.

But it is more, or worse, than preposterous. Think of what the students at such schools are learning outside the official curriculum. What kind of lawyer will be graduated from an institution whose education includes an invitation to collude in the misrepresentation of his academic accomp­lishment? Imagine medical schools’ adding academic gas to their graduates’ transcripts so the Mayo Clinic will hire them more readily. Imagine the Mayo Clinic’s patients!

Related to this article was another one reporting on schools and districts that graduate valedic­torians in litters. One school graduated nine, as many as the puppies my boyhood friend’s spaniel Kristen had. It is sad to think that one difference between Kristen’s puppies and these valedictorians is that the puppies were more likely to find a secure adulthood: when valedictorians are a dime a dozen, who will take a second look at them?

The third article concerns students, usually in middle school, who write horrible things about their classmates and post them on line. I am a high-school teacher and therefore do not really know the heart of middle-school darkness, but the reports that come to me sometimes sound like Colin Turnbull’s writing on the Ik of Northern Uganda. They do not jibe with my own memories of middle school, and I do not want to venture for long into that terrain. Still, the phenomenon of “text bullying” made me think of a New Yorker cartoon from the 1950’s.

It showed a boy scrawling a message on a fence about his current enemy—let us call him Billy Newsome because I can’t remember the caption exactly. The message said, “Billy Newsome is a communist.” Children are very good at absorbing the angst of the month from their environment, and many of them look at a blank fence or wall as an invitation to write about it. (Pity they don’t always see an invitation in the blank page.) The two come together in graffiti.

We usually have taboos erected against the intrusion of graffiti. We don’t want the clutter of “spontaneous me” a permanent feature of the public life. Hence graffiti are usually associated with juvenile lowlife and vandalism. In any case, graffitists have a practical limitation in the number of walls available for undetected writing. But the internet has an infinity of blank walls that crave inscription, and many children who, unrestrained by taboos not yet developed for these wide-open spaces and not monitored by parents, are happy to chip in with comments attuned to the insecurities of the moment. Knowing that someone may be looking tends to restrain the writing, but who is looking at the graffitist’s gadget except maybe his cheerleaders?

The article reports a strong desire among many parents to have schools police students’ texting and even their opportunities to text, whether or not they are at school. Naturally, there are also parents who want schools to lay off. The result is that teachers, who are already sorely pressed to teach, and administrators, sorely pressed to run schools, are being drafted into service as the life-monitors of students whose parents buy them potentially troublesome gadgets but don’t give them the preparation in morals and etiquette to use them. What if the parents can’t give them that training or make it stick?

As these articles illustrate, problems in the classroom often start outside, in the honesty and virtue—or otherwise—that students, their parents, and the schools’ administrators bring there. How we foster or combat these external influences will have as much to do with the success or failure of teaching and learning as what we do in the classroom.

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