I recently read Erica Goldson’s speech and it made me think about my own speech. The quote, author anonymous, on which I centered my message valued obstacles:
For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin– real life.
But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first,
Some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid.
At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.
This perspective has helped me to see that there is no way to happiness.
Happiness is the way.
I chose this quote because, for me, most of high school seemed like waiting and I was desperately searching for a way to reconcile that feeling with my experience. In a lot of ways, I identified very strongly with Erica Goldson’s message: high school crippled our ability to learn what our actual interests were. And my high school was more guilty of this handicap than most. I went to a school that focused heavily on goal-based incremental learning. We used a system called Saxon Math that stresses incremental development through thirty question problem sets at the end of every chapter. Each day the student learns one new concept and solves a few problems based on that concept. The other twenty or so problems review older material. Under each question number too the book indicates which section to go back to in order to review the concept covered by the problem. Almost all the problems covered by the book are exact copies of previous problems with only the numbers changed. The program acts as if no creativity exists in math, as if no insight or passion led to the development of the methods. The books focus wholly on what you do to solve a problem rather than the elegance and intelligence of the approach. Saxon divorces the method from the passion that created it.
When education works this way kids quickly find anything intellectual stale. They learn to focus on goals (i.e. getting into a good college) or fixate on some vague definition of success. They will pursue the subjects that come easily for them and go through the motions to get A’s in those that don’t. Getting A’s feels good (I don’t care who you are) and, when it is the only emotion tied to secondary education, kids will become obsessed with the rewarding feeling they get from earning A’s.
Teachers are guilty of perpetuating this cycle. The best teachers always have two traits: they’re personable and passionate. The best teacher I know would get genuinely giddy about Newtonian mechanics six times a day. You could see the excitement in his face during every class at the chance to share the subject he loved with students. These types of people are very hard to come by. Many other teachers have found their passion but have trouble communicating it to a large audience. Still others never find that passion. Most of these teachers (which are most in schools today) like students who keep quiet and get A’s. These students do not challenge the teacher’s knowledge (it takes a very special type of person to say “I don’t know” in front of a classroom) while looking good on teacher evaluations.
Is keeping quiet and getting good grades always destructive? My sense is no. I think that, with the right teacher, a desire to get A’s can cause a student to discover a hidden passion. My feeling, however, is that the onus should not fall on teachers to show passion to students. The ability to grapple emotionally with intellectual topics needs to start before high school. There needs to be active effort to give kids both the language and practice necessary to question their feelings for the subjects they study. This ability must develop before the social pressures of fitting in take shape. I believe that an emotional need to question would lead to the development of passion for study.