This is why I don't watch the news...

On the way to work today, I made the mistake of tuning my XM radio to CNN. I wish I had stuck with the CD I was playing before I made that decision. There was yet another segment about America's failing schools. The emphasis in this report was on the fact that only 35% of American students are college-ready for science and only 45% of them are ready for college math. The rest of the conversation revolved around how poorly teachers perform and how we have to get a better system in place from which we can evaluate these teachers.

This is insane.

The problem isn't something you can boil down to one issue. All kinds of things come into play (family situations, economic situations, students, teachers, ability, etc.). What I hear NOTHING about is the fact that we as Americans might just have it all backwards. Yes, there are some bad teachers out there. But many of them are working like crazy and doing the best they can. There are good students out there, but there are also many lazy and spoiled ones, too, who are products of worlds built on materialism, easy and instant gratification, negative work ethics, and the "Oh, sweetie! Everything you do is amazing!!" parenting styles. There are many great parents out there, but there are also those who invest nothing in their child's education and see the teacher as completely responsible for the child's learning. NO. It all has to come together. In this world, that just isn't going to happen in most cases.

But that isn't what I mean by all of us thinking backwards. Here is the thing: not a single one of us is talented in every single subject. No matter how hard a parent or teacher pushes, if a child isn't interested or able to understand a subject...well, there really isn't much you can do about it. And we shouldn't look at that as a negative thing. We are all different. We are all blessed with wonderful gifts. Not all of us are meant to engage in fields related to math or science.

I consider myself to be a moderately successful person. I have a lot of education, a good job, wide interests, etc. I contribute to society and try to be a good person (though it took everything in me not to indulge in road rage this morning). But...OH, HORROR OF HORRORS!...I am absolutely horrible at certain types of math. In the tenth grade, I barely made it out of geometry with a C. I was kicked off of the National Honor Society because of it. I went to class every day, had tutoring by a college professor two days a week, studied and studied...and still...a C. Here is the thing: My teacher was just fine. My tutor was just fine. My parents were great (and they never made me feel inferior over this incident, either). And you know what else? I was just fine, too. I just cannot comprehend geometry.

And you know what else? It isn't a devastating personal failure. I am doing wonderfully well. I went on to do amazing things. My talents are not in math and science. I don't love math, but I do love science--reading about it, watching documentaries, etc. But I also know that I wouldn't want a career in it. I knew from the time I was in seventh grade definitely (but probably before) that my talents were in the English and languages fields. I understood English inside and out at that age. (I hate to say that I think my grammar skills were much better then than they are now!) I would beg my English teacher (who was also my homeroom teacher) to let me skip pep rallies to stay in her room and diagram sentences. No lie. That is what I did.

In the eleventh grade, I idolized an English teacher nearly everyone else I knew hated. She taught me so much, and I was there to absorb it all. I stayed behind after school three days a week for two, sometimes three, additional hours for writing tutoring. I didn't need it. I already had an A in the class, but I knew that she had more to teach me and I wanted to spend as much time in her company as possible. Crazy. I mean, it was my first year to drive and I stayed after school until nearly six o'clock, then I would just go straight home. Why? Because I loved it. It was my passion. You don't have to convince or prod someone to do something if that person is truly driven to do it. No one told me I had to stay after school.

What do I do today? I write. I edit. I taught literature and writing for years (and will again, I am sure). I am working on a dissertation in English. I go to conferences and present my research to other scholars. I am active in my intellectual community.

You know what else? I made WAY, WAY BELOW AVERAGE on the GRE math section. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the GRE, it is the exam most undergraduate students must take before getting into graduate school. At first, there was an English section, a logic problem section, and a math section. Now, there is an English section, a writing section, and a math section.). I took the test twice. The first time, I studied the math part, passed barely, and went about my merry way. By the time I wanted to enroll in a PhD program, my scores were out of date and I had to retake the test. This time, more confident in knowing who I am and what I think of these tests, I didn't study for the math section at all. You know what I did? I randomly clicked answers. I didn't do a single problem. My score? Only slightly worse than my original, but still in the passing category.

These standardized tests are insane and the people designing them are crazy. They do not test general standards of knowledge. For example, let's look at the GRE subject test in literature. Seriously? Most people do not encounter this test until it is time to apply to a PhD program. The problem? The test has questions about all time periods of American lit, world lit, and British lit. There are questions about authors and literary criticism and all kinds of other things. What is wrong with this? Well.... By the time you get to the point of taking this test, you are already specializing. You already know, for instance, that you wish to study Southern gothic or British Romanticism. So, you have spent the majority of the last two years immersed in those time periods, learning good basics but what really amounts to a small amount of knowledge. So, please tell me why someone who...oh, I don't know...specializes in British Victorian literature must be able to answer highly specialized questions about American literature? Or world literature? Or even British modernism, for that matter? I know generalities about these other areas, but I can't identify passages on the spot after spending years studying one particular time period. AND: that doesn't make me any less smart or less qualified. I don't know a single British literature professor in my field--and there are some amazingly smart ones--who are experts in world literature or American literature, too.

BACKWARDS, AMERICA. BACKWARDS.

But back to the general GRE and the subject at hand: My response? Screw it. I am not interested. It isn't who I am. In fact, I resent the fact that I had to pay money to take a test with math in it at this point in my career--and that is just one more example of how our thinking is backward. Why, at the graduate level, does someone planning to go into the literature field as a PhD student have to take a math test? This does not make sense. I don't need to know the area of a triangle to be able to average grades. I am not an idiot when it comes to numbers, but I am not skilled in advanced math....and, again, that is just how the cookie crumbles.

So, my message to anyone out there who happens to stumble across this post: accept that your children have amazing gifts and talents--but not in every subject. That is a load of crap and completely delusional. If you push them to be perfect in grades (and, I hate to tell you, but with grade inflation the way it is...well, an A means nothing these days...teachers hand them out like candy), you are not allowing your child to develop into the person he or she is meant to become. This does not mean that you allow your child to slack off or be lazy or someone who doesn't try their best to learn every possible thing he or she can learn. With effort, they, too, can pull out a C in a subject that remains completely foreign to them. If we raise generation after generation of children who are "college-ready" for all subjects, then this just means we have raised generation after generation of mediocre scholars. What we need in each field of study are people who have intellect, ability, and, above all, passion to make sure that the field endures and humankind advances. If all of us are supposed to go into the maths and sciences, then what will happen to literature? To writing? To art? To music? To languages (and no...listening to a Berlitz tape of going through a Rosetta Stone CD doesn't count)? To culture? BASICALLY: What happens to humans knowing about who we are and how we got here? These questions are equally important to the maths and sciences. They help balance us out, raise ethical debate, and boost creativity....and, make no mistake, creativity is completely necessary in ALL fields of study.

So, again, recognize that each one of us is not meant to succeed at all things. Love your gifts. Encourage your children to follow the path that is right for them...not one defined by a news report.

Comments

James said…
Amen, Sista'!!

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