"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Raise the bar, dammit, RAISE the bar!

I don't have much to add to this story in the New York Times about a historical research quarterly written entirely by high school students (mostly public school students, by the way). These kids are researching, analyzing and writing up ORIGINAL RESEARCH for no school credit, no money, no headlines, no appearance on Jersey Shore. So why do it? Why does anyone want to be excellent? Do we really have to ask this question? (Yes, it will help with admission to college, but that has to be viewed as a secondary outcome, given the complexity of the task and the unlikeliness of one's paper being singled out.)

Here are some topics I found on the site currently: Austria-Hungary and the Compromise of 1867, The Paradox of Power: An Analysis of the Rise of Parliamentary Power with the Consolidation of the Monarchy in the English Reformation, and An Analysis of Alexander Kerensky's Handling of General Lavr Kornilov. I'm a bit of a history buff, and I find this stuff pretty arcane and sophisticated.

William Fitzhugh, who runs this journal, The Concord Review, is reportedly difficult and disagreeable. Maybe so, but maybe it's because he's swimming against the dominant school current of diluting and lowering standards. This impulse comes from a good place -- we want to provide success scenarios for all students, especially those who struggle and are likely to be frustrated. But the problem comes when we exchange interim, partial goals to be celebrated in order to spur students on for ultimate goals of excellence by objective standards.

The other reason that Fitzhugh may be difficult may be that his values conflict with parent's values, and those are always a problem for us classroom teachers. Let's be honest: the surest way to lower standards in education is to give parents more control. Parents are, as a rule, more interested in outward measures of success than in actual success. They press for higher grades for less work. They prioritize family activities, sports and other extracurricular obligations over school work. The Concord Review was not created by parents, nor would it likely to be run by them. It doesn't hand out "A"s or cash prizes or guaranteed school admissions. It's about learning a process, not rewarding an outcome. And the process should be its own reward.

Also, it's elitist. There's a mistrust of experts today, and that also comes from a reasonable place. "The Best and the Brightest" told us to trust them and led us into the Vietnam war. Experts lie and misrepresent. But that didn't make us smarter, didn't make us experts. It's not that we should disdain the hard work it takes to become expert in a field -- it is that we should question ALL AUTHORITY, including academic authority. Don't discard it, don't subvert it, but question it -- in an intelligent way, which requires being informed. Every time a politician compares the national debt to a household budget, you know either he's an idiot or thinks he's talking to idiots. The budget of a nation which has its own economy and its own currency is NOTHING LIKE the budget of a household. This is like saying, "I know all about defense appropriations because I own a Hummer."

We need smart, informed, hard-working people in the next generation and our school culture is moving in the opposite direction. Let's celebrate The Concord Review and identify the students we can get excited about writing for it, before it's too late.

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