Coloring Within the Lines

Does this seem familiar to anyone else?

In writing of the degree of misery that our education system currently inflicts on our status seeking students, William Derersiewicz writes:

“It would be bad enough if all this misery were being inflicted for the sake of genuine learning, but that is quote the opposite of what the system now provides. Our most prestigious colleges and universities love to congratulate themselves on the caliber of their incoming students:  their average SAT scores, the proportion that comes from the top 10 percent of their high school class, the narrowness of the admissions sieve that lets them in, all the numbers U.S. News & World Report has taught us now worship. And make no mistake; today’s elite students are, in purely academic terms, phenomenally well prepared.

How could they not be, given how carefully they’re bred, how strenuously sorted and groomed? They are the academic equivalent of all-American athletes, coached and drilled and dieted from the earliest years of life.  Whatever you demand of them, they’ll do. Whatever bar you in front of them, they’ll clear. A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize thirty lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Every single kid got every single line correct, down to the punctuation marks.  Seeing them write out the exercise in class, she said, was a thing of wonder, like watching Thoroughbreds circle a track.

The problem is that students have been taught that that is all that education is: doing your homework, getting the answers, acing the test.  Nothing in their training has endowed them with the sense that something larger is at stake. They’ve learned to ‘be a student,’ not to use their minds. I was talking with someone who teaches at a branch campus of a state university.  His students don’t think for themselves, he complained. Well, I said, Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to. I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League- bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development, one that they directed by themselves and for themselves…

…kids are eager to accept creative challenges, but only as long as it will get them an A.” (Emphasis added)

Deresiewicz is careful through the rest of his book to be sure to not blame the students for this system but to place the blame on the rest of us, where it belongs.

I encourage all to read Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite.

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One response to “Coloring Within the Lines

  1. I completely agree. As with some early childhood programs I’ve worked with in the past, it’s unfortunately a matter of the product and that’s a process that has become important with too many teachers and schools.

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