Thursday, November 30, 2006


[posted by Callimachus]

In junior high school I flunked more classes than I passed and was thought to be learning-disabled as well as having juvenile delinquent tendencies. My parents seriously considered putting me in a military academy. A few passionate and faithful teachers helped get me through that period, and they have my undying respect and gratitude for it.

But I have an ambivalent relationship to the education business overall, perhaps sharpened by the bad taste in my mouth from personal experience. One incident I remember sums up a lot of what I think is wrong with institutional education.

In 9th grade, I was in an advanced biology class. I no longer remember what I was doing there or how I got there. Perhaps it was a situation like that of Barton, who sat next to my best friend in college-prep chemistry class in high school. Barton never did a lick of work and was clearly flunking out and happy about it. My friend asked him why he bothered to enroll in a college prep class if he didn't intend to pass it. Barton replied it looked better on your transcript if you flunked a hard course than an easy one.

Whatever; there I was trying to muddle through biology class taught by one of those relics who had entirely burned out on the profession 10 years before his pension kicked in, and was just treading water till the big day arrived.

I had missed a day of school, and the next day was the weekly lab. I got there and unpacked a microscope like everyone else, and started examining the slides, in which microbe critters did their things. I watched one thing that looked like a transparent hairy tulip. It seemed to be rippling its hair, and as it did, other smaller critters were drawn into it.

I thought this was fascinating, and being the naive and perhaps learning-disabled 14-year-old I was, I went up to the biology teacher and told him what I thought I was seeing and asked whether that might be how the animal fed.

He exploded and said, basically, "Weren't you paying attention yesterday when I explained all this?"

Of course he couldn't be expected to remember I hadn't, in fact, been there. But as I went back to the lab table I think I sensed that too much of what passed for education consisted in being rewarded for seeing what they told you you would see.