Our fear of the young mind

My impression reading about current state of elementary and secondary school education is that since the time I went to school, the education is demanding more attention of the student through the use of more frequent and more intense homework, more frequent and wider-ranging standardized testing.

In our quest for higher performance standards of the largest possible proportion of the class demonstrating the most thorough understanding of the may-be-tested knowledge, the pace of learning new material is slowed so that old material can be revisited in different ways or made more tedious to foster a deeper understanding of a concept.

From my remote perspective, it reminds me of a circus training animals.   I grant that most animal trainers and handlers have a lot of love for their animals, go to great lengths to ensure the animal’s welfare, respect the animals needs, and tries to understand their animals.   But then the trainer coaches the animals to behave unnaturally.   When the show goes on, the animal is expected to follow a script that suppresses its instincts, that exaggerates its defining qualities to a human audience, and perform something that unexpected and probably human-like.

Children are being coached like animals for the show and that show is standardized tests and college or post-graduate admissions.

In both cases of the circus show and the standardized tests, there is no room for spontaneity.   An elephant in a ring presented with a ball has its only goal is to balance itself on the ball.   It can not decide the ball is far less compelling than some hat it sees in the audience.

I am reminded in my late-life experience in prepping for in a certification exam.   It was instructor led and the task was to internalize the material in a 3 inch binder of paper because that is where the exam will draw its questions.   There was no time to do anything but to memorize the distinctions of different but closely related concepts, to itemize the exact terms (not possible synonyms) that is part of each standard definition and the precise definition of each synonym.

In the middle of this training, I noticed something unsettling about the whole of the knowledge.  In particular I noticed that each of the individual topics made sense sometimes to the point of being obvious, but a practice of employing all of the topics in their full rigor would be counterproductive or even disastrous.  I’m not claiming I might have been right, I’m just saying the thought occurred to me to question the wisdom of what was being taught to me.   I was quickly reminded that that thought was out of place.

From the society’s point of view the wisdom of the material has been fully vetted by its advisory boards and all that is expected from me is that I absorb exactly that wisdom.   To be fair, they acknowledge their fallibility by making the certification expire after a few years unless the holder does continued education or refresh examinations to get the latest wisdom.

I agree with this process for a certification.   Industry may have come to respect the wisdom of a certain body of knowledge and they want their employee to be their on-site representative and repository of that wisdom.

Also, I’m an adult.

I object to applying the certification model to young minds.    Back to my anecdote where I thought of an objection or contrary argument to the body of knowledge.  Not only did the thought occur to me, but it bothered me to the point where I felt a need to express my objection.

It was fair to over-rule my objection, but it would have been a shame if my mind were so undeveloped to not be able to see a possible objection or if my mind were so insecure as to feel unworthy of verbally expressing that objection.

Where did I get the idea that I could come up with my own ideas, ideas outside of book knowledge?   Where did I get the idea that I can express an idea that is not traceable to bookish knowledge?

I recall my own primary and secondary education.  I was not an idealized student (insert picture the docile circus animal wanting desperately to please the coach).  But the coursework was relatively light to allow my mind to wander and the teachers had some latitude to accommodate my diversionary questions.

I imagine that current students do not enjoy the same benefits.   There is less time for mind wandering, and virtually no allowance for the teacher to accommodate such wandering.

We’ve set high standards for entire classes to demonstrate a high minimum competency in core subjects.  To meet these goals, we demand students to know the material inside and out, the how you know as well as what you know.   To meet these goals the actual body of knowledge is set in stone.   The only task is to transfer that stone into the brain.

This is identical to a professional certification.   It is what we do with adults.

In an earlier post, I contrasted the difference and classical approaches to basic language skills.  Modern approaches focus of reading, writing, and comprehension.  Classical approaches focus on grammar, logic, and rhetoric.   Comprehension means being able to read an instruction book.   Rhetoric means constructing, presenting, receiving, and deconstructing arguments.

This fits perfectly with the certification-model of modern education.   Comprehension is exactly what is needed to pass a standardized test.   Argumentation is disruptive and counterproductive.

There may be an unstated motivation for this focus on comprehension over argumentation.   If a characteristic of older minds is the accumulation of wisdom, a characteristic of younger minds is their exceptional ability to argue.   While older minds find comfort with settled knowledge, younger minds thrive on questioning knowledge.

What a young mind thirsts for is not accumulated wisdom, but for the best tools to identify the best arguments and to have winning approaches for presenting their best arguments.

There is no room for questioning unquestionably knowledge so we outlaw this particular appetite.

But we are also deliberately overfilling the bucket of unquestionable knowledge so that there is no room to accommodate arguments.

Perhaps one reason we do this is because we fear the consequences of unleashing the talents of youth to argue over the unquestionable knowledge.   The task of the teacher will be somehow develop the rhetorical skills in such a way that the winning argument is exemplary argumentation that supports the unquestionable knowledge.

In many cases, this is an impossible task for teachers.

As a society we have two choices of how to teach our children.  Option 1 is that we can demand they know the accepted body of knowledge and achieve high scores on standardized tests on that knowledge.  Option 2 is that we can develop their abilities to build and present an argument, receive and tear apart an opposing argument,  and return a rebuttal argument.   These options are inherently mutually exclusive.

We justify choosing option 1 because we convinced ourselves we are smarter than our ancestors who chose option 2.

Or, we fear option 2 will destroy option 1.


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