Surrender: Dynamite, the Brain, and the Bomb

The virtues of surrender are undervalued. The thrill of the push is grossly exaggerated. Tired? Push. Lost? Forge ahead. In the middle of a fruitless and bloody war? Stay the course!

What better feeling is there than when, after hours or days of resistance, you just relax and fall into sleep? Drowsiness is a fruitful ally but a deadly adversary. The rumble strip on the side of highway I-90 comes to mind.

But we are taught to push. We are encouraged to drive a speeding train into a rock wall if that is the only option available. And such is the fallibility of action-for-action’s sake. There is an avid push to reform education, to remodel the crumbling infrastructure of our minds, and to invigorate stale methods of rote indoctrination and, I admit, the dark side doth look appealing. As a teacher, I make a fair and decent wage for the time I spend with my students and planning for my courses. It is my responsibility to ensure that 70 or so students improve their ability to read and write so that they can become just like me – en route for University or some various institutional preparation for the working world. The question I must ask is: what indicates that I have achieved success doing this?

I will tell you. But first, I will introduce you to someone whose influence each of us has felt in this area.

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James B. Conant, physics and organic chemistry professor at Harvard and President of Harvard University from 1933 – 1953. As chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, Conant amped up the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of nuclear weapons. During his tenure as President of Harvard, Conant lauded the Hitler regime, welcoming several high-ranking officials to speak at the University. He is credited for revolutionizing the admission policies of American universities from merits of social standing to merits of achievement, pivoting from an emphasis on the classics to an emphasis on the sciences. Out of his efforts grew the mass acceptance and extended use to this day of the SAT and its offshoots such as the ACT. These tests are still the primary assessments used to evaluate intelligence in the United States.

Before I go further, I want to clarify something. I am not going to urge you, the reader, to hate this man. Rather, I encourage you to be like him. James B. Conant changed this country and, based upon his considerable gifts as a teacher and politician, created the educational infrastructure which became the model for the world for some time. Conant did not succeed by promoting what “was”, he, seizing the grand opportunity of a World War, induced our country into effective training and revolution. Effective for the time, that is.

If you haven’t done so, please look at a normal registration packet for a public, or even private, high school student. Here you will see Conant’s hierarchy of subjects in tact after nearly 60 years of change to our society and technological advances unseen before in the history of human kind. How can it be that the same core classes still prepare students for the current world? How can it be that the same organizational strategy is still worthwhile after such a period of radical mind and culture evolution?

It can’t.

I like to ask my students to trust me for a second when I start out the school year. I tell them to turn to the person to their right and pinch him (a little more than gently). Then I tell them to turn to the student to their left and pinch him as well. I have them do this as many as 10 times. The first 2 or 3 pinches, almost all of the students pinch and receive pinch without resistance. They actually have fun and it is a great ice-breaker for the guys (ie – later on at lunch, they can go to the girl pinched and either apologize for pinching so hard or continue the flirtation. You’re welcome gentlemen. Ladies, just put him in his place or ignore him or surrender – ain’t young love grand?). After about 3 pinches, the buy in of the students dives. The defense mechanism against pain kicks in thus quelling their willingness to pinch another student. This is because they have ceased to trust the exercise and they have lost this trust because they do not know why they are doing it anymore. They actually never did. All they knew was what I was asking them to do and, after a few rows of blindly following what orders, they abandon ship. I encourage them to constantly ask me and ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing and, if they or I don’t know, revise or completely reinvent what they are doing. Action-for-action’s sake just becomes a dull pinching sensation.

I have to admit to putting my students through a fair amount of pinching work in my time as a teacher. But no more. I’d rather they sketch or gossip.

James B. Conant felt a deep why and he realized that there was a whole country waiting. He seized that opportunity and changed the world (he was not alone, I must add). The why of our country at the time was the greatest economic depression on the books and the brooding conflicts over the ocean in Europe just begging for some American gumption and fervor. Conant gave them a how (education) along with a what (a restructured hierarchy of subjects and assessments) and our country blossomed amid worldwide conflict. We got to pinchin’.

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So, my original question: what shows that I have achieved success? (in teaching that is)

Well, according to the Conantian assessment system – test scores to determine merit.

And I wouldn’t deny the merit of these tests as a contained indicator of reading and writing aptitude. However, the current NCLB interpretation is something akin to mandating that we eat only bread-and-water. Conant was revolutionary for his time and his emphasis on SAT assessment filled a great why. The drive to do well on these assessments spurred the founding of the greatest university system in the world, one which currently attracts a significant number foreign students from industrializing countries such as China and India but which has reduced our high schools to test prep organizations for many students. It also has created a test prep private sector which siphons hundreds-of-millions of dollars away from the full battery of liberal arts – performance, music, computer programming, graphic design, video production, web design, etc.

Again, I believe that students should and can perform very well on these tests. But they won’t. They won’t because this is the 30th or 40th time we’ve asked them to pinch and they ain’t buying it anymore.

It is time to surrender and let our students drive their own education. These are kids who don’t really listen to radio programs or watch television shows as they are provided. They create their own radio stations on Pandora, guiding the play list by their likes and dislikes, they “tivo” their television shows and expose themselves only to what they desire to be exposed to. And why not?

Everywhere I look, I see the merits of technological evolution, but cell phones and mp3 players are often banned on campus because schools are not sure how to control them. We can’t. Surrender. Surrender to the brain. Surrender to the bomb. Dynamite out of redundancy and embrace creativity. I know it seems a redundant call to action, but there is no action involved. It is a change of attitude, an elimination of stage fright before our ingrained traditions of learning. Let’s be concerned how we appear to future generations, rather than those of the past.

My son’s grandmother, Sue, (I’d say my mother-in-law, but it would be incorrect legally speaking) taught high school English for over 20 years in one of the more remote areas of Colorado or the United States there are. It’s safe to say that in such rural areas the relevance of a high school education is often lost in such a rural place separated from greater academia. Sue believed strongly in allowing the kids to drive what happened learning-wise in the classroom. One year, she teamed up with the second grade (I believe she taught seniors) and had the kids collaborate on creating a puppet show in which they explored more positive endings to traditional fairy tales. In other words, Little Red Riding has the wolf cited for trespassing and the Three Billy Goats contract a ferry service instead of using the bridge. There was an 18 year old young man who hadn’t shown up the whole year until he got wind of this project. Sure enough, he showed up and worked diligently on Hensonesque puppets to put on a show for the school, parents, and teachers and, sure enough, after the performance, he never came to school again. Sue saw him in the community in the months following and asked him why he didn’t come the rest of the year and he told her that he had other more important matters to do during the days, but that the project was so creative and engaging that he pushed himself to come for those few weeks during which it was created. It was refreshing for him to be his own boss in the classroom and the work showed. What harm would there have been in allowing this young man to creatively drive his own education rather than forcefeed him an hierarchy of subjects? There may have been several more puppet shows and Jack may have had to deal with a class-action suit from the Giant!
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“I smell the blood of an english man!”
“Well, let me just febreeze this place, then.”

And it’s so much more fun.

My book recommendation for this reading: The Element by Sir Ken Robinson

He has given a couple talks you can find at http://www.ted.com in which he compares abuse of natural resources to the abuse of human resources, ie – not engaging people with their passions.

Read and enjoy. He has a crisp wit and some stellar interviews from Paul McCartney to Jay Z – the tie which binds all success? Skills? Brains? Sure! Mainly it is a congruence with passion rather than driving on in spite of it.

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