If at First You Don’t Succeed…

What no one acknowledges-parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials-is what every high school student already knows. The great unspoken, tacit agreement throughout our culture in general and our schools in particular, is that every student can learn every subject at the same level of proficiency. The reality is that in our great land of opportunity, all students may be created equal, but in trigonometry class, differences may easily be observed. Consider a developmentally delayed youngster for whom even relatively simple acts-tying a shoe lace, understanding these blog posts-are a trial. Surely this youngster should not be expected to learn the binomial theorem. Without knowing the second term of (2x + 3y)^5, she can live a contented life as a chimney sweep or TV news anchor. But only if her expectations are in keeping with her preferences and abilities. If she is forced to sit in a room until she understands where 240 x^4 y came from, we may have to send out for some large number of pizzas. Which is not to give anyone an excuse to slack. Those who can, should. But after a point, “try, try again” must evolve into “but don’t be a damn fool about it.” Even “never give up” is a poor motto for many professions, skydiving among them. Consider the author of the best-selling humanities text book in the country. The author, by her own admission, could not tell you the quadratic formula from a Formula One race car. Admittedly, writing the best-selling humanities textbook in the country is akin to crowning “One Life to Live” as the best of the day time soap operas. (At the risk of explaining the joke, I wouldn’t recommend committing to any day time soap opera, best or otherwise, nor would I want to try to feed a family on the paltry earnings from a text book-even a brilliant, best-selling one.) The point-“finally” you might say-is that had my mom* been forbidden from pursuing higher education because of her inability to do much math, our world would be a poorer place. It should also be noted that there has not been one reference to the binomial theorem in ten editions of the book. The question is not “should everyone be given the opportunity to learn the binomial theorem.” Like, Duh. Come sit over here; I’ll teach you the binomial theorem right now. The question is whether or not those of you-like my mom-who can’t learn the binomial theorem should be squashed, prohibited from getting a graduate degree in some other discipline for example. One of my favorite students failed geometry for the third time recently. He said he just couldn’t learn it, that he forgot the theorems as soon as he thought he had memorized them, that there was no way he could possibly get through the course. His parents, counselors, teachers, and I listened patiently and thoughtfully, and then, with one voice, responded with these two words: “BULL” and “SHIT! We went on to say, “THERE IS NO REASON IN HEAVEN OR EARTH WHY YOU CAN’T PASS THIS GEOMETRY COURSE, YOU WRETCHED SLOTH! TAKE GEOMETRY FOR THE FORTH TIME, DIM BULB, AND DON’T GIVE ME ANY LAME ASS EXC-- USES, NOW DROP AND GIVE ME TWENTY!” Gentle guidance-equal parts sensitive and mild-is what all good educators are known for. Needless to say, the fourth time was the charm and the kid was pretty well pleased to have gotten the job done. But were this child to come back to me next year and ask for advice about whether or not he should sign up for a course in differential equations, I would mindfully suggest that he was cuckoo for cocoa puffs and then check his forehead for fever and cerebral subdural hematomas whatever those are because enough is enough already and not every student can learn every subject at every level. The biggest lie in education is disguised in plain sight in statistics like this one. (Read with haughty English accent.) “At glorious Fish Wallow University, 97 percent of our pre-medical students are admitted to graduate schools of medicine.” Gloriosky! Then all I have to do is enroll at F. W. U. and I get to go straight to med school? Not so fast me Bucko! Because what the statisticians have deftly left out is the number of students at glorious F. W. U. who aren’t included in the stat. And a large number of kids are indeed excluded from the alleged 97% med school acceptance rate because organic chemistry at Fish Wallow produces more history majors than it does doctors. In order to be defined as a pre-medical student as Fish Wallow, you have to get through organic chemistry. Which not everyone does. The biggest question in education is when to admit that further instruction will have no positive effect. It’s lovely to think of Edward Jame’s Olmos portraying Jaime Escalante in that fine 1988 film, “Stand and Deliver” in which all the low income kids work hard all semester and then pass the advanced placement calculus exam. It’s another thing to think that this sort of result happens frequently with any group of students at any school. As happy as I was for my student who passed Geometry on the fourth try, I would not have forbid him to pursue other academic passions had he failed. * The Art of Being Human, 10th edition: The Humanities as a Technique for Living by Richard Janaro and Thelma Altshuler, 2011.

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