Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Way We Live Now - Kindergarten Cram - NYTimes.com

The Way We Live Now - Kindergarten Cram - NYTimes.com

Jean Piaget famously referred to “the American question,” which arose when he lectured in this country: how, his audiences wanted to know, could a child’s development be sped up? The better question may be: Why are we so hellbent on doing so?

Easy answer. Because the US is a high-risk, high-stakes casino that is ostensibly a fair meritocracy. We have the highest Gini coefficient in the civilized world and the most meager social safety nets. And we do not believe that it is feasible to provide decent lives for all. There will always be losers, we believe, and so we're desperate to make sure that our kids aren't amongst them.

Given the way the system works, this means pushing kids ahead of the curve fast since, at every stage of the game children will be (officially or unofficially) tracked and have to perform ahead of their peers to get onto the fast track for the next stage which will solidify their advantage. At every stage advantages and disadvantages accumulate and the gap between the minority groomed for success and the throwaways grows. It may be possible to get off the dummy track but at every stage it becomes harder and less likely.

By high school students are irrevocably sorted into those who are groomed upper middle class lives--placed in AP classes, sent to science fairs, and pushed into the "leadership roles" in student government and extracurricular activities that will get them admitted to "good colleges"--and the rest who are kept occupied, disciplined and controlled. Students on the disciplinary track conclude, with good reason, that school is nothing but a kind of jail and simply want out. They see no connection between education and future benefits because for them there is none.

Parents don't want their kids on that track with good reason. I was on it and it was miserable. I saw the smart kids at a distance, the Rah-Rahs who wore madras, who were in "advanced classes," on student council and in various clubs, who were lauded as National Merit Semi-Finalists at school assemblies. I knew some of them from orchestra--another one of the extra-curricular activities that would look good on their college applications. But they weren't in my classes, where students resented being in school and the ethos was passive-aggressive, where teachers' primary concern was keeping us quiet and preventing us from chewing gum.

No one ever talked to me about college, or encouraged me to do extra-curricular activities, or expected me to do well, or even expected me to be interested in what I was ostensibly supposed to learn. School was just a dull job we had to do, like the jobs we would get when we graduated. I sometimes think that the real purpose of the regime was teaching us how to cope with boredom to prepare us for boring drudge work.

Of course we go hellbent for leather to speed up development so that at every stage kids will get into the top quintile, to keep them from being tracked into the kinds of classes that not only stifle ambition but kill any interest in intellectual activity.

Those yuppie parents who push their kids to read at 3 and fight to get them into the "best" pre-schools, are behaving rationally. As long as there's an educational tracking system which feeds into what is, contrary to our official ideology, the most rigid socio-economic tracking system in Global North parents will clamor for kindergartens where 5 year olds are drilled to pass tests.

2 comments:

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