Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Great Expectations

Does Not Appear To Be Working To Full Potential was the named of my hypothetical autobiography, according to a little internet meme I ran with last year, because that's what I was most likely to be given as a "comment" on my report cards in school.

'deed, I used one notebook for most of my years in college, and the notebook is mostly filled with doodles and...other things that I scribble.

For my first semester in (community) college, I took classes back-to-back with no gaps, exceeding the number of credits allowed--had to get a permit--and scored a 4.0. My attendance was good and I was interested, and I've generally found that taking notes comes between me and the lecturer. I think I read the texts, but don't really recall. They were not very good. They gave me $50 and put me on the honor roll, both things which struck me as odd.

For my second semester (at the local U), my sister was there, too. I did the same tactic: Took classes in a solid block, every day, exceeded the allowed limit, got the permit, and came away with a 3.75-ish. This devastated my sister who had a screaming fit: "It's not fair! He doesn't even study!" she yelled. My sister has always been obsessed with fairness.

(Some time in high school I had taken to putting my report cards on the refrigerator just so my mom, who was otherwise occupied, could see them. It had never provoked any sort of reaction before.)

But there was a funny thing about this second semester, which was grueling in a lot of ways, because I was working two days a week after school, trying to keep up the martial arts training (several hours five days a week) and trying to build a relationship (seven days a week). I got mono and--oh, what's that really awful liver disease?--hepatitis.

Yes, I had some ridiculously easy classes (logic, nutrition) and once again, I didn't take much in the way of notes, but just relied on being present and aware. But I had one class, sight singing, which was a one-unit class--and I spent more time on that class than on any other, and still I got a B.

Like all my music classes, there was a requirement to perform. That is, you had to actually do something to get out of a class with a good grade. (The community college I went to had a very sane practice: There were four levels, and you had to get As in all of them, but it could take you as much or as little time as you needed, as long as you got them all in the two years. There was a drummer who got through all four levels of rhythmic dictation in a month, but was stuck on the first level of melodic dictation when I last saw him.) Usually, this was not terribly challenging for me.

In sight singing, you look at a sheet of music and sing it. This also wasn't too big a deal at first, even though I'd never done it before. (A lot of the other musical stuff I had was easy because it was similar to things I'd been doing for years.) We started out with rather plain Classical music, then moved to the more chromatic stylings of the Baroque and early Romantic eras. We ended with some complex Renaissance polychromatic counterpoint--which I loved--and with 20th century music, which I didn't love so much and which was very challenging.

And so it was, I spent hours trying to master this skill for this one unit course. And ultimately I had to decide that it wasn't worth the amount of time it was going to take to get an "A". That is, I couldn't sacrifice all that needed to be sacrificed in order to do it.

So I got a "B"--but that "B" meant more to me than most of my other grades. It never occurred to me to be upset that someone else had it easier--had perfect pitch or a long history of training. I just put it on the list of "things to master at a later date when I have more time."

My sister has numerous talents that I don't possess. She's a natural performer--as comfortable on the stage as I am uncomfortable--and an extrovert, charismatic and popular, fearless and athletic. And while it's true that academics have seldom been challenging for me, I've had to work hard in a lot of areas to achieve anything of note, and way harder in some just to appear vaguely normal.

It's common--and fine--to be a bit envious of those for whom success seems to come easily in areas that you have to struggle. I said a few choice words to kids who could come into the dojo and deliver a kick to the head on the first day. But always keep in mind a lot of what seems like easy success wasn't easily attained at all: It just looks easy because it was successful.

I can write a program in lightning time while others are still trying to figure out what to do because I started thirty years ago. As a kid, I put in lots of hours. I put in hours and hours playing and writing music, too, and studying martial arts, and writing millions of words (and reading tens of millions).

So if that stuff looks effortless now, it's because there was lots of effort expended in the past.

The impetus for this little essay was this article tweeted to my attention suggesting that my sister's viewpoint has won out. Students believe that working hard should positively impact their grades.

This is the very essence of a cargo cult and misunderstanding. "I was always told that if I study hard I should get better grades!" Well, yes, but...but...but....the point is, if you study hard, you learn the material better and better grades come as a result.

The work is not the point: The product is the point. Get better results and you'll, you know, get better results. What sort of debilitating philosophy is this? How hard I try is more important than the results I produce? Is this what kids are taught?

What about the whole "growing up" part where we learn we can't always achieve our goals? Or for a more "Darwinian" view: When do kids learn that certain tactics are ineffective and they need to adopt new ones? How do they learn what "bad" is?

There's a sense that effort should equal reward directly. These are the "expectations" talked about in the linked article. I'm no Dickens' expert, but I always thought "Great Expectations" referred to the expectations others had for you--the level you were supposed to rise to, not rewards you expect from society.

This is not one of those things that makes me think, "Gee, I should send my kids to school."


  1. I think it relates to the feminization of the academic space.

    I think the dichotomy between your sister and yourself isn't uncommon between masculine and feminine types (though the way you describe yourself and your sister, sounds like your are both on the far end of your respective spectra)

    When academia was predominately masculine, results are what mattered, not process.

    Now that feminine modes of thinking dominate, process is paramount, and results are expected to derive from following the process correctly, you can not succeed without accepting the proper process, and students that follow the proper process expect to be deemed successful, irrespective of whether or not they master the subject at hand.

    Schools used to be set up to produce doers and thinkers, now they are set up to produce followers and sensationalist.

    (and I'm using 'sensationalist' to describe a person whose primary approach to life is through emotion and senses, can't think of a better term at the moment that pairs with 'thinker', but its polar opposite, so I'm going to use 'sensationalist')

    Even disciplines that used to be 'hard sciences' like anthropology and climatology have been taken over by the process oriented crowd. I can't see engineering, physics and mathematics ever succumbing.

    School should be a place to learn, if you haven't learned the material, no matter how hard you think you've worked at a class, you haven't earned an excellent grade until you are excellent.

    The differences in feminine thinking and masculine thinking aren't about gender, there are plenty of men who exhibit feminine thinking (like the whiny dude in the NYT article), and plenty of women who are plenty linear in their thinking, but as academia opened up to women, and accomodated women, they overcompensated and changed too much of how scools function.

    As bad as the situation is in colleges, it's ten times worse in grade school, K-5 education is almost exclusively both feminine and female, given that any man teaching young children is almost automatically suspected of being a child molestor, so very few men even attempt to teach at that level any more. Kids getting to college now probably didn't have a male teacher until they hit middle school.

    Men and women tend to have different approaches to things, and having one mode be so dominate in teaching aimed at the young must effect those students expectations and behaviors as they age and move through the system. Kids that respond well to the feminine way succeed, those that don't, fail.

    Folks come in many flavors, and right now schools don't. It was bad for a lot of students when the only way of doing things was the masculine way, and it's just as bad for many students now that the feminine way predominates. A balanced system might lead to more balanced individuals who can find strategies within themselves to succeed in either system.

  2. Nicely put, XWL.

    I don't know if it can be blamed on feminization--although, as you make it clear, you don't actually attribute it to gender. (I would point out that women have traditionally done the grade school teaching, and is there a pre-Boomer Catholic who doesn't have a nun horror story?)

    What I attribute it to is a resistance to actually getting results. A devaluation of results and an actual anti-result nature. The LAUSD actively tries to destroy success.

    In my own bias, I tend to blame the--what name do they go by now?--the "behavioral sciences"? Their various disciplines have worked for years without provable results (or anything like science), and they're the ones behind the current teaching "modalities". If your results can't be tested, you can't ever be found out as a fraud, right?

    It's sort of interesting, because the IAHP (whose philosophy I roughly adhere to) is anti-testing. They are, however, pro-application, which is the ultimate test of knowledge (can you apply it?).

    Anyway, I'm not sure where I end up on the spectrum, though whenever I've done one of those male/female-type tests I've generally come out 50/50.

    But we are polar opposites in a lot of ways, even in looks: Growing up, I was fair-haired, darker skinned and slightly heavy, where she was black-haired, pale-skinned and very skinny. (Then my hair darkened, and I got tall and skinny.)

    Personality-wise and taste-wise, we never had much in common, tho'.

  3. School should be a place to learn, if you haven't learned the material, no matter how hard you think you've worked at a class, you haven't earned an excellent grade until you are excellent.

    I totally agree. Unfortunately, for an awful lot of kids--most, maybe--college isn't a place they go to learn. They just want that degree. Going to class really is nothing more than "punching the clock."

    When I was in school about 8 yrs ago, all of my classes in the lecture halls (where there are too many students to take attendance) were less than half full on any given day.

    Far fewer students need to be going to college, and more emphasis does need to be put on learning. ... I know those two statements sound contradictory, but they're not! I think we need more trade/vocational schools and more of those types of classes in high school. Students need to realize that there is a direct and tangible result--other than a grade--to be had from learning. Namely, a job and a paycheck, and hopefully, some satisfaction in their work.

    (In TN, the sense of entitlement has been worsened by the lottery and its scholarships to the State U for good grades in HS.)


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