Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Screwtape proposes a toast

So last night in my church growth group we read CS Lewis' short work, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast". For the uninitiated, Screwtape is a demon in the pits of hell, so the wise will be sure to avoid following any advice he has. You can read the whole thing here if you're inclined. What really struck me in the story is the part where Screwtape talks about how Democracy can be twisted into a thinly veiled excuse for envy, and moreso, how this attitude quickly spreads into education. These two paragraphs were especially profound for me:

"The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. This can be done at various levels. At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the phrase – “parity of esteem.” An even more drastic scheme is not possible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma -- Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us."

A sobering assessment in any respect, but especially when you consider that this was written forty years ago. Here are my own thoughts on the subject, borrowed from a blackboard discussion from a couple of weeks ago for my Ed 795B class at SDSU:

"The problem with education in America is that there's no scarcity. Scarcity is why Chinese schools work, and why American Universities work. This is why if I could do just one thing for education, and only one thing, I would get rid of truancy laws. I figure if parents can't even get their kid to ATTEND school it isn't our job to do so. Attending school should be a privilege not a right, like driving a car. I know there is a societal cost to having uneducated citizens, but there is also a societal cost in trying to educate them. I totally understand being an advocate for low achieving kids who've got it rough, but we've got a responsibility to be advocates for those kids who don't. These are the kids who try hard every single day and get essentially ignored for it because they aren't dyslexic or ADD or emotionally disturbed. Imagine if we could take all the resources we spend on raising up the lowest kids who don't give a lick anyways and instead applied them to the highest of the high, making sure they were consistently challenged throughout their school day. Maybe we leave a few children behind, but at least we aren't holding anyone back either."

Until last night I thought my view was too harsh, and while I guess I still feel that way a little, it is much less so now that I read Mr. Lewis' thoughts. Even so, I've come to think that it might not be necessary to do away with truancy laws altogether, so long as that feeling of scarcity is created somehow. It could be artificially created within the schools along the lines of what Germany does now, effectively creating tiers of schooling for all pupils. Those without the grades are not permitted access to all the offerings of the school, akin to our own AP course offerings in high school. This would create a level of scarcity that I think would benefit education overall, though it would not alleviate the suffering of teachers still asked to educate the unmotivated and unsupported (and then berated for failing to do so). That may require another set of solutions I haven't yet thought of. -joe


zakota said...

My daughter will be 17 in June. She really wants to graduate and go to college to be a nurse but, hates the high school and how she has been treated!!! She has been sick and since the end of 8th grade to date we have been trying to figure out what is wrong with her. The end of 8th grade and 9th she was put on truancy not through the courts only threatened and as long as I provided a note they were happy well she missed almost a month of school and so we are looking at truancy again which is soo dum seeings how she will be 17 in a few months, so they are waisting my time and hers and tax payers money to take us to court. She wants to go to the college and get her high school diploma and be done with it. She has been harassed by staff alot and has called me several times crying to come and get her she is a good student even passed 8th and 9th grade even with missing all those days!! It is a shame to focus on someone who wants to graduate and yet not on the kids that are actually ditching

terry freeman said...

I found this via google as I was looking for info on Screwtape Proposes a Toast. The passage about good students being held back resonates with my own experience. Recent research suggests that, if you give children lots of books and time to read, their reading skills will improve. Well, imagine that! It certainly would be an improvement over waiting for one's turn to read two lines from some dull See Dick Run book.

But to address the argument regarding scarcity: spot on, that! Children are actually amazingly efficient learning machines _when_they_want_to_learn. I have a grandson who, at the age of 7, knows more math - negative numbers, powers, fractions, decimals, binary arithmetic - than children who are much older. He learns at home, whenever he wants to -- which is quite a bit, since he loves math. In any classroom, he'd be told that his interests are "far too advanced" for his age.