Archive for March, 2019

About the Third Grade Retention Fantasy

I’ll start this with a confession. I was held back in third grade not because I couldn’t read but because I obstinately refused to memorize multiplication and division tables. I expressed myself on the issue in strong terms (which was another but somewhat separate crime) – I thought it was a waste of time and I didn’t mind saying so. After having achieved a PhD, three Masters’ degrees and a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and spending years as a Burington carrying nerd intimate with non-linear differential equations and with a “log-log-deci-trig” slide rule carried in a holster on my belt I still assert that memorization for the sake of memorization is a waste of time and a poor substitute for authentic teaching. Being well educated is not being a well trained parrot or seal. I have a close friend who was held back in third grade because he wasn’t learning to read on the schedule predetermined by school authorities. He went on to earn a doctorate and became a college professor in spite of having been diagnosed as mildly dyslexic. He despises public schools in no small part because of his experience being held back.

My humiliation for obstinacy in the 1940s still galls me because it reflects an authoritarian attitude which persists to this day and which has nothing to do with the self-discipline necessary to scholarship. This attitude is oblivious to what teaching and learning are truly meant to be and mindless of the consequences of treating children like seals to be trained to clap their flippers on command. The upside however is that based on personal experience I have a keen insight into this demeaning, antediluvian self-esteem destroying policy. It is cruel, it is ineffective, and frankly, it is as stupid as the corollary, holding a teacher responsible for a child not learning to read on someone else’s schedule. The working definition of stupid I use is by the economic historian Carlo Maria Cipolla:

 A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.

Children learn to read in the same manner as they learn to walk – as they become ready to. Children are not programmable computer chips all endowed with the same blank schedule on which they will learn what adults insist they learn. As a culture and as a society, we are supposed to be evolving, not regressing. Retention in grade is backwards and unproductive – if your intentions are to educate, that is. If you have other and ulterior motives such as proving public schools to be ineffective so they can be replaced by corporate schools that’s another case.

The first problem with holding a child back for not being able to do something the child is innately unable to do at that moment is that it humiliates and damages the child’s willingness to take the risks necessary to take the intellectual leaps that lead to true understanding and authentic learning. Secondly, the child is stigmatized by his peers for as long as the cohort remains together which can last through high school and that alone can be a deterrent to staying in school beyond legal necessity. The practice of retention is not educative – it is punitive, cruel and not conducive to establishing a life-long interest in learning. If it is anything, it is anti-social and alienating. Adults who were humiliated in public school do not make keen supporters of public education. 

Reading can be and should be learned just as one learns a musical instrument – practice, practice, practice until fluency is achieved – no grade levels necessary. As there are no grade levels the music student moves from level to level as ability and understanding permit; the difficulty of the etudes are graduated as the learner progresses. Learning to read is absolutely no different. Grade levels are an unnecessary and counterproductive anachronism; they can only be justified as a punitive administrative convenience, and in elementary schools they ought to be done away with. 

Another and often overlooked aspect of learning to read is motivation. A child’s desire and interest in learning to read is largely derived from home life. If there are no reading materials in the home, if the parents do not read, if success in life is not coupled to reading, guess what? There is no motive for learning to read. How then can anyone reasonably justify holding a classroom teacher liable for 

those deficiencies in the child’s life? This attitude unfairly demonizes teachers and treads lightly on parents who are only too happy to absolve themselves and whose political support is courted for ever more draconian school reforms.

Any educational policy that punishes and humiliates children for not learning at an arbitrary rate is inhumane and only serves to alienate and erodes the social contract. It is negative and self-defeating to society, not to mention damaging to children. What never fails to astonish me is the lengths some adults will go to to use children to further their own selfish political and social agendas. I have what I call the wheelbarrow theory of child-raising and childhood education. In this scenario children are used by adults as wheelbarrows to truck around their own issues and agendas. These agendas and issues have nothing to do with the children so used – it’s all about the adults. What a pity.

”in a mirror darkly” – The Mirror That Is Trump

Wikipedia offers that,  “…the first mirrors used by humans were most likely pools of dark, still water, or water collected in a vessel of some sort.” Mirrors fascinate as much as they serve useful purposes, to see oneself “as others see us”. A historian of mirrors cites Socrates who thought, “the mirror can aid moral meditation between man and himself.” The reflected image, in one way or another, both fascinates and serves utilitarian purposes. Whether an ancient human looking into a deep dark pool of still water recognizing himself or a modern man making sure he has shaved the last errant hair from his face,“There I am!” and now, here I go into the world, ready for the day, ready for what’s to come.

Another mirror is a nation’s reflection in its leaders. Societies have had their “finest hours” under the leadership of men like Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy to mention two. On the other hand, it oftentimes takes extraordinary courage to look into a dark mirror to learn what has become of one’s society or what has been there all along but we have avoided looking at it. We all age of course and in that outward reflected image we can see, like it or not, what we have become. Looking into the mirror that represents current events and the conduct of our societies presents another range of similar possibilities. For example, a crowd chanting full-throat, “Lock her up!” is one of those mirrors. View historical newsreels of Hitler and Mussolini working their crowds with similar tactics – identify an enemy, vilify them, follow the leader into a future where they will be dealt with, you can see the pattern. All of those events and consequences are mirrors of their societies. And so now we have come full circle in the land of the brave and the home of the free to a mirror held up by the current elected President. Take a look. Do you like what you see? Is that you? Are those your neighbors? Your fellow Americans?

“For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.” Corinthians 13:12

On November 4th, 1944, when I was six years old, my mother and I took the short city bus ride from Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, to Springfield where we stood below the railroad station’s great stone arch. There was an enormous crowd  packed elbow to elbow stretching back for several blocks. On that day, Franklin D Roosevelt who had confronted the 1929-1939 “Great Depression” and created the “New Deal”, was greeted by working people who, like my parents, had suffered through the  “Great Depression”. At the rampart of the overpass the great man appeared, by then afflicted by polio, and was greeted with the most tumultuous expression of respect and affection I have ever experienced. There was no resentment, no anger, only respect and gratitude for the better future he had nurtured. This was the America that defined my basic understanding of our social contract, my social reality. This was the America I grew up in. This was the country I eventually joined the military to serve. It was a very different country, certainly not equal for all, certainly not without fault but very different from what we have become today. This memory is the mirror I look into when attempting to understand the complexity of these times. And what do we see?

Are we ready to go face to face with what our nation is becoming? Is that really us reflected or merely some minority of loud demonstrative fellow Americans riled up to some kind of fever pitch by an unscrupulous political cheer leader? And if immigrants are today’s targets who will be tomorrows? You perhaps? Your neighbors and people of color in the supermarket? My grandparents on both sides were immigrants and the stories they told reflected the rejection and ridicule they faced not unlike what we are witnessing now. Today, however, the Cheerleader-In-Chief is the President of the United States and his audience are the descendants of the same earlier immigrants. Surely this cannot not truly be what we have become, what we are as a people, as a nation. What is at stake is basic respect for your fellow Americans, our immigrant forebears, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. And, if for no other reason than that, we must live with each other or fail as a nation.


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