Tyranny of mediocrity

My opinion is that we don’t test enough in schools, and that we should lengthen the school year to accommodate more testing. (James Conner)

imageI linked to this post by Polish Wolf earlier, but took it down as it was also mixed up with Dr. Kailey. The post, entitled “Assessing Standardized Testing,” concerns that topic obviously, but is dry and unsatisfying, like most classes I took over the years (and continue to take to keep my CPA license in force). Somehow these two teachers (I include James Conner, who comments under PW’s post) have done what so many teachers do so well – they have taken an interesting subject and by brute force have made it dreary. Rote testing as the centerpiece of our education system is not a learning system, but rather one of thought control. Kids are restricted in avenues of inquiry. Teachers are removed from teaching. Most know it, but these two are doing what Democrats do (surprise!) – internalizing the concept, intellectualizing it, and submitting to it.

I should add here that I am an excellent test taker. I mastered the art prior to sitting for the CPA exam. Before studying any topic under review, I would take a self-administered test. I would get most of the answers wrong, of course, being unfamiliar. I would then study the material, and had questions in place. Lights came on as I read. I then took another test on the same material, getting most of it right. Those questions I still got wrong were the only things remaining to understand.

The CPA exam in those days was a rigorous two-day 19-hour test. It was draining, but I managed to pass all five parts my first sitting. What do I remember of all of that material? Not much. But the object of the exam is not so much the material as a weeding process, a barrier to entry to a lucrative profession. It’s not a test for the sake of a test so much as a way to keep in place artificially high prices for specialized services. Throughout all of my career I have automatic credibility because of those three letters after my name. But it’s only been years of practice and errors and cold sweat knowing I have screwed up that have made me worthy of the credibility. It was not the damned test.

Both Polish Wolf and Conner are missing out on teaching as it ought to be done – forget about spilling out what we already know and demanding that the kids read it back, rewarding those who best recall the boring details. That’s a sure-fire way to reinforce what we already have – systemized mediocrity. We have average people at critical junctions in every aspect of our lives except music, perhaps science. In those two professions, you cannot fake it. These average people are our teachers, administrators, gatekeepers, bureaucrats, dietitians, journalists, bankers. They did well in the testing system. They should be set aside for waiting tables or some other profession that does not require creativity. Instead, they run our damned lives. Look what they are doing to our kids – testing them to utter submissiveness!

Creative people often don’t test out well. We all develop by practice and failure, and when we are hit with a bad grade at every perceived failure, we learn to restrain our creative impulses. When we learn at the starting gate that the rewards are only for regurgitation, we lose our best people (bad students), and end up in a tyranny of mediocrity.

Here is Chomsky on this subject, taken from a recent interview:

The conflicts about what education ought to be go right back to the early Enlightenment. Here are two striking images that I think capture the essence of the conflict. One is the view that education ought to be about pouring water into a bucket. We all know from our own experiences that the brain is a pretty leaky bucket, so you can study for an exam on some topic in a course you’re not interested in, learn enough to pass the exam, and a week later you’ve forgotten what the course was. The water has leaked out. But this approach to education does teach you to be obedient and follow orders, even meaningless orders.

The other type of education was described by one of the founders of the modern higher education system, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, a leading figure and a founder of classical liberalism. He said education should be like laying a string that the student follows in his own way. In other words, giving a general structure in which the learner – whether it is a child or an adult – will explore the world in their own creative, individual, independent fashion. Developing, not only acquiring knowledge. Learning how to learn.

…this was described nicely by one of the great modern physicists, Victor Weisskopf, who died some years ago. When students would ask him what his course would cover, he would say “it doesn’t matter what we cover. It matters what we discover.

About Mark Tokarski

Just a man who likes to read, argue, and occasionally be surprised.
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17 Responses to Tyranny of mediocrity

  1. steve kelly says:

    Obedience is the key to destroying the urge to learn. Institutions are built to contain us, program us, and separate us from what’s going on all around us. Only a tiny fraction of the World is man-made. That’s where we live, isolated from the source of all that sustains us. The space in which we actually live is barely large enough to create, dream, or learn. People really need to get out more.

    “We don’t need no education
    We don’t need no thought control
    No dark sarcasm in the classroom
    Teachers leave them kids alone
    Hey teacher leave us kids alone
    All in all you’re just another brick in the wall
    All in all you’re just another brick in the wall” – Pink Floyd


    • Rob Kailey says:

      Steve, that kind of unbelievable arrogance, the kind that tells people the lives they live are a lie and a sham and a joke, that we are inhuman, is precisely why you got your ass so thoroughly kicked by someone as ridiculous as Dennis Rehberg. You might want to consider that before following further down the delusional path of Tokarski.


    • I’ve encountered this attitude before and find it interesting … we should not tell people the lives they live are a sham. But if the lives they lead are a sham, isn’t part of the solution for them to realize that the lives they lead are a sham? I realize that your professional liars, like Tester and Rehberg, trade in that currency. They lie for a living. I’ll be damned if I can see anything useful in perpetuating that system.


  2. Steve T. says:

    I think if the people who complained the most about teaching “critical thinking” were to actually create a curriculum, they would find 2 things:
    1. It’s a *tad* more difficult in practice than in theory.
    2. It’s already been done. A lot.

    You would also find that many of the people who are for standardized testing are for it because they’re actually in the business of improving the way we teach and actually being able to measure the results. They’re in the business of creating something other than mediocrity.

    Anyways, this is a super-complicated issue. I doubt we disagree on much here, but I cringe when I see it being over-simplified like this.


    • Who said anything about teaching being easy? But what relieves you of accountability? That it’s a hard job?

      A the larger point here is contained in your statement that standardized testing is being used to measure results. In what world can a multiple-choice question measure anything but regurgitation? Critical thought is not a five-choice matrix, but rather an exercise in depth and breadth. I do not want to know what causes weather. I want meteorology.


  3. Steve T. says:

    No, no, no. You are not getting my point – and you are totally misreading which side I’m on. There’s a lot of good teaching out there, and a lot of good curricula that doesn’t get used enough. I agree that our education system is stunningly mediocre.

    My point is that the people who think that more critical thinking needs to be taught in schools have a really easy job in screaming and crying about it, when in fact they have no idea whether or not it’s been done. And when asked how one measures critical thinking, their response is usually something along the lines of “well, other people should figure that out.” And God forbid they try to do it themselves.

    We likely agree that teaching needs to be better. But we likely disagree on how to measure the problem. You haven’t even tried. You would be amazingly well-served by doing some research into your assertions here. How does one measure critical thinking? And once one does that, how does one assess how much it is being taught in our schools? Has anyone done that? How does it measure against other westernized (or other) countries? Do you have the studies?

    Amazingly, our standardized tests actually do a pretty good job of reflecting where we stand relative to the rest of the world. All of the studies that show we have fallen behind other countries in education rely on the results of these tests. Granted, we can figure out that they do better just by having a casual conversation with just about any European that we ever run across about just about anything related to world events – even events in our own country. My point is that the only way to measure such things is to test our students. When taken in the big picture, they tend to represent pretty well where we stand in the grand scheme of things.

    Granted, here in Oregon we’ve started to hold students much too accountable for their results on these tests. They can’t graduate unless they have shown proficiency in math up to Algebra 2, which is beyond absurd. The point of the tests shouldn’t be to hold students accountable to their results, but to hold our education system accountable for their ability to actually convey information to students.

    But saying all this stuff is way more difficult than just saying uniformly that students should be taught how to think critically.

    If you’re interested in my actual ideas about education reform, ask me sometime. My overall point is that people who rend their garments over testing are usually severely misguided about the motivations of the people – or the governments – who are doing the testing and its role in serving the interest of the students.

    One more thing: The people who are uniformly the most opposed to standardized testing are the ones who you think are doing the shittiest job: The teachers themselves. Why do you suppose that is?


    • More later, and you make good points and I’ve no doubt that you could write well on this subject and put me in my place. As the guy who founded this blog, you should try it!


    • lizard19 says:

      I’m going to risk a severe oversimplification and say it’s all money. first, how we compensate certain professions exposes our cultural priorities, and it’s not teaching.

      second, my priority now, because I have kids, is the kind of self-interest described (though I haven’t actually seen the film) in Waiting for Superman. I can afford to send my kids to a great preschool. I got lucky and live in one of the better school districts, and it’s better because it’s in the University District. money.

      even if we developed a great education system in this country, an economic system that creates the kind of wealth disparity that now exists means too many kids in their early years aren’t even getting enough food to make use of something like head start.

      and with the sequester, the first slashes are being felt.

      and with grand deals looming, more pain is on the way.


      • the only thing that can come from sequestration and austerity is economic downturn. There are plenty of idiots who think just the opposite, and who will continue to think just the opposite even as the real world tells them otherwise. What I wonder about are those who are smart enough to know what the real results will be. What do they want? Feudalism?


    • Steve, i cannot get this comment to properly place in the dialogue. We are hiking all day tomorrow, but I would like to have this discussion with you. I am aware that most teachers are not enthralled by the testing regime, and also that testing has a role to play in assessing effectiveness. This was true even in my day. What I am curious about is whether your role as a teacher (I know it s only part of what you do) is constrained by the need to measure up under the tests, so that no matter your talent , dedication and creative drive, you are enlisted as a soldier.


  4. Steve T. says:

    Well, I am a licensed teacher but I do not work for any school district – I teach at PSU for one job and am funded by a Federal grant to teach and counsel in Astoria. So I’m actually remarkably free to do what I want – I essentially play a support role for the school district that I work in, seeing need with my students and trying to address it.

    That being said, I know a LOT of good teachers, and have witnessed a lot of not very good teachers. And the main thing that I notice is that the very good teachers tend to have very good results on standardized tests and rarely have their feet held to the fire. They just do their job, and they do it well. And everyone around them tends to know that they do their job well. It shows. And I’ve not talked to any teachers who have genuinely changed their pedagogy (by, for instance, “teaching to the test”) in order to accomodate testing. I tend to think that’s a myth made up by teacher’s unions, though I could be wrong. The main complaint is that students spend too much time testing – time which could be better used for instruction. That’s all anecdotal, though.

    The main argument used by teacher’s unions is that we can’t measure student results because… poverty. and because… parents are bad. Due to those outside factors, it is impossible to determine through testing whether or not a teacher is doing a good job. Of course, that has been addressed in many different ways (although not at all through NCLB). School district performance can be measured taking into account demographics, poverty, ESL rates, urban vs. rural areas, and countless other factors – and then school districts can be measured against their peers so that you don’t measure rich suburban areas vs. poor urban areas and then pull funding from the areas that need it the most. And testing can be used in concert with other methods like classroom observation and student evaluations to determine whether or not a teacher is doing a good job. But teachers’ unions have largely opposed anything along these lines – basically saying that bad classroom results are never the fault of the teacher or the school district.

    But I think that all kind of leaves out the point you’re trying to make. Standardized testing focuses almost exclusively on English and Math – and increasingly on Science. The kinds of teachers that you are likely most concerned about – history, government, creative arts, etc. aren’t often being measured by standardized tests. I agree that Social Science teaching in this country is a joke – but I would argue that it’s largely because our system for training teachers is awful and that there are way too many men who pursue that particular field. And because there is such a high supply of people (like me) licensed in that field, schools often focus on who brings something else to the table – such as being a football or basketball coach. So often times SS teachers are hired as coaches first, and teachers second. (This is pretty anecdotal as well).

    Anyways, you don’t see the problem of people being told they must teach a certain way or be fired, or that they must conform to certain test standards. You just see teachers who largely aren’t very good at their job. I have only met one decent Government teacher who actually gives a shit about his job in my entire time in education, in lots of different schools. The rest are really quite awful – they’re football coaches first, and they give the usual rote memorization bullshit worksheets to their students so that they can sit back and plan their roster for the upcoming game while class is going on. Or they show “The Patriot.” This isn’t because they’re told to do this. They’re just dumb.


  5. It appears that your framework is that better results of standardized tests are what we are hoping to achieve, kind of begging the question about whether the results of standardized tests are indicative of kids being able to negotiate life without a crutch.

    We need to go deeper. If kids do well on those tests, are they then citizens who are cautious about “news” and wary of advertising? Do they hold leaders accountable? If the government gives a war, do any refuse to show up? Those are my parameters – insert your own. You are a grown man, and I expect that you handle life’s many problems with intelligence and wisdom. Are you equally confident in the students, even those who do well on the tests?

    This post was directed, by the way, at two teachers that are seemingly lacking in the very abilities they want to test.

    Oddly, the social studies/coach parameter was on display in 1964-68 at Billings Central. Nothing has changed!


  6. Steve T. says:

    Again, I really believe this all starts with teacher training. The incentive in schools of education is to pump out graduates – when in fact the incentive for the schools should be to weed out those who are likely to suck at their job. I think a big part of the solution would be free College for people who want to be teachers, with the understanding that they have about a 30% chance of ending up with a degree. But that idea is totally in la-la-land. Not gonna happen.


    • We are kind of talking by one another. Education is part of the commons, the way people escape from mediocrity and thought and behavior control, learn to express themselves and behave as strong and independent citizens in a free country. The idea that only some should be educated for free is not an issue. All should receive education to the highest level that they demonstrate ability and effort. Education is more than an escape from poverty. It is also an escape from chains.

      As we do it, kids get a diploma or a degree, get a job, get chained to a desk, and learn to be obedient. The whole idea that we respond to a bell and move from classroom to classroom is a product of the industrial revolution, when reading became important for a trained work force.

      I’m talking about freedom of thought, expression, movement, self-actualization. Schools do not teach us to value those things.


      • Steve T. says:

        You’re also advocating a utopian model that has the benefit of never being tried. Kind of like free-market conservatives.


        • Ouch! People are resources who can be developed. We both know that most are instinctive followers. They want to be told what to think and do. But a few can be developed to lead us to places we cannot imagine. Rote learning will not get them there, might even hinder them by putting blinders on them, stifling instinct. Did you notice in the email I forwarded yesterday that all of the exceptional people there were bad students?

          Anyway, the purpose of education as we do it is not to develop people, but to keep them under control, keep them from coming for the ruling class with torches and spears. Education makes us stupid.


        • I should add here that Ellul said that uneducated people cannot be indoctrinated, and that the more education a person has, the more he is sucked into the indoctrinary system. Intellectuals, he said, are by far the easiest targets, the most susceptible to propaganda, Orwell’s trained circus dogs who jump through the hoop without being commanded to do so.


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