It Begins with a Deliberate Choice
"But I'm not interested," cried the child.
"Oh, dear! Oh, dear! The child is bored," lamented the reformer,
waving his hands and running about in circles.
"Hurry! Hurry! We've got to rebuild the universe to suit her."
"No," muttered the cynic. "She must rebuild it herself."
In "Seeking Edutopia," an essay that appeared in the May 16, 2001, edition of Education Week, filmmaker George Lucas is quoted as follows: "My own experience in public school was quite frustrating. I was often bored. Occasionally, I had a teacher who engaged me, who made me curious and motivated to learn. I wondered, 'Why can't school be interesting all of the time?'"
The essay's writer uses Lucas' question as a springboard for launching his version of what public schools need. Like other idealistic critics, he assumes that schools are "deeply rooted in the past." He also assumes that the unhappy public school experience of the few makes a valid condemnation of the entire system. And he hints that the failure so far of technology to revolutionize education is due to the fact that educators haven't properly embraced it. When all is said and done, however, the writer doesn't answer the question: Why can't school be interesting all of the time?
This is a key question, because it drives so much of what we do, both successfully and unsuccessfully, in education. And there is an answer to it. But the answer doesn't lie in continuously overhauling the entire system, though the system certainly cannot afford complacency. Neither does it lie in somehow eliminating the weaknesses of teachers, although we cannot pretend that poor teaching doesn't hurt students. Nor is it found in the worship of computing and the Internet or in tailoring schools to meet every child's interests or "learning style."
The answer comes in two parts and it manifests itself if we are willing to agree that idealism is something one works from, not in. I tell rookie teachers that no matter how idealistic they are, reality will pound them into despair within two or three years. That's about the time many young teachers leave the profession. The trick for survival and for success, I tell them, is to keep idealism as a motivation but also develop a clinical realism for the day-to-day action.
The same should be true for reformers.
Speaking realistically then, the first part of the answer to Lucas' question is this: On the megascale, school simply cannot be "interesting" all of the time, nor should "interest" be the primary factor in deciding the forms and functions of a school system.
It's true that the public may be enchanted momentarily with new technology or glitzier curriculum, but kids, especially, will soon forget the "new" and "different" and revert to the same attitudes American kids have always had simply because those are the attitudes much of America has: School is boring, studying is boring, intellectual depth is subversive, and only what applies to job training and self-esteem is valuable.
It's also true that schools will likely "lose" some of the most- and least-advanced students. That's a sad fact, and it is certainly no excuse for cold-heartedness. It is where educators, as idealists, must continue to tilt at the windmills. But no reforms based purely in idealism will eliminate the inherent injustices of the system.
Like it or not, the public education system, on the large scale, is charged with the prosaic but critical task of giving people tools that help them become thoughtful and intelligent citizens, productive workers, and well-adjusted individuals.
For the safety and welfare of all of us, the citizenship purpose of education should be more important than the other two. When we allow the "worker" purpose to drive the other two purposes, we get it wrong. But we also get it wrong when we allow the "individual" purpose to become paramount.
Thus, personal interest, while certainly a valuable motivating force for any of us, is nevertheless too capricious, too easily warped into selfishness, to be a foundational plank of something with the scope and breadth of a public education system or its individual schools.
Some progressive educators reading this are, I'm sure, already lining up to expose my ignorance. They've long ago bet on the idea that, if we could just make things interesting enough, all the other problems of education would drift away. They may even suggest that I'm asking for a "cookie-cutter system," but if they do, they'll be wrong.
"Interesting" is good. Nobody should have to be bored blind in school, either by the subjects and materials or by the teaching methods. But we are too easily seduced by the flimsiest charms of "interest." And that's one of the reasons we've built a certain flimsiness into the system. We've become a nation addicted to personal interest (along with convenience and infinite choices, the other two legs of this wobbly ethic), and school isn't the only place that weakness appears.
PacMan was interesting, for example, when it first appeared. But if interest alone could keep that product going, why the constant barrage of new, wilder, more violent, more bizarre video games? The simple answer is this: Interest doesn't last. What alleviates boredom can, in turn, beget boredom.
Whether public education can survive in the 21st century will depend not so much on making the system personally interesting or occupationally relevant, as it will on helping kids, and the adults who nurture them, understand that perseverance and self-discipline will get them furthest in life. I'm not optimistic that we will ever recognize this, much less accomplish it. Too often we fail to see the distinction between the pursuit of a current interest and the work that will be rewarded with lifelong interests.
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The second part of the question's answer is this: School can't be interesting all of the time because we consistently refuse to do our part in making it interesting. The "we" here includes not only educators and reformers, but also parents, kids, and Americans in general.
Interest is not a genetic trait, it is something that we develop—sometimes coincidentally, but often through deliberate actions—by knowing something about the subject in the first place, for example, or by tying the information in front of us to something we already understand. Interest is something over which the individual has considerable control and so cannot blame its absence on the system alone. A case in point: "senioritis." It just is not logical to say that high school seniors lose interest in academics because no school in the country has anything interesting to offer them in their final year. At least one major cause of senioritis is deliberate choice.
When I was a high schooler, my 11th-grade world history course was taught by a tall, tense young man who immersed us daily in long lists of facts and names from the past. He was so nervous about classroom control that he allowed no questions, no activities, and no discussions. I hated the teacher and the class, but complied begrudgingly, pulled my B's, learned a bit of history in a rote way, and moved on, thereafter using that teacher as a model of how not to teach.
But a few years after I graduated, when Uncle Sam plunked me down in the middle of what was then West Germany, I spent time wandering through medieval castles, Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, 17th-century bishops' residences, and villages still rebuilding from the ravages of the World Wars. I stood in the ruined Nuremberg amphitheater where Adolf Hitler once inflamed his followers, and I felt the weight of history that place represented. My wife and I lived in an apartment across the alley from what had been Napoleon's headquarters on a campaign through Germany.
And history became fascinating. I developed such a passion for it that the indifference of most of my GI pals began to anger me. I discovered then that despite his indefensible methods, my high-school teacher had taught me a smattering of European history that enabled me to understand what I was seeing and to learn more. I had a knowledge base, minuscule though it was, and I had finally grown up enough to do my part. Once I let knowledge and experience broaden me—surprise! Interest became, and still is, the reward, not the motivation. The challenge for teachers is not to discover their students' interests; it is to awaken in them the ability and desire to take interest in what they are learning.
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One more anecdote: For most of my 25 years in the English classroom, I assigned seniors a big, formal term paper to end the school year. This produced weeping, gnashing of teeth, and cries of "boring" and "stupid" from my students, as well as occasional hard questions from parents or principals. Yet, every year I watched as various students became proud experts in a tiny niche of knowledge they had chosen—sometimes out of interest, but more often out of necessity—to pursue deeply, methodically, boringly. As they did their part, their boredom turned to interest.
In other words, there's a chicken-and-egg paradox here, one we need to unravel in answering the question of what education should be and where it should go. The paradox is this: If you refuse to begin except where you're interested, you will most likely travel toward boredom. And the longer you go in that direction, the narrower you will be, the fewer things you will find interesting, and the more bored you will become. Thus, idealists who insist that schooling must be rooted in individual interests may be doing us all—especially the students—a disservice.
If, on the other hand, a student complies with the demands of the initial boredom, he may learn something. And if he does, he may very likely become interested. Once a student starts in this direction, he will be continuously surprised at how many things hold real interest. Only by motivating our own selves do we truly become educated.
In art, I think they say it another way: If you sit and wait, the Muse will never come; but if you work, you can force the Muse to appear.
No matter how much we wish it to be otherwise, the interesting will remain defined only by the individual at the moment, and will be subject to change on a whim. The longer we pander to the notion of providing only "interesting" schoolwork, the longer it will be until we build a national seriousness about scholarliness and the less likely it will be that we'll ever have in great quantity students who realize their highest creative and intellectual capacities.
Ron Rude is a former English teacher and the current superintendent of the Plains Public Schools in Plains, Mont. The original article was published in Education Week, Vol. 20, No. 43, Aug. 8, 2001.