I was sitting at a large, round table with all the teachers of the CHOICE middle-school program sitting around me solemnly. They had called me here to inform me that, in my final year at middle school, I wouldn’t be allowed to go on this year’s spring trip — a multiple-day hiking and camping excursion taken every year by the school. Ms. Green cried as she delivered this news. The reason was that I was not a good enough student — that I did not complete enough of the work that they had assigned me to be afforded this privilege.
I don’t remember analyzing the situation closely, but I do remember being rather unfazed. After all, it meant that I got to stay home for a week doing as I pleased instead of spending a week with my cruel classmates and lack of friends. I did empathize with my teachers who were very torn up about the whole thing. I knew that they saw “potential” in me and perceived that I was squandering it, and felt that they needed to impose “consequences” in order to drive the message home. Perhaps I learned that if I don’t do what authorities tell me to do, they set me free and allow me to do with my time what I actually want.
In 11th or 12th grade physics, we were learning about circuits, and I was learning LISP on my own time (instead of doing homework). I saw a mapping from the circuits we were studying to a hierarchical description, and wrote a program that would reconstruct as much information (currents, voltages, resistances) as possible from the information given using repeated application of Ohm’s law. I informed the teacher of this, and he seemed pleased; I asked if I could use it on the homework and tests and he said that I could not. Writing the program increased my understanding of circuits a great deal, but the existence of the program itself afforded me no real advantage. Perhaps this experience is why my preferred way to use software today is as a mathematical and mind-expansion exercise rather than making a tool that can actually be used.
When I studied education in college, the community was very interested in making sure that students saw the real-world application of mathematics, trying to combat the (correct) perception that what students are being taught is useless. Hence the all-too-familiar “word problems”:
Train A, traveling 70 miles per hour (mph), leaves Westford heading toward Eastford, 260 miles away. At the same time Train B, traveling 60 mph, leaves Eastford heading toward Westford. When do the two trains meet? How far from each city do they meet? (source)
Of course, nobody has ever tried to solve this problem with two trains unless they are already interested in math, and then only in the abstract (this kind of information is difficult to find about actual trains). The truth is that at this level of “real world”, math beyond basic arithmetic and estimation is not really useful, so any attempt to make it seem so will be disingenuous. I believe kids are smart; they will not be fooled so easily.
The theme tying these anecdotes together is disrespect. I do believe that teachers have the best intentions for their students, and in many cases love them. But if you respect your students, you would not give them as a word problem a situation you have never come across to convince them that math is useful in the world. Why not give them a problem of algebra similar to problems people actually face — how much should a tech company expand its datacenter capacity given a projection of its growth; when will it cost more energy to drill for oil than the energy it returns; should a company with a given amount of capital build its own infrastructure at a fixed up-front cost or lease it at a monthly rate? The fact that the “real world” presented to students is one of travel times, house building, and saving and spending sends a strong message to them about what they can become. Algebra is used in engineering, science, and business, not purchases of milk and eggs at the grocery store. You will ignite a student’s passion for math when she understands that she can use it to become something, not that it is (pretending to be) an essential skill for a consumerist greyface. Conversely, if the student has no interest in engineering, science, or business, he is right to be disinterested in math class; let him do something useful with his time.
I felt disrespected that my teachers felt I was squandering my potential by failing to do the work that was assigned to me. I felt disrespected when I couldn’t use my creation to assist me with my homework. I felt disrespected when, despite getting high test scores, I was punished for not doing the work assigned “to help me learn”. No attention was paid to my developing programming skills or my talent for music — they never asked what I did with my time instead of doing homework. (I wonder what they thought?) This was all confusing to me at the time, and I rebelled from my heart, not my intellect; now that I have a more acute awareness of society, I am grateful that I rebelled. In retrospect the message shines through with clarity: school is not for me. I had assumed that I was there to learn the content and the teachers were all just blind or crazy — I know now that I was there to learn to follow orders, and my education is for the ones who give them. When teachers talk of my squandered future, they refer to a future of subservience to authority. (If I’m going to squander a future, please let it be that one!) The disrespect for my personal autonomy was pervasive enough that the idea that I could be an entrepreneur, an artist, or a leader were not even considered possibilities.
What boggles me is that I doubt my teachers saw it this way. They truly cared about me, I could tell. I feel that this is a cultural phenomenon of seeing children as less than human, as incapable of making good choices for themselves. (A basic rhetorical analysis The Powell Memorandum reveals that leaders of enterprise feel the same way about the working class.) I don’t know where this view comes from — except the teachers’ own internalized oppression as working class. Teachers are not paid well, which makes them feel bound and powerless, which is communicated to the students and sustains the system of subservience.
Today, just as in school, I struggle to follow orders, and this comes as no surprise to me. I was not successfully trained to do so. I struggle to continue exchanging my alienated labor for Google’s money, and I am realizing more and more that convincing myself to care about this labor is not a viable strategy. Sometimes I think badly of myself for this, but it is not a fault only to have energy for what I care about. I don’t know what I would have become if my gifts had been acknowledged and nurtured rather than ignored. It’s too late for that; now I must bring to others the respectful, humanizing education I was denied. The remaining question is how?