School is boring, and that’s a Good Thing

 

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

 

Like the entire population of Planet Earth, I waste too much time on Facebook.  And if you are like me, you have noticed the prevalence of memes: pithy little quotations on all manner of subjects.  Trouble is, anybody can generate a meme, and now there are websites devoted to helping folks churn them out.  So what was once witty and thought-provoking is now…not so much.

Take, for example, this one about what schools (by which I assume they mean ‘public schools’) really teach.  I’m a product of the Texas public school system, and I can personally attest to the accuracy of every assertion made here.  But I disagree with the implication that these are bad things.  In fact, quite the opposite: these things are crucial to a healthy society.

THERE WOULD BE NO COUNTERCULTURE without the presence of futile attempts to quash dissent, creativity, and independent thought.  Let’s put it another way:  The Beatles, Rolling Stones, hippies, yippies, Free Love, underground press, the Berrigans, Chicago Seven, Black Panthers, Pink Floyd, none of it–would have flourished without entities like State Boards of Education and the Nixon Administration.  For push back, there has to be push.

Don’t believe me?  Think all that stopped in the 1960’s?  Tell it to the voters in Florida and Ohio eighteen days ago, who became so incensed at their Governors’ bald-faced attempts at voter suppression that they turned out in record numbers and waited in lines for hours to cast their ballots–even, in the case of Florida, after the winner had been determined.  If you want to motivate folks to do something, tell them they can’t.

Back to the schools: of course they don’t focus on teaching children how to find creative solutions to their problems.  Why not?  Three reasons:

BECAUSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DO.  I can no more teach you how to think creatively than I can teach you to fly.  In fact, if I show you creative solutions, I’m just shutting doors that you never had the opportunity to find for yourself.  Let’s review the meaning of the word ‘creativity’:  “The use of the imagination or original ideas, esp. in the production of an artistic work.”  If I show you my best solution, there goes your opportunity to arrive at your own ‘original idea’.  And that’s unfair;  I’ve been doing it longer than you, and I’m better at it.

BECAUSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO GRADE.  I’m reminded of my experience as a grad student at UNT, taking classes in jazz improvisation.  The course was divided into four semesters, each one building on the one previous.  The third semester was the equivalent of high school’s junior year, aka The Year We Actually Teach You Everything.  It was completely centered on Altered Dominants, which form the basis of understanding for the Common Practice Period of Jazz, as embodied by Charlie Parker and the Bebop Bunch.  So that’s where they kept the #9/b9 licks, the Diminished-Whole Tone scales, the tritone subs, the whole dominant-centered megillah.  The playing tests focused on how well the student utilized these tools in improvising over bebop-oriented tunes.

Problem is, this approach conveniently overlooks every new innovation in jazz from mid-1960 on.  So, in terms of the course work, we get virtually no late-period Coltrane, no Eric Dolphy, no Lester Bowie, no any of that.  And why not?  Not because it is without value, obviously.  Because it is IMPOSSIBLE TO GRADE.  How do you tell a student that they have done an unconvincing job on their Cecil Taylor recital?  How do you grade someone on the Sam Rivers/Anthony Braxton Scale?  How do you grade a Comp Recital patterned after Sun Ra?  The professors themselves don’t understand it.  How can they evaluate others on it?

BECAUSE IT IS INAPPROPRIATE TO THE TASK AT HAND.  Not all learning is centered around finding creative solutions.  Much of it is centered around memory and repetition.  Far from being the bugaboos alluded to by our friendly memester above, they are really quite crucial skills.  It’s how I learned to multiply, for example.  Not to mention how to read words, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, and the Periodic Table of Elements.  The fact is, we learn a lot through memorization, and the most important thing we learn is how to develop the mental discipline necessary to handle the tools of organization and prioritization.

Personally, I think the biggest threat to today’s students, and to today’s population in general, is the Death of Critical Thinking.  But you don’t get that in school, or from any one source.  You get it from extensive reading, research, and exposing yourself to news sources that both affirm and deny your particular worldview.  Not many folks do it.  More should.

So, the assertions above about public schooling lead to little hand-wringing from me.  Because the truth is, if you are predisposed to go with the easy solution, the one being spoon-fed you by the Folks Holding the Reins, then you probably are not the next John Lennon anyway.  Which is fine!  Somebody has to fry the donuts, somebody has to fix the copiers.  It would be impractical to have a nation of Creative, Empowered, Bold Artists all attempting to push one another out of the spotlight for their fifteen minutes.  And there’s plenty of personal fulfillment to be had in a job well done, whether it’s mapping the human genome or driving a crosstown bus.  As UNT Saxophone Professor Jim Riggs once said to me, “The world doesn’t need another saxophone player.”  He was right, of course.  But what the world needed and what I needed were two different things.

When my daughters were little, they would sometimes whine, “Daddy, we’re booored.”  To which I always replied, “Good!”  It took them awhile to figure out that I was throwing the ball back into their laps and challenging them to come up with something interesting to do.  Finally they stopped whining, and I would congratulate myself on imparting a bit of World Wisdom to them.

Then, faintly from the next room:  “Mommy, we’re booored.”

 

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