Thursday, February 14, 2013

Frustrating ambitions

Some thoughts on homework, and the existential angst it reflects

It’s a basic tension I’ve seen in my entire career as a high school teacher, but one that seems to have become more pronounced lately: the desire of my students to perform well combined with complaints about academic workload that peaks at predictable junctures in the school year (the week leading up the holidays, the one leading up to spring break, and the looming end of the school year, among others). My school does more than most to provide circuit breakers to reduce the tension, among them homework bans during vacations, prohibitions against due dates major assignments shortly after returning from vacations, and a test calendar that limits how many assessments they can have on any given day.  Despite such strategies (or perhaps because of them – pushing down pressure at one point may just displace it to others) the anxiety never seems to go away, and indeed seems to become a topic of conversation not just among students, but also their parents, school administrators, and faculty.

I tend to react to such conversations with impatience. Sometimes this is a matter of disdain for my students’ lack of stamina; they seem to regard more than about 15 pages of homework reading, for example as excessively onerous. (I think of one’s appetite and pace for reading as akin to being in good physical shape: the more you do the easier it gets.) But since I often hear a subtext of blame in such expressions of anxiety – you teachers just assign too much work, seeming to forget students have other classes and real lives beyond what goes on in any given course – I also tend to mentally push back.  You think I like assigning homework? I silently ask. Nothing would make me happier to not have to grade that set stack of papers I’m obliged to assign before vacation and then read during that vacation. (I chuckle grimly when a student writes “Enjoy!” in an email when handing one in.) Everybody seems to want me to challenge students and coax them into a meaningful form of excellence, but nobody seems to like the cost excellence imposes. Indeed, some think they can wish it away, believing progressive educators like myself are those that allow students to do what they want without even knowing they’re working hard. Sorry: it doesn’t work like that. There’s lots of different ways to work hard, but hard work is . . . hard. If it’s easy, it doesn’t mean much. That’s not to say that hard work is always meaningful, either. Indeed, one of my toughest intellectual challenges as a teacher is coming up with assignments that have some sense of larger value.

Of course, I’m bound up in a system I deplore, too. The main reason why I assign essays and tests is that I’m paid to assign, read and grade them. If I didn’t assign them, I’d fail to afford students opportunities to learn, much of which happens as a result of the ineluctably solitary effort to express themselves, notwithstanding the legitimate coaching of teachers, parents, or (less legitimately) professional tutors. And if I didn’t read them, I’d have little information on where my students actually are, which is the most obvious measure the way I’m assessed by parents and supervisors.  And if I didn’t grade them, I wouldn’t be doing my part in performing the larger work of sorting students into tiers of perceived quality, a process nobody much professes to like, but which identifies those most likely to compete effectively in the college process.

 The college process: that, finally, is what this is all about. We fight it, we deny it, but we can’t escape it at my school and thousands of others, public or private, urban or rural. School is typically experienced by a student at a time, in a classroom at a time, in a school at a time. But education always happens in a much wider context, consciousness of which gradually encroaches on a family the closer it gets to a student’s graduation. Once upon a time, that context was statewide or national. Increasingly, it’s global. That’s true even at cash-starved second tier schools, hungry for foreign students willing to pay full tuition. There are few better ways to exhaust oneself mentally than to think about how small one’s achievements are in a world that grows ever vaster the more it shrinks.

For a long time, I ascribed the pervasive anxiety surrounding college admissions to the vicissitudes of coming of age in a declining empire. Like British youth a century ago scrambling for places in an ever-shrinking Colonial Office, today’s students lack the luxury of their parents or grandparents, who could afford to regard their schooling with an air of detachment, confident that a robust national economy would find a place for them. A major reason that economy is less robust, of course, is foreign competition, which takes the form of everything from cheap products to plentiful engineers pouring out of foreign universities (and domestic ones). Under such circumstances an ambitious high school student can scarcely afford to take it easy, no matter how desperate that student was to do so.

I still think there’s some truth to this analysis. But it now seems much too insufficient.  A thirst for distinction seems to be universal. I don’t mean to say that everyone has it (many a parent has flailed in the face of this reality, not certain about whether to accept it as final – some of those lollygagging students of previous generations really did get their act together). But at any given time, in any given population, there will always be people who want to excel and such people will tend to congregate at schools like mine.

The rub, of course, is what excel means. It is academic excellence? An intellectual bent? Superior social skills? Of course it’s any of these, and more. We’re all endowed with different levels of such indicators, which blend in different ways to constitute a standard of success in the world beyond the school. The world is big in this regard: there are lots of ways to be successful. But it’s also true that for any given form of success, there are always more people who desire it than there are places, and even those who occupy such places are typically restless about where they are and want something more.

This is our blessing; this is our curse. Having a goal sustains us, gives us a sense of purpose, allows us to believe the pains we endure may yet be part of a successfully realized larger design. But it breeds continuous discontent and persistent fears that we’re simply not good enough. What’s even worse is the suspicion – and eventually knowledge – that those fears are justified. Sometimes they stalk us even when we have attained our goals (“attainment” proving to be surprisingly difficult to define unless it’s unambiguously out of reach). So it is that we remain ever restless, boats against the current.