Thursday, April 19, 2007

Violence, Schools and the Limits of Standardization

In the wake of this week's shocking massacre at Virginia Tech, we hear pundits on cable and network news repeating theories about "warning signs" and how teachers, educational institutions, and social service entities should recognize them.

No one has mentioned a cruel irony. Since publication of the A Nation at Risk report in 1983, schools have in fact been preoccupied with other "warning signs" indicated by numbers on standardized tests. Is the student performing at below basic level? Put him in a special class devoted solely to test strategy. Does he need counseling? Well, there's no money in the budget. Does he have any other problems? Sorry, the documentation is spotty on that. Have you had problems with him? We'll get to it eventually--how are his scores? If he gets to college, all our problems will be solved.

The compartmentalized view of what happens in classrooms has come at the tragic expense of a holistic view of student life as a matter not simply of mastery but of social connectedness. In fact, listening to the seething display of Cho Hui on his DVD recordings, one can't help but notice the desperate, angry ravings of a person who opted for mastery at the expense of everything else--empathy, coherence, other human lives, and ultimately his own. As deranged as Hui may have been, we must acknowledge that he parroted all too well a zero-sum attitude which now pervades our educational culture and has long dominated our reality entertainment, our foreign policy, and our love of outlaw masculinity.

Teachers do notice disconnects in their intimate work with individual students on a daily basis. But noticing doesn't seem to matter these days. Are you on script? Did you fill in the bubble sheets? Can the students identify the standard for today's lesson? No Child Left Behind demands that schools worry more about numbers, not narratives, across time. The result is enforced cultural and historical amnesia.

In Cho Hui we have a young man who--even as an English major--had found no words to transcend brutality. It's not enough to shrug and say that most students will not resort to such atrocity to solve their frustrations and problems. It's worth really asking: What are we teaching and modeling for them instead?

1 comment:

Stephanie Hammer said...

beautifully stated and devastatingly put. as long as we continue to think only with the numbers, students will find ways -- devious and dastardly, and in this most recent case deadly -- to bring their "narratives" to our attention.