Teachers Weren’t Leveling With Us

There’s a lot I love about Elif Batuman’s The Idiot – an outsider in Cambridge, decline of the Ottoman Empire as a narrative device, first email addresses, 1995 – including a strangely unsolicited critique of modern theories of education in the U.S.. The passage below could have been found on Doug Lemov’s blog or in Michael Fordham’s Twitter feed. While studying for an exam at Harvard, the narrator struggles with the songs her friend Svetlana (from Yugoslavia (again, 1995)) created to remember declensions of irregular nouns in Russian:

Svetlana was way better than I was at memorizing. She accepted it in her heart as something necessary. Growing up in America, I had been taught to despise memorization, which was known as “rote memorization,” or sometimes as “regurgitating facts.” The teachers said that what they wanted was to teach us to think. They didn’t want us to turn out like robots, like the Soviet and Japanese schoolchildren. That was the only reason Soviet and Japanese children did better than us on the tests. It was because they didn’t know how to think.

By high school, I sensed that the teachers weren’t leveling with us. Our biology teacher would say: “I don’t want you to memorize and regurgitate, I want you to understand the elegant logic of each mechanism.” Nonetheless, on the test you had to draw a diagram of RNA transcription. When it came to science or history, reason got you only so far. Even if each step followed from the previous one, you still had to memorize the first step, and also the rule for how steps followed from each other. It wasn’t as if there was only one way the world could have turned out. It wasn’t like strawberries had to grow from bushes. There were lots of ways things could have turned out, and you had to memorize the particular one that was real.

Or . . . did you? Was there only one way the world could have turned out? If you were smart enough, could you deduce it? A tiny part of me held out the hope that you could. And that part was bad at learning Svetlana’s song.

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