The End of All Learning?

It was the Friday before test day– one of six major standardized tests that my eleventh grade English students are required to take this year– and we were analyzing a work of short fiction in class. “This is dumb,” complained one of my brightest students. “We just learn the same stuff every year.” I opened my mouth to make what was likely to be either a well-founded protestation or a moralizing quip, but whatever words I was about to say fluttered and died on my lips as I realized she was absolutely right.

Photo by Fort Worth Squatch

Photo by Fort Worth Squatch

Though scholars far and wide have already studied the impact that standardized curricula and testing are having on our students, there is a phenomenon that is sneaking its way into our students’ cognitive hard-wiring and rewriting the paradigm of learning, yet we may be completely unaware that the landscape is shifting beneath our feet. The truth is that standards-based instruction and assessment teaches our students that knowledge is useless and that learning is finite. Modern learning standards, such as the Common Core, boil down the entire realm of learning possibilities into several subjects, which are further reduced into a limited number of skill-based concepts that are then tested, re-taught, and tested again using different texts. The subliminal message working its way into our educational system is that these skills can and should be mastered. We may not realize we are even sending it, but our students are starting to receive the message– that learning has an expiration date, and that knowledge means nothing.

To my frustrated student, the idea that a work of literature could have an educational value separate from its ability to help her master what she sees as a pointless skill set was inconceivable. In her world, the text is merely a vessel for the review and application of standardized competencies and essential learnings. In this climate, complex works by esteemed authors from Chaucer to Poe are held in high regard, not for their artistic merit or for the sense of literary community bestowed on those who have read them, but for the level of syntactical rigor they confer upon the standardized tests that exploit them for the sake of determining a student’s mastery of grade-level concepts. What happens, then, when the student is finally “proficient” in them? If mastery of the skill has superseded knowledge as an end in itself, then what impression do we leave these students when they leave school? Are they simply done learning?

I don’t mean to suggest that we didn’t learn how to analyze and evaluate literature when I was a student– we did. However, the skills were merely expedients, not the end goal. We learned how to analyze for the sake of unlocking new and challenging texts. Once unlocked, literature had the power to broaden our experience, to give us sense of perspective, and to inspire us to search within ourselves for what we believed to be the truth. No one had to give us a standardized test for us to realize the wisdom in Lao Tzu’s writings or the significance of Machiavelli to modern politics. The ultimate goal of learning was knowledge. We weren’t out to master the analysis toolkit in order to pass exams or to prepare us for the workplace. We valued education because we believed that life was a constant, unceasing education, and we wanted to be prepared to understand the lesson.

“Off the Grid”

My honors students recently read a contemporary novel that pushed the boundaries of their thinking about race and gender. When I was able to arrange for its author to come and meet with my students for a Q&A session, I can hardly express the satisfaction or validation they felt for the hard work they had done in analyzing and appreciating the book as a work of art. Through his insightful comments about writing the novel, they were able to see how the author used his craft to try to create, not just a text, but an experience for the reader. Through purposeful use of different narrative elements, he hoped to galvanize his readers into reexamining their own beliefs, and as my students told him (to his extreme gratitude), he was successful. It was by far the most rewarding moment of my career so far.

Still, in the back of my mind, a voice nagged at me, asking a question that has plagued every lesson plan in my three years of teaching: Will this help them pass the test next week?

The skills that this author had so beautifully employed in creating this soul-searching novel were related to those on the test, but I knew from experience that without practicing the rote and formulaic multiple choice format of the standardized tests– without giving the skill priority over the content it was meant to make accessible– my students would not meet their proficiency goals, nor would I. I won’t go into detail about the incredible stakes of these tests for my students (or for me), but needless to say, we could all appreciate that what we were doing in taking time out for this author was “off the grid” and had acute consequences.

It is because of moments like the one I shared with these inquisitive students and the author who inspired them, when education and life became tangled into one, that I decided to become a teacher. I’ll never forget the thrill of learning a new word or the adventure inherent in diving into a new work of literature that I experienced daily as an adolescent because of teachers who were passionate about learning for the sake of learning. This job, unfortunately, no longer exists.

I have been teaching for only a few years, but in those few crucial years, the job I prepared for has become unrecognizable from my own high school days, replaced by a drill-and-skill, data-driven system which suggests that learning is a limited enterprise made of multiple choice mastery. The things we leave behind when we refuse to see the flaws in this standards-based system are too costly– our students, who, through the sole medium of standardized testing, receive the message that learning for the sake of learning is invaluable; our teachers, who “fight the good fight” until they continually fail their data goals, watch their students being punitively remediated into submission, and are becoming frustrated into leaving the profession; and a culture that is no longer simply leaving its teachers and students behind, but has now forsaken knowledge in itself.

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What Star Wars can teach us about Fatalism

Warning: Spoilers abound in this article. If you haven’t seen Episodes I – VI, beware!

When I was a kid, I was completely captivated by the original Star Wars films. In addition to the escapist, fantastical elements that ushered my young mind out of the den and into deep space, there’s something so universal and lasting about the story at its center that continues to appeal to a loyal and growing fan base almost forty years later. After all, history– or rather, Christopher Booker– tells us that there are really only seven basic archetypal plots that recur in their various forms throughout literature and film. His book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, outlines these archetypal plots from “overcoming the monster” to “the quest” to the classic “rags to riches” tale. Its universal appeal comes as no surprise when you realize that Star Wars is the epitome of the archetypal quest story.

Telemachus and Mentor in the Odyssey. Source: Wikipedia

Telemachus and Mentor in the Odyssey. Source: Wikipedia

We are presented with a hero, in the form of Luke Skywalker, who is called to embark on a greater journey to save the galaxy from the evil Empire; the lovable sidekicks take the form of anthropomorphic droids and saucy smuggler pilots who contrast and balance out the qualities of our innocent young hero; the trials and ordeals of becoming a Jedi fill out the “obstacles” section of the plot as the hero must confront the ultimate enemy, Darth Vader; plot twists and intrigue abound with the unforgettable words, “No, Luke– I am your father”; and finally, the world is put right and the evil Empire has been cast out.

It’s all so gooey and warm and emotionally fulfilling at the end that you can’t help but smile and dance along to that cheesy new tribal soundtrack Williams added in to the final sequence. (You know exactly what I’m talking about).

In essence, there is a reason why we continue to adore the quest story in its many interpretations– just think of all the stories that fit the mold, from The Wizard of Oz to Finding Nemo. In the end, we are left with a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that appeals to our sense of optimism and hope. This, at least, makes complete sense when considering human nature.

If It’s All So Wonderful and Fulfilling… Why the Prequel?

If the reason behind our thirst for the quest story is that it is so conclusive and satisfying, why do we crave the prequel– especially in the case of Star Wars? Why go back and unravel the plot threads that have been so neatly tied together, knowing full well that we will only see a character who has been redeemed turning into a character in desperate need of redemption?

Consider this: the final movie in the original trilogy, The Return of the Jedi, earned $475 million at the box office. In contrast, the finale of the more recent trilogy of prequels, The Revenge of the Sith, brought in a walloping $848 million. Even accounting for inflation and the rising cost of movie tickets, it would be fair to say that audiences were at least equally– if not more– interested in seeing the culmination of a plot that they knew fully well would end in misery. So it begs the question: why? Doesn’t it all seem a bit pessimistic?

Artwork by APBialek

Artwork by APBialek

There are obvious answers here that the marketing department considers when doling out the budget for a prequel. To begin, the prequel draws on a vast and loyal fan base that is hungry for another run with characters they have come to love. There’s something to be said for a romp through familiar settings with old “friends” who practically wink at the audience with their inside jokes and heavy-handed references to the old films. (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”). In addition, less time has to be spent on exposition and filling in the mundane details of characterization and backstory when filming a prequel, and so the action can begin without much hesitation.

The less obvious answer, however, is a bit darker: there is something in the human race that clings to a fatalistic view of the world and craves to see it fulfilled.

What is fatalism?

According to Professor Norman Schwartz of Lander University, fatalism is “the philosophical and sometimes theological doctrine that specific events are fixed in advance (either by God or by some unknown means) although there might be some free play in minor events.” It is our obsession with fatalism that drives us to watch movies such as Final Destination, knowing perfectly well that no matter what the characters do or attempt to do, fate is going to get them in the end.

fatalism

For example, let’s say that I had a dream last night that warned me of my impending death by drowning. If I decided to run away from this fate and seclude myself in an abandoned warehouse, it is inevitable that one of the pipes would burst, flooding the building and leading to my death by drowning. However, if I did nothing and continued on with my day, I would encounter a freak flood on my way to work and drown in my car anyway.

You see, fatalism is so alluring because it offers the illusion of free will and choice while maintaining that there is such a thing as destiny– events that are meant to happen, and a purpose for life that we are meant to fulfill. It’s a darker sense of fulfillment than the one offered by the quest story, it’s true, but it provides satisfaction on a grim and somewhat pessimistic level.

Fatalism, Star Wars, and Us

When Anakin Skywalker has a premonition that Padmé will die in childbirth, he is being offered a view of a fixed event in fate. It is likely that, had he done nothing, she would have died of the natural risks associated with childbirth (clearly, at least, this is what Anakin believes would have happened). However, when he chooses to try to stop fate, he essentially sets in motion a series of events which will lead to Padmé’s death in childbirth. Sometimes called a self-fulfilling prophecy, Anakin’s actions end up becoming the cause of the very thing that he hopes to prevent. We, as an audience, know how it will all turn out, creating a sense of dramatic irony (the reason that the self-fulfilling prophecy is sometimes known as the “Oedipus effect”). Yet we continue to sit and watch, mesmerized.

Photo by Dawn Ellner

Photo by Dawn Ellner

This minor example is a reflection of the fatalism that encapsulates the entire prequel trilogy of Star WarsBefore the story even begins, we know that it will result in the innocent, childish Anakin Skywalker turning into the cold, mechanical monster of a man, Darth Vader. We are provided with this fixed event through the plot of Episodes IV-VI, which cannot be undone in the canon of the story. (Unless we’re talking about the new Star Trek revamp, of course, which breaks all the rules. But we’re not.) However, the part of us that gets a distressed sort of pleasure from Final Destination and even Oedipus Rex longs to see Anakin exercise his free will while knowing that he can never escape his fate. It’s sort of like watching an ant running from the magnifying glass, knowing that no matter which way it runs, it can’t escape the impending doom that awaits.

Does it make us cruel to take such tormented satisfaction in watching this deterministic scene play out? I don’t think so. After all, we are all just ants in the great scheme of things, trying to grapple with our own sense of purpose against the great magnifying glass of fate. Perhaps coming up against such an unconquerable foe as destiny from the comfort of our own living room, watching vicariously as the characters play out our own hopes and fears, is easier than having to confront it for real.

Sick Day

Wake up covered in sweat.  Again.  Drag myself out of bed, for there is no such thing as rest for the weary teacher.  Decide to bite the bullet and stay home. Spend an hour of pre-dawn typing lesson plans, trying to remember what page the students are on in their novels.  Brain strain until I am tempted to reach for the coffee cup, but then again, how will I get back to sleep in my caffeine-sensitive-like-an-old-lady state?    Lesson plans finished – sent.  Hope the other teachers see my message.  Not looking forward to a frantic just-post-dawn call looking for substitute plans.  Grateful for the sleep and rest, I nuzzle myself into the corner of the couch, cozying up to the suede as it warms to my fever.  Ten minutes later, already restless.  Should be working, not couching.  Nothing good on cable except prophets of doom foretelling the end of the world by volcanic super-eruption/earthquake/ice age.  Husband awakes in a foul mood – is it because I’m here? – rushes around, pauses and tells me to “be productive” and do some laundry, woman, since I have decided to sit on my rear end not working.   Leaves in a humph.  Forgets his keys and comes back.  Gives me a peck and an exhausted “love you.”  Out the door with a bang.  Nestling up to the warm spot on the couch again, I try to get some rest.  Nope.  Wide awake.  Hope the kids are listening to the sub.  Stop thinking about school.  Might as well do some laundry, woman, instead of watching End of the World part four on the Doomsday Channel or whatever it is and worrying about work.  Load of laundry in the washer.  Now I can sit and relax until it’s done.  It’s done?  Better fold it before it wrinkles.  Next load in, this one will take longer, right?  Ugh, I feel gross when I don’t shower right away.  Rub a dub dub, plop in the tub.  Great.  Now I’m sweating.  Why did I take a hot bath with a hundred-degree fever?  Dummy.  Better go fold some more laundry, woman, but now the whole apartment is sticky since the vent from the dryer is leaking right into the air.  Wonder why I bothered cleaning up.  Feels like the walls are closing in.  Such a tiny, dark room in a tiny, dark apartment.  I’m all clean, so why not take a walk down the street to the coffee shop?  Is that allowed on a sick day?  Maybe I’ll google it.  Hair’s all wet, though.  Maybe I’ll braid it in pigtails.  That sounds like fun.  Twist, turn, pull.  Ouch.  Forgot I was so bad at this.  I look like a twelve-year-old.  Who cares.  Throw on my Oxford tourist sweatshirt and hit the stairs.  Open the door and where did all this fresh air come from?  Sky is blue and the wind is blowing and fall is here.  Feel like jumping in a pile of leaves, except that I live in town and there are no leaves and I feel sick anyway.  Stroll down to the coffee shop, trying not to look too sick or look too young or someone might suspect I’m playing hookie.  Open the old-fashioned door and walk up the slanted wooden floor and it smells like cinnamon and spice and twelve other kinds of happiness.  Mosey up to the counter and ask for a bagel and a chai latte with soy and she says would you like cream cheese with that and I say yes please and smile meekly even though I’m probably older than this girl but there’s something about asking for food that makes everyone feel like a little kid again.  Have a seat in the corner by the window and feel the sunlight on my face and sip that cinnamon and spice until I’m warm on the inside in a cozy way, finally.  Settle in with a good book and wish I could be a writer and sit in coffee shops all day and not have to be so exhausted at school and drink chai lattes with soy.