Boy Books

Boy books. You’re thinking The Boys’ Book of Trains and The Hardy Boys, right? I’m thinking most of the books I took in high school English.

Consider Knowles’ A Separate Peace. Separate indeed. It’s set at a boys’ boarding school. The boys are obsessed with jumping out of a tree. This involves considerable risk of crippling injury. And yet they do it, for no other reason than ‘to prove themselves’. Now my question is ‘What are they proving themselves to be – other than complete idiots?’ We don’t get it. Read the rest of this entry »

Useless Humanities

That a humanities degree is useless for the workforce says more about our workforce than the degree.  It says that we value, that we’ll pay for, someone to provide cars, electric toothbrushes, and running shoes.  But not beauty and insight.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Read the rest of this entry »

To Connect

At first, I noticed incomplete sentences in their conversation and in their writing. But I thought hey, it’s a fragmented world: videos with their bits and pieces of images, radio and tv with their sound bites, even entire degree programs at university present their courses as if they’re unrelated.

But then I wondered, is it because they don’t have complete thoughts? Read the rest of this entry »

From Romeo and Juliet to “Ass” and “Hole”

I filled in for a high school English teacher one day who had left the following instructions: “Have the students rewrite one of the two scenes from Romeo and Juliet – either the balcony scene or the fight scene – into contemporary English.”

“Okay,” I said to the class, “this can be lots of fun, let’s take a look. Open your books to the fight scene, please, and imagine it: you have these guys raging at each other, and they’ve been doing it for years; they’re going to fight now, and they’re going to fight so hard a couple of them end up stabbed to death. Now instead of shouting ‘A plague o’ both your houses!’, Mercutio would say, if it were today, he’d say maybe ‘Fuck you!’, right? Okay, go ahead, see if you can translate the whole scene.”

The students did indeed have lots of fun. And the principal had hysterics. Read the rest of this entry »

A Millennial New Year’s Resolution

This was written, of course, in January 2000.

I don’t do New Years’.  I especially didn’t do this New Years.  Though the chance to join in worldwide celebration of an error in addition (our calendar is such that there wasn’t a year zero – 1 A.D. came right after 1 B.C., so actually we’ve just begun, not finished, the 2000th year A.D.) (and A.D., well that’s a whole mess of mistakes, not the least of which is marking time across the entire planet according to a religious myth) – what was I saying, oh yeah, while joining with humanity worldwide to celebrate, indeed to proclaim in song and dance, our F in arithmetic had its attraction, I declined – because even if they’d gotten it right, the arbitrariness of it all is pretty insulting.  I mean, I’ll celebrate and reflect when I have good reason to – but our fascination with base ten is a mere evolutionary happenstance, and to rejoice at the occurrence of multiples of ten serves merely to reassure us that we do indeed have ten fingers and toes.

Nevertheless, I ended up watching several hours of the “2000” telecast.  Not the midnight champagne and crowds part, but the performance parts throughout the day: I realized early on that it would probably be another thousand years before so much art was given so much air time.  Certainly I’d never see Jean-Michel Jarre on tv again.

But pretty soon the irony (and the heritage schlock stuff) spoiled it, and I stopped watching.  I’m referring, of course, to the fact that  Read the rest of this entry »

As if getting good grades…

Who among us has not heard the student in distress, claiming not to know ‘what the professor wants’? As if getting good grades is dependent on finding out each professor’s hidden idiosyncrasies – on figuring out how to please. This attitude has become very prevalent, and I’ve seen students paralysed by it. A professor will assign an essay, and students who are uncertain about how to proceed believe it’s because they don’t know what the professor wants; they truly believe they’re missing some crucial bit of information. Of course, the real reason for their uncertainty is usually their poor academic skills – they don’t know enough about the topic to generate some ideas or opinions with which they can then play around and organize into a paper. But instead of heading to the library, they wander the halls and poll other students, trying to discover ‘what the professor wants’.

My answer to this question, which is Read the rest of this entry »

The Absence of Imagination

We notice it when we say ‘Kids don’t know how to play anymore.’ Gone are the games of dress-up and make-believe. The more specific and recognizable the toy, the more popular; least favourite are the ambiguous toys, the ones with so many possibilities.

Later, we observe and lament the fact that the students don’t know how to amuse themselves. They can’t sit quietly. Discipline problems abound. They are bored, school is boring, everything is boring. Their style becomes, necessarily, one of passivity. Or perhaps reactivity. But not proactivity – it takes imagination to initiate.

Why is this so? Why is there this absence of imagination? Read the rest of this entry »

The Freedom to Fail, the Right to Succeed

Call it what you will, ‘bell curving’ or ‘marks inflation’ or ‘social passing’, or even ‘maintaining a certain flexibility with regard to evaluation’, an A is not necessarily an A.


True, the more students fail, the more apt they are to drop out, and the fewer students a school has, the less money it gets. But to lie to students about the quality of their work in order to get more money is to use them. Furthermore, if the students who fail did quit (and perhaps they should—institutionalized education, academic education, is not the be-all and end-all for everyone, and those who say it is are probably just trying to save their jobs), well, the institution may not need the money. So what’s the problem? A ‘money for the sake of money’ mentality is the problem. (Unless of course that money would benefit other students, those who don’t quit; but then it’s X’s benefit gained at Y’s expense.)


And true, the greater the number of failures, the worse the teacher or the school looks. But, well, looks can be deceiving.


Read the rest of this entry »

Grade Ten History

Remember grade ten history? Okay, quick question: history of what? Of ideas? Of art? Of really stupid jokes? No! Of conflict! And mostly interpersonal conflict charading as intergroup conflict. That’s what grade ten history was all about.

And grade eleven history and grade twelve history too.

First, let’s call it what it is. And this is not a minor point. It’s like teaching nothing but limericks in a course called “Poetry”. Now it would be bad enough for kids to grow up thinking that’s all the poetry there is, but if they grow up thinking that’s all there is to history, well, Houston, we have a problem. No history of ideas, or art, no history of discovery, no history of cultural development–what an incredible disservice not only to those who made such history, but of course to those denied that knowledge.

But that’s minor damage compared to this: Read the rest of this entry »