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The Nonconformist’s Dilemma: How to be an Individual in a Standardized School System?

The Nonconformist Dilemma I usually have the house to myself when I come home from my morning run, but today I found my wife and son still making their way out the door. I had left early, they were running late. My wife had already lugged her bike outside, and Felix stood beside it, waiting while she retrieved his trike. Seeing a perfect opportunity, I hunched behind the stoop, and then launched myself at him.

“BOO!”

He shrieked, his hands flying up by his face in fear. I startled my wife so much, she dropped the trike on her leg. And then she cursed a blue streak at the top of her lungs, causing Felix to say that he was scared of mommy saying mean things to daddy.

My action was, I will admit, not the most mature thing I’ve ever done. But hey, that’s the kind of guy I am, and that’s the kind of family we are — a little loud, a little unruly at times. Our passions run close to the surface, and we sometimes give in to impulses. You only go around once, right?

So it comes as no surprise, really, that Felix has trouble conforming to a classroom environment. He’s got nonconformity in his blood, and if that wasn’t enough, his parents model silliness, sarcasm, irony, and irreverence every day. I mean, you’re talking about a man who once had a serious love affair with drag, and still enjoys dressing up. We think different.

However, American classrooms, by and large, value similarity. Schools seem modeled on factories, with educated students the products. Each empty vessel is filled to the brim with academic content, the grade levels progressing smoothly and linearly like the rungs of a ladder, until the end when the child launches into college, and from there, a successful career.

The problem? No child’s an empty vessel. Kids come pre-programmed, both by nature and by nurture, and no one learns the same. Ah, but a system that seeks a uniform approach to curriculum and pedagogy, and which wishes to tie teacher’s salaries to the quality of the products — I’m sorry, students — they turn out, can’t work efficiently with irregularities. And so, as Elizabeth Weil writes on The New Republic (“American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How“), American schools on the whole have taken the tact that any failure to succeed (i.e. conform to standards) in the classroom is a problem with the child, not the system. Obviously any normal child who tries hard will be able to do well! That’s how the system is designed.

But what’s this you say? Your four or five year old can’t sit still on the class rug? See an occupational therapist. Your youngster can’t learn in a cooperative setting because she has a temper? Get her a therapist. Your child can’t focus for hours at a time on skill building activities, especially in an environment where physical education and creative arts are cut so as to spend more time on test prep? Prescribe Ritalin.

As Weil points out, implicit in any education program is an ideal. The Ancient Greeks, for example, valued a well-rounded individual, one gifted in rhetoric (public speaking), logical thinking, creative arts, and athletics. We appear to want kids who perform highly on standardized tests. The very nature of these tests means that kids who think differently — who do not standardize their thought — will fail, or be deemed lacking. These failures may be due to academic deficiencies — inability to add, or difficulty reading but can also be because of attitude or personality.

I always under-performed on tests, for example, especially long multiple choice tests like the SAT, in part because they bored the heck out of me. My brain is fascinated by stories and characters, and I would read too much into the questions, so much that none of the answers seemed to fit. I’m also anal, and took a very long time filling in each bubble just so. And sometimes I just out-and-out daydreamed.

Give me a creative project or a paper to write, and I had no trouble. Because of this, I performed better and better at school the older I grew. By college I could take courses in literature and history that suited both my interests and my capabilities.

So what can we do when our children don’t seem equipped to achieve in today’s educational environment? As I wrote last week, some kids, like Felix, and perhaps little boys in general, have trouble containing their intense energy and focusing on academic material at such a young age. Perhaps in a few years they’ll be just fine, once they grow out of their youthful enthusiasm.

Ah, but as we’re seeing, the government is strapped for cash, and so schools are forced to try to fit every triangular, square, and star-shaped kid into a circular hole. Until schools are able to recognize a broader spectrum of intelligences, and have the funding and staff to deal with kids as individuals and not as cogs in a great machine, our country will continue to have an education problem.

That’s not a problem with American kids. It’s a problem with American schools.

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