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I realize, of course, that many readers regard these practices as desirable in their own right. They may believe that competitive struggle brings out the best in children, that grading students is a constructive form of evaluation, that standardized tests accurately assess the most important aspects of learning, or that, after a full day in school, kids ought to take home more assignments regardless of whether the data show any advantage to doing so. My beef here isn’t with people who hold such beliefs. It’s with those who admit these practices may be damaging but defend them on BGUTI grounds.
Even if a given practice did make sense for those who are older – a very big if – that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for younger children. Almost by definition, the BGUTI defense ignores developmental differences. It seems to assume that young children ought to be viewed mostly as future older children, and all children are just adults in the making. Education, in a neat reversal of Dewey’s dictum, is not a process of living but merely a preparation for future living.
But the issue here isn’t just preparation -- it’s preparation for what is unappealing. More than once, after proposing that students should participate in developing an engaging curriculum, I have been huffily informed that life isn’t always interesting and kids had better learn to deal with that fact. The implication of this response seems to be that the goal of schooling is not to nourish children’s excitement about learning but to get them acclimated to doing mind-numbing chores. John Holt once remarked that if people really felt that life was “nothing but drudgery, an endless list of dreary duties,” one would hope they might “say, in effect, ‘I have somehow missed the chance to put much joy and meaning into my own life; please educate my children so that they will do better.’”
Another example: It’s common to justify rewarding and punishing students on the grounds that these instruments of control are widely used with grown-ups, too. And indeed, there are plenty of adults who do nice things only in order to receive some sort of reward, or who avoid antisocial acts just because they fear the consequence to themselves if they’re caught. But are these the kinds of people we hope our kids will become?
This leads us to the most important, though rarely articulated, assumption on which BGUTI rests – that, psychologically speaking, the best way to prepare kids for the bad things they’re going to encounter later is to do bad things to them now. I’m reminded of the Monty Python sketch that features Getting Hit on the Head lessons. When the student recoils and cries out, the instructor says, “No, no, no. Hold your head like this, then go, ‘Waaah!’ Try it again” – and gives him another smack. Presumably this is extremely useful training . . . for getting hit on the head again.
But people don’t really get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. In fact, it is experience with success and unconditional acceptance that helps one to deal constructively with later deprivation. Imposing competition or standardized tests or homework on children just because other people will do the same to them when they’re older is about as sensible as saying that, because there are lots of carcinogens in the environment, we should feed kids as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they’re small to get them ready.
To be sure, we don’t want students to be blindsided by destructive practices with which they’re completely unfamiliar (although this seems rather unlikely in our society). But how much exposure do they need? Must they spend months preparing for a standardized test to get the hang of it? Sometimes preparation can take the form of discussion rather than immersion. One need not make students compete, for example, in order to help them anticipate – and think critically about – the pervasiveness of competition in American culture.
Perhaps the preparation argument even fails on its own terms by virtue of offering a skewed account of what life is like for adults. Our culture is undeniably competitive, but cooperative skills are also valued in the workplace – and competitive schooling (spelling bees, awards assemblies, norm-referenced tests, class rank) discourages the development of those skills. Similarly, adults are more likely to be evaluated at work on the basis of how they actually do their jobs than by standardized test results. Nor, for that matter, is there much after graduation to justify the practices of same-age groupings or 50-minute periods. In short, we’re not making schools for little kids more like “real life”; we’re just making them more like schools for older kids.
So if these practices can’t be justified as pragmatic preparation, what is driving BGUTI? One sometimes catches a whiff of vinegary moralism, the assumption that whatever isn’t enjoyable builds character and promotes self-discipline. Mostly, though, this phenomenon may be just one more example of conservatism masquerading as realism. When children spend years doing something, they are more likely to see it as inevitable and less likely to realize that things could be otherwise.
“You’d better get used to it” not only assumes that life is pretty unpleasant, but that we ought not to bother trying to change the things that make it unpleasant. Rather than working to improve our schools, or other institutions, we should just get students ready for whatever is to come. Thus, a middle school whose primary mission is to prepare students for a dysfunctional high school environment soon comes to resemble that high school. Not only does the middle school fail to live up to its potential, but an opportunity has been lost to create a constituency for better secondary education. Likewise, when an entire generation comes to regard rewards and punishments, or rating and ranking, as “the way life works,” rather than as practices that happen to define our society at this moment in history, their critical sensibilities are stillborn. Debatable policies are never debated. BGUTI becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Finally, there is a remarkable callousness lurking just under the surface here: Your objections don’t count, your unhappiness doesn’t matter. Suck it up. The people who talk this way are usually on top, issuing directives, not on the bottom being directed. “Learn to live with it because there’s more coming later” can be rationalized as being in the best interests of those on the receiving end, but it may just mean “Do it because I said so” and thereby cement the power of those offering this advice.
If a practice can’t be justified on its own terms, then the task for children and adults alike isn’t to get used to it, but to question, to challenge, and, if necessary, to resist.
Copyright © 2005 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page.
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