The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"To flee vice is the beginning of virtue, and to have got rid of folly is the beginning of wisdom."...  ...Horace.

Commentary of the Day - August 19, 2008: Fifteenth Annual Emperor's Awards.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

As September approaches, it's time to gear up for the school term ahead.  Where better to seek inspiration than the signal moments of the past year.  The Emperor Awards celebrate education highlights that commemorate the spirit of both the monarch of underwear fame, and his devoted admirers.

With as many as sixty percent of American undergraduates in need of remediation, our first presentation, the Distinguished Priorities Cross, pays tribute to those institutions of higher learning boldly making crucial changes to equip American college graduates for competition in the global marketplace.  Addressing a longstanding deficiency in our university system, cutting-edge colleges are now providing full-size mattresses in place of the twin beds of yesteryear.  According to one university residence director, "Many [students] come from doubles and queens, so they have to readjust to living on the single bed," only compounding the obstacles to success, like freshman composition presumably, that confound entering freshmen.  Undergraduates insightfully concur that bigger mattresses enable them to "be alive and fit on the bed in every direction," while also better accommodating "multiple people."

Mattresses can take a student body only so far.  The Charles Ponzi Trophy focuses on efforts to boost academic success rates.  Honorable mention goes to the New York City principal who pressured his teachers to lower their academic expectations so at least sixty-five percent of their students would pass.  But this notable achievement pales in comparison to the stand taken by the enlightened Dallas superintendent who prohibited any grade lower than a fifty, even when students don't hand anything in.  Apparently, receiving zeroes for not doing anything makes it too difficult to accumulate enough points to pass.  While narrower minds might see not doing any work as the obstacle to achievement, this trendsetter astutely regards giving zeroes for not doing any work as the real problem.

Equally noteworthy are efforts in Louisiana to ensure that eighth grade students make it to ninth grade.  Officials have long offered a remedial summer program to assist students whose academic performance on statewide tests failed to meet standards for promotion.  To encourage students to take summer classes seriously, they were generously permitted to enter ninth grade provided they didn't score lower at the end of the summer program.  This year, though, Louisiana's state education board "realized that wasn’t fair."  Now students who demonstrate that they're even less ready for high school in August than they were in June go on to ninth grade anyway.  For their audacious new definition of fairness, as well as for their impressive accomplishment in simultaneously administering and disregarding their own promotion test, these valiant officials can rightfully claim the Phineas T. Barnum Citation.

The Archimedes Eureka Honorarium spotlights the imaginative world of education research.  Last year the academy recognized a British team's groundbreaking tandem discoveries that children’s brains "develop" as they grow up, and that "teenagers act the way they do" because puberty involves "a whole new wave of development."  This year's Eureka pays tribute to Nebraska researchers for miraculously deducing that kids who are "rejected by their classmates" are "more likely to withdraw from school activities" than kids who are included.  Equally astounding, these pioneering investigators observed that students "rejected by their peers in kindergarten" are often the same children who are later rejected by their peers in other grades.

New Hampshire's chapter of the Ivy League values the arts as a key element of a well-rounded education.  Their latest answer to the Sistine Chapel ceiling was a curtain of human hair that adorned the main hall of the university library for nearly half a year.  Composed of the clippings of 42,500 haircuts, measuring eighty feet long by thirteen feet high, and costing a mere one hundred fifty thousand dollars, this post-Renaissance masterpiece blended forty sheets of glue-soaked barber shop sweepings with seven miles of braids.  According to its curator, the hirsute magnum opus was intended to emblemize "what unites us" and "involve the public in a dialogue," an exchange which reportedly consisted mostly of words like "unsightly," "disgusting," and "creepy."  For this commitment to the fine arts, we bestow our first annual Sweeney Todd Silver Shaving Cup.

On the diversity front, we award the Nathan Bedford Forrest Prize to a California high school for holding segregated pep rallies for black, Hispanic, Asian, and white students.  School officials explained that they hoped to "inspire students to do better" while "being honest" about the differences between the scores of different ethnic groups.  Honorable mention goes to the National Education Association for somehow blaming this apartheid event on No Child Left Behind.

This year's Sisyphus Prize for Perpetual Research salutes a Nevada psychologist.  His ingenious experimental design involved asking volunteers to remember random letters while they tried to do addition problems.  When they found it challenging to do both simultaneously, he concluded that students with math anxiety can't do math, not because math is difficult for them, but because they also have random thoughts in their heads, like "I'm no good at this."

In the field of school safety, candidates again included states that are considering arming classroom teachers.  After rejecting a bill that would have allowed teachers to carry concealed handguns, Nevada moved on to legislation that would train willing teachers as reserve police officers, equipped with both a handgun and a badge, which could be worn right next to their "I touch the future – I teach" button.  Despite this extraordinary commitment to school security, the 2008 John Dillinger Medallion belongs to the inventors of a bullet-proof backpack, suitable for use by fourth graders.  Our winners are worthy successors to last year's honoree, a Texas district that trains its students to throw school supplies and "rush" armed intruders "if a gunman invades their classroom."  This year’s "weapon-proof school gear" reportedly can stop "ninety-seven percent" of the bullets typically fired in school, provided students keep their guard up and their backpacks between themselves and their assailant.

As always, competition for our final presentation, the George Orwell Creative Use of Language Award, was fierce.  Runners-up included Massachusetts' state board of education for their campaign in search of a "kinder" word than "underperforming" for schools that don't meet state standards.  One less self-esteem eroding choice was "Commonwealth priority."  Also in the running was Merriam-Webster for selecting "w00t," an online gamers’ victory cry, as their word of the year.  "It shows a really interesting thing," explained Merriam-Webster’s president in a suitably articulate press release.  Despite these noteworthy linguistic strides, the Academy presents Orwell 2008 to a college counselor who advises his clients to deliberately make mistakes on their applications so they "don’t sound like robots."  After all, "if you fall into the trap of trying to do everything perfectly," without "typos" and other "creative errors," there's just "no spark left."  He reminds us that when it comes to college achievement, the only thing worse than a twin bed is a well-written essay.

While we duly applaud him, we should remember, though, that everybody deserves at least one Emperor for something.

Even you and me.

2008, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP never ceases to be amazed by the follies perpetuated in the name of "education."



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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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