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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro


"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."... ...George Orwell....

Commentary of the Day - August 21, 2006: The Thirteenth Annual Emperor Awards.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

As September looms ever closer, it's helpful to draw inspiration from the education giants who've set the pace in the preceding year.  That's why Poor Elijah presents his annual Emperor Awards.  They commemorate the monarch who didn't know enough to know he was posing in his underwear.

Our first presentation, the Archimedes Eureka Honorarium, spotlights the field of education research.  Past recipients include a team of scientists who discovered that students who study algebra in eighth grade tend to do better in "higher level" ninth grade math courses.  Equally shocking, there appeared to be a correlation between "success" in advanced ninth grade English courses and "reading lots of books" in eighth grade.

This year’s Archimedes goes to the authors of an ACT sponsored study, which determined that being able to read "complex" material is “the major factor separating high school students who are ready for college reading from those who are not."  An ACT spokesperson described the report as "an in your face statement," aimed presumably at the faces of any education officials who already didn't realize that not being able to read much in high school meant you probably weren't going to be able to read much in college.

Educators haven't been idle in the face of this reading crisis.  Innovators in Maryland introduced a groundbreaking technique designed to teach children to "relax" and "read without pressure."  The pressure is reduced because instead of working with a teacher, students are sent off alone to read to a dog.  According to program developers, kids prefer the "nonjudgmental character of the dog."  That's because "if they make a mistake, the dog isn't going to correct them… It's just going to listen and love every word they say," whether it's the right word or not.  Boosters concede that sometimes canine attention can "drift" during the thirty-minute literacy sessions, but they address these lapses by occasionally popping in and asking the dog, "What do you think?"  To these inspired trailblazers the academy presents its Cujo Literary Collar.

Of course, breakthrough instructional methods would mean nothing without high standards, a scruple which prompts some teachers, for example, to give zeroes to students who choose not to hand in work.  This allegedly "antiquated, outdated" approach outraged one educator respondent to NEA Today. He charged that giving a zero for work that doesn't exist unfairly "skews" the student’s average "negatively" by making it too low.  He solves the problem, in the interest of "fairness," by never giving any grade lower than a fifty-five, whether the student hands in anything or not.  This heroic effort to skew grades positively wins him this year's Phineas T. Barnum Citation.

Pacesetting educators don’t pull all these bright ideas out of their hats.  They attend pertinent workshops, including the American Educational Research Association's presentation, "Discovering Collage as a Method in Researching Multicultural Lives."  The AERA modestly bills itself as "the most prominent international professional organization" in the educational research and application business and is itself a past Emperor honoree for its advocacy of "data poems," cutting edge analytic tools which enable education professionals to "focus, interpret, clarify, and communicate the results of qualitative research" by writing and reciting a poem.

Despite AERA’s impressive performance, the 2006 Isadora Duncan Fellowship pays tribute to the sponsors of a seminar which probed the teaching of mathematics, a subject in which American students haven't been distinguishing themselves.  Jumping off from the dubious assertion that "children enter school as creative mathematicians," workshop organizers concluded that the reason American kids can't multiply is we teach math from a "one way-one answer point of view," as opposed to the presumably more desirable many-answers method currently employed by hosts of American students.  With this year's Isadora comes the academy's suggestion that maybe it would help if students handed their math answers in to a dog.

The use of unacceptable language is a growing problem in classrooms.  One small town high school has instituted a scripted policy to deal with the barrage.  Teachers respond to foul language with, "Not here, not now," to which offending students are expected to reply, "Sorry."  While "no data are being taken" as to the effectiveness of the new tactic, or the sincerity of verbally repentant offenders, across the pond our British cousins have adopted a more quantitative approach.  One high school northwest of London has adopted an "f-word limit," which restricts students to five uses of the f-word in each class period.  Teachers simply keep a tally of each pupil's use of grossly offensive language on the board "so all students can see the running score," an activity that doubtless keeps everybody amused and focused on everything except what they're supposed to be learning.  If a student exceeds five f-words in a given class, he suffers the ultimate consequence and is "spoken to by the teacher at the end of the lesson."  Assuming a modest classroom roster of twenty pupils, the new policy means students can experience up to one hundred sanctioned f-words per class hour.  This homage to Britain’s Anglo-Saxon linguistic roots earns these school officials the inaugural Howard Stern Rhetoric Prize.

Continuing internationally, we confer the Distinguished Priorities Cross on Canada's supreme court, which recently ruled that Sikh students can wear swords to school.  The court based its decision on the value of 'religious tolerance" since the curved daggers involved, called kirpans, are part of a religious observance.  As to the value of not having daggers at school, the court added that the blades weren't really a danger since schools could make rules that require Sikh students to keep their kirpans concealed and in their sheaths.  This judicial reassurance didn’t entirely soothe many parents, whose understandable concerns about the dangers posed by weapons at school were labeled "racism," "bigotry," and "intolerance" instead of understandable concerns about the dangers posed by weapons at school.

Recipients of our final prize, the coveted George Orwell Creative Use of Language Award, are a varied and impressive company.  Last year’s Orwell honored a progressive educator for her call to abolish the word "fail" and replace it with "deferred success," a suggestion which if followed could likewise turn war into deferred peace and lying into deferred honesty.  This year we celebrate a New Hampshire high school for banning the term "freshman" on the grounds that the "man" part renders it an example of gender-specific, "misogynistic, oppressive, non-inclusive language."  Faculty members and administrators began considering the name change after a school production of The Vagina Monologues, which is apparently not an example of gender-specific, non-inclusive language.  Their display of wisdom and finely honed sensitivity leaves no doubt that they deserve their Orwell.

Of course, each of us probably deserves an Emperor for something.

Even you and me.

2006 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 IP comments:  The IP always looks forward to reading (and publishing) Poor Elijah's Emperor's Awards, if only to give him reason to mutter a few f-words under his breath.


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© 2006 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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