Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Leveling the Playing Field

Lest there be any confusion, my thesis is this: There is no level playing field. And their shouldn't be.

This is America. We're a meritocracy, a land of individuals governed by capitalism. All this means that to the victor go the spoils. We're workers, not "wait for someone to level the playing field for me" victims. At least we shouldn't be. But I'm afraid that we're raising a generation of "nobody tries hard, everybody wins" couch potatoes.

It is not okay to hold a competition in which everybody wins. What is the point of that? "The people who don't win might get their feelings hurt," some say. And they're right. And getting their feelings hurt might spur them to try harder next time. If everybody wins, what's the point of trying? Where's the incentive to spend three weeks (or months!) collecting data for the science fair, when the kid who put his display together two hours ahead of time gets the same recognition? What's the point of judging said science fair and awarding scores but not telling anyone who got the best score? Why bother holding a science fair at all?

It is not okay to brand entire groups of people as "physically-challenged." If a kid has cerebral palsy, he has cerebral palsy. Big deal. He may also speak fluent French, love baseball and kick ass at Halo III. Does this mean physically-challenged kids speak French and love baseball, etc.? No. John has that constellation of traits. Fred may be an above-the-knee amputee, a competitive swimmer and collect rocks. Nothing in common with John but his gender. So where do we get off calling them both "physically-challenged?" It's completely meaningless in terms of describing anyone but the people it does not describe, that is, those of us who are able-bodied. But then again, I have about as much in common with the able-bodied teenaged girl next door as John and Fred do. "Gets around on two legs vs gets around on less than two legs" Now there's a useful distinction!

Here's another Newspeak distinction for you: "African-American." Surprising enough, Barack Obama, with his African father and American mother, does not call himself "African-American." According to the Wall Street Journal, American citizens born in Africa do not refer to themselves as "African-American." Actress Gloria Reubens once corrected a reporter who referred to her as "African-American." Apparently Ms. Reubens' heritage is actually Jamaican-Canadian.

I understand the reasons behind the change from Black to African-American. Black was considered a perjorative. Surprisingly enough, after twenty years, African-American seems to have become a perjorative, too, at least for more recent immigrants. (ref: WSJ) But this is not my point. My point is, that the term African-American is meaningless. I had a reading group of fifth-grade boys several years ago, which included one African-American boy. We were reading a story about prejudice against Americans of Japanese descent in Hawaii at the time of Pearl Harbor, so we got into a discussion about heritage. Every single white boy at that table knew which Western European country or countries his ancestors had come from, some of them down to the 1/8 and 1/16th.

When I asked my Black student (who had an Arab first name and a Scottish last name) where his family was from, he said, puzzled, "I'm African-American." I nodded and asked him if he knew where his last name had come from, if he had a Scottish grandfather or great-grandfather or if he knew how long his family had been in the country. He repeated, "I'm African-American" as if that was all that was worth knowing. Sure his heritage has got to be an intriguing a puzzle as everyone else's, even if it only goes back to slavery times. Why should he be robbed of his individual heritage by being lumped in with all the other African-Americans?

Here's my point--lumping people into giant PC categories robs them of their individuality for the sake of "not hurting anyone's feelings." For the last twenty years, schools have been "celebrating diversity" by refusing to treat people as individuals, with their own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. What they should be doing is celebrating individuals, and teaching them according to their needs. Instead of leveling the playing field, we need to change it altogether. I'm imagining a Venn diagram where playing fields called "math," "science," "World of Warcraft," "literature" and "football" can all stretch out from a center called "Pam." To really do this, we need to be open-minded and flexible in terms of time and space.

Yes, when there is competition, some will do better than others. The others might get their feelings hurt. Those hurt feelings might spur them on to greatness, or it might encourage them to find something else they love enough to work on. Our kids will not learn the value of hard work unless we let them find something worth working hard on. And that's should be our schools' mission.


Alison said...

I mostly agree with you, but with one main caveat. I do think that some kids are just psychologically averse to competing with others.

I don't think that every child should be made to compete. Just by being in school a child has to deal with effective competition every single day. It's pretty obvious for example who finished their work first, got a high score etc. When a child has a learning disability this kind of daily exposure to what others are achieving is very hard on self-esteem.

Sure it would help if every child could be recognized for the thing they are best at, but I think that homeschool is a much more manageable environment to do this in. Inevitably in a group of people some excel in several areas and others lag in many areas. The perfectionist child with a learning issue can be very negatively affected by this. The hurt feelings in this circumstance I don't think spur the child on, but instead can cause them to withdraw.

The Princess Mom said...

I agree, Alison. Again, I think that treating everyone exactly the same pushes some too far ahead and holds others back, to the detriment of all. This is why I support homogenous classrooms (academic grouping) rather than the heterogeneous classrooms we currently have.

There are a lot of kids who refuse to compete in school via grades, sports, being picked for teams in gym, or whatever, but I don't agree that there are people who are just psychologically averse competition. Mastering something that you love is the same as competing with yourself and comes from the same urge, imo.

And I'm beginning to think perfectionism *is* a learning disability.

Alison said...

Perfectionism, a learning disability - that's an interesting thought. I'd certainly say it interferes with learning because making mistakes is part of learning, which is something we need to be able to deal with in order to move forward.

I think I said that some are averse to competing with others. I agree that those who do not want to compete with others may enjoy and benefit a lot from challenging themselves.

I also think that the developmental age we are talking about is critical. Competition in the elementary grades is different from later competition once a child has matured in their thinking and is able to be more logical.

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