Edward Udel: Exceptions to American exceptionalism


DALTON >> We are deep into our national political cycle and candidates from both major parties are sharing their visions of what we can and should accomplish as a nation. Ronald Reagan raised the rhetorical American exceptionalism bar very high with his "shining city on the hill" and as Captain Hook might argue, any political departure from such a positive spin is often considered "bad form." While preferring positive messages, we also seriously understate our challenges. Rather than confront them, we often drive them to the periphery of our national dialogue and consciousness.

There have been glaring misrepresentations of both the real challenges and the real opportunities affecting public education. Many believe that unsuccessful K-12 students are mostly confined to urban settings, held back by poverty and "failing schools." Indeed, where there are large pockets of poverty, there is persistent and undeniable evidence of underperformance. But many of our suburbs and rural areas do not escape unscathed. Poverty may be a factor in some of them but poverty is only part of the problem.

Recently, I spoke with a class of 17 high school sophomores about their reading habits. They comprise a college preparatory science class. I asked, "How many of you read for pleasure and consistently complete your reading assignments?" Seven raised hands. I then asked, "How many of you absolutely refuse to read under any circumstances? Four of them, 23 percent, responded affirmatively.

This informal survey may not have the statistical validity obtained from much larger samples but it certainly confirms my personal observations. Four out of 17 college preparatory students attending a respected suburban/rural school refuse to read, yet they all intend to go to college. How can this be explained?

Certainly one factor has crept up on us. Our growing dependency on technology, a dependency that we have welcomed with open arms, has made dramatic and perhaps irreversible changes to our lifestyle, affecting our capacity to concentrate for long periods of time, to communicate with each other and to exercise our imaginations. For many, it is much easier to use the technology than to use our brains to interact with written words, to memorize important details and to count and calculate.

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Technology offers undeniable advantages. But these advantages do not offset the deficits that result from our heavy use of these devices during early developmental years when our brains require other forms of exercise to fully develop. Yes, students can find information quickly and easily, but they frequently don't understand that information and they often lack the skills and knowledge required to determine the validity and value of what they find. Technical literacy does not replace the need to read and exercise our brains.

There are other factors that come into play. To those who still insist on American exceptionalism, 51 percent of our children now live in financial need, many in abject poverty. With a shrinking middle class and more and more families working longer hours struggling to pay for basic necessities, there is less time to parent, fewer opportunities for parents to model constructive behavior for their children and fewer resources at home to invest into their development. With financial poverty comes experiential poverty and our singular obsession with testing does nothing to address the parenting gap and myriad related problems.

Well-intentioned reformers and their ill-conceived mandates often ignore these important factors and narrowly focus only on the schools. If they expect those schools to somehow mitigate the growing influence of dysfunctional and disintegrating families, drug use and abuse, limited or non-existent intellectual stimulation for our youngest children, the financial calamity now enveloping the majority of them and the worrisome downsides to our growing dependency on technology, they are misguided. Until we look at the whole picture and address the numerous factors that influence our children's academic performance, we won't gain traction.

Our reliance upon American exceptionalism does not serve us well. Exceptions to that exceptionalism cry out for attention. When we conveniently repackage, reshape, ignore or preserve these exceptions, we carve out an impossible task for our schools.

If we really want that city on the hill to truly shine, we need to rethink our direction. Our use of high stakes testing, draconian and time-consuming evaluation procedures and additional well-intentioned but destructive mandates rob us of our creativity and our authenticity, tarnishing our luster.

Edward Udel was a long-time teacher in the Pittsfield public school system and former chairman of the Taconic English Department.


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