Sunday, October 18, 2009

I miss Fezziwig

The other day I wondered why Evidence has become our master instead of our servant. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that Evidence is only one member of the new management team, which includes Expertise, Accountability, Productivity, and National Competitiveness. Alas, Wisdom, Curiosity, Individuality, and Humaneness -- perhaps never as high on the letterhead as they should have been -- are now scanning the want ads, and praying that their COBRA doesn't run out.

When I think about this change in management, I think about Scrooge's visit, with the ghost of Christmas past, to the office of his former employer, Fezziwig. It is Christmas Eve, and the fat and jovial Fezziwig is closing up early to put on his annual Christmas party. Scrooge, gripped by "the strangest agitation," watches as Fezziwig's family, friends, employees and neighbors pour into room: "In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. . . . There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer." Old Fezziwig himself dances to top them all. By the end of the party, when everyone has exhausted themselves, Fezziwig's apprentices -- one of whom is Scrooge's younger self -- are "pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig."

The ghost chides Scrooge: "He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?"

Momentarily not himself, Scrooge replies, "It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

As I watched my daughter head off to her fifth straight day of standardized testing last week, I couldn't help thinking that our schools have become more Scrooge than Fezziwig. We seem to have made a collective decision that the things that are "impossible to add and count up" simply do not matter. If a school fails to raise its test scores, it can get in serious trouble. But if it turns out kids with no intellectual curiosity, kids who see reading as a chore, kids who perform just to please the teacher and get by, kids who've never learned how to use good judgment, ask a good question, or make a good decision, kids who see adults as adversaries, kids who take no pleasure in learning -- nothing bad will happen to it.

The teachers do what they can to promote a broader conception of learning, but that's the system they're up against. When it comes time to hold schools, principals, and teachers "accountable," it's the test scores that count; the rest might as well be volunteer work. That's where Accountability has gotten us. Scrooge, of course, was a paragon of Accountability, at least until the ghosts knocked some sense into his head.

..How can I comment?