Procrustean Education

Procrustes was a blacksmith who had his house by the side of the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis in ancient Greece. Being a friendly, hospitable guy, though, Procrustes also ran an inn. When tired travelers came down the road, he would sometimes invite them in to spend the night.

The rooms in the Inn were equipped with special beds. When the guests lay down, if they were too long for the bed, a special guillotine-type knife would drop down and lop off whatever was hanging over the foot of the bed. If they were too short for the bed, they would be stretched to fit.

All too often schools don’t actually educate; they just lop and stretch.  But it can even be worse than that—a school can give up on you. Educational Leadership is all too rare in our school systems. I recently met two mothers who at the age of 25 are just now learning how to read in an adult literacy program.

What they said about their experience is that by second grade (one said first grade) it was determined that they had a reading problem, were judged “special ed” and treated differently. By fourth grade they felt so ashamed of themselves that they began to hide their difficulty and pretend it didn’t exist—which was impossible, of course.. They had gone all the way through high school, been given good grades and a diploma, and yet were still illiterate. It seems the school felt it had too choices: let them pass or increase the school’s dropout rate.

The school and the teachers colluded in this face-saving fiction and passed them from year to year with good grades. One said she had been given A’s because the teachers didn’t want her to feel bad about herself. But though the grades helped her save face, it only increased her humiliation and her need to hide her weakness. Everyone gave up on it, and the girls concentrated on the most important thing: making sure they did not look bad in the eyes of their peers.

School didn’t lop or stretch, it just gave up on them.

At the age of 25, with children of their own, they are learning how to read propelled by three things:

1)    They want to make sure their children do not suffer the same fate,

2)    Now that they have a better sense of themselves as valuable humans, they can stop hiding their weakness,

3) They can’t stand being dissociated from part of themselves. One said: “I have this other part of me that is there, but is not me. I have a reading self. It’s like another language. It is a part of me. I have to make it me.”

These women are not physiologically disabled.  Because of the sequence of their own particular development these two women weren’t ready to read when the school had determined they should, and were categorized. This practice of categorization, which has always been common, has in the last ten years become increasingly intense and pervasive. Categorizing students is to the educational profession what bloodletting was to the medical profession, and millions of children have been victimized by it.

Reading is a complex activity requiring the maturation of dozens of capabilities. A child must have the eye-muscle coordination to track from left to right on command, for instance. For us to be physiologically and neurologically capable of reading, dozens of such capabilities must be in place and coordinated. The age at which this happens for us varies enormously from person to person. Age 6.5 may be about when the average human organism is organized enough to read, but we know from decades of experience that the normal range is about three to nine.

Yes, there are times when a group of kids needs to be approached on the basis of what is average for kids, but to hold this norm up as a standard, a standard to which everyone must measure up or else they are considered either deficient or lazy is Procrustean. No wonder “all of the children are above average” in America.

For all of its revisions upon revisions over the decades, the curricular timetable has remained essential constant in my lifetime. How we hold it in our collective heart and mind has changed. As our fear of international competition has increased so has our institutional, systematic insistence that everyone measure up or be deemed deficient.

The timetable is arbitrary, and just because this timetable has the backing of school systems, politicians and the textbook- and test-publishing establishment does not mean it is any less arbitrary. Why is it fixed and immutable that a child should be reading by the time they leave first grade? (Of course, in our cultural anxiety of falling behind the rest of the industrialized world we have now made it kindergarten. Fear makes you forget what you know and do crazy things, and that leads to worse results.)

It’s fine for children to get extra help with whatever delays they have in order to move them along with the rest of the class—this is often required. Sometimes intensive intervention is necessary. What makes a school Procrustean is when the timetable is God–when the timetable becomes not only arbitrary, but also capricious and the driving force in the culture of the school.

The driving force in the culture of each school must be the genius of the child—each unique child—otherwise the adults in the school cannot call themselves educators.

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