Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

Trigger warning: references to child abuse.

For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.

– Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One 

Christ on a fucking bicycle.

Y’know, for all that I’ve taken issue with Penny Arcade in the past, on this occasion, I don’t think I can muster up a better response to the absolute, jaw-dropping ridiculousness of Ryan Boudinot’s remarks than to quote this strip and say, with feeling:

Penny Arcade - Who Let Him Command A Pencil

I mean, really: if you’re going to set yourself up as some literary Yoda by lambasting the inherent mediocrity of the vast majority of MFA students, complete with sweeping generalisations and thinly-veiled contempt for writers in training, then the absolute least you can do is demonstrate a cogent awareness of language and its implications, the better to suggest that you know what you’re doing. Because when you say that reading badly-written memoirs of childhood abuse makes you wish the writer had suffered more, and then go on to say that child abuse deserves to be treated with the utmost respect, not as a topic in its own right, but for writing craft – implying, if not outright stating, that you think it’s more important to respect the skill with which abuse narratives are crafted than the personhood of actual survivors – you come off sounding like a callous, oblivious douchecanoe who doesn’t understand basic fucking empathy, let alone the power of words, and that might, you know. Undercut your point.

I’m never sure quite how to feel about MFAs. Not being American, the regard in which they’re often held is alien to me, and every so often, you hear horror stories about the more exploitative aspects of the MFA system, as per the whole James Frey debacle. Certainly – and as Boudinot himself admits – you don’t need one to get published in any format, and with the advent of ebooks and digital self-publishing, the rise of commercial fanfiction and the slow death of traditional print media, the publishing landscape is undergoing active, even radical changes. That being so, I’m disinclined to view Boudinot’s status as a former MFA teacher as evidence that he possesses either literary competence or industry insight above and beyond the norm, and given the disdain with which he seemingly views his former profession – hello, Goddard College! What a stellar employee you’ve lost – I’m not sure he’d disagree with me.

Well. About that one thing, anyway.

Because as far as I can see, the rest of his argument is little more than a stereotypical, self-indulgent, self-fulfilling exercise in Special Snowflakeism, and while I generally prefer to avoid cliches, as Boudinot is apparently determined to embody the archetype of the Pretentious White Male Writer, I’m going to shore up that assertion by selectively quoting his Twitter feed, which reads like the Poe’s law version of a Mallory Ortberg column. I mean, honestly:

That ‘real deal’ moniker is a reference to his MFA piece, wherein he laments the lack of genuinely talented writers to be found in such programs:

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t. Some people have more talent than others. That’s not to say that someone with minimal talent can’t work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can’t squander it. It’s simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

What I find so bizarre about the idea of innate talent as a relevant, identifiable factor in this context is that, by lauding it as he does, Boudinot is effectively copping to being a mediocre teacher; at absolute best, he’s claiming that the success of his students is ultimately beyond his control. If you believe that a certain amount of inborn skill is requisite for greatness – and if, as Boudinot seemingly believes, it’s a rare commodity – then what’s your incentive to teach the great unwashed mass of students who, in your eyes, lack potential? And how, exactly, does one go about differentiating innate talent from learned ability? An MFA is a postgraduate qualification: given that Boudinot also believes that the majority of great writers start as teens, any students at his level may well have been writing, or reading with the intention of writing, for years, while others might be just starting out. That being so, and lacking any impartial mechanism for distinguishing which is which, one suspects the real complaint here isn’t one of ability, but timing. Namely: if a writer is already sufficiently skilled on starting their MFA to constitute a Real Deal, then someone like Boudinot can take a mentor’s credit for their success without necessarily contributing to it, while anyone who requires greater encouragement won’t reach their apogee soon enough to suit his vanity.

Either way, I fail to see how any teacher can possibly do justice to either their students or their own methods if they believe, from the get-go, that a majority are born inferior.

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

This is, to put it succinctly, bullshit. While it’s certainly true that our brains are more plastic the younger we are, and that language acquisition is easier for children than adults, human beings were telling stories long before we ever learned to write them down. The ‘neural architecture’ we develop in order to learn to read at all – reading being a human invention distinct from speech – is not synonymous with our ability to comprehend narrative. You can be illiterate, and still a consummate storyteller; or, conversely, you can spend a lifetime reading books without ever understanding how to write one. By conflating a ‘lifelong intimacy with language’ with a childhood spent reading, Boudinot is not only doing a grave disservice to oral storytelling, but is actively insulting every literary adult who learned to read late, or who struggled with dyslexia in childhood, or whose love of reading was otherwise delayed for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their appreciation of stories.

Creative writing is a discipline that requires effort, yes, but claiming that it’s ever too late to start is just as patently absurd as the idea that only some people are born with workable talent. No wonder Boudinot’s Real Deal students are such unicorns: not only do they need the right genes, but they have to act on their inclinations within the first three decades of life to properly qualify. (The irony of believing that immutable, inborn talent can still have a fixed expiration date is apparently lost on him.)

If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.

I went to a low-residency MFA program and, years later, taught at a low-residency MFA program. “Low-residency” basically means I met with my students two weeks out of the year and spent the rest of the semester critiquing their work by mail. My experience tells me this: Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student. On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.

See above, re: Boudinot is clearly a shitty teacher. How dare his students want advice on time management! How dare they feel insecure about their work! God, it’s not like professional writers struggle constantly with weighing deadlines and the prospect of creative burnout against the demands of parenthood, family commitments, day jobs and the restrictions of illnesses – oh, wait, it actually is, because time management is both a difficult skill to learn and an integral part of being a writer; as, for that matter, is wondering what level of professionalism you have to attain before you “really” count as one, and whether that status can ever revert.

But because, once upon a time, Boudinot’s favourite Classic Authors were all sat ’round in a squalid garret enacting the literary version of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen Sketch, he thinks his modern-day students should all just shut up and figure it out themselves, which logic is roughly commensurate with saying that, since people in history used to suffer and die from causes that are now wholly preventable, nobody with access to modern medicine has the right to complain about feeling sick.

Or – hey! I know! Let’s extend that reasoning to Boudinot himself, and contend – as seems only fair – that his complaints about the difficulties of teaching a 21st century MFA course, online, with only two annual weeks of actual student contact, are an insult to educators who worked tirelessly in warzones throughout history. For shame.

Conversely, I’ve had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.” I almost quit my job on the spot.

So, let me get this straight: in one breath, Boudinot chastises his students for having limited taste, and in the next is shocked and appalled when their tastes don’t conform to his own, as though having read The Great Gatsby is somehow proof of anything other than having read The Great Gatsby. And while I don’t want to leap to conclusions about Boudinot’s views on gender, it strikes me as relevant that not only does he exclusively cite male authors – Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolano, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Jason Shinder – but, in discussing his students, every Real Deal writer has a male pronoun, while the two negative examples both refer to women.

Sufficed to say, there’s nothing in this article that lends me faith in the man. In fact, he comes across as a walking cautionary tale about everything that’s wrong with the MFA system: judgemental, disinterested, disengaged teachers with a suspected male bias who, by their own admission, don’t believe that most of their students will ever amount to anything, who openly profess their own inability to help the rest achieve publication, and whose best advice is to toil in obscurity for a few years before self-publishing. All that being so, I can’t help feeling that Ryan Boudinot’s biggest hurdle to enjoying work as an MFA teacher was Ryan Boudinot. What a lovely man he sounds. He’s certainly taught me a lesson.

 

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Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator: I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that  problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesque institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the types of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officers in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrow Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage critical inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful and significant moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications  – have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time, the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories about better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” 

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely because a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented  school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

By way of introduction to what comes next, consider the following articles:

1. An in-depth examination of what makes a great teacher;

2. A renunciation of helicopter parenting;

3. The suspension of students after the online ‘bullying’ of a teacher;

4. A warning to teachers not to ‘friend’ students online for fear of said bullying; and

5. The Rate My Teachers website.

Are we all familiar with the relevant materials?

Good.

But before I begin, a relevant disclaimer:

I hated high school. Not to begin with, certainly, but by the end, I loathed it with a furious vengeance that would cheerfully have seen me set fire to the place. I went to two high schools, since you ask, both of them co-educational. The first was a public school; the second, private. I spent three years at each. It is important to note that my hatred does not stem from these differences, nor from a desire to have studied under a same-sex regime. In both instances, I had access to teachers who were engaged, intelligent, interesting and committed to my education. One school had more money and resources than the other, and when it came time to choose my final year subjects, that was certainly a boon, but it didn’t cancel out my hatred. Neither was I an indifferent student. By choice, I studied 14 units in Year 12, when the normal maximum was 13, and I continued to play school sport on the weekend when it was no longer mandatory. I even won a couple of prizes, at both a school and state level. I had friends, and boyfriends, and kind, loving, intelligent parents. I was bullied early on in school, but not in a way that dominated my life, and it wasn’t an issue after I turned 15. In short, I was a good student, the kind who cared about knowledge and who, despite the necessary teenage resentments and problems, wanted to do well. But I hated high school. I felt trapped there as I have never felt trapped before or since. I cried myself to sleep at night, those nights when I did sleep, because past the age of 15, my insomnia was all-encompassing. I was depressed, melancholy, self-hating, self-destructive, angry, a cutter, frustrated and, at times, near catatonic with helplessness. More than anything, I wanted to get out. And now I have, and there’s not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for having held on. But the outrage has never left me. High school, as is, is not a good place. In six years, I never met a bright student who hadn’t considered suicide at some point or other, an observation which has held true even when recalling those years among new adult acquaintances.  Think about that for a moment: a place supposedly dedicated to education where the majority of smart people end up wanting to kill themselves. The high school system is rotten. I remain convinced of this fact. Yes, it has its virtues. But I cannot bear to make myself their advocate. That is my bias, for now and for the foreseeable future. Be warned of it.

Are you up to speed?

Then let us begin.

*****

Of late, there has been a lot of furore about the problem of how to evaluate teachers. Educational unions are strong, and arguably with good reason, especially when one considers how little high school teachers are actually paid, and how miniscule their prospects of financial advancement. It is not a good status quo, and if it were possible to snap my fingers and eradicate the regrettable social assumption than teaching is a low-prestige job worthy only of a similarly low salary, I would gladly trade the flesh of my left hand to do so. But that is not the case: change is never so easy, particularly when it impinges on politics and tradition, and instead, we are stuck with the slow road. I am deeply sympathetic to the plight of underpaid teachers, harried educaters who work long hours for little recompense, dedicating their holidays to marking and the creation of lesson plans, struggling to earn a higher wage, and who find themselves thwarted by poor resourcing on behalf of their attendent governments. These are all problems which deserve redress, and soon.

But.

There is such a thing as a bad teacher. More to the point, there is such a thing as bad teachers, plural, meaning that they are among us, and many, and largely undetected. This is not a desierable situation. Nor is it easily fixed. I will not pretend that creating league tables to measure the performance of schools will automatically solve all the problems parents face when deciding where to send their children. The difference in resources available between the public and private systems is still mindboggling; and I should know, having been in a position to gauge it from both sides. But there is something obvious to the idea that good teachers make a positive difference in the lives of their students, and – correspondingly – that bad teachers can have the opposite effect. The problem, as in all subjective matters, lies in determining what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the context. Especially when endeavouring to craft new legislation, rather than merely supporting laws which already exist, the desire is to improve, adapt, mend: we see the problem, and therefore strive to fix it. But which person, or what body, has either the right or expertise to draw such a contentious line in the sand – to declare that X breed of teacher is good, while the practices of Y are intolerable?

As painful as it is to admit, there surely comes a point when we must pass such a judgement, not because we believe it to be inviolably true, but because we cannot rightfully function without some sort of acknowledgement that there is a judgement to be made at all, and what’s more, that it is worth making. Some teachers are better than others. In almost every other field of employ, we are willing to concede this point, and yet teaching remains a battleground. Elsewhere, the idea that good results be rewarded with higher pay is a logical sort of system, and one that some teachers, at least, are eager to embrace. But where to start? With all the accepted variances in syllabi, school resources and – though more controversial – the socio/economic data of particular school catchment areas, it seems intuitively wrongheaded to suppose that all teachers are striving towards greatness from a position of equal footing. How, therefore, might one reasonably craft the defining qualities of educational success, if the starting assumption denies that all teachers begin with a common set of resources and an equally well-equipped student populace? It is impossible; but then, if we look at the corporate sphere, nobody has ever claimed that all lawyers begin their careers with the same number and type of cases, or that all doctors must successfully diagnose from an equal pool of patients. In that sense, there is always going to be inequality: the point, however, is in trying to establish standards for success that transcend that fact in a visible majority of instances.

So: how do we go about evaluating the success of teachers? Grades, one assumes, must have something to do with it, although that is possibly the trickiest rubrick to establish, given the above concerns. Is there, then, an easier starting place? Yes, I would contend, and a fairly obvious one, though equally controversial. I can think of only two types of institution in our modern world where those in a position of authority are not noticably subject to the rights of those beneath them: prisons, and schools. In both instances, we believe the governed body to be too deeply invested in the dismantling of the whole system to bother with their opinions, not least because they are, by and large, resentful of being held somewhere against their will. But that does not mean abuses do not take place, and it certainly does not mean, in the case of students, that they are comparable to inmates: that is to say, innately untrustworthy by dint of sitting on the far side of the desk. Yes, there is a worry that students will play favourites; that they will lie about their teachers, and desire only the sort of cheerful mediocrity which allows them to misbehave with the least amount of stress. But one might just as easily say the same of junior employees, resentful of the power of their bosses and wanting only to be paid exhorbitantly for the minimum amount of work. Regardless of age, this is always the dichotomy, and while we might acknowledge that some teenagers will abuse the privilege, or else prove unequal to the task of articulating their discontent in an intelligible and useful manner, I am not convinced that adults are any more noble.

Out of curiosity, I looked up one of my old schools on the Rate My Teachers website. Yes, there were some purely pejorative comments in evidence, but otherwise, I found that my own recollections bore out in the assigned scores: teachers I recalled as outstanding were roundly praised, while those I remembered with less fondness were frowned upon. Given my disclaimer about the extent to which I hated high school, I might well be biased, but it seems as though teenagers aren’t as misguided in their perception of teachers as is commonly made out, no matter how poorly those perceptions might be expressed. Since leaving school, I’ve worked for at least one employer whose neuroses and general unpleasantness made my skin crawl, and nobody I complained to about it ever made me feel as though my powers of observation were somehow deficient. Bad bosses are part of the adult world: we accept their existence almost by default. But bad teachers are a different kettle of fish. Even when reminiscing as adults, with all the powers of hindsight at our disposal, there is often a sense that we are being unjust in our perceptions of former teachers; that somehow, we are letting childish emotions cloud our judgement, clinging on to age-old resentments rather than electing to grow up. Even though the only difference between criticising an employer and a teacher might be a few months – or nothing at all, for those who hold down jobs during school – we are automatically inclined to treat the former complaint with greater gravity.

Why? A simple thing: choice.

Suppose I’m working an awful job. Should things turn really nasty, I have the option of leaving. Any resentment I feel towards my employer may therefore be reasonably viewed in this context, and gauged with a modicum of objectivity, depending on the listener’s knowledge of my personality and quirks. But students do not have such a choice. Their resentment is established as a matter of fact, such that any attempt to increase it – say, by complaning about a teacher – does not seem any different from this perceived background level of discontent. More importantly, the fact remains that, even if the teacher is genuinely bad, there is little to be done about it. Changing schools for the sake of a single person is hardly common, and certainly not smiled upon; never mind the fact that changing schools at all is difficult. The idea that a teacher might be dismissed or even reprimanded because of any one student’s say-so is equally unlikely. But in a situation where there is no established means of acknowledging good teachers or weeding out bad even among the educational hierarchy, what hope does any student have of making a valid complaint?

I am not trying to wrap teenagers in cotton wool. As in the case of teachers, some are better than others, smarter than others, kinder or more enthusiastic or honest than others. That cannot be changed, and I do not want to implement some unrealistic, lovely-dovey system wherein all teachers strive for the approval and popular adoration of their pupils. But surely, there must be some way, some viable genesis, wherein students can evaluate their teachers and be heard within the bounds of a legitimate system, and not just by venting on an unauthorised website. Here’s an idea that plays to biases, and which might work for exactly that reason: what if we took note of the type of student complaining about a particular teacher? If they’re all friends from the same group, or possessed of similar personalities, then it seems reasonable to assume that the teacher is either being directly targeted, or that their method of teaching jars with that teen-type. But if the complaints are coming from diverse corners of the student body, or from the type of pupil who normally refrains from rocking the boat, then perhaps schools should sit up and take notice, if only to be sure that nothing is amiss.

If you consider that a teacher is but one person faced with twenty or thirty rebellious subjects, then the idea of students bullying educators becomes less absurd, no matter the balance of power. I am not saying that students should have carte blanche to make their teachers fear for their jobs, or to ridicule them, or any such thing. But the crucial element of bullying is power, and the effect it has on the injured party. Someone might try and tease me, for instance, but if I do not fear them – if they have no tangible ability to make my life worse, and if I genuinely do not care what they say – then they are not bullying me; they are only failing to do so. And perhaps, for the sake of the attempt, that failure should be met with reprimand. Perhaps. But where there are more concrete examples to be getting on with – people who do fear their persecutors, who care what is said about them, and whose lives can be made worse by those on the attack – then spending breath and effort berating what hasn’t happened seems like a waste of time. Thus, in reference to the current concerns of schools re the bullying of teachers – particularly, as in the case of Leeming SHS, of teachers who are themselves feared by their students – I entreat you: look where the power is. If students have no valid outlet to complain about their teachers, and if those teachers are behaving aggressively, then do not be surprised if the internet takes up your shortfall. Don’t go calling it bullying for the sake of effect, or because you think the students shouldn’t have bad opinions in the first place: be an adult, and maybe wonder whether or not such vociferous complaints have merit.

I’m almost done, here. I’m running out of words. The hour is late. I don’t have an overriding solution; only a few scraps. But, please: the things that are wrong with high school aren’t just due to teenage angst. There is something broken in the system – a deep, treacherous wound that cannot mend itself, and which few enough adults even acknowledge exists. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: teenagers are not stupid. The lower your expectations for any group of people, the less likely they are to try and surprise you – why should they, when it doesn’t get them anywhere? We need to start thinking about how to make our schools better, and evaluating teachers is part of that. But until then, try and imagine what we can change. It’s the only way forward. And sooner or later, it’s where we’ll have to go.

Consider the following story: the refusal of a Christian school to train a Muslim teaching student. Rachida Dahlal, of Victoria University, was knocked back on her application to undergo work experience at Heathdale Christian College on the grounds of her faith. The university’s acting vice-chancellor pointed out that Mrs Dahlal, a devout Muslim who wears the hijab, had already been ‘counselled’ about Heathdale’s policy of ‘taking those whose values aligned to its own’, while school principal Reynald Tibben rather contradictingly stated that the school’s position was not that they had ‘anything against her or her beliefs’, but rather that their education policy was ‘nominal, it’s actually what parents want for their kids’, and that  hiring a Muslim teacher would have been both ‘inappropriate’ and ‘confusing’ for students.

For those who might question Mrs Dahlal’s choice of Heathdale to begin with, her decision was based on the proximity of the school to her home, and its position as one of few institutions offering both French and mathematics, her specialty subjects. Given also that it was her choice, and made in full knowledge of the school’s denomination, Principal Tibben’s guff about her likely discomfort during morning prayers seems frankly condescending. Would he have been so concerned about hiring an atheist? Would a Jewish applicant have been equally off-limits? In Mr Tibben’s eyes, would the presence of such people have proven similarly ‘confusing’ to students? Or is it just the fact that Mrs Dahlal’s faith is visible through her hijab, and not merely an internal ideology? More and more, it seems, society is struggling with the notion of discrimination; but what this case exemplifies – and yet what few people are willing to acknowledge – is that any set of beliefs associated with a specific ideal is, by definition, discriminatory.

This is not something we can legislate away. The vast majority of human interactions are predicated on conflict: disagreements over a favourite film, the appropriate price of food, who has the greatest claim to which resources, which is the best way to discipline children, how the universe began. At the far end of the scale are grandoise religious and philosophical abstractions, while at the other are trivial matters, debates that no sane person would try to legalise. But the middle regions are often indistinct, a blend of all such concerns, and it is here we live our lives. Politically, socially, sexually and legally, we have moved forwards in recent decades, making headway against racism, sexism, homophibia, explotation of children and religio-cultural discrimination; and yet despite its presence at the forefront of many such debates – if not all of them – the discrimination inherent in religious systems has remained the elephant in the room.

Put simply: if a person believes that their own religion is unshakeably correct to the exclusion of all other systems, and then refuses to hire a worker on the grounds that they are living outside of God’s rule and will set a bad example to other employees, passing a law to prevent them from doing so becomes tantamount to declaring that the logic which underpins their faith is wrong. The same thing lies at the heart of all the legislative drama over gay marriage: how do you allow someone freedom of religion while simultaneously declaring that certain of their religious or ideological tenets constitute a violation of human rights? There’s not an easy answer. But to anyone who believes in the separation of church and state, different religious beliefs should be equally accommodated – or refused – under the law, be they derived from shari’a, the Talmud or the Bible. Defending the values of one faith on the basis of its historical relationship to the nation is neither objective nor helpful: instead, it only serves to embed a lopsided definition of discrimination and entitlement in our cultural identity.

Which brings us back to Heathdale Christian College, and the reason why, in our secular state, Reynald Tibben should be found to have acted wrongly: because although a fair state must allow the existence of both secular and denominational schools, it should have no vested interest in preventing overlap between the two. Just as state schools hire teachers of all faiths, so too should their denominational equivalents. The difference between such institutions should be purely a matter of extra religious instruction, not the individual disposition of their teachers. Because if things are otherwise – if we state that a school has the right to hire or fire teachers on the basis of their personal values – then we may as well say that other Christian principals are equally within their grounds to fire teachers for apostasy, for expressing agnosticism or for religious conversion. The fact that Mrs Duhlal practises Islam does not affect her ability to speak French or teach mathematics, just as the Christianity of her students should not affect their ability to learn. As the saying goes, it’s impossible to please everyone. At the most basic level, discrimination simply means choice: to differentiate between one thing and another. We load the word with negative connotations, conflating it with prejudice in all instances, but saying that our society disciminates against racism is just as valid a useage as complementing someone on their discriminating taste. Because discrimination, be it deemed neutural, positive or negative, figures equally in choice, legislation and religion alike. And the sooner we start to confront that fact, the better for all of us.

According to today’s New York Times, the high expectations of American tertiary students are leading them to haggle over their grades. The students argue that if they show up and complete all the required readings, they deserve an A, and that the act of putting in effort to meet the standards should be viewed positively during grading. Lecturers argue that merely meeting the  standards required to pass a course – in other words, showing up and doing the reading – should only earn a C, as this constitutes the bare minimum required to pass. It’s the kind of argument that could easily rant on for pages, but there’s one line which, for me, perfectly sums up why the professors, and not their students, are correct. As James Hogge puts it:

“Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.'”

This, to me, is as perfect a summation as one could find on the ultimate consequence of turning education into a commodity. In a society where a majority of students complete at least some tertiary study, the bar for excellence has been raised. Mechanically showing up and sitting through the allotted lectures or tutes is not the same as comprehending – or, indeed, caring about – their content. Reading something to fulfil course requirements is not commensurate with reading for pleasure. What lecturers are identifying, and what some students are evidently struggling with, is the notion that education should be more than a chore, or a means to an end: that it should be delightful in its own right, encouraged for its own sake. Under this model, the extra engagement required to reach an A grade comes from genuine interest, and, if we’re honest, a certain amount of intelligence, neither of which can be faked. And as the ultimate products of standardised testing, a system under which a love of learning is palpably secondary to meeting benchmarks, students are, unsurprisingly, floundering.

More and more, the question of how to engage students is one I find myself grappling with, despite being neither a parent nor an educator. For me, the most important components of schooling should be instilling a desire to learn while providing the tools, guidance and encouragement for pupils to do so. One of these tools, unnegotiably, is language, without which it is impossible to read, write or effectively communicate ideas. Beyond that, any decision as to which disciplines are most important is arbitrary, and while there’s certainly sense in providing as many people as possible with a base level of knowledge in a broad range of fields, such as maths and geography, it’s no substitution for producing an individual capable of selecting their own interests and researching them independently.

Which is where, for me, the entire basis of modern education comes tumbling down like London Bridge: it graphically fails to achieve this most basic and vital of outcomes. Rather, such eager students tend to flourish in opposition to the very system that should be supporting them, springing up like hardy plants between cobblestones. They learn to love knowledge despite the way it is taught to them, despite having their interests routinely cordoned off by the arbitrary barriers of syllabi. In democratising education and providing it to all, we’ve forgotten why it should be provided to anyone. Teaching all children under equal circumstances and without prejudice is not the same as believing that a single mode of tuition will be of equal benefit to everyone: quite the opposite. Except that, in commodifying education, exactly this assumption has been made.

Here’s an elitist thought: some people are brighter than others. They can learn things faster, more thoroughly and in greater number than the average student. Similarly, some people are slower: it takes them more time to register fewer concepts to a lower degree of proficiency. Education does not eradicate this fact. It’s not simply a matter of native intelligence, either: some students might be slower due to language barriers, behavioural problems, poor teaching or any number of social difficulties. Others might be faster because they enjoy a certain subject, because they appear stronger by comparison to their peers, because of an excellent teacher, or because their parents help at home. This is evident to kindergarden teachers the world over – and yet all students are given the same goals. The habit of standardised testing is not so bad in Australia as America, but one can still draw the same conclusion of education in both countries: that passing grades are held to be more important than retaining knowledge. Obvious though it seems, the argument that those who know will pass holds little water, for three important reasons:

1. Rote-learning a concept to pass a test is not the same as understanding it;

2. Those who rote-learn are, through primary and secondary school, treated identically to those who genuienly seek knowledge; and

3. There is no extra reward provided to students who demonstrably want to learn for learning’s sake.

Psychologically, this sets up an expectation in students that wanting to explore a subject further isn’t worth their while – and, academically, it isn’t. They will receive no tangible reward for reading about Henry VIII in their spare time; neither will displaying extra knowledge allow them to move forward at a faster pace, and while the outcome should be to teach a love of learning for its own sake, the way to encourage this from an early age is through reward. If students who show initiative aren’t treated any differently under the education system, then the majority will, through apathy or disappointment, revert to meeting only the minimum requirements. If they are bright, this is looked upon as coasting, a behaviour which, ironically, is discouraged. Much like the ‘intangible benefits’ so laughingly touted by many corporations in place of actual staff bonuses or health care plans, the architects of the modern educational system seem to assume that an absence of reward will nonetheless encourage students to excel in their own time. As for arbitrary in-school awards, such as often take the form of laminated and calligraphied cardboard, these are nice mementos, but ultimately meaningless, comparable to the much-loathed ‘quality awards’ of the new corporate sphere. They are the lowest possible recognition of achievement, inadequate placeholders for actual change, innovation or devlopment.

Which brings us back to American college students and their sense of entitlement. Consider them anew in light of the above. They have been taught for thirteen years that meeting the requirements of the system is all that matters, and that going above and beyond, while perhaps an idealistic concept, results only in extra work for no gain, and, quite possibly, in social mockery. At the same time, they have been told, repeatedly and with emphasis, that holding a degree is vital to their future success: they must continue to work hard. And the operative word here is work, because this is what education means to them. Not knowledge, not pleasure, not investiagtive thrills, but work, a difficult, laborious and time-consuming means to an unspecified end. They are waiting, like so many of us in the modern world, for the joy to kick in: to reach the end of the academic rainbow and find the job they love. But learning to love our jobs is, in many ways, identical to learning how to love knowledge: a process which is the direct antithesis of modern education.

Many people don’t hit their stride until university. For some, it’s the first opportunity to explore ideas that interest them as a part of learning, and not just in their own time. Others finally break through the limits of school and attack the discipline they’ve been hankering for, be it geology or medicine. But for many – and, I fear, for most – it’s a startling disappointment. Like pigeons raised in a dark coop, they have no idea how to stray beyond the bounds in which they’ve been raised. They never realised it was the point – nobody ever told them. Certainly, the system didn’t. They drop out, feeling betrayed, or go on to feel naggingly unhappy in their jobs, donning their disquiet in the assumption that it indicates adulthood. And as the twin stranglehold of commodified education and standardised testing tightens, more and more people will be squeezed into a mould inimical to learning. Those who might love university will, by the time they reach it, feel exhausted at the thought of jumping through yet more hoops, and have no savour for any educational institution; others will have long since given up. And meanwhile, those few people who excel at the standardised system will rocket through with glowing recommendations, completely ill-equipped to enter any profession which requires not only passion, but imagination.

The weight of such people is already warping the tertiary system. In Australia, the rise of full-fee paying students, both nationally from overseas, has placed enormous pressure on lecturers to pass inadequate learners. This payment for education turns the degree into a product, moving the customer to demand value for money. Invariably, such students view their own role as passive. Education is something the university must do to them, not a thing in which they must participate, or for which they might ultimately be ill-suited. And such mindsets, both in the long and short term, can only be harmful to the intellectual development of society.

Because in a time of such need for genius, and yet where genius is thin on the ground; when innovation is desperately needed at every turn, and where social, economic and environmental pressures are forcing the reinvention of long-held or unquestioned systems, we need every intellectual iconoclast, highschool anarchist and rule-breaking miscreant to remember what they loved about knowledge: that it improves those people and institutions who lovingly and eagerly receive it, and rewards those who strive in its persuit.