School: An American paradox

Dennis Baron

September 07, 1993|By Dennis Baron

THE French call it la rentree, or re-entry, as if it were a spaceship coming back to Earth. La rentree refers to the season when students of all ages shoulder their backpacks and begin another year of the paradox we call school.

It's a paradox because school is an institution that is both universally admired and despised. We consider school vital to our individual and national well-being, while we vilify schools for failing to meet the needs of students and the nation.

Of course, if we could define those needs more clearly we just might be able to figure out how schools could be more effective. But there isn't much chance we can agree on what schools should do, much less how we should pay for them. Among the issues that divide us:

* Some people think schools should be more standardized; others think they already are too much like cookie cutters.

* Some people think schools are too rigid; others think they are too lax.

Some people think schools should pile on the work, that students only learn when they are forced to; others feel less is more, that students can't learn unless they have the leisure to absorb.

* Some people think schools should have more tests to ensure that students learn; others feel that testing tells us nothing about what students really know.

* Some people think schools should run all day, all year long; others think students spend too much time in school already, that true learning only takes place in the real world.

Business people, who feel that they live in the real world, complain that schools don't provide them with graduates who make effective employees. On the other hand, back-to-school sales enrich many a business.

Students, who are most directly affected by school, have a similarly ambiguous relationship with the institution. Summered-out by vacations, camp, jobs or just plain sitting around, many of them look forward to re-entry. Yet once immersed in classes, they can't wait for the bell to ring, and they already have begun the countdown to the final exam.

I exemplify the school paradox: I was school-phobic as a student, yet wound up becoming a teacher. Clearly I have learned to confront my fear of school, but it's never very far away. All I need is to catch a whiff of a school building, and I break out in a sweat and breathe rapidly. And then I get this irresistible urge to teach.

I didn't become a teacher in order to remedy the failures I perceived in my own schooling. I didn't do it out of a noble desire to uplift and empower the masses or a practical desire to produce efficient employees or good citizens or a romantic desire to open new vistas or opportunities for self-fulfillment.

I did it because I came from a family of teachers who didn't understand how to do anything else. I became a teacher because it was genetic, and because it was there: Nature and nurture conspired to limit my options.

I'm a parent as well as a former student and a current teacher, and while part of me can't wait to get the kids out of the house, off the streets, and into the classroom, another part of me feels reluctant to let somebody else control and mold and entertain and torture them for half their waking hours.

Already after two days of fifth grade, my daughter says she loves her teacher but is panicked by a math test. And my son loves his preschool teacher, though he assures me that he can't marry her because she makes him sit on carpet squares at group time.

Dennis Baron is professor of English and director of rhetoric at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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