Just the Facts, Ma’am

On the El recently I saw a woman reading a Kindle. It was sleek and cool. She had strapped it into a pink leather case and she looked sleek and cool reading it. I tried to see what she was reading but the gray screen and dark gray letters were too dark to figure out in the bright light of the train. I was curious, but not about the book she was reading, as I often am. I was curious about the device. Sleekness and coolness were what drew me to it.

I thought of Nicholson Baker’s article in a recent New Yorker. He talks about the Kindle. It gave me chills: “Here’s what you buy when you buy a Kindle book. You buy the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon.” Even worse: “You get the words, yes, and sometimes pictures, after a fashion. Photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen.” This doesn’t sound like “reading,” but more of a “content acquisition” where everything is sacrificed to the pragmatic task of “accessing” the “content provider’s” words in order to “process” them.

Stripped of its pleasures, including the tactile and visual, reading becomes a task, something to be gotten through as opposed to something that can offer real satisfactions. Pragmatism trumps delight. The same can be said for schools and school systems where standardized testing has become the yardstick for “progress” and the stand-in for “education. Students in grade school are drilled on test-taking skills instead of reading and writing; they are molded into good “units” so their schools can do well on their own tests. Is it any wonder they hate school?

As we try to get students from disadvantaged backgrounds to look ahead to college, it’s important to remember not to “process” them but to “educate” them. That means giving their minds something to expand into and grow on. Stripping education down to its pragmatics, the right answers on the test sheet, makes students passive consumers of data, not thinkers or doers. As with the Kindle, the pleasures of thought, of ideas, of detours, of visual imagery and inference, of “what ifs?” seem all to have been drained away so students face a gray screen designed just to deliver the basics so they can “perform.” I can’t imagine how dreary that must be to anyone with the slightest spark of intelligence and I can see why students are bored to death.

Recently I gave a talk to a grade school faculty about ways to engage students in the college process. The school is located in a poor section of town, with groups of young men hanging out on nearby street corners. The student body is nearly all poor and African American; the school hopes to set them on a path away from poverty and crime into a successful life. They already take their 4th to 8th graders to a different college campus each year to give them an idea about what college can be like and what they can have if they try.

Although these experiences may be impressive for the kids, I spoke to the faculty about creating an imaginative environment as well so they could ingest the spirit of college, not just the bricks and mortar. It’s not enough simply to carry 4th graders to a college campus, they need a reason to be there. As a rule, 4th graders don’t plan ahead ten years, but they can react to stories and ideas. I suggested teachers talk about their alma maters’ mascots and have students write stories about them. I asked them to use their students’ imaginative capacities as a way to plant seeds for college rather than focus on the pragmatics of how much more they’ll earn with a B.A. Without a wishful, idealized basis, students won’t get the pragmatics later on.

Imagination precedes pragmatics, as anyone who was read to as a child knows. We imagine things before we understand them; we fantasize before we realize the reality that surrounds us. But these early constructs sustain us even after we discover that fairy tales aren’t real or Wilbur wasn’t a live pig. To grow up without fantasy is to grow up in a poverty much longer-lasting and brutal than physical poverty because it cannot be recovered later in life. For students who are growing up in the depths of poverty, imaginative and exciting schooling may be the difference between success and mere survival. We need to fantasize in order to think about creating a world that can suit us. Out of this comes the motivation to invent, challenge, go beyond “right now” to the future.

Trying to help schools orient their low-income, first-generation students toward college, I want to add complexity, not strip it away. The Kindle, along with test prep, online education, and more-but-less activities like emailing and twittering, strips words and concepts of their beauty and elegance, impoverishing them. We make words just units of data, and that is a great shame. We need to set our students’ minds on fire, not tame them, and I believe any student of any background can be brought to the liveliness of mind that will support him through college and beyond. But it can’t be done if authors are merely “content providers” and teachers are merely “data processors.”

The more I work with underserved students and their teachers and counselors, the more I see that education without imagination is deadening, not enlivening. Only by addressing the ineffable can we help our students rise above their daily lives to conquer the world in their own ways.

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