Maybe we’re looking at education wrong. Maybe it’s student-athletes that are the model for any given student

From Michael Lewis’ “The Ballad of Big Mike,” in The New York Times:

His senior year he made all A’s and B’s. It nearly killed him, but he did it. The Briarcrest academic marathon, in which Michael started out a distant last and had instantly fallen farther behind, came to a surprising end: in a class of 157 students, he finished 154th. He had caught up to and passed three of his classmates. When Sean saw the final report card, he turned to Michael with a straight face and said, “You didn’t lose; you just ran out of time.”

He had had a truly bizarre academic career: nothing but D’s and F’s until the end of his junior year, when all of a sudden he became a reliable member of Briarcrest’s honor roll. He was going to finish with a grade-point average of 2.05. Amazing as that was, however, it wasn’t enough to get him past the N.C.A.A. He needed a 2.65. And with no more classes to take, he obviously would not get it.

Now it was Sean’s turn to intervene.

From a friend, Sean learned about the Internet courses offered by Brigham Young University. The B.Y.U. courses had magical properties: a grade took a mere 10 days to obtain and could be used to replace a grade from an entire semester on a high-school transcript. Pick the courses shrewdly and work quickly, and the most tawdry academic record could be renovated in a single summer. Sean scanned the B.Y.U. catalog and found a promising series. It was called “Character Education.” All you had to do in such a “character course” was to read a few brief passages from famous works — a speech by Lou Gehrig here, a letter by Abraham Lincoln there — and then answer five questions about it. How hard could it be? The A’s earned from character courses could be used to replace F’s earned in high-school English classes. And Michael never needed to leave the house!

Thus began the great Mormon grade-grab. Mainly it involved Sue Mitchell grinding through the character courses with Michael. Every week or so, they replaced a Memphis public school F with an A from B.Y.U. Every assignment needed to be read aloud and decoded. Here he was, late in his senior year in high school, and he had never heard of a right angle or the Civil War or “I Love Lucy.” But getting the grades was far easier than generating in Michael any sort of pleasure in learning. When Briarcrest gave him a list of choices of books to write a report on, Mitchell, thinking it might spark Michael’s interest, picked “Great Expectations.” “Because of the character of Pip,” she says. “He was poor and an orphan. And someone sort of found him. I just thought Michael might be able to relate.” He couldn’t. She tried “Pygmalion.” Again, he hadn’t the faintest interest in the thing. They got through it by performing the work aloud, with Michael assigned to the role of Freddie. “He does wonderful memory work,” Mitchell says. “It’s a survival technique. You can give him anything, and he’ll memorize it.” But that’s all he did. Engaging with the material in any deeper way seemed impossible. He was as isolated from the great works of Western literature as he was from other people. “If you asked him why we’re doing all this,” she says, “he’d say, ‘I got to do it to get to the league.”’

I’m not quoting any of this to pick on Michael Oher, who really is an awesome force on the football field and – even more impressively – worked hard for the education he has. Toward the conclusion of the article: “He could read and write… Drowned in nurture, his I.Q. test score had risen between 20 and 30 points.” I’m not going to knock the B.Y.U courses, because truth be told they helped give exposure to things like Lincoln and Pygmalion and Great Expectations that either didn’t get through in high school (most likely) or weren’t taught (elite schools generally tend to have some very surprising gaps).

I’m more interested in Oher’s lack of interest in the material, which is obviously excusable for a number of reasons in his case. He was more than likely interested in getting to do something he was good at (football) at a higher level soon, and given the rest of what we’re told, there are plenty of excuses. The thing about the disinterest: I run into it far too often among people who can’t make excuses, and what’s surprising is the people we’d label “educated” who also have that sort of disinterest. One thing that’s shining through what I’ve excerpted – it’s possible to do well at a number of tests, get A’s and general knowledge, and not relate to knowledge on any deeper level whatsoever.

I guess my questions are:

  1. Can we really institutionalize education and learning? To some degree, we have to, but where do the tests and classes start failing spectacularly?
  2. What about the need for focus? The more one focuses, the more practical learning gets. Not the worst thing, but the more practical you get, the less educated you are and not because we still have some liberal-artsy prejudice about educated people needing to know lots of useless stuff. It’s more like: if you’re educated, you can formulate questions about problems people don’t even realize exist.
  3. What about the appeal to honor? Combined with question 2, the appeal to utility, it seems to be a powerful motivator: “I got to do it to get to the league.” But we’re clearly seeing a case where honor and utility collapse into each other above. Moreover, it isn’t just Michael Oher who may not have cared for learning – the reason why I’m bringing this up is because there’s a frightening number of zombies around who will jump through hoops for certificates and official looking pieces of paper. A slightly different question from the first: to what degree is education a self-making?

1 Comment

  1. Hello, I encountered your blog while researching the “character courses” dimension of the “Blind Side” saga. Your mention–and concern about–Oher’s “disinterest” in the works “Great Expectations” and “Pygmalion” struck a personal chord with me.

    Throughout my academic career, and professional life, I have grudgingly read “fiction” of that sort, when required to in high school and undergrad. Did pretty well in it…in fact, earned a 99th percentile on the English CLEP exam at the age of seventeen, plus got nearly as high scores on teh English Lit and American Lit subject CLEP exams…

    But after “having to” read fiction, I rarely have after that time. Nonetheless, I was the honor grad in poli sci/history and undergrad, earned a law degree, and did quite a bit of doctoral work before getting offered a nice position in consulting.

    Fiction and literature appeal to some people, but not to others. If a hypothetical student loved those aforementioned courses, but hated studying government and history, is that wortthy of condemnation? Nah. People are different.

    When I heard of the BYU option, I was reminded of the “Kobayashi Maru” test immortalized in Star Trek….in esssence, “how does one win in a situation that is de facto completely UN-winnable?” The Trek solution was basically “Change the Conditions of the Test.”

    Some would call that cheating; I would deem it ingenious, and finding a viable way around an inherently silly (and ultimately discriminatory, from a socioeconomic sense in Oher’s case) requirement.

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