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.
College Access Counseling
My firm, College Access Counseling, Ltd., works with adults and organizations who counsel and support first-generation and minority students on the way to college. I teach the ins and outs of the college process, helping them build social and cultural capital for their students. Click here for more information. I also write for NACAC's blog, Admitted. You can read my entries as well as some of my colleagues', here. Click here to read one of my entries in the New York Times's blog, The Choice.
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Books About College, Teens, and American Culture
- A History of American Higher Education
- A Hope in the Unseen
- Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
- African Americans and College Choice
- Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture
- Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men
- Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers
- Campus Life
- College Access & Opportunity Guide
- College Admissions and the Public Interest
- College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family
- College Gold: The Step by Step Guide for Paying for College
- College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready
- College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy
- Colleges that Change Lives
- Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing
- Doing School: How We are Creating a Generation of Stressed-out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students
- First in the Family
- Fiske Guide to Colleges
- Going to College: How Social, Economic, and Educational Factors Influence the Decisions Students Make
- Harvard, Schmarvard
- Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private & Social Benefits of Higher Education
- Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood
- I Am Charlotte Simmons
- Increasing Access to College:
- Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admission and Beyond
- Leveling the Playing Field: Justice, Politics, and College Admissions
- Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered America
- Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams
- Looking Beyond the Ivy League
- Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions
- Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class
- Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes
- Race and Class Matters at an Elite College
- Rescuing Your Teenager From Depression
- Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education
- Sophomore Guide to College & Career: Preparing for life After High School
- Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It
- Status Anxiety
- Taking Time Off
- Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education
- The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy
- The Bond: Three Young Men Learn to Forgive & Reconnect with Their Fathers
- The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools
- The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
- The Culture of Narcissism
- The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
- The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in American Life
- The Little College Handbook: A First Generation's Guide to Getting in and Staying In
- The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College
- The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfull a Dream
- The Pressured Child: Helping Your Child Find Success in School and Life
- The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges--and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates
- The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids
- The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager
- The Secret Lives of Overachievers
- The Unintended Consequences of High Stakes Testing
- Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education
- What Color Is Your Parachute? for Teens