Making Sense of Our Differences
NYC’s decision—for budgetary reasons—to forego mandatory intelligence testing of 5-year-olds this fall is worth celebrating. But it’s a dangerous idea that will be back again. The earlier the testing culture starts, the more it erodes the resilience of all children, but above all those raised in a different culture and language than such tests rest their norms on.
Some natives, hearing the accents or dialects of foreigners, treat them instinctively with disrespect. A good friend of mine, Florence Miller, had a talent for joining other cultures and languages. We traveled together to France, Greece, and Spain. She was already fluent in French, but even in Greece she had a way of connecting that made people think she understood; and she did! No doubt our new friends thought of me as the quiet, possibly stupid one. But she made worlds open up for us. I think of our differences often lately, since she died of cancer last week. It was a gift not only of language, but larger than that.
For many 5-year-olds, kindergarten is like entering a foreign country. They respond as I did abroad—silently. Some overcome the silence with physical rowdiness, or by being naughty. They need a Florence who can bridge worlds for them. They need teachers and peers who find their experiences every bit as significant as the more familiar ones, and who seek the common ground—the shared mysteries of life. Our shared puzzlement over the meaning of “up” and “down”, over the way sound travels (the idea itself is startling) become the bridge. Even our different ways of pronouncing words can offer delight, not shame. My 6-year-old son spent a silent year in a NYC first grade because his teacher (as she confided to me mid-year) was trying to rid him of his “bad” Chicago accent! I’ve occasionally met teachers who assume their students were deaf as they regale me loudly about the impoverished backgrounds and linguistic stupidities of their students. A loving hug cannot wipe away the insult. Some kids overcome. They succeed perhaps out of defiance, or because they switch allegiances, adopting the school rather than their home. Some come from families of unusual strength and confidence, enough to brush aside the school’s ignorance. Naturally, most don’t.
Native Americans have suffered from assumptions regarding their basic inadequacy as a “race” since the Europeans first conquered them. African-Americans for just as long. I was glad to discuss Charles Murray again, Diane, as a reminder that his assumptions are alive even in “well-educated” circles. We fool ourselves if we think these theories regarding intelligence have disappeared. The history of this kind of testing—past and present—plays a role in the perpetuation of such assumptions.
There’s a lot of work to be done in our classrooms and schools to level the playing field. Foremost is tackling how we—including above all the child herself—see, hear, and make sense of our differences. The task of schooling involves overcoming what child specialists call “infant egocentricity”. But it’s not only infants who suffer from it. The natural assumption that only “I” am real, all the others are instruments to enhance or endanger me, is appropriate as a starting point. That the “I” expands to others “like me” is a step forward, but a baby step compared to what is needed on the part of teachers and students.
As I drive through the countryside—particularly at night—and see lighted windows, I am suddenly overcome with a sense of my minuteness. In every window is an “I”. It’s cause for wondering. So, too, as a scientist reminded me recently, is lying outside on a cloudless night and seeing the universe unfold.
It’s that sense of wonder and awe that we can share across differences. It’s where storytelling—fast becoming a lost art—originates. Thousands and thousands of years of human history have rested upon our capacity to invent narrative “what ifs”. It’s at the root of literacy and science. Even our well-intended focus on written text—starting from birth—and the world of virtual realities threatens that heritage. Am I foolish in imagining that good schooling can unite us across our differences if we aren’t in a race to sort and label our children?
My naiveté has probably survived so long due to the fact that 43 years ago I happened to find myself teaching 5-year-olds. I acknowledge that it’s probably an absurd idea that we can create schools free enough and powerful enough to challenge an increasingly me-centered consumer-driven competitive society.
The other night we celebrated the 25th birthday party of one of the schools I started in East Harlem—Central Park East II. For a few hours, the idea that we could overcome the odds seemed utterly reasonable. Seeing old colleagues who love their work, seeing parents who are now grandparents of CPE students, and children I knew as kindergartners who now teach at our schools, took my breath away. I drove home that night determined to remain naïve.