Most of the people I know who have achieved much through their mental abilities have in their make-up a real horror of being unprepared, of not knowing what they need to know.

I often say that shame and guilt made this country a great place. People usually think I’m making a joke.

I could not be more serious.

Outside of a Fort Worth, Texas, high school recently, a bunch of students marched, and carried placards protesting the fact that some of them would not be allowed to receive their diplomas because they had failed to pass a standardized test.

Some, though not all, Texas school districts say that a student who fails that test, regardless of grade point average, can’t make that walk.

Some of the students who failed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, exam are pretty upset. They say they earned the right to their graduation, though they were not real clear on HOW they earned it.

One of the signs read “Let Are Kids Walk.”

I don’t know about you, but I think I can glimpse part of the problem.

The news story carried this quote from one of the students:

“I believe that I have at least the right to walk the stage with all my friends…I made it this far, and I have all my credits I need. I deserve to get my certificate of completion.”

I don’t know the least thing about the public school system in Texas, (I will eschew jokes about the current cowboy in the White House. Besides, I figure he did not spend much time in public schools.) But I suspect it suffers from the same syndrome plaguing our entire culture. That plague is exemplified perfectly in one phrase and one word in the quote above: “the right to” and “deserve.”

Entitlement. “I deserve the keys to the kingdom because, well, because I showed up and kept my seat warm for four years.”

Phooey.

One of the students quoted in the story said she had a good GPA but would not get her certificate because she failed the TAKS.

I am not a huge fan of standardized tests. Making them important has forced school to “teach to the tests,” meaning that the goal of the school is to make kids good at taking tests, as opposed to knowing stuff and being able to think critically.

Nlet-are-kids.jpgews flash: Knowing how to be good at standardized tests is not an especially useful life-skill.

What our young friend with the good GPA misses is that a good GPA does not mean you know stuff or are good at anything, either.

Sometimes it does. But there is a lot of pressure on schools and teachers to pass students, and a lot of that pressure comes from lawsuits, threatened and real, even physical threats. We are a nation that honors, if that is the word, the diploma, not what it is supposed to represent.

Standardized tests, on the other hand, are more of a monolithic thing, big and impenetrable and, however well or ill they measure, they measure even-handedly.

These kids in Texas have a right to be put out, I suppose. They were raised in a culture that does not honor knowledge. Trivia, yes. The average high school student can tell you who the most recent loser on American Idol was, but has no clue how to form a sentence that makes sense, or, for that matter, does not include the word “like” or the brain-dead hum of “um.”

So, why should it matter that they could not demonstrate, in however clumsy a fashion, sufficient knowledge in a broad range of subjects to demonstrate that they were doing more in school than arranging their own social events and staring out the window?

I’m not even going to get into talking about the United States position in the world market of our kids versus anybody else’s. That’s been beaten to death and we seem not to care. I heard a woman once refer to a high school girl who had won some major competition in math and science toss it off because “Oh, she’s Asian.”

Hmm. “My kid’s a dumbass, but it’s OK, he’s American?”

The real shame is that we have to ask that question at all.

Whose fault is it? Parents typically blame teachers, but it’s more complex than that. I already said it. We The People do not value knowledge. Fashion, attitude and gossip, yes. An ability to think, to reason, not so much.

Just showing up is not enough, kids. Just looking busy when the teacher walks by won’t cut it. Sorry.

We still hear a lot about being sure to establish and preserve self-esteem in our – excuse me “are” children, as though self-esteem can be had without any sense that one can fail at something.

I attended a high school graduation a few years back. Virtually every student in the senior class received some sort of quasi-academic honor. I had met a fair sample of those kids and was not convinced I was in the company of genius. The awards were clearly planned to give every kid a sense that they were worthy. The awards, therefore, really meant nothing.

Self-esteem and knowledge and recognition for them can only be earned, which means that, sadly, there will be some who fail at earning them. This is a sad truth. Garrison Keillor and Lake Woebegone notwithstanding, ALL of the children can NOT be above average.

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

Several people have requested that I run this column from August of 2004. As it happened, Just a few days ago I was flying down I-81 in my pickup truck when I ran over some sort of debris, slicing a big gash in one of my tires. The tractor trailer behind me was close enough I could count the bugs in its radiator. I managed to get to the shoulder without getting flattened. I took a deep breath and looked over to my guardian angel. She was hodling her head in her hands and groaning. “Not again!” She said.

So, here’s the re-run. “Dillsburg” is a town in southcentral Pennsylvania that I once covered for the newspaper I work for:

 

I had a close call coming out of an alley in Dillsburg the other day. My fault. Just wasn’t paying attention and almost got myself whacked. Of course, if the other guy hadn’t pretended to be Dale Earnhardt….but that’s not the point.

As it was, I had to give another thumbs up to my guardian angel. And I made a mental note to be more careful: The old girl’s not as nimble as she used to be. You’ll know her if you see her: lots of band aids, a patch over one eye, a permanent case of the tremors, and a habit of jumping at loud noises. She can sometimes be heard to mumble to colleagues: “I never knew just how long eternity could be.”’

I really am a timid sort.

Looking back, though, I am amazed at the things I’ve tried. Even so, my tendencies have leaned more toward Casper Milquetoast than Mighty Mouse. “Who’s he tryins’ to k-k-kid?’ my guardian angel asks, stoically trying not to scratch at her hives. “The guy has no sense.’

Well, she may be right. I never really claimed to be brave, simply incautious; it started when I was a kid.

I loved to climb up to the tops of trees during bad weather. I would get as high as I could, so when the winds kicked up, I could ride the storm. I never got killed. Not even once. The angel, however, got a real workout. I can hear her now, mumbling something that sounded like “born-again kamikaze,’and chewing on her halo. Understand that I was young, and like everyone young, figured I was going to live forever.

It was the same when I got my motorcycle. It was no Harley or Boss Hoss, but a mid-size Japanese bike the color of a bluebottle fly. It made a noise like a bee who’d been drinking Red Bull. I loved it. It was snappy, nimble as a bicycle, and it would go over 100 miles per hour. It’s a good thing guardian angels can’t die, because that motorcycle would have killed mine, otherwise. I always put my brains in my back pocket when I rode. I did every damn-fool thing on that Suzuki except get killed.

Probably would have done that, too, if I hadn’t woke one day on one side of a bridge with the car I had hit on the other side. I still don’t know how I got away from that one, though I think the nervous lady in the wings and robe had some­ thing to do with it. Well, whatever happened, I seem to have grown out of all that daredevil stuff. I drive a minivan, and brag about how good it is on gas, rather than how fast it goes. I think that’s the better way to be.

Usually.

During one of our recent heavy storms, I caught myself looking wistfully at one of the tall trees in my yard. A climbable tall tree. I thought, briefly, about climbing it, riding the storm for old times’ sake.

“Right,” I seemed to hear a celestial, if harried, voice say. “But you do this one with­ out me.”

I stayed on the ground, but I wasn’t happy about it. One thing I can’t stand is a quitter.


© 2006 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

Every now and then I like to write a column that’s more of a tray of hors d’oeuvres than a regular meal. I would like to claim that the result comes from a mind that is constantly churning out new ideas, but for the most part, these are bits and pieces of thing that have been floating around in my idea file and I need to find a home for them.

# Gardening: This is the best time of year in the garden, I think. Everything seems possible. The dirt is clean and fresh, beds tidy, seeds tucked in and beginning their magic. Ahead may be weeds, pests, drought, blights, and hungry deer. But right now, the garden feels like I did when I got out of high school. Look out world.

On the other hand, since the only time I have in the garden is on weekends, time in the garden is jammed with chores. And then there’s grass to mow, pruning to do, the irrigation pump to tinker with and prime. I enjoy doing that kind of work around the place, but SOME days I’d like to just sit in the garden and pretend I was one of the vegetables.

# I spent a morning last week riding around with a woman whose job is picking up dead deer along state highways. She’s an independent contractor, and a real character, not to mention a granny with 15 grandkids. I’ll probably write a column version of the story, with photos, after the news story runs in the paper.

We talked pretty much non-stop, she and I. To those who think such work is a waste of taxpayer money, I heartily disagree. It’s not a job for everybody, and she deserves every cent she earns. Never mind the usual bad smells and disturbing images; you don’t even want to think about the result if a highway mower runs over a 150-pound deer.

Yeah, I know. I TOLD you not to think about it. Some years ago in Georgia a highway mower ran over a dead guy, a murder victim, I think, relaxing in the high weeds. It took quite a while to ID him due to his advanced state of disorganization.

# Holy cholesterol: Mark Morford, a wonderful columnist for SFGate.com, reported recently that the president of the Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation wrote a personal letter to Pope Benedict XVI, asking his holiness to bless the company’s new Fish Snacker sandwich. I wonder if junk food has a patron saint. Has the late Dave Thomas (Wendy’s) been beatified? KFC’s own Col. Harlan Sanders? Is there a St. Ronald? I don’t know if the pope responded. If he did bless the sandwich, would he have a deep, theological reason for doing so, or would it just be for the halibut? Sort of a squid pro quo?

I make a pretty mean burrito, and was raised Methodist. Maybe I should write to the Council of Bishops and ask for their blessings, or at least a note of encouragement.

# Overheard by a friend in a coffee shop: Mother reassuring kid that shoofly pie is NOT in fact made from bugs. Junior asserts that Spiderman would probably like it.

# David Michael Green, a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York, wrote recently that during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of Iranian teens were massacred “as literal cannon fodder.” They went to their deaths having been told they would be going to Paradise, having died on behalf of Islam. Their government gave them little plastic keys and told them that the keys would open the gates of heaven once they got there.

Obviously, the Iranian education system is not big on teaching critical thinking.

Green said that, as “shameful and ugly” as that is, knowing that the little plastic keys were made on a kibbutz in Israel drives home “the criminal insanity of modern war.”

Not that we needed more reminders. Powerful interests prey on the innocent and turn them into political tools to satisfy those interests “ambitions for wealth and power.”

The innocent, the patriotic, have become, as ever, mere resources, spare parts for a war machine that advances any number of agendas and fuels returns to stockholders and stakeholders.

It is not only the Iranian schools that have done a poor job of instruction in the art of thinking critically.

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

I suppose it was only a matter of time.

 

The Associated Press reported last week sometime that Maryland’s state superintendent of schools, Nancy Grasmick, is promoting the idea of having teachers use comic books to inspire students in elementary and middle schools to read.

 

The state has worked with Disney Publishing Worldwide and its educational division to develop a pilot project to put Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck into eight third-grade classrooms.

 

Apparently, Goofy won’t be available until late in 2009, when his second term in the White House ends.

 

Anyway, the Disney folks took Maryland’s reading standards (their wording, not mine) and created comics-based lesson plans “incorporating skills students needed to learn, such as how to understand plot and character.

 

The whole idea makes my Grumpy Old Fart side slap his hands to his head and cry out to the Gods of Literature.

 

Then the rest of me tells me to get a grip. Yes, every fuddy-duddy bone in my body creaks out in protest, but, after all, what were the kids reading – or NOT reading – already.

 

Do YOU remember what you were reading in elementary school? Yeah, me neither. But I was one of those bookworms who read everything I could get my hands on. I was also lucky in that I had a schoolteacher aunt with the bubbly nickname of Baba who was always giving me books to read, so the drivel supplied by the elementary schools has faded away.

 

Still, I remember the books about a couple of kids named Dick and Jane and their dog Spot. “See Spot run. Run, Spot, Run.”

 

What’s amazing is that ANYBODY came out of that kind of literature able to read at all. An awful lot of people came out of school, though, able to read, but never wanting to again. And no wonder. If all you teach kids is that what they’re going to be faced with is something totally sappy, the likelihood that they’re going to have any desire to read is going to be slim to none.

 

Comic books have a bad rap, some of it deserved, and I’m not sure talking mice and ducks is exactly the way to go, but I’m no educator. Heck who am I to talk? Like a lot of children, I had an “invisible friend” when I was a kid, apparently because the real kids in the neighborhood left a lot to be desired. Heck, my invisible friend even had a dog. Eventually my invisible friend faded away. I still miss the dog.

 

My point, which I nearly lost there, is that comics and graphic novels (longer and more complex works done in the comic book style,) would not really be out of place in schools. I would never suggest that they take the place of more serious reading, as in books that don’t give you a lot of pictures so you have to “see” everything in your mind.

 

For example, there’s Larry Gonick (http://www.larrygonick.com), who’s series, “The Cartoon History of the Universe – from the Big Bang to Alexander the Great,” was a lot of fun to read and, in only about 100 pages, as I remember, gave a very general but accurate (according to the science of the time) picture of the workings of the universe. I still have a copy.

chu-i-front.jpg

 

 

On his home page, Gonik writes “Welcome to the web site of the Overeducated Cartoonist! Since 1972, I’ve been creating comics that explain history, science, and other big subjects. Why such heavy stuff? Because I’ve made it my mission to bring people the information they need to make wise decisions about the future of the human community. I’m only trying to save the world here!”

The last thing I would want to suggest is to fill elementary and middle schools with “comix” to the exclusion of meatier stuff and claim that we are at last leaving no child behind. That would be the simplistic sort of solution to a complex problem, the didactic equivalent to the Reagan-era definition of ketchup as a vegetable.

 

With only a little trepidation, I’m going to say I don’t think the folks in Maryland are so very far off the mark. I don’t think the point of an education is to fill heads with information and have them stagger away, dripping data like a used teabag.

 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always thought that the point was to give kids the tools for a life of discovery and inquiry. I really don’t care if the little curtain-climbers are seeing Spot run or pondering the musings of a talking rodent with three-fingered hands. If the kids comes away from the exchange with an idea that his world will grow through reading, then I’m all for it.

 

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

 

Gettysburg, Pa.

 

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.