When I call myself anti-elitist, which I do, I mean two fairly straightforward things. First, I believe that society should be, and perhaps can be (and at the moment isn’t) structured so that everyone has a chance to do what his abilities allow him to do. Second, I believe that everyone is smart in some way. That sounds hokey, and of course it all depends on how you define the word smart. I’m only saying that when people aren’t altogether damaged by their circumstances they generally manifest some kind of skill set, whether socially valued or undervalued.
But what I don’t believe is that anyone can do anything. And yet this is the message we ram ceaselessly down the throats of our children. You can do anything that you want to do, says Steve at the end of every episode of Blue’s Clues — mindlessly summarizing the message of just about every kids’ TV show and picture book. That anyone can achieve anything he wants if only he works hard enough — this is what anti-elitism means in the minds of most people today, and concomitantly, to say that not anyone can achieve anything is to invite a charge of elitism.
When the anyone/anything motto is taken seriously, it can only function to set a lot of people up for a fall. On one level the fall is obvious, and it’s described beautifully in an article in this month’s Atlantic by someone calling himself Professor X. Professor X is an adjunct professor at two “colleges of last resort.” His students are adults who have gone back to school to better their position in the job market, and though a few of them succeed, the majority simply cannot perform the tasks a university education requires, though they may well be good at a lot of other things. To some extent, these people have been failed by the system early in life: with better primary education, they could develop the first stages of what would later become college level skills. But it’s also the case that many of them have been deceived by the idea that they can do anything into trying something that is just not up their alley.
I’m also wondering now about effects of the illusionary motto that might be less obvious. About kids who turn away from lives that would suit their abilities, from jobs they would enjoy and do well to chase the idea that they ought to be something else, that they can have it all, falling maybe into some type of disillusionment, or maybe bolstering their illusion with the veneer of drugs or commodities. I don’t know, but I don’t think we should be teaching kids to follow their bliss. I think we should be teaching them to figure out what they’re good at.
That said, however, I’ll admit I’m very much of two minds about the streaming that goes on in Eila’s classroom. For yes, her class — her class of four-year-olds — is heavily streamed. Mrs. M. did the first division immediately. Last September, on the first day of Junior Kindergarten, she took us parents off to one corner of the classroom for a lecture about our responsibilities, while her helper got all the kids to colour a picture and write their names. Now I have no idea whether, analysing this work, Mrs. M. took creativity into account, or was just looking at whether they could stay inside the lines — and of course the main thing must have been whether and how well they could print their names. In any case, by the next day each kid had been assigned a table, and Eila ended up at what I assume (actually I know, since it was obvious) was the top-dog table, with four other kids, all of whom seemed to be equally with-it. Since then there might have been rearrangements elsewhere in the room, but Eila’s table stayed the same — until last week when two of its denizen were moved, leaving her table with only three kids while others have as many as six. On some days the whole class does the same “work job,” but on other days, Eila tells me, each of the four tables is assigned a different task.
As I said, I’m of two minds. I know from the day I volunteered in the class that the kids are at different levels. I had such a blast that day I can’t tell you: I was a “chemist” and I had to get the kids to throw powders into water to see which would dissolve — and it was all a ton of fun. But sure, it was clear that the kids who doodled happily on their results sheets, or stared off into the blue, or just wanted to eat the brown sugar never mind mixing it in the water, were working differently from the kids who were alert to the nature of the experiment. Without making any judgments — since there is no reason to favour the kids whose cleverness is conducive to conformity, and since the other kids will no doubt come along, i.e. also be mashed into obedience by the system, it seemed clear that assigning different work jobs make sense. And yet somewhere in my mind is a niggling uneasiness about this. Is this early streaming not potentially damaging? Are there not tasks that everyone could perform together, if differently? Could the kids not be taught to help one another?