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Teaching in an Era of Meritocracy

What is school for? Socialization? Daycare? Stimulating young minds? Readying students for the rigors of the “knowledge economy”? Instilling habits of obedience in the next generation of clerks, office drones, and baristas? This unspoken question hovers in the background of Thirteen Ways of Going on a Field Trip, a short, bittersweet teaching memoir from Spotted Toad, a pseudonymous blogger and Twitter personality. 

Teachers, says Toad, face two fundamental problems in the classroom. The first is one of political authority. Put simply, why should students do anything the teacher says? Holding the attention of a group of children or adolescents is a tricky business. Systems of reward and punishment are blunt or ineffectual. The teacher’s status is roughly analogous to that of a boss in the classic Marxist account of the workplace: if the great mass of underage proletarians could somehow unite, the teacher’s authority would be untenable. 

But if you can persuade your youthful charges that you are, in fact, in charge, you’re faced with another problem. Motivation, ability, and personality vary greatly from student to student. Move too slowly and the smarter kids get bored. Move too quickly and stragglers fall away from the column. Looming in the background, especially in stats-obsessed American public schools, are local and national benchmarks, tests, and curriculum guidelines that lay out, often in comically minute detail, what you’re supposed to be accomplishing in the classroom. 

Toad jokingly refers to this problem as “the phenomenology of knowledge,” and perhaps it’s deserving of such a grandiose title. Since the introduction of mass public education, teachers have struggled to educate a diverse array of students using standardized methods. Not only does this create a serious and probably ineradicable problem of classroom management, it also puts the lie to our most cherished myths about education. Far from being the great leveler, school is often geared towards a subset of academically gifted students. For the rest, education is less an opportunity for advancement than something to be endured until adulthood. 

Consider our educational system from the perspective of someone who isn’t good at school. American meritocracy rewards academic credentials. A university degree is now seen as the default path to success. A host of inducements—for-profit and non-selective colleges, online degree factories, readily available student loans—exist to convince students whose talents would be better served elsewhere that they too can succeed in higher education. The end result? Crippling debt, empty credentials, and the steady decline of the university wage premium as the value of a degree is progressively diluted. The fact that our current president was sued for operating a fraudulent “university” is emblematic of these shortcomings. 

Teachers and parents often lament the baleful influence of pop stars and athletes on young minds, but is it really surprising that struggling students identify with success stories outside the school to university track? Perhaps we should be more troubled by the fact that American culture only celebrates a handful of jobs that don’t require university degrees.  

The problem of forcing square pegs into round academic holes is most obvious with older students, but varying levels of ability are apparent even at a young age. Toad taught middle school science classes, and his biology lessons inspired a compelling metaphor. Is your school a rainforest, a complex, multilayered ecosystem that allows a multitude of students to thrive across different ecological niches? Or does it resemble a salt marsh, a harsh, unforgiving environment that is only hospitable to a handful of hardy, adaptable species? 

Reorienting education towards a rainforest model is easier said than done. American schools do offer vocational training, but persuading students that these classes are worthwhile is another matter. As long as we pay obeisance to a narrow academic conception of merit, the prestige of elite educational institutions and their trickle-down effects on the culture will persist. Kids are not stupid. They pay attention to the relentless valorization of elite universities, geek culture, and “the college experience.” Few countervailing forces exist to nudge young people towards plumbing, carpentry, or auto repair. 

Other countries, such as Germany, do better at promoting vocational and technical training, but this approach is embedded in a broader culture that prizes craftsmanship and blue-collar work. The German system also relies on assigning students to different educational tracks at a young age. Would such tracking be acceptable to American parents, who are no less attuned to the cultural import of academic credentials than their offspring? What happens when vocational tracking becomes demographically unbalanced, as it almost certainly will be? Everyone pays lip service to the idea that academic achievement isn’t for everyone, but how will people react if our educational system actually reflects this uncomfortable reality?

Reorienting education towards the rainforest model highlights another important lesson from Toad’s book, this one for the teachers. Just as most students are not destined for Harvard, most classes are not going to be inspirational, memorable, or life-changing events. Failed lesson plans, stacks of ungraded papers, and awkward classroom irruptions teach Toad that “getting to good enough” is a worthy aspiration. Public education has a way of putting more ambitious goals to rest. 

This reality can be difficult for teachers to accept, probably because it is considerably less exciting than the idea of becoming the kind of inspirational figure who transforms students’ lives through sheer force of will. The sad truth is that time spent in the classroom is much less consequential to students than a host of other factors, from family life to friends to the brute realities of inherited aptitude. This is not to say that school doesn’t matter, or that we should just stop trying. Teachers can impact students in surprising and unexpected ways—I’m forever grateful to my high school French teacher for introducing me to A Canticle for Leibowitz, to say nothing of the surprising persistence of my French language skills. But the hopes and expectations we pour into our overburdened educational system are usually unrealistic. 

As a teacher, I was curious to read 13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip, mainly because I wanted to see how close Toad’s experience was to my own. Our situations are quite different: he was a middle school science teacher in New York City; I teach English and history at a small high school in rural Hungary. After several chapters of nodding along ruefully and wincing sympathetically at Toad’s struggles, I realized that some classroom experiences transcend space and time. His response to the borderline-inappropriate costumes at a middle school talent show recalls my shocked reaction to Student Days, a sort of a Hungarian Saturnalia in which the school is briefly handed over to the teenagers.

Memories of surprising conversations with students outside the classroom, where they are unburdened by protocol or academic expectations, bring to mind some of my own favorite encounters. Toad’s account of throwing up his hands and distributing a pointless crossword puzzle in the last period before Christmas break made me feel a lot better about the many concessions I’ve made to boredom, fatigue, and looming holidays. Most of all, I identified with his dogged persistence in the face of student indifference, botched classroom activities, and absurd directives from on high. Toad is fond of quoting poetry throughout the book, and his memoir brings to mind one of my favorite lines: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.

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