Column: Pavlov

by Josh Goller

The Falling Sky’s the Limit
My high school Physics teacher gained regional acclaim by instructing us with video games. By contrast, this teacher (we’ll call him Mr. Scott) typically exercised a draconian classroom style. This was punctuated by his refusal to hand-grade a potential valedictorian’s Scantron test sheet when she mistakenly missed a bubble and skewed the order of her mostly correct answers by one row. This hard-luck lesson, as with most of Mr. Scott’s teaching philosophy, was described to the valedictorian’s understandably miffed parents as a way of preparing the student for college, a place he framed as a cold, merciless meat grinder with no wiggle room for mistakes.

But by the second semester of Physics, Mr. Scott would soften just enough to guide us through glorified gaming sessions. With the aid of ’90s PC simulation software, various teams of students worked together to complete racecar time trials and successfully land spacecrafts on the moon. The smarter kids crunched the numbers of various formulae needed to achieve these tasks; the steelier-nerved kids handled the joystick. Plenty of others just coasted along in bit roles during an unconventional course led by a science guy who was intent on gaining some modicum of academic fame.

While Mr. Scott’s video game Physics lessons were preferable to his usual chalk-heavy lectures, there was always the sense that he was trying to be a grand innovator of coursework rather than actually taking it upon himself to do all he could to ensure each student learned the material. These days, even as American students’ math and science scores have dipped to below the international average for industrialized nations, academic institutions largely perpetuate the culture of fame that’s become our national pastime. Even eggheads like Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Nye routinely wind up on TV. Neil deGrasse Tyson has 2.2 million Twitter followers. In this strive-for-fame dynamic, praise has become the Pavlovian bell that wets the mouths of our brightest students. Among those who stress over their GPAs, superlative test-performance has been classically conditioned to elicit the same sense of accomplishment as actual achievement. But once the back pats quit patting when school’s out, many bright students find themselves stuck in a rut. After all, very little innovation has ever come from adhering to conventional thinking. Invention requires shattering of (not form-fitting with) the mold.

During much of the 20th century, higher education became the default path to higher status. Want a good job? Go to college. But a recent study by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity found that nearly half of today’s college graduates settle into jobs that don’t require a degree. And with student loan debt now exceeding $1 trillion nationally (which is more than our collective credit card tab), today’s young people are entering a world where a degree does not even guarantee a job, much less an elite one. An advanced degree is a personal achievement, no doubt, but it’s becoming less of a professional one. Increasingly, the pursuit of that diploma leaves a growing segment of students without the tools needed to capitalize on their burdensome investment. And what’s more, studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have shown that the average American worker is putting in longer hours but wages have stagnated.

Yet, operating under the same lottery-ticket delusions, bright young people are often led to believe they’ll become the next rock star of their chosen field. It’s the same hard-work-will-pay-off and land-of-opportunity gumption that has empowered our nation’s policymakers to create conditions that have widened the income inequality gap. It’s why there are fewer jobs for college students graduating amidst a job market and overall economy that, while improving incrementally, consists of a deck largely stacked against them. Still, Americans are nothing if not optimistic. Despite the daunting odds, 54% of 18 to 29-year-olds believe they will one day become wealthy.

Of course, not everyone has the tools to succeed even in standardized academia, much less the real world. By standardizing performance expectations, last decade’s No Child Left Behind Act by definition has left behind students with developmental disabilities and those who speak English as a second language. Moreover, it has widely led to instructors simply teaching the test rather than developing new ways that empower students with the skills to think abstractly.

Let’s return to Mr. Scott. Unsurprisingly, none of my Physics classmates went on to work for NASA or race for NASCAR. Mr. Scott sold some curricula and, oddly, peddled some T-shirts. He did not become a rock star. Despite implementing a few gimmicks that made Physics kind of fun, Mr. Scott still demanded standardization, as though our goal as students was to be the shiniest cog in the machine. He spent more time basking in the glimmer of the brightest students rather than working to help polish up the dimmer among us.

The competitiveness of those taught in America’s education system will likely continue to flag until our focus shifts away from confusing academic praise for actual achievement. Fill in the right bubbles on the standardized tests, your teacher gets to keep his or her job for ostensibly leaving no child behind. Get a high enough score on your SAT or ACT, you get into the elite school. For academically successful high schoolers emerging into the real world, it would seem that conforming to standardization, that sticking to the formula, is the key to success. But lost in this message is the reality that it’s rarely those who color within the lines (or the appropriate bubbles) that rise to top.