Wednesday, April 05, 2006

They learned their lesson well.

It has been years since I’ve seen the inside of an American school. But I was invited to give a lecture on economics to a suburban high school. I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps that was best.

The teacher had warned me that students simply never paid attention. I was a bit taken back by that. The first thing I noticed at the school was two armed security guards. Considering that I last lived in New Zealand, where not even the police are armed, this was a bit unnerving.

I went to the office and told them that I was to speak to a specific class. The individual working the main information desk said he would call the teacher. While he was doing that I used the toilet. But when I came out he had still done nothing. I stood there for a few minutes and he finally called the classroom. I was told a student would come for me.

A few minutes later a young women came to escort me to the classroom. On the way there she told me not to expect much as the students don’t care. Adding her warning to the teacher’s had me wondering how bad it could be.

As I started I could immediately see that about half the students were in a walking coma. They could walk, they could talk but they were oblivious to the classroom itself.

As I started speaking, trying to get their attention as much as possible, I was surprised to see that now and then a student would simply get up and walk out. Maybe ten minutes later they would come back. Some went out and then came back and then went out again. They didn’t have to ask permission or apparently have any real reason for leaving. They came and went as they liked.

I used my best tactics to get some attention from the students. And with a great deal of effort I finally had half of them paying attention. But it was a real chore. And here is what shocked me the most. At least five times the school interrupted the class with announcements over the loudspeaker.

If they wanted one student, from one class, to come to the office they interrupted every student in every class . None of these announcements had anything to do with a student in the class to which I was speaking The interruptions made it difficult for me to concentrate and they interrupted the students. Each time they loud speaker went off I had to get the attention of students all over again.

Toward the end of my talk I made it very clear that I would try to answer any question on any topic related to political economy. I told the students that if they only learned what I thought they should learn they would remember nothing. But if we discussed the topics that interested them they would remember. And with a little prodding the questions started coming. And some of them were good questions. One girl, pierced nose, semi-punk look, who had been drifting for the first half had finally become interested. She wanted to know what are the differences between classical liberals and modern liberals. It was a good question.

Things were finally moving along and then the damn loudspeaker went off again. I had tried to speak over it the previous times. But it still created problems each time. And I thought I would do the same thing this time. But the announcement went on and on and on.

Some man in the office was making announcements about which class won which game. And he literally meant games. He droned on about a “stick race” and dragged the announcement out. He announced which class came in fourth place. Then he would go “yaaa” and applaud over the loudspeaker. Then he went into third place, cheered again and applauded again. And then second and did it all over again. And then first and did it all over again. Now if you think it was tedious reading what he did you should have heard it live!

And he had at least four such game results to announce and each time he cheered and each time he applauded. The students did learn who came in fourth, third, second and first in the all important “nacho macho” contest but what they were not learning was anything about economics.

I was quite angry with the school. I could see in that one period that with some effort one could get through to a fair number of the students. But at least five times I was interrupted for unimportant, inconsequential announcements. All I could think was: “No wonder the kids don’t take learning seriously.” Why should they? The school itself didn’t take learning seriously.

In just that one period. the main school office sent the message to students that a “nacho macho” contest was more important than learning. They got the point across loud and clear that a “stick race” was more important than learning. Two other games, the absurdity of which I do not even remember, were both more important than learning. At least four other times the students were told that having one student come to the office was sufficient reason to stop the teaching of every single student on campus.

And that was only one period. Is it like this throughout the day? I don’t know. I hope not. But I suspect that these interruptions are common. So the students have learned what the school went out of its way to teach them: class time is not important and learning is not important. For a good number of these kids that is the one lesson they really got from the administration.