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Interesting Thoughts on Labeling…

July 28, 2012

I was perusing through some postings and this one by Diane Ravitch really caught my eye as it is something that I hadn’t considered too deeply.  I have thought many times about “labels” for students, and how those “labels” can be damaging…but, I didn’t go through the longer term implications of this in my mind…which is something that I usually like to do.

I saw the movie Rollerball years and years ago, in my teens…I didn’t really understand its implications at the time, I just thought it was cool to slam that ball into the hole and win!  I have seen in my students kids who “know” that they are “Advanced” or “Basic” or whatever label testing has bestowed upon them.  I wonder if after a certain amount of time, a kid who is always “Basic” will just start to think…”I am just average, I will always be average, I can never do any better.”  I don’t know about that thought, I am certainly no psychologist…but I do know that thoughts can become deeply ingrained in some children…constant failures can build up in their little minds.  I guess I just abhor labels, I always have and I always will.  If someone would have labeled me 20 years ago….well, let’s just say…it wouldn’t have been pretty and it wouldn’t have been anything close to who I really am…interesting thoughts on a Saturday morning…

In response to a post about Bill Gates’ prediction about the future of American education, a reader writes:

“Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.” – Rollerball (1975)

I didn’t see “Rollerball” when the film was released in 1975. It is a dystopian film about the distant future in 2018. It is not so distant anymore.

Dystopian films and novels are warnings, not predictions.

I just finished re-reading Brave New World, which I must have read fifty years ago. There is so much about the novel I didn’t remember. It bears re-reading. I was struck by the planned rank-ordering of people. No need to test them to put them in their status as Alpha or Beta or Gamma or Epsilon. The rankings were selected at the time the babies were conceived in giant incubators. Every child is conditioned to believe that his ranking is just right for him. Those at the top look down on those at the bottom. And those at the bottom are happy they don’t have the responsibilities and burdens of those at the top.

Testing works like that. It gives each child a test score and says that she is “advanced” or “proficient” or “basic” or “below basic,” or some other terminology. There is  some movement up or down to keep children hopeful that maybe next time….But eventually everyone understands which label they have, and it defines them. They are “advanced,” and they go to an Ivy League school. They are “proficient” and they get into a good state university. They are “basic” and they go to community college. They are “below basic,” and they drop out or get a GED if they are industrious.

The genius of our system is that students are taught that they get what they deserve! They are their ranking. This echoed as I read Brave New World?

In the novel, the entire state is planned to make everyone happy all the time, to have no time to think or criticize or dream. Like Bill Gates, the planners of this world want everyone to be busy all the time and engaged all the time. That’s how society works best, when dreamers and individualists are outcasts, and everyone else is busy and engaged.

The other thing that makes this world work well is its emphasis on consumerism. Everyone is taught from infancy that old things are worthless, everything must be new. Toys are multi-part, complicated and costly. Reminded me of my last foray into Toys R Us. Every toy had many moving parts, the parts could easily be broken, and the whole thing was made of cheap plastic. I didn’t want to buy anything. I got restless and left as soon as possible. At my grandson’s fifth birthday, he got 20 gifts, each of them a complicated thing in a box. At one point, as he was opening them, he said with a note of disappointment, “Oh, it’s another box.” I understood what he meant. O Brave New World.

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