Mountain Climbing, Bridge Building and the Future of American Education

By Ogden, William R. | Education, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Mountain Climbing, Bridge Building and the Future of American Education


Ogden, William R., Education


According to a column by Rick Reilly in the June 12, 2006 issue of Sports Illustrated, approximately 40 climbers on the way to the top of Mount Everest knowingly passed a cave wherein a fellow climber, David Sharp, a 34-year-old British schoolteacher, lay dying. One party tried to help, but for the vast majority of those 40 climbers, many of whom had spent upwards of $100,000 to be hand delivered by their guides to the completion of their latest quest (catch a marlin, run with the bulls, shoot a lion, play Augusta, climb Everest), attainment of the goal (and thus not forfeiting their investment) was apparently more pressing than trying to save a life. The general public, and a goodly number of educators I might add, seems to have the same mindset concerning the nation's schools ... passing the latest standardized or criterion-referenced test carries a whole lot more prestige value and bragging rights than learning something or (gasp) developing a love of learning. Plus, and this may be the real point with those in the power structure, test accomplishments are quantifiable (can be counted and compared to produce winners and losers) and can be reported in newspapers and other widely popular communications venues. When I was much younger I read a short story (Fisher, 1953) about a small town widely known for its magnificent bridges.

When the passage of time and diminishing finances forced a choice between maintaining the by now crumbling bridges or bolstering a good school system badly in need of a new facility, things were at a standstill until one wise inhabitant rose to speak at a town meeting and said he'd rather the town be distinguished for its smart, educated people capable of holding their own in life than for its nitwits and their bridges. His ringing conclusion was, "Let the bridges fall down!"

During the early 1970s the concept of accountability, though long a factor among decision makers, began to become one of those ideas/buzz words that educators from time to time have found fascinating. Meshing nicely with pre-existing metaphors of the school as some kind of super conveyor belt which takes in raw, uneducated but willing urchins and turns out the necessary workers and professionals for a well ordered and smoothly functioning society, accountability (having someone or something to hold responsible) has been irresistible to educational leaders looking for scapegoats and/or malcontents, a growing army of bean counters looking for something to tally and the general public (including underemployed lawyers trolling for lawsuits and penny-pinching legislators in search of reflection) seeking to find the reason why Johnny can't seem to read, compute or do anything right for that matter.

And how does one measure the efficiency of such a complex enterprise as educating the human mind? Why by testing, of course! Forgetting, or perhaps never knowing, about what research says about learning and retention, and failing to recognize that industry, where the intake material has no innate ability or the lack of it, cannot think nor talk back and has no parental dreams, apathy, hostility or bias to contend with, is afforded the power to reject a shipment and the luxury of a scrap pile (thus far there has been little call for "No Flange Left Behind" legislation) the schools are expected (with no stumbling permitted) to take nearly everyone, to be all things for all persons and to produce excellent athletic teams, thinkers, writers, number crunchers and test takers. But this is an impossible task ... education, and the maturation process that accompanies it--after all, Dewey (Contributed quotations, 2006) once observed that "education is not preparation for life; education is life itself'--is such a long and twisting journey that even students who are successful (whatever that means) oftentimes fail to recognize superior practitioners even as they sit in their very classrooms. She may not have been my favorite teacher, and at the time she surely was not, but after about 20 years I finally realized that Ms. …

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