rejecting college ‘acceptance’

Hammer glassIt’s almost that time: second semester. Although some high school seniors who have chosen the college route  are still completing their applications, many will begin hearing from the schools to which they have applied.  It’s an exciting time … filled with anticipation, enthusiasm, anxiety, celebration, resignation, and renewed vigor … all the stuff of a great sporting event.  Some schools say “Yes,” some “No.”  Rejections feel bad, and students take them personally.  Acceptances feel good, and they make the same mistake … they take them personally.  When the whole process has ended later this Spring,  you’ll be able to stand by any open window on any evening and, if you are quiet,  hear the collective sigh of parental relief.  “Whew!!  S/he’s in!”    

Across the country, young adults will begin readying themselves for many of the real challenges ahead: laundry, meal plan vs. cooking, bank accounts, bursars, registrars, majors ….   And then, next year, another group, and the year after, another, and then the next, and the next, and ….  For so many of our sons and daughters who can afford it, it has become part of what it means to grow up.   

 Acceptance into college is the sort of acceptance we want for our children.  There is another sort, a more dangerous one … the acceptance of authority, of expertise, of the professor, the teacher, the class, the pundit, the book, the truth.  Were the university the only place we find that danger, it would not be as worrisome.  But things are not that simple.   The invitation merely to accept comes from many places, and it  begins far earlier than college.   One of the central goals at a good school is to have our young people recognize the many and ongoing efforts to have them accept that which screams for the opposite.

 Education is one of the most conservative of society’s institutions.  It is supposed to be that way.   It is our job to help prepare the next generation to take its place in a world we helped create for them.  Things need to continue, to progress, we need to build on the past and sustain that which has sustained us and those who have come before.  Perhaps with the exception of the family, educational institutions are most responsible for preserving  business as usual.

 Invitations to accept are everywhere.  In education they are especially obvious in those tests our students take.    We all know them:  SAT’s, ACT’s, ERB’s  and the like.  Even though we ought to know better, every few years we reform, redraft and recreate them, rather than let them go the way of 8-track tapes.  And despite their periodic facelift, they remain carefully designed  to convince us  all – and especially our young people – that we know very little … far less than those far smarter people who make up the tests.

The questions are familiar and predictable.  They reinforce the popular beliefs that (1) what matters most are facts, no matter how trivial, and  (2)  if one does well on tests of this sort, s/he is smart and can go on to be a great success … perhaps even to the White House (although clearly good test scores  are NOT required to become President.  Sometimes you do not even need to get the most votes.)  You will recognize the questions right away – questions like:

Which came first, the  Homestead Act or the Stamp Act?

Did WWI come before or after The Spanish American War?

Who was the President during the Mexican War?

Let me be clear.  I am not suggesting that asking questions is wrong, or even that facts are unimportant.  In fact, just the opposite.  But so much of the time questions that indicate a good education demand that we focus on the unimportant. It need not be that way.  There is no shortage of important questions for test makers, teachers, and classes to ask.  Several years back, I heard Howard Zinn remind us that instead of wanting to know whether a student remembers a name, they might instead ask, “What was the cause of the Mexican War?”  Now that’s interesting.

The Mexican War  – 1846-1848.  A relatively insignificant war, rarely more than mentioned in so many text books.   After it was over, the United States had taken nearly 50% of  Mexican territory.  Many in the Western United States are living in that territory right now.  Many of our schools, our homes, our deportation centers. Like so many wars, it was started by an incident.  As best we can put together the real story, it seems that there was a small piece of disputed land on the Mexican and US border.    And as so often happens when a bunch of heavily armed young men are brought together and whipped into a patriotic frenzy,  one thing led to the next, shots were fired, and  people on both sides were injured.   The next day the papers read “We cannot allow American blood to be spilled on American soil.  OUR  NATION IS AT WAR.”   What the history books, teachers, newspapers, magazines and tests rarely tell us is that the President Polk was implementing plans that had already been formulated to take all that territory  from Mexico.  Because we wanted it!  Because it was in the interest of America!  An incident was created to give the President an excuse to do what smart people – people who accepted what college had offered — deemed necessary.

So what?  What’s the big deal?  Is it a big deal? Maybe not … but then again, maybe!!  Were test writers to ask questions like this one, then perhaps more teachers might teach about it.  And if they did, then perhaps more young people might be driven to ask about the causes of wars in general … which might lead them to insights about the ways in which young people (usually young, poor and working class people) are either forced or manipulated into fighting wars created by older wealthier people who stand to benefit from those wars.  Whether it is the Mexican War, WWI, Vietnam, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan… OR MAYBE even the next war.

 I am a fan of college … and certainly of college acceptance.  But not college acceptance!  Or any other acceptance that would have our young people – that would have any of us – dress up, line up, nod dutifully, cheer blindly, and wave whatever is supposed to be waved, when it is supposed to be waved.

People will, schools will, professors and other professionals will try all sorts of things to get our children – to get all of us – to accept  the unacceptable, to embrace as inevitable that which should never be embraced, to keep us calm in the face of the outrageous … until it is time to whip us into a frenzy so we will do what you are supposed to do.

AND if they succeed  … well then … one day our kids (or perhaps we) might grow up to be …well … completely acceptable !

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