Dickens and Standardized Testing

These are dark times for America's schools. They have been subjected to a federal mandate of perpetual testing and retesting of the basic skills of reading and math. What was once a proud, well-rounded, time-honored tradition has been reduced to the smoking hulk of the pitiful, dumbed-down remnants of its former self.

Reading and math, indeed, must be taught, but much more besides -- literature, history, science, world languages, music, art, and, in an age of childhood obesity, physical education. But, thanks to this mandate, they no longer are because they no longer are tested.

Even the restorative elixir of play and recess so vital to children is often omitted, so frantic are teachers at not having enough time to cover the testable material of reading and math. The result is an alarming narrowing both of curriculum and of children's minds by this relentless barrage of testing and test preparation.

But this has also had an overlooked, though no less pernicious, effect on students, not just by the little that is now being taught, but also by the many subjects now being omitted because there is no time to teach them.

And it is this that is so very chilling about this educational "reform," which is not about reform at all, but something very ominous -- control of the mind.

How better undermine education than by crippling thought; how better discourage critical inquiry than by stressing rote learning; how better weaken democracy than by subverting its schools!

Teachers are deeply disturbed by what is now going on in the classroom. Only someone ignorant of what a school is about, who likens the classroom to an assembly line for the making of widgets, could be blind to the intangible dimension of what should be going on between teacher and students, but no longer is -- the opening of vistas, introducing new worlds, the inducing of wonder, pushing back the unknown.

Gone are those wondrous "teachable moments" that all of us recall from our own childhood years when a teacher would transfix us for a few rapturous moments when time stood still, as he or she took us into the very heart of what it means to be human, thrilling lessons that would remain with us for the rest of our lives. Such old-fashioned teaching is a thing of the past.

None of this is happening now. Instead, teachers prepare for tests by endless drills and exercises on mind-numbing facts that kill all incentive for learning, keep students from thinking for themselves, so that, eventually, they are unable to do so.

Students are becoming conditioned to believe that every question must have a right answer, and simply accept the framework they're given, rather than thinking outside the box, where they're more apt to learn how to question.

They are being lulled into uncritically accepting whatever they read and are told by those in authority, so that, later, they become easy prey for whomever's in power!

In a word, standardized testing is preparing a generation of robots!

Students are exposed to so many different viewpoints in life, online, in books, in the media, so prone to accepting whatever they read and hear that they run the very real risk of becoming brainwashed.

It is precisely this eventuality that schools should be trying to prevent, not foster.

A school should be opening minds, not closing them. They should be teaching an entire ensemble of critical-thinking skills that will protect students for life.

It should be introducing them to the vast riches of knowledge that will lift up their spirits, make them soar, and gladden their hearts. Students should love to come to school as a place where they can learn and grow and be happy during their magical years of their childhood.

Instead, they are being relentlessly tested, prepped, and tested again, so that thinking never occurs, just the ingesting of memorized "facts" in the inexorable drills and gyrations of a Prussian parade ground.

Teachers are appalled by standardized testing's coarsening effects upon children, the catatonic mindlessness it induces in them. They cannot imagine that a federal department of education in a modern civilized nation could inflict such damage on them.

They are shocked that these educational officials could be placed in such an august position of power and trust whereby control of the mind and fear of ideas are disguised and lauded as educational "reform."

Teachers and many concerned parents have long been raising their voices in protest, yet those in power do nothing but become even more entrenched in their calcified thinking.

Dickens skewered such "education" in his grotesque portrayals of Victorian schools in Hard Times, Nicholas Nickleby, and David Copperfield, where gargoyle schoolmasters like Gradgrind, Squeers, and Creakle are let loose upon children to their irreparable harm.

The interminable mantra of "facts" heaped upon "facts," the dogmatic insistence that only what can be measured, quantified, counted, and weighed is real and important, objective and useful, that all else is humbug -- this pestiferous doctrine was unmasked for all times as tragically destructive to children. Such was the national fury and outrage at what innocent children were being made to endure in such schools that they were swept away overnight.

A curriculum that knew nothing of the joy and excitement of learning; which forbade children to be creative and curious; which discouraged self-emancipation and transcendence from the here and now by reading; which consigned the young irreparably to a Slough of Despond of rote learning -- all this, blessedly, was suddenly gone.

Each child is different, one from another, with different hopes, aspirations, visions, and dreams. If we as a nation want our children to become what each of them could become if we but fostered their dreams and their belief in themselves, we must educate them not for the anthill-needs of a collective State with its own agenda -- but for themselves alone and toward their own unique destinies!