And the difference between us was very deep, because it was a difference as to the object of the whole thing called broad-mindedness or the opening of the intellect. For my friend said that he opened his intellect as the sun opens the fans of a palm tree, opening for opening’s sake, opening infinitely for ever. But I said that I opened my intellect as I opened my mouth, in order to shut it again on something solid. I was doing it at the moment. And as I truly pointed out, it would look uncommonly silly if I went on opening my mouth infinitely, for ever and ever.
–G.K. Chesterton, “The Extraordinary Cabman“
The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words — ‘free-love’ — as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment.
–G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Rash Vows“
I hope it doesn’t look like I’m on a teacher-bashing spree, because I have huge respect for teachers (who respect their students and their profession). But being “fresh” in the public education sector, I’ve been reflecting on my on-the-field observations and my own 12 years as a public-schooled, standardized-tested student. What’s on my mind today is how students learn their primary language, English.
My rather “extreme” personal experiences might be more indicative of the education system in Singapore, but I see clear parallels here in Chicago.
I loved English. Or more accurately, I loved English as a tested subject. Because I was great at it. Fresh off the proverbial boat in Singapore (the year was 1998), I was blessed to be able to pick up the English language quite naturally. Before I knew it, I was getting nothing less than an A and bagging the top prize for English each year. Thus began by tempestuous love affair with the language.
I graduated from a now-defunct primary (elementary school), and moved on to a reasonably reputable secondary school (grades 7-10). This school was reputable because it consistently produced high scorers in the O Levels, the national examination that served to rank all 10th-graders in the country to determine which junior colleges (grades 11-12) are within their reach. As you can imagine, what made a secondary school elite was its ability to prepare students to outsmart the system.
The concept of “good words” was again and again drilled in us. What made a word “good”? This nebulous concept was never explicitly defined, but what I understood was that these were the big and/or unusual words that would earn us little check marks in our essays. And the more check marks there are on our manuscripts, the more impressed the grader will be, and the more likely they are to bestow a high grade.
Writing became, to me, an exercise in showing off my vocabulary. Preparing for the English essay exam meant poring over the thesaurus. Don’t write “beautiful butterflies” if you can say “beauteous butterflies”, or “blue skies” when there’s the superior “azure blue”! No one told me that, and I don’t think anyone meant to. I internalized it myself.
Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against big words. As we get older, we experience more and feel more, and we’d need words with more nuance and precision to articulate thoughts with greater accuracy. But at the middle school age, did I really need to be saying “I was surrounded by gargantuan trees” and “the math problem obfuscated me”? And what good comes out of “my mother harangued me with a barrage of errands” apart from chuckles for the grader?
I wrote like that, blogged like that, and was proud of it. My peers would validate my false grasp of the English language by telling me how “good” my English was. Once, a classmate introduced me to his father this way: “Pa, this is Karen. Her English is very good.” That’s how common and widespread this (mis)understanding of language was.
In 10th grade, I was once ill-prepared for a big, end-of-year essay-writing exam. So I had “no choice” but to write a “simple” and “plain” essay about why homemade gifts will always be superior to store-bought gifts. My grader thought it was “lovely”, and made copies for the entire class. I was honest-to-God mortified. I didn’t want that essay to be read by everyone! There weren’t enough “good words” in there! Not an accurate representation of my language ability! I was forced to believe that this particular grader had unusually and patronizingly low standards for writing.
A few years later, I left Singapore to go to college at The University of Chicago. At some point, I found myself in a Creative Writing class with a bunch of snobbish/well-meaning (I can’t decide) English majors. One of the critiques was particularly brutal. “It’s clear that you’ve read a lot,” she wrote, “but it’s also clear that English is not your first language.” Ouch. For so many years I was confident that apart from my accent, I exhibited no other tell-tale sign of English being a second language. Thus began the deconstruction of everything I thought I knew about having a good grasp of a language.
What I learned a little late (but better late than never): a language is a tool of communication, it’s not a subject matter in and of itself (unless we’re talking about linguistics). It’s not about the “quality” of the words you use (as if there were even any objective measure of the relative superiority of words…), but the quality of your message. It is our thoughts and our ideas that are valuable, not the words we use. The words we use, therefore, should convey our message, not obscure it.
I currently teach Math. But I don’t have a single student who likes their English class, and it makes me wonder why. I loved it because I happened to be an obnoxious little linguaphile. The way English classes are (often) run would surely turn off any kid who isn’t one.
If I were to venture into teaching English in the future, I’d be sure to tell my students every day that the true value of writing lies in their ideas. And their ideas are so valuable that the words they pick to communicate them have no business stealing the spotlight. And maybe, just maybe, if they also come to see how valuable their ideas and opinions are, they’d be willing to put in some effort to pick up the vocabulary and grammar skills that would help them better convey them.
Does any of this resonate with your own experiences? Do you have other comments or thoughts on how the English language should be thought? I would love to hear from your experiences!
At the beginning of the academic year, I noticed a few high school freshmen getting confused between simplifying algebraic expressions and solving algebraic equations. It took just 15 minutes to get to the root of the problem: they don’t understand the concept of the equal sign. You know, our ubiquitous and seemingly benign friend: “=”. And then I saw the same problem in some sophomores, and then even a junior.
My first instinct was to wonder if they had a learning disability of some sort that’s hindered them from grasping basic mathematical concepts all these years. But then I see that they read just fine, write just fine, count just fine…so what’s the problem here?
Well, I’m inclined to think that if a teenager enters high school not understanding the equal sign, some certified “teachers” out there have been doing them a big — no — monumental disservice (and continuing to do so for many other kids).
They say it takes a village to raise a child. If parents/guardians are the village chief, teachers rank a close second on the hierarchy of influence, considering how much time kids spend in school. The average American child spends 1,260 hours in school per year (let that sink in…). Teachers simply cannot afford to not care about their job.
Well, maybe they can afford to. But kids can’t afford to have their teachers conducting half-assed lessons. Parents can’t afford to have their kids be exposed to an awful role model every day. And our society can’t afford the results of classrooms operating like this:
As a teacher, you cannot afford to not like your job. There are plenty of other jobs where you can excel without being particularly fond of your duties. That’s because Excel sheets/Powerpoint slides aren’t going to be ruined because you whipped them up in an hour when you were supposed to do it in three. You can always print a new set if you spilled coffee all over whatever it is people carry in those leather-bound folders, and your clients will never have to know it happened. But children and teenagers are human beings, for goodness’ sake. You leave permanent imprints in their minds, their characters, their ideals, values, aspirations, their whole lives.
For every dedicated and engaged teacher out there, there are going to be a few who are “bad” just because they’re not particularly gifted at teaching, or because they are overburdened by a bureaucratic and unsupportive system. That’s unfortunate, and should definitely be fixed, but the scarier question is this: for every teacher who does a good and thorough job, how many are lazy, entitled, and uncaring? I don’t think there are official statistics for this, and I’d be too afraid to find out the answer anyway.
I had a 7th grade History teacher who napped at her desk while we copied notes off the screen. 13-year-old me decided I hated history and never took another history class. Then there was an 11th-grade Economics teacher who would roll her eyes at our questions, which made me determined never to ask another question in class. But I was lucky that the number of good teachers I had outweighed the number of bad ones, so I turned out quite okay overall.
I hope all teachers love their job. What does loving your job mean in the context of teaching? I don’t mean you have to feel like sunshine and rainbows all the time, because it’s obviously hard work with many ups and downs. I don’t (yet) have much experience in the education sector, but I believe loving your job quite simply comes down to:
1. Recognizing the responsibility and privilege you have to be able to do life with your students.
2. Recognizing the value of every young person your serve on a daily basis.
And of course, acting upon those recognitions.
If I can have my way and if future circumstances allow it, I’m homeschooling my kids. And if I can’t I pray and hope they never end up with teachers who let them get away with not understanding the equal sign.
“Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”
It’s been eight months since I last wrote here. I’m starting to crawl out of another major depressive episode. If I remember correctly, the last time this happened it also took me about eight months before I began to find the will, courage, and ability to open myself up to other people again. I wish it was as easy as “picking up where I left off”. But the damage and hurt I have inflicted on myself and the people who love me are all very real. There’s a lot of rubble to sift through, a lot of re-examination, mending, and rebuilding to be done. With God’s grace and guidance I will find healing. Not just restoration, but transformation. I have faith. I am reminded once again of why I named this blog “Under Reconstruction”. From this point on I will let God rebuild me, my life, and my relationships in whatever way He deems best. My Creator knows best.