September 5, 2002 (Ira Pilgrim)


What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.

George Bernard Shaw

It seems as if at least once a week there is an article in the newspaper about how students in California, or some other state, are not doing as well on state-mandated tests as someone thinks that they should be doing. I have very strong opinions on that subject. I believe that performance on state tests does not tell you how well students are doing, nor is it a measure of how well schools are doing their business. It does measure how well students do on standardized tests; and that is all that it measures. Does it have any significance? I doubt it.

I was going to start this paragraph with, "It is well established that...." No! In dealing with people, nothing is well established. What I will do is go back to by own childhood experience. In elementary school I was considered to be a pretty good student. That was because I read well and liked to read. My mother taught me to read before I started school. I did just middling in arithmetic. I did well enough on an entrance exam for a new high school that just opened up a block away from my home to be admitted to it. I doubt that I could have gotten into any of the well established magnet schools that existed in New York City. In that year, the Bronx High School of Science had every kind of student, ranging from geniuses to people of middling ability and aspirations. No one in the school could be called slow, even though some were brighter than others.

I managed to pass most of the exams at what would now be considered the C level. I flunked a semester of French. I also flunked the state exam in geometry. I can now carry on a conversation in French and can read it reasonably well. I know enough geometry to have designed and built a house. I wonder how many of my fellow students, who passed those exams, can say the same.

I was interested enough in biology to spend from 3pm to 5pm at school, spending much of that time looking at protozoa through a microscope and growing them in dishes. I was interested in snakes and collected them.

Then came World War II and most of us went into the military. Some did not come back. After the war many continued their education. I suspect that most did well in their chosen fields.

The school had more than its share of superb test takers, but I was not one of them. I suspect that many of them went into the professions and did quite well.

Which brings me to the point of this essay. In science, the ones who make contributions toward its advancement are those who have a deep interest in the subject. For many, that interest goes back into their childhood.

Of what earthly use is knowing about DNA or the French revolution to someone who is going to become a plumber or a plumbing contractor? For that matter, of what use are the laws of physics to someone who is going to become a world authority on Elizabethan literature? Since it is of no use to them, they will promptly forget it. Look at the things that you remember and you will find that you remember the things that you use and forget the things that you don't use.

It seems to me that the major problem for young people is that many have nothing that they are deeply interested in, not whether they do well on standardized tests.

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