Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

[She said she wanted to write 500 words on the United States. He (the teacher) said maybe she should start with the university's town. She came back with nothing to say. So he told her to write just about the main street. She still had nothing to say.]

He was furious. "You're not looking!" he said. ... The more you look the more you see. She wasn't really looking and yet somehow did not understand this.

He told her angrily, "Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The opera house. Start with the upper left hand brick."

[She handed in a 5,000 word essay.]

Schools teach you to imitate. If you don't imitate what the teacher wants, you get a bad grade. Here in college it was much more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A's. Originality on the other hand got you anything from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.

He discussed this with a professor of psychology, who lived next door to him, an extremely imaginative teacher, who said, "Right. Eliminate the whole degree-and-grading system and then you'll get a real education."


I love this book. I loved it the first time, the second, and now the third time, it has hooked me again. I think I could read it a hundred times, and still get more out of it. And one of my favorite parts is when he talks about eliminating grades and his experiences trying to teach rhetoric/writing to his college students.

Grade eliminating schemes are assumed to be for the benefit of the weaker students. To make them feel better or something. And I do believe that lower grades are harmful too. But as a top student, grades served not to encourage excellence from me, but complacency. I would hand in papers written in no time, with no rewrite, and get A's. I almost never studied or did homework, and I still got A's. At the time, I didn't understand it.

Eliminating grades from schools would ultimately benefit the best and the brightest the most. Because, unfettered by mediocrity, they would be free to excel. They would be free to learn as much as they could instead of as little as they could.

Because that's what grades really encourage: to learn as little as possible. Bullet points, headlines, italicized print, that's what is on the test. But the most interesting stuff is in the middle. Or rather, in between the lines. Textbooks are a function of this [little as possible] mindset. That's why they are so repugnant.

School teaches children to learn as little as possible -- and it is what turned me off from school, though I thoroughly learned the lesson.

And that is why my son will never go to school. I want him to learn as much as possible. I want him to feel free to completely not know anything about a subject, rather then think he knows about something because he took a class on it and passed the test. And if he does desire to go to school one day, he will be prepared to use school, rather than have the school use him.


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  2. I mean no offense, as I really have read your blog with great interest, and completely respect your lifestyle and parenting choices (and love your handmade toys!). I just need to stay away from anti-teacher sentiment right now, for my own sanity and happiness. Unsubscribing tonight, but wishing you the best...

  3. Wow, that last line is so good! That part of ZAMM is my favorite and blew my mind the first time I read it too.

    "As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn't have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself."

  4. I love when I search for "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance grades" on the web. This is the fifth result!