Thursday, August 02, 2007

Developing A Sense of the Future

Reading Fran, the Curmudgeon, today, I sensed a general frustration with the world. [NOTE: As I have been relentlessly on the road this summer, I've been more without Internet access than with - you might well be agog at that, as those who know me seldom see me without a computer blocking the view]. So, this is an older post, but well worth the link.
Human beings are fair to middling at figuring out what they want, not quite so good at figuring out how to get it, a tad less skilled at working out the immediate consequences of their decisions and actions, and damned near hopeless at seeing past the present moment.

That’s right. In case you didn’t know it already, we predict very poorly, even over ranges as short as a few weeks. (That’s one of the strongest arguments against a law to ban, regulate, or control this because it will lead to that. Keep it handy.)

Few persons predicted that the prices of dairy goods would skyrocket in consequence of federal encouragement for the use of ethanol as a fuel for automobiles. Few persons predicted that Muammar Qaddafi of Libya would surrender his infant nuclear program after the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Few persons predicted that the Israelis’ generous offer of land to the Palestinians at Oslo would precipitate the Second Intifada and the thousands of deaths it caused. At least, not in your Curmudgeon’s hearing.

The difficulty of seeing consequences is only partly because of the complexity of the world and the multifarious interplay of men’s decisions. It’s at least as much due to our unwillingness to face the costs of our desires. Not all bills are presented at the moment of the purchase...especially when the purchased item is a sense of righteousness, a balm for the conscience, or a pose of moral superiority.
Fran has neatly nailed the dilemma - which is the part that makes teaching, at times, so frustrating.

I once heard someone say "You are where you are because that's where you want to be". Immediately, most of you will protest - what about someone in jail?

Well, what about them?

To use the current bad example, Lindsay Lohan, she is in jail because she wanted to use drugs and "get even" with someone, even to the extent of hijacking a car and driving recklessly, even more than she wanted to stay on the outside of barred windows.

Students who fail, generally wanted to avoid the hard work of learning, even to not doing classwork or homework, cutting, playing around, not studying for tests, etc. Immediate pleasure was more important than being able to progress in school with their friends. When they come around at the last minute, (sometimes in the last week of school for the year) whining, saying, "I'll do ANYTHING to pass this class", I'm the one who has to confront them with reality, and answer, "It's too late". While a last-ditch effort might move a grade from 65 to passing, it won't budge a grade of less than 50%.

Failure to anticipate consequences is probably the major reason students don't succeed. It generally isn't lack of intelligence. It's the refusal to take the long view.

Which brings me to R. R was a 9th grade science student in an urban district. On the first day of class, I was calling the roll, and making sure that I could correctly pronounce names, when I came to R.

I had taught several members of his extended family, brothers, cousins, etc. The family name alone was a clue, but the distinctive family "look" confirmed it. (Not a bad look, they were generally moderately good-looking). To make the facts plain, my experience with the family had not been positive. Every one that I had encountered thus far were nasty, thuggish, and, frankly, not all that bright. Both the students, and their family.

They were walking advertisements for the outcome of failure to anticipate consequences of behavior. Their attendance was irregular; when present, they made excuses to leave the room, the better to engage in - well, commerce of an illegal type. When denied leave, they acted up, so as to be thrown out, and, hence, to wander the halls, looking for customers. When caught, they tried to wheedle their way out of trouble, and, when that failed, blamed their problems on racism. If they managed to complete most of a year, they tried to bully their way into "at least a D". A "D", for them, was clearly an entitlement for the difficult task of breathing.

Truly dreadful children.

My face must have shown my dismay, because R immediately responded, "Don't worry, I'm NOTHING like the rest of the family".

Which, God love him, he was not. He was prompt, eager to learn, reasonably smart, and a joy to teach. He demonstrated only a moderate amount of 9th grade silliness. He restored my faith in mankind, even of the student persuasion.

It wasn't extraordinary intelligence that redeemed him, but a willingness to do what was necessary to succeed. When I made suggestions, he listened, and applied them. Without the chemicals clouding their brains, any of the rest of the family might have done what R did. They seemed to be of average intellect - though, sometimes, it's hard to tell stupid from chemically altered. But, only R had the character to look past the present, and into the future.

Really, teaching isn't hard. Assuming that the student comes to class, stays awake, resists ingesting toxic substances, and will make an HONEST effort - I can teach him or her.

I ran into R a few years ago; by then he was a senior. He was taking Physics, and on target to graduate. He may never achieve fame, but he has achieved something even greater. He revitalized my teaching, and gave me hope. I often think of him, and wish him well.

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