As I’ve continued to reflect on standardized tests, I’ve come to another conclusion about their limits. There’s nothing seductive about the thinking they prompt. Conclusions, right or wrong, don’t even hint at the pleasures of puzzling over meaning.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s this teaching to the test stuff that makes young people so bland. Despite all the technological savvy that ostensibly signals the imaginative powers of young folk, I’m not convinced of their sophistication. Recently, I attended a luncheon with a friend who often raves about these high school students in her AP classes. The luncheon was held to honor these students for the excellent papers and projects they submitted for an annual school event highlighting academic achievement. Listening to these children discuss their work, both at our table and on stage was painful. It was like listening to cardboard cut-outs of thinking people. My family wouldn’t have allowed me to be so flat and I think I know how they did it: they imposed an entire cultural world on me and didn’t care one bit if I didn’t like it.
Over the next few weeks, maybe longer, I’m going to provide sources and suggestions for how these texts might look in practice, with the goal of enhancing how we think about what children should be doing with ideas, history, and questions. To do that, we’re going to start with music.
First, if your kid is one who would have probably been at that underwhelming luncheon highlighting bland academic achievement, then said child must have grown up with some familiarity with the likes of Jay Z and Kanye West. Your kid might even be a fan of both rappers, but know this: that kid’s familiarity with the catalogues of these artists does not make that child an expert in music. So, you need to make sure that you do not stand for this child having the temerity to declare that “Otis” is a great song without also being able to sing every line of Otis Redding’s rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness.” The original Otis put his foot in this song! Check out Mr. Redding:
Now, I like Frank Sinatra. He could sing; no doubt about it…but Frank couldn’t do what Otis did (at least he didn’t do it). Redding’s version is so cold you can’t even wait for Sinatra to finish (at least I couldn’t).
So after I would have uttered some foolishness about Jay Z and Kanye’s new song “Otis,” my grandfather would have stopped whatever he was doing and given me all of his attention. “What did you say?” he would have asked. I would’ve repeated my claim, maybe even offered a few lines of the song before my grandfather went back to reading his paper. Not too long after making my declaration, I can just imagine how my grandfather would have called me away from whatever I was doing so that he could get me to tell the people gathered on our porch what I said about Jay Z and Kanye West’s song “Otis.” Everyone would have doubled over from laughing at my foolishness. “This child think she discovered good music,” my grandfather might have said to his tickled audience. On these occasions, I usually silently stood and wondered why what I said was so funny to them. I would have left, in silence, thinking about what everyone was laughing about. Given that these spontaneous schooling moments weren’t followed up with quizzes, tests, or papers I could just think. Typically, what I thought about was what it was I had missed. Why was it so important to know Otis Redding, for example. Why couldn’t I be entitled to my opinion without people laughing at me?
Those episodes of long term contemplation where I was permitted to raise my own questions and to pursue my own line of reasoning influenced my desire for quiet as well as space for reflection. I learned to find satisfaction with provisional answers and to be open to having those ideas evolve. I also would have learned to do some self-directed research concerning a question whose answer would speak to my own desire to know.
I think it’s a very good thing to make your child be quiet; it’s the noise of contemplation. If you provide really good material to aid their reflection, the possibilities for how they handle this material are endless. Otis Redding might have helped to make those cardboard children I had lunch with far more interesting than they thought they were.
To sum up, don’t allow the children in your care to exclusively listen to the music they want to hear. They won’t have enough sources to drawn on in order to talk about music with any depth if you do that. Make children listen to the music you grew up loving, the music your parents imposed on you, and the music their parents imposed on them. Imposing a sonic genealogy on your children will provide them with a foundation and a familiarity with family and cultural history. As your children mature, supplement these primary sources with books, articles, photographs, and films. Here’s a link to a really interesting documentary about Otis Redding (Soul Ambassador) you might consider:
Now, if a “high achieving” student could write about Plato’s theory of the soul and the way memory relates to love, as he proffers in The Phaedrus, and the way Otis Redding defines or articulates a theory of the soul through his catalogue, that kid would supersede the “common” core. That kid would actually be interesting to talk to over lunch.