Attacking the Big Mac approach to education
September 14, 2007
The small-town rumor mill grist, ground to dust all summer long, is blowing through our quiet streets as offseason talk is marked down for quick sale ahead of new gossip arriving for winter. Because of this, I am forced to set the record straight: I have never compared the International Baccalaureate high school curriculum to a cheeseburger.
I said it was like a Big Mac.
The Big Mac is standardized, mostly safe, and moderately edible food. Similarly, IB is standardized education. I think it is unfair that people drag the underappreciated cheeseburger into this discussion. At least it can be customized to suit many tastes.
I like standardization in things like meat-processing operations and prescription drug manufacturing outfits, but I get the willies when I think about it in terms of education. We certainly don’t standardize higher education. Does it make sense to do so at the lower levels?
I believe that standardized education helps weaker schools get better. Conversely, I think that good schools and teachers are held back by homogenization. This is where my analogy to a Big Mac comes in. If you give the recipe and ingredients for a Big Mac to middling cooks and great chefs alike, all will put together sandwiches that everybody will recognize. That’s fine. But, compare it with putting fresh ingredients into the hands of each and turning them loose to concoct whatever they can. The chef with talent will create something to amaze you.
Like great cooks, great teachers need the freedom to edify by their own methods. Being a proud father of three, I believe that I am raising fresh ingredients in a rich garden that are worthy of more than mass processing.
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I have been cast as an opponent of IB. That is another legend that I would like to dispel. Rather, I fancy myself an avowed skeptic of the status quo, which has been, and always will be, the heaviest link in the chain-shackling innovation. For the record, which I am writing by the way: I think the IB program is OK … if we can’t come up with something better. The thing is, I know we can come up with something better, so I am not thrilled about investing any time or energy into building up the IB program.
IB is a challenging, worldwide high-school program, in which participating students can earn college credits. Its primary advantage, though, is to give an edge to participating students in the highly competitive college admissions process.
That is not good enough for me. Some exceptionally educated supporters of the program who went to elite IB prep schools in order to attend rigorously academic colleges on the East Coast believe this is the golden ticket to success. What they fail to recognize is that an ordinary guy like me who attended plain old Aspen High School and ended up at a college on the West Coast primarily to play baseball and enjoy the nice weather has ended up in this same wonderful place as they have, with everything I need, and doing pretty much the same things that they are, only I do them better because I’ve had more practice. While they were stressing out in stuffy offices in cities, calculating how many decimal places to carry out their formula for success, I was already here living their dreams. Further, they read what I write once a week, proving for certain that IB can’t insulate anyone from life’s little irritations.
Now, I know that’s a squirt of grapefruit juice in the eye, but you have to get someone’s attention to make a point. Mine is that there is more than one path to the Promised Land. Being absolutely certain of this, I don’t think education’s primary purpose should be to get a kid into the right college. That is too narrow a vision for me. I believe that if you learn for the love of learning, you will end up where you ought to be and maximize your success in every way that is important to you.
What would I suggest we do instead of IB? Now, that’s a tough question … just kidding.
We have unique opportunities in Aspen to do things with education that nobody else (that’s right, I said “nobody else”) in this entire world can do. The uniquely inspiring natural environment in which we live is so obvious that we know it would be an unpardonable crime not to take advantage of it. Our public schools’ outdoor education programs combined with courses at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies are designed to do just that. But, are we blind to the equally unbelievable intellectual environment that is ours? We are crazy not to take advantage of it, as well!
To start with, how about working with the Aspen Institute to dovetail into an Ideas Festival for our high school students?
What about making a connection with the Physics Institute so that our kids can learn from some of the greatest mathematical theorists in the world?
Why couldn’t our kids learn to read and write and think by hanging out with a few of the great wordsmiths of our time in conjunction with the Aspen Writers Foundation?
Can you imagine working on ways to ease our dependency on oil with the paradigm-breaking thinkers at Windstar Foundation?
It’s possible for our children to create hands-on with all kinds of artists, from professionals to those who labor for love, at the Red Brick Art Center.
How much could budding musicians glean through programs designed with guidance from prodigies at the Music Associates of Aspen?
This is just the beginning!
I’m not talking about field trips here, either. I’m talking about hands on, high octane seminars where our teachers work with their practitioners to design ongoing inspirational interaction that most universities would envy.
We share our streets with some of the most accomplished and fascinating people on the planet. Why not expose our children to the greatness that we mingle with every day. If you ask people to help with education, you generally get a good response. It would be a public relations bonanza for the organizations mentioned above, and others, to participate with local schools to create such extraordinary educational opportunities. We have the resources here to do something absolutely spectacular with education!
The biggest problem will be figuring out how to deal with all of the new traffic created by college recruiters pestering our kids.
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