No happily ever after

Chris - Alliance, Ohio
Entered on May 17, 2008

Once upon a time, a little boy traveled to a brick building each day, where he experienced a wonderful world of stories, pictures, numbers, and experiments.

In this brick building were all the other boys and girls who lived in the village, regardless of how much money their parents made or whether they lived in the good or bad parts of the village.

Everyone agreed this was a wonderful thing.

The adults in the brick building prided themselves on working with children. Sometimes, the little boy or one of his friends would ask questions that took the group in directions the adults had not planned, but they happily accommodated these questions, knowing that inquisitive children are the best learners.

Along the way, the little boy learned to think on his feet, to analyze complex problems and come up with workable solutions.

The little boy liked some lessons more than he liked others. He preferred art to history, math to writing. He dreamed of becoming an architect. Other children felt differently, and each focused on what he or she did best.

Every few weeks, the little boy brought home a slip of paper that indicated how well he was doing. Sometimes, he did very well. Other times, he struggled.

One day, the leaders of the village gathered all the slips of paper from all the village children and were horrified to discover that, like snowflakes, no two children were the same. How could the children compete in the village if they did not all do equally well?

Although the leaders had no real idea what went on in the brick building, and although they did not have the years of training that the adults in the brick building had received, they decided to fix this problem that they themselves had created.

The leaders decided which knowledge was worth knowing and which knowledge was not. They created a series of tests for all children and decided how many questions the students had to answer correctly to be successful outside the brick building.

They all agreed this was a wonderful thing.

Because the tests were so important, the adults in the brick building began to spend more and more time preparing children for them. Instead of reading, drawing, and exploring, the little boy practiced filling in bubbles on a test sheet, learned how to eliminate wrong answers to improve his chances of passing, and practiced writing in a way that would please the leaders who scored the tests.

The little boy gave up his dreams of becoming an architect and focused on coloring test-sheet bubbles and eliminating wrong answers. He stopped asking questions that led to diversions; the adults were too busy, the learning too structured, to allow for them anyway.

In the brick building, the boys and girls learned less and less, but because they were coloring the right bubbles, the village leaders were pleased, and they patted themselves on the back and made impressive-sounding speeches and stayed village leaders because everybody felt good about things.

One day, after he had filled in thousands of bubbles on dozens of tests, the adults handed the little boy one last slip of paper and sent him out into the village to find a job, like many boys and girls before him.

But surprisingly, there were no jobs for test-bubble fillers, no paychecks for eliminating wrong answers or writing just to please.

Employers wanted people who could think on their feet, who knew how to analyze complex problems and come up with creative solutions, not people who could make educated guesses from a pre-made list. The other boys and girls found their employment prospects were similarly limited.

The little boy, who was now a man, began to wonder if the village leaders had been wrong to change the programs in the brick building, if perhaps it was better when the adults who were trained to work with children did so without meddling.

Eventually, other people agreed, but not before the village leaders backpedaled and made more impressive-sounding speeches that make the old ways sound like something new they had come up with on their own, instead of just a pendulum that was swinging back in its original direction.

Of course, it was too late for a whole generation of boys and girls who had wanted to be architects, doctors, lawyers, carpenters, plumbers and business leaders, but who ended up only filling in bubbles.

And this, of course, was not a wonderful thing.