A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Stinky buts

We had parent-teacher conferences today. This is almost always a discouraging time.

Jane’s teacher showed us a “persuasive essay” she wrote for her social studies class. The students were to take a stand of whether the US government should spy on people to prevent terrorism. Jane’s first sentence went something like this:

The US government should spy on people to prevent terrorism, but they should do so in a way the protects the privacy rights of citizens.

The teacher explained there was a problem with this stand. She was suppose to take a stand one way or the other. I tell my students they shouldn’t use words like ‘but.’ Watch out for those ‘stinky buts,’ I tell them.

Why are you teaching them to think of things in strictly black and white terms, I asked. Why aren’t you allowing her to make a slightly nuanced stand?

They’re supposed to take one side or the other. If they use words like ‘but,’ they’re not taking a stand. So I couldn’t give her full credit.

I was pretty mad at this point. No wonder people are having a hard time talking about difficult issues. They’re taught to “take a stand” and only list reasons that support their own side. Sounds like lockstep Republicanism and knee-jerk Democratism. After simmering down and talking about some other subjects, I returned to the persuasive essay. I apologized for getting a little hot under the color.

Well, I’d like them to be a little more nuanced myself, she said. But they have to write these essays for the MEAP.

I should note that the MEAP is the Michigan Educational Assessment Program exam–most Michigan schools essentially give up any pretense of providing an academic education, and pretty much teach to the test, or getting students to “beat the MEAP.” It’s not surprising, since funding depends a lot on MEAP scores. Jane’s school is a little better than most because it’s a magnet school for the arts, and MEAP prostitution hasn’t invaded the arts quite so much.

The graders of the MEAP tests, continued Jane’s teacher, are basically pulled off the street. If they see a “but” in the introductory sentence, they’ll mark the essay down. In high school, they’re allowed to present the other side.

Something stinks, but it isn’t the ‘stinky buts.’


2 responses to “Stinky buts

  1. Daniel Lemire March 17, 2006 at 12:15 am

    Surely, you can’t be serious mister Fitzgerald?

    One the one hand, you have the axis of evil, on the other, you have the hard-working Americans.

    There is no grey.

  2. Glen April 5, 2006 at 12:26 pm

    I read something recently about this in terms of SAT tests: that SAT coaches were recommending that student not concern themselves so much (at all?) with what opinion they presented in their essays so long as they expressed it strongly, without reservation or nuance. So even in high school, Jane, you (and I) are likely to find some of the same discouragement of nuanced thinking that you found at your recent conference.

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