Survival of the fittest – time to let our students sink or swim?

There is a striking passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “The signature of all things” – which I heartily recommend by the way – where the protagonist, a 19th century woman with a bent for scientific investigation, travels to Tahiti after having her heart broken. There, she searches for answers about the husband who deserted her. In the course of her stay on the island, she finds out the sad truth about her husband’s love affair with another man and his suicide. She also befriends the local Tahitian women but stands apart from them, her scientific, educated mind at odds with their local customs.

One day, however, she is forcibly dragged into the sea by them to take part in a ritual game called haru raa puu. The usually smiling and placid women turn into aggressive opponents in the water, pushing her down and making her fight for her life. This proves to be a life-affirming experience for Alma, as well as the light bulb moment in her research about mosses and why there are variations in the different species over time: what we would now refer to as the survival of the fittest (the novel uses artistic licence to argue that Alma discovered the theory of evolution years before Darwin did, but never had the courage to publish her findings). Here’s a fairly long excerpt from the book, describing the event:

“What happened next was an impossible thing: a complete halting of time. Eyes open, mouth open, nose streaming blood into Matavai Bay, immobilized and helpless underwater, Alma realized she was about to die. Shockingly, she relaxed. It was not so bad, she thought. It would be so easy, in fact. Death – so feared and so dodged – was, once you faced it, the simplest thing going. In order to die, one merely had to stop attempting to live. One merely had to agree to vanish. If Alma simply remained still, pinned beneath the bulk of this unknown opponent, she would be effortlessly erased. With death, all suffering would end. Doubt would end. Memory – most mercifully of all – would end. All her questions would end. She could quietly excuse herself from life. Ambrose had excused himself, after all. What a relief it must have been to him! Here she had been pitying Ambrose his suicide, but what a welcome deliverance he must have felt! She ought to have been envying him! She could follow him straight there, straight into death. What reason did she have to claw for the air? What point was in the fight?

She relaxed even more.

She saw pale light.

She felt invited toward something lovely. She felt summoned. She remembered her mother’s dying words: Het is fign.

It is pleasant.

Then – in the seconds that remained before it would have been too late to reverse course at all – Alma suddenly knew something. She knew it with every scrap of her being, and it was not a negotiable bit of information: she knew that she, the daughter of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, had not been put on this earth to drown in five feet of water. She also knew this: if she had to kill somebody in order to save her own life, she would do so unhesitatingly. Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature – the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation – and it was the explanation for the entire world. It was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.

She came up out of the water. She flung away the body on top of her as though it were nothing. Nose streaming blood, eyes stinging, wrist sprained, chest bruised, she surfaced and sucked in breath. She looked around for the woman who had been holding her under. It was her dear friend, that fearless giantess Sister Manu, whose head was scarred to pieces from all the various awful battles of her own life. Manu was laughing at the expression on Alma’s face. The laughter was affectionate – perhaps even comradely – but still, it was laughter. Alma grabbed Manu by the neck. She gripped her friend as though to crush her throat. At the top of her voice, Alma thundered, just as the Hiro contingent had taught her:

‘OVAU TEIE!

TOA HAU A’E TAU METUA I TA ‘OE!

E ‘ORE TAU ‘SOMORE E MAE QE IA ‘EO!”

THIS IS ME!

MY FATHER WAS A GREATER WARRIOR THAN YOUR FATHER!

YOU CANNOT EVEN LIFT MY SPEAR!’

Then Alma let go, releasing her grip on Sister Manu’s neck. Without a moment’s hesitation, Manu howled back in Alma’s face a magnificent roar of approval.

Alma marched toward the beach.

She was oblivious to everyone and everything in her midst. If anyone on the beach was either cheering for her or against her, she could not possibly have noticed.

She came striding out of the sea like she was born from it.”

Why, you may ask, am I quoting the passage above and what could it possibly have to do with education? Before I answer, let me give you another vignette, gleaned from a “Good Morning America” video about China which we watched in a Geography lesson today.

In the video, we found out about all the goods produced in China, at very low cost in their factories and the effect this has had on local industries in America. There is a memorable interview with the author, Thomas Friedman, in which he says:

“There ain’t no such thing as an American job, ok, there’s just a job, and in many cases it will go to the most efficient, cheapest, smartest person who can do that job. You as an individual have to locate now increasingly globally and think of yourself as competing with people globally… My parents used to say to me, Tom, finish your dinner, people in China and India are starving. And what I tell my girls today is: girls, finish your homework, people in China and India are starving for your jobs.”

Do “survival of the fittest” and globalisation have implications for education? Before I go any further, let me just say that I am not for a minute advocating entering into a rat race with China and other Asian countries for just how hard and long we can make our students work. I do think though, that our child-centered education where pupils are taught a sense of entitlement and often given an inflated idea of their uniqueness, is at odds with the realities of the world out there.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how well-meaning actions often have unintended consequences. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the world of education which is filled with decent, caring people who want to make the world a better place. I like to think I am one of them. And yet quite clearly, despite our best efforts, far too many students are leaving school with few qualifications, poor social skills and weak literacy and knowledge.

I could talk about the unintended consequences of well-intentioned interventions on poorly behaved students and how the “some excuses” as opposed to “no excuses” approach to behaviour management has created a culture in which certain kids think they can get away with outrageous behaviour.  It’s true that a lot of them are unhappy, unloved and worthy of our sympathy. So they get taken out of their classes and sent to us in the SEN department, where they get lots of attention and the added bonus of not having to sit in boring/challenging lessons. Of course they know that if their behaviour improves, they will be compelled to go back to their lessons. Instead, they let loose with every tantrum under the sun, knocking over displays, chairs and bins, kicking and banging on doors. And thus we go from one crisis to another, talking and complaining about so and so’s behaviour, but never acknowledging our collusion in it.

But our softly softly child-centered approach also has unintended consequences on other students. One of the students I support in my school is very well behaved, yet here too our well-meaning approach is having a detrimental effect on her. This student is a refugee from Syria, who arrived in the UK last Summer with very little English and huge gaps in her education. As I speak Arabic, I was asked to support her in classes and also tasked with teaching her English. In lessons, I sit beside her with my mini whiteboard, translating for her and supporting her as required. What has happened is that she has very quickly learned that none of her teachers have any expectations of her, so she sits back passively and puts very little effort beyond copying things off the whiteboard. Lately, I have started to wonder whether my presence in class with her is more a hindrance or a help.

This is where I am reminded of Alma, moping for her lost love, but jolted out of her complacency by having to literally fight for her life. Perhaps we should be removing the crutches and challenging our students to sink or swim. It may not be as high stakes as life or death, but let’s at least jolt them into fighting for their place in the world or, fighting to keep up with their classmates.

I’ll finish with this little example. Delving through my stash of old essays and school books, I found my English book from when I was in Lower 5th (the equivalent of year 10 today). This was my first year in an English school (as I grew up in Geneva and subsequently went to a French school in London), so English was very much a second language for me. Nevertheless, I had managed to write a three-page story entitled “The inheritance”. Did my teacher shower me with positive comments and encouragement in her feedback? Not a bit. One paragraph has her comment of “cliché” in the margin. And her final remarks put my work firmly in its place: “B+  This is accurate but I did not find it convincing. Do be careful with fantasy: this reads like something you have read and it does not make me believe in it. Try taking a simple incident from your own life as a basis.

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