Wednesday, March 28, 2012

To do whatever you tell me

Do you remember that scene from Forrest Gump when Gump joined the army and met his Drill Sergeant?
Drill Sergeant: Gump! What's your sole purpose in this army?

Forrest Gump: To do whatever you tell me, drill sergeant!

Drill Sergeant: God damn it, Gump! You're a god damn genius! This is the most outstanding answer I have ever heard. You must have a goddamn I.Q. of 160. You are goddamn gifted, Private Gump. Listen up, people...

Forrest Gump: [narrates] Now for some reason I fit in the army like one of them round pegs. It's not really hard. You just make your bed real neat and remember to stand up straight and always answer every question with "Yes, drill sergeant."

Drill Sergeant: ...Is that clear?

Forrest Gump: Yes, drill sergeant!

Sometimes I think this is precisely how school works. Too often, I think we define the entire purpose of school as nothing more than obedience. We bastardize the terms respect and intelligence and make them nothing more than synonyms for compliance.

We've confused obedience with learning for too long.

In his book Stop Stealing Dreams, Seth Godin breaks it down into two columns:
Supportive ----------------->

Which column would you want for your kids? Which is good is enough for others' kids? Which would you want for your spouse? Which would you want your employer or colleagues to have?

Godin writes:
Now that obedience is less important and learning matters more than ever, we have to be brave enough to separate them. We can rebuild the entire system around passion instead of fear.
If our problem was that too many children get low testsandgrades, then compliance and obedience might be helpful tools, but this is not what ails public education. The real problem is that too many children are drop outs-in-waiting who eventually vote with their feet, or their minds, and opt out of the whole affair because they've lost their passion for learning.

To solve this problem, demanding more obedience and compliance will be at best unhelpful and at worst harmful.


  1. Joe,

    An interesting take on education. Is it also possible in the event that students truly achieve the right hand column that they might then be more likely to be self controlled from a sense of mastery rather than obedient? Or at the very least become vested in their own learning.

    Thanks for the insight. Gives me more to think about as I mark position papers.

  2. I am in agreement with a lot of this, but...

    I think there might be a false dichotomy set up. It's not like obedience in general is absolutely antithetical to those things you listed.

    I'm no fan of behavior modification and things like that that don't actually lead to your column on the right, but obedience has a place as well.

  3. Joe,

    I haven't read Seth's book but I must say you have me very intrigued. The list is exactly what we should be striving for today with our students. The more I deal with frustrated students the more I realize that they are in need of teachers with the courage to break free of tradition and meet students in areas of creativity, divergence and innovation.

    Thanks for posting