Let Them Act Out
Having to constantly drill for tests, students are being kept fromperforming in ways that would reveal the best they have to offer.
"I KNOW WHAT IS WRONG with oureducation system!" I cried out to my catTaco, who was seated on my lap, and tothe mountains outside my window, which,usually enshrouded in clouds, weremaking a surprise March appearance.Taco was unimpressed; she had heardsuch declarations before, made withsimilar gusto. Like many of us in education,I see "the problem" often, andleap to a solution. Maybe our leaping toso many solutions is the problem, butthat is for exploration in another column.
This latest epiphany of mine was prompted by a recent New York Times Magazine article. While the cover story on "Should Boys and Girls Be Taught Separately?" was interesting, what got me thinking was a piece by Virginia Heffernan on the 25th-anniversary DVD of the great 1982 movie Tootsie, starring Dustin Hoffman as a man who tries to pass himself off as a woman in order to land a part on a soap opera.
In the article, Heffernan talks about acting as an avenue for moral responsibility. She describes how "performance, in front of recording devices, [is] the only way that the characters in Tootsie can learn to be good." She repeats one of Hoffman's memorable lines, spoken to Jessica Lange's character, which brings the point home: "I was a better man with you, as a woman, than I ever was with a woman, as a man."
Heffernan says the message is one that can be seen in the work of "actors" on reality shows and YouTube clips, who also can't act virtuously unless they are being filmed. She says the presence of all those cameras recording their every move and utterance forces them to be moral. "These young actors," she writes, "often say that the process of making themselves camera-ready, along with the scrutiny of an audience, serves as a kind of spiritual audit without which they could never be honest or even learn to live at all."
Why the epiphany? Just prior to reading Heffernan's article, I had read a piece about local affiliates of the state of Washington's teachers union, who are upset at the superintendent of instruction, Terry Bergeron, over her support of the statewide testing program, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. It occurred to me, in the powerful way that new ideas always arrive, that Heffernan's thesis was analogous to what's wrong with the fixation on testing that has overtaken our education system.
Drilled endlessly in preparation for state assessments, students are not being allowed to perform-to work together in groups to solve real-world problems and present those solutions to real audiences. Students need opportunities to be watched by an audience in order to be motivated to do their best, and reveal the best parts of themselves. Yet they get few chances to act, unless you count acting like they are interested in class. That spiritual audit Heffernan talks about- students need one too occasionally, to help them be truly honest and learn to live.
I'm putting Tootsie atop my Netflix queue. Maybe watching it, in addition to reading about it, will lead to another epiphany.
-Geoffrey H. Fletcher, Editorial director
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.