I had an interesting conversation with one of my professors last night, who described some of her academic colleagues in a half-joking manner as “I am ‘X’, therefore I say ‘Y’.” The implication here, of course, is that some academics take a position early on in their careers and stick to it throughout. Interestingly, this is a conclusion I came to early in my Political Science education; while studying for my very first test, I realized that I didn’t actually need to know what a specific author said on each issue – if I knew how he approached any issue, I could work out for myself his probable stance on whatever issue(s) came up during the test. (This has served me well, both in grades and in sleep…) For some academics, the position they take is a new and unique one that eventually gets accepted by the wider community, and they become the famous academics we read in our introductory courses. The vast majority, however, don’t. They pick tangential positions that are neither new enough or bold enough to be interesting, which means they are both safe from significant push back and unlikely to be ground-breaking.
Of course, the politically cynical among us see the “I am ‘X’, therefore I say ‘Y'” idea as particularly prominent in political discourse. The particularly interesting thing about this is that academics and the most highly educated members of society not only engage in the same cognitive patterns that cause them to ignore countervailing information or narratives, but they actually engage in these patterns to a greater extent than the average American; highly educated people (like those that both teach the next generation and rule over it) are actually more likely to actively avoid information they don’t like – and thus remain ignorant of opposing arguments – than the public.
I asked my professor, “If you are ‘X,’ what is your ‘Y’?” She said she doesn’t have one, that she splits her time among many subjects and that she is actively seeking counter-narratives. In spite of the obvious self-serving nature of this comment, (She literally said “I’m the exception that proves the rule,” and though she said it with a smile, she wasn’t joking.) I’m inclined to believe her. Her research is fundamentally around the reality that factual information is biased, that history is just that – a story, and that literally every piece of information we collect in our lives is biased, either in the way it is presented or in the way it is interpreted. Considering that, I think it is likely she questions everything she reads, hears, and believes. Probably every day, all day.
I want to do that. I want to be the exception that proves the rule. I want to constantly question the information given to me, and I want to do that in an intelligent and non-threatening manner. If I go into academia, I don’t want to have a “Y.” If I work for the government, or even in the private sector, I want to be the person who is constantly questioning assumptions and constantly pushing back, because even if that means I don’t fall nicely into a undergrad’s summary box, it means I’m likely to be making intelligent, accurate, and well-informed decisions.
It is the second day of February, which means that my month of Czech is officially over. This is a very strange feeling for me, because in a lot of ways January wasn’t any different than December was, or February will be. I spoke more Czech on a daily basis during January than I had in December, which was my ultimate goal. I intend to speak more Czech daily during February than I did during January. This could be because I’m going to classes every day and will be able to speak with my Czech professor, other professors (who are Czech) and all the staff and buddies at CIEE.
Nonetheless, I feel like I need to look back at my goals from January and see how well I did.
1. Learn 1,000 new words. Well… my success here depends on your definition of learn. If we’re going by the “I didn’t know the word January 1st and know it today” definition, I failed. There is no way I can claim that I memorized 1,000 words and could recite them to you today. If, however, we consider learning a word being exposed to it, remembering it for some period of time, and writing it down, then I definitely succeeded. I wrote down more than 1,000 new words over the month of January, and for the most part remembered them for a few days at least.
Even though this isn’t a success in the way I first expressed my 1,000-word-goal, I think this was successful. In my experience learning new vocabulary in Japanese, I never really remember a word the first time I learn it. But the second time, for whatever reason, it really clicks. So I’m thinking of these 1,000 words as round 1, and round 2 will be highly successful.
2. Memorize the 7 noun declinations. Easier said than done, it seems. I have been working on them, and I’m definitely a lot closer than I was at the beginning of January. But I’ve still got a way to go. Interestingly, though I struggle with them during normal day-to-day conversations, I almost always get them right when I’m drunk. (As evidenced by various Czech friends complimenting me for my mastery of declinations while at the bars in the past few days.) This tells me that I’m absorbing the declinations and I need to stop worrying so much about them during normal (sober) conversations.
3. Conversation in Czech every day. This definitely happened. Whether I accomplished what I hoped to accomplish by setting this as a goal is questionable, but I had these conversations. I ordered coffee/tea/cake/whatever, I bought stamps, I had conversations over lunch and dinner and instead of studying. I learned about what it is like to be blind or deaf in the Czech Republic, and talked about the different types of bullying. I explained American drinking games and learned some Czech history. Most of these conversations were completely in Czech; the more complicated ones were often interrupted by asking what a word means, but always asked and answered in Czech. I’d say this one was a total success.
4. Read Matylda. I can also check this box off. I finished reading Matylda, I read other books to my host siblings, and continued listening to as much Czech (reading, conversations on the trams, TV shows) as I could.
In addition to these, I discovered this month a host of English TV shows that have been dubbed into Czech, and started watching them. Most notably, I’ve been watching Gilmorová Děvčata (Gilmore Girls) online, and Castle na Zabiti (Castle) and Pan Času (Dr. Who) on TV with some regularity. Also on TV in Czech sometimes: Friends, Full House, and The Big Bang Theory.
Was January successful as a month to forward my Czech knowledge? Yes. Did I learn as much as I wanted to? Probably not. Did I learn more than I expected? Yes. I’ve gotten to the point where I can sit at the table and understand the majority of what is happening around me, even if I can’t understand every single word. When I’m on the trams, I no longer try to listen for a word I recognize, I now am trying to comprehend entire sentences at a time. Next up, hopefully in March or so, listening to entire conversations. (At what point does this action go from desperately trying to learn the language by practicing in every way possible to awkwardly eavesdropping on people’s conversations?)
Intensive Czech starts Monday morning, which I’m certainly looking forward to. I have a suspicion that the amount of work and effort this semester’s class is going to require will be much greater than last semester; the textbook we’re supposedly going to use looks awesome, but we’re also apparently going to go through all 20 chapters…
I’m setting for myself another language-related month long task (although only one for February): I will ONLY speak in Czech to the CIEE staff and buddies. This includes whoever is at the front desk, everyone working upstairs, and any flat/dorm/homestay buddies that may be attending any event. I cannot get out of this by not having conversations; I will have at least one such conversation every day that I am at CIEE (which means at least 4/week.) In addition, any emails I send to them will be in both Czech and English.
Once again, wish me luck!
I’m exactly six weeks from starting the next huge adventure of my life. I’m spending the year abroad in Prague, where I plan on studying the language I’ve been hearing my whole life, meeting all my distant relatives, learning everything I possibly can about my history, making phenomenal friends to last a lifetime, and maybe even finding a Czech man (although Babi cautions me that they are “unreliable, so be careful”).
And I can’t help but remember advice I got years ago: It takes six weeks to form a habit. Until the day that sentiment was calmly spoken to a frustrated 11 year old girl, I’d always just assumed that you were the way you were. That was one (of many!) eye-opening moments I got while at Odyssey. I realized that people meant it when they told me, “You can be anything you want to be.” They didn’t only mean that I could be a doctor or a teacher or a firefighter, if that’s what I wanted. They also meant that I could be more patient, less fearful, more open. Nobody is everything they are out of pure chance. The bad things come because we (or our parents, friends, etc.) indulge them. And the good things are there because we work at them.
So I’ve got six weeks, and a very nice, concrete time marker at the end. So I’m setting habits. These are not goals, they are habits. I’ve always felt like goals are nice: things to aim for, but rarely to achieve. Goals, to me, are out of reach (for now, at least). They require a lot of work, a long timetable, and help from outside sources to accomplish. Habits, on the other hand, are smaller. They depend on me, and only me. They are easily measured, easily accomplished, and don’t require anything except willpower and determination. So I’m setting four habits to accomplish in the next six weeks. (more…)
Apparently, when I don’t actually have anything pressing to do, I fail to write blog posts as a mode of procrastination. I’m going with that as my excuse for not posting anything in many weeks…just go with it.
Regardless of my reasons for not posting – which we’ll primarily blame on my job, which will be my next post (!) – I promise to post more in the future. I will be publishing at least three new posts a week for the remainder of the summer (with one exception for SSC).
I’ve said it.
I’ve sent that declaration out into the ether, where you have read it.
And now I will have to stick by it. For every post I don’t write, I give you permission to tell my brother to tease me. Or I’ll buy your kids ice cream. Or something. (I find I complete tasks more often if I’ve told someone I’m doing them. I don’t need incentive or punishment, merely to have given notification. So here’s my notification; let’s see if I can live up to it.)
My apologies for being so sporadic recently, and I will be back shortly!
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
-Albert Einstein 
If you haven’t seen this quote, either you don’t have internet access or you don’t have friends that spend hours and hours aimlessly wandering the internet and posting semi-relevant links and quotes on your facebook wall. If you have seen this quote, you probably looked at it and thought “Huh. Interesting.”
Or you might have thought, “This is the problem with American education. We need to get rid of standardized tests.” That was my response the first time I saw it. I saw this cute cartoon, and I thought it was quite well drawn. Is that a question mark above the fish’s head? A hook to help it climb?
But then I was watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about schools and the dearth (death?) of creativity they create, and I remembered the quote. But not correctly. I remembered it like this:
If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will think it is stupid. 
I forgot the “Everybody is a genius” part. Does that mean I don’t think everyone is a genius? No.
I think everyone has individual talents. Some people are natural-born artists, others are incredibly skilled at sports. Pelé? Soccer genius. Freddy Adu? Brilliant, amazing, talented. Not a genius. Robbie Rogers? Super brave, certainly skilled. Impressive, but not a genius.
This leads me to something that has bothered me about our education system for a while now. Every parent wants to put their kid into “gifted and talented” programs. Look at the New York City issue with kindergarten testing. Now I’m not oblivious to the harsh realities of our school systems. Rich parents get to send their kids to expensive private schools with smaller class sizes. These schools don’t have to adhere as strictly to state standards, giving these schools and their teachers more time to focus on subjects like art and music, or to emphasize topics within standard educational subjects the students will actually enjoy. I’m not oblivious to this because I lived it. I went to a small private school where we literally voted on what we wanted to study in 7th and 8th grade Humanities. 
If we go back to our fish and tree analogy, I am a monkey. Climbing trees comes easily. I got lucky in that my talents fall squarely within what our school system aims to foster. Math, Science, English; they all come easily. I “get it.” Interestingly, when I look back at my small, private school education, my worst grades by far were in Art and Chorus, where I was told I needed to focus more and put my mind to it. I remember getting those comments and being frustrated. These teachers also saw me in Math and Social Studies, they knew I was smart, they knew that I always did my best. Why were they giving me bad grades in classes that I was trying hard in, but good grades in classes I barely had to work at?
Why did they expect me to be a good artist when no-one expects monkeys to swim? 
My school was for gifted and talented students, and looking back I realize that definition was independent of species. There was definitely a fish in my class (we’ll call her Talia; she’s an amazing artist and loved Writing but always struggled in Math and Science), and I’d say there were some other types of animals too.
The education I received was wonderfully tailored. There was time for each student to get the help she needed in every subject, and there was time to prepare us all for whatever came next. We each got to pursue our own passions for the full month of January and every Friday afternoon. We learned table manners on school trips to Ashland, Oregon, and made memories everywhere from LA to Japan. Each student was recognized for the animal he or she was, and was given the appropriate challenges. Yes, fish were forced to climb trees and monkeys had to swim, but the teachers really focused on letting each student grow in the direction they wanted to.
But I was lucky, and not everyone has the opportunities I got in terms of individualized education. In normal schools, monkeys are never really forced to swim – the closest they have to get is dipping their toes in. But all the fish have to climb trees. Many of them aren’t very good at it. But some of them are.
Here’s my question, and its two-fold: What do we do about the fish that do climb trees? How should education be changed so that students entering our schools now and in the future aren’t forced to study “normal” subjects they don’t care about, and what do we do about the left-brained students already halfway through their education, torturing themselves to memorize facts for tests they’ll forget in a week?
There is an argument that can be made, and a valid one in my opinion, that every member of society ought to have a broad base of knowledge. Ideally, everyone who graduates from an American school is able to read and write, and has the basic math skills to compute tip when they go out to eat, or calculate the change they are due. But this broad knowledge needs to go beyond what current standardized tests are testing. Graduates should know a bit of world history, and maybe a smattering of a second language. They ought to know how to solve a problem they are facing, and have something to turn to in times of stress.
American high school graduates should not be mathematically inclined English speaking robots. Incoming American students are a diverse group of people, and they should leave our education system the same way. But they should have grown. Each student has a passion; the purpose of the education system ought to be to help each student find and nurture his passion. Kids are incredibly creative, and that creativity shows itself in every imaginable way, and then some. Some kids draw, some tell stories, some have an aptitude for algebra, and some for the violin. We need to stop pretending that there is a job for every college graduate, stop forcing students to major in things they don’t want to study so they’ll get a job.
I’m majoring in Chemical Physics and Political Science. (If you’re in the maths or sciences. If you’re a humanities or social sciences major, I’m majoring in Political Science and Chemical Physics.) Regardless of who I talk to, their first response is always “What are you going to do with that?” I have no idea. Not a flipping clue. I’m interested in Comparative STEM Education Policy. Or Nuclear Energy Policy. Maybe I’ll become the much-needed person sitting at the table with the politicians and scientists translating one language into the other. Maybe I’ll throw away the $200,000 my parents have so kindly spent on my education and travel the world instead. Regardless of what I want to do now or where I think I’ll end up, I’m studying things I love, taking classes in subjects I’m genuinely interested and passionate about. I have hope that my passion and dedication will be enough to get me a job. Because I’m an idealist, and I think it should.
1. Who knows if this quote is actually Einstein? The internet says so, but the internet also says Abraham Lincoln said the thing about quotes on the internet is that you cannot confirm their validity. If you don’t understand the irony here, please leave.
4. Most monkeys will cross water bodies when necessary, but prefer not to. Except these guys.