Deep in our Past, The Notes of a Flute

My kids sometimes wonder what it is about history that fascinates me so much, and I have almost no ability to provide an answer that satisfies. So instead I turn to demonstration. Every now and then I learn something that, once it sinks in, nearly takes my breath away, and my next thought is usually to communicate it to them so that I might prompt some flowering of interest. But it hasn’t worked yet. Today’s New York Times provided me with such a piece of information, which I may email them. It’s always worth another try.

The story concerns one of the earliest musical instruments ever discovered intact: a flute carved from a piece of bone nearly 35,000 years ago. Go ahead and click on the link. There’s a picture. The instrument in question is thin, graceful, gently curved, and bears every resemblance to a modern woodwind in form and function. It was created in a past so distant that all of recorded history could have occured in the interrim seven times over. Everything we know about civilized humanity spans a mere 5000 years or so, and yet seven times that long ago humans were carving instruments and playing music. If the very idea doesn’t awaken in you an appreciation for ancient history then I think we can safely assume nothing will.

Student Accountability in Public Schools

You may have been in a situation like this, or you may have known of a situation like this. A child is performing poorly in school. He or she misses assignments, pays little attention in class, and doesn’t do well on quizzes and tests. Naturally the quarterly grades reflect this. In between report cards the parents are kept informed through scrawled notes on progress reports, emails, and perhaps even the occasional phone call. The messages may be depressingly consistent: “Missed two assignments.” “Not putting forth effort.” “Project turned in late.” In the worst cases of this sort, the child may even be receiving actual failing grades in one or more classes.

The parents, of course, do their best to intervene. When asked about homework assignments the child always has an answer. The assignment was made up. It was turned in but the teacher missed it. Everybody was late on that one, etc. These excuses generate more messages back and forth between parents and teachers. Everyone is involved, which is what we’re all supposed to be these days. Everyone is talking, and yet the student’s performance doesn’t improve. Why? Wasn’t all of our caring supposed to ensure success? How is it that in the face of all this virtuous involvement the child is still screwing off 75% of the time?

One question that is worth asking is: what are the consequences of screwing off? The answer, depressingly, is that there aren’t any. Will a child who fails to pass a grade be held back from the next grade? No. Will a child who fails to turn in an assignment get detention, or have to write 500 times on the blackboard “I will do my homework,” or even clean up the classroom at the end of the day? No, they won’t. What about discipline? Surely a child who misbehaves will get sent down to the principle’s office for a stern talking to? Yes, that might happen, but unlike in my day there sure as hell won’t be any paddling involved, or any other material consequences, and a stern message delivered to any given teenager has about as much effect as you would expect it to have. But there will be another note home to the parents, who are expected to cure all these problems somehow.

What does the child ultimately learn from this, about the nature of obligations to the institutions that govern our lives, and with which we voluntarily affiliate ourselves over our adult careers? What they learn is that institutions are impotent. The school can assign work. The school can make rules. But the school is utterly unable or unwilling to enforce any of its rules, or hold students accountable for discharging their assigned duties. Later in life the little dears will find out that other institutions are very capable of doing these things, and I suppose it will come as quite a shock to them. Parents naturally want to do what they can to respond to teacher concerns, but the parents are a third party to the relationship. If the institution cannot hold its charges accountable, how should the third party do so?

They cannot, and the impotency of this triangular relationship ultimately encourages the students to do whatever they feel like, secure in the knowlege that nothing bad will happen to them at the hands of the people whose rules and requirements they are disregarding. Of course, bad things will happen, but they will happen much later, in adulthood, long after the administrators of the schools have added another number to their count of children not left behind. Unfortunately, by then it is far too late, and there is no safety net of helicopter parents to descend from the skies and fix the problem. All of which prompts the question: how can a child learn discipline and studiousness and the virtues of hard work from an impotent institution that can do no more than make friendly suggestions? The answer is that they can’t, and many don’t.