Return of the Geeks, Constitutional Measures, and the Case for Good Thinking

By Rich Shea — July 22, 2005 3 min read
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If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve witnessed the phenomenon before: Last time it made headlines was the ’80s, when Revenge of the Nerds was a hit film and Huey Lewis’ “Hip To Be Square” was a hit single. Now, thanks to computer CEOs like Bill Gates, the movie Napoleon Dynamite, and a plethora of sci-fi TV shows, the perfect “dork” storm has arrived once more. That’s good news for students like Steffi Weiss, a 15-year-old school orchestra member in Lake Zurich, Illinois, who, along with friends this past spring, began sporting “Orch Dorks” T-shirts. “We used to not be able to stand the fact that we were in orchestra,” reveals the violinist. “Finally, we realized that’s where all our friends are and that’s where we have the most fun.” Of course, Steffi’s epiphany only proves the point that unique segments of society should always be celebrated, not just dusted off every 10 or 20 years. But this recent trend brings out the territorial instincts in some. Nick Ross, a 20-something freelance artist, has put together the True Geek Test—to filter out posers, evidently. “The label of ‘geek’ actually has nothing to do with computers anymore,” he claims. “It’s become about irony. Among young people, liking something cool is uncool, and vice versa. There is no logic behind it at all.”

As September draws near, educators tasked with figuring out how to comply with a new federal law are questioning legislators’ logic. Starting this fall, schools receiving federal funds must provide students with a program on the U.S. Constitution, which will be 218 years old on September 17. This requirement is part of a law shepherded by Senator Robert Byrd, the venerable West Virginia Democrat who’s bemoaned the state of civic education, saying kids today know more about American Idol than about the origins of democracy. But many educators, even some who might agree with the senator’s assessment, balk at the idea of a mandated lesson. “We already have one of those. It’s called our curriculum,” says Mark Stout, a social studies coordinator for Maryland’s Howard County Public Schools. August Frattali, a principal in nearby Virginia, says of his middle school, “We already cover the Constitution up, down, and around.” But, he adds, “I’m going to follow the mandates. I don’t want to get fired.”

The mandate that is NCLB is being given credit for helping boost the latest NAEP scores—by none other than Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Education Secretary. She’s right to celebrate the increases at the elementary and middle school levels: 9-year-olds scored higher than ever in reading and math, as did 13-year-olds in math. And results show that the black-white and Hispanic-white gaps in math scores have shrunk considerably. “We’re seeing such great progress in the early grades because that’s where we’re investing our resources,” Spellings told educators during a recent conference in Denver.

But Senator Hilary Clinton paints a less rosy picture. A few days after the Denver conference, addressing the National Council of La Raza convention, she noted that the Latino dropout rate continues to be a huge problem and that 17-year-olds have shown little progress on the NAEP tests. She then told the mostly Hispanic educators, “You are doing your part, but I don’t know that your government is doing its part right now.” Spellings was at the same convention, hosted by what is the country’s biggest advocacy group for Hispanics. But whereas she received tepid applause during her speech, Clinton (considered a 2008 presidential contender), got the standing-O treatment, prompting one attendee to comment, “There’s no one else in America who has more integrity today.”

In Michigan, another kind of conflict is evident, one echoed across the country. English high school teachers, fresh from professional development courses on teaching writing, return to schools jazzed about tapping their students’ creativity. “One of the major points was, good writing is good thinking,” says Becky Karnes, referring to a course she recently took at a local university. “That’s why writing formulas don’t work. Formulas don’t let kids think; they kill a lot of creativity in writing.” But formula—the five-paragraph essay, specifically—is what English teachers are told to employ so that students can ace the state’s standardized test. Even beginners interviewing for jobs are asked, in essence, “Will you teach to the test?” The pressure forces most, including Karnes, to wait till the last month of school to conduct creative writing workshops. “I found interests and talents in those kids I didn’t know were there,” she says. “It would have been nice to have a whole year to build on those things.”

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