Reading & Literacy Opinion

The Orwell Connection

By Jane Ehrenfeld — June 18, 2003 7 min read
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Charles Dickens wrote of it in Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby. Roald Dahl recalled it in Boy. And George Orwell took us back to it in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys ...” The English boarding school of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Set in the middle of a bleak landscape where it always seems to be winter, we shiver our way through descriptions of its horrors. Grisly food and not enough of it. Savage beatings with a long thin cane. Sadistic adults, bent on raising “hearty” boys with “character.” Cold, hard beds, dark, drafty halls, and always a longing for the comfort of home, the love of parents, the freedom of childhood. We read of those days, those places, and we close our books and think, How fortunate that things have changed.

And certainly, things have changed. Here in America, I doubt a person would find such a school, and even if one were found, it would not be hard to have it closed down. Corporal punishment is all but gone from the classroom; although cafeteria food is not going to earn a Michelin four-star rating anytime soon, it is at least edible and there is enough of it; and adults generally no longer have the “seen but not heard” mentality regarding little children in school. But in recently reading Orwell’s essay, which recalls his days in a British boarding school between 1911 and 1916, I was struck by how closely one aspect of his experience mirrors the experience that so many of our students—most often poor, urban students—have in school today.

Orwell writes, of the curriculum at the school he attended, beginning when he was 8 years old:

Reading Orwell's essay, I was struck by how closely one aspect of his experience mirrors the experience that so many of our students— most often poor, urban students—have in school today.

“This business of making a gifted boy’s career depend on a competitive examination, taken when he is only 12 or 13, is an evil thing at best. ... At Crossgates the whole process was frankly a preparation for a sort of confidence trick. Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else.”

Reading this earlier this spring, my mind immediately jumped to all of the upper-elementary-school teachers I knew who were struggling then, as they do every spring, to get their students ready for their states’ standardized exams. It’s not that they believe what’s on the tests is wrong or useless; it’s that it’s so narrow—looking over the exams from several different states, it is amazing that they all ask the same small set of questions and never go beyond a certain academic territory. More than that, these questions are the exact same kind of questions that I was asked on the standardized tests I took back when I was in school. The information on the test—in language arts, for example, main idea, context clues, subjects and predicates, rhyme scheme—is important to know, but it certainly does not cover the range of skills and knowledge that good teachers want their students to learn and modern pedagogy advises them to teach.

Mr. Holden, the 4th grade teacher at my school, believes that the 4th grade state test in Massachusetts is, as an exam, legitimate and fair. But he also knows that what he chooses to teach in the months that he is preparing his students for the test will be based on what is going to be on the test, rather than what he might otherwise want them to know. And, more Orwellian still, what really drives the teaching of these skills is not purely the desire to have the students learn them; it is essentially to have them pass the test, to be able to breathe a sigh of relief when the scores from year to year rise instead of fall. Mr. Holden wants his students to learn, of course he does, but discussions of the test—as with every teacher I know who teaches in a testing year—invariably are discussions of numbers and percentages, and not whether his students have learned important material truly and well. If the test were to disappear tomorrow, Mr. Holden would still be an excellent teacher, only he’d be free to focus entirely on what his students needed to learn, instead of what the scorer of the tests would want to see.

So every year, from midwinter to spring (and, in some schools, from September to May), it’s test prep; and test prep also often includes favoring reading “passages” over reading novels and interesting nonfiction. These passages, read in isolation, are then reprised in multiple-choice questions that ask, for instance, “What is an example of foreshadowing in this passage?” or “What was the main idea of this paragraph?” Again, I turn to Orwell:

This may have been the turn of the 20th century, but it sounds eerily like the turn of the 21st.

“Latin and Greek, the main scholarship subjects, were what counted, but even these were deliberately taught in a flashy, unsound way. We never, for example, read right through even a single book of a Greek or Latin author; we merely read short passages which were picked out because they were the kind of thing likely to be set as an ‘unseen translation.’”

This may have been the turn of the 20th century, but it sounds eerily like the turn of the 21st.

There are other parallels to be drawn between the test-driven curriculum to which Orwell was subjected and the test-driven curriculum to which students in struggling schools are subjected now. Since students are usually only held accountable for passing the language arts and math sections of the test, science and social studies have been severely neglected by the schools and by the curriculum departments of urban districts. It’s not that teachers such as Mr. Holden don’t want to teach these subjects, it’s just that in a short day, with the fate of the school and the students resting on a single test, these subjects often lose out to time spent on language arts and math. Orwell recalled, of the treatment of such subjects at his boarding school:

“Subjects which lacked examination value, such as geography, were almost completely neglected, mathematics was also neglected if you were a ‘classical,’ science was not taught in any form—indeed it was so despised that even an interest in natural history was discouraged—and the books you were encouraged to read in your spare time were chosen with one eye on the ‘English Paper.’”

Resounding in George Orwell’s education, as it resounds in the education we offer so many of our public school children today, was the question: “Will it be on the test?” If it will, then we learn it, memorize it, study it, master it. If not, it falls by the wayside, only to be retrieved if there is time, or after the tests have been taken in the spring.

It can be hard for us to tell what effect the test pressure has on the children, and so we are fortunate to have a writer such as Orwell to describe the effect it had on him. “Over a period of about two years,” he writes, “I do not think there was ever a day when ‘the exam,’ as I called it, was quite out of my waking thoughts.” He goes on to say of all children: “The weakness of the child is that it starts with a blank sheet. It neither understands nor questions the society in which it lives, and because of its credulity other people can work upon it, infecting it with the sense of inferiority and the dread of offending against mysterious, terrible laws.”

Recalling the look in the eyes of a former student who spent the morning of the exam banging her head against her desk in terror, it is not hard to see that he has exactly described the feelings of children nowadays who are taught that their future happiness rests upon their performance on a test and who fully understand what this means.

City children cannot be quantified by a score and should not be taught only in the language of multiple choice.

There is one final parallel to be drawn between Orwell’s experience at his boarding school and the experience of students in modern public schools, and it is a more hopeful similarity. Orwell knew, even while he was at a school that focused on preparing for exams, that not only were there other schools in England that did not subscribe to a curriculum of test prep, but there were teachers as well who were committed to teaching in innovative and creative ways. He describes one teacher, named Mr. Brown, who “was very good at natural history, making models and plaster casts, operating magic lanterns, and things of that kind.” Mr. Brown, he recalled, was one of only two adults “whom I did not either dislike or fear.”

In the same way, there are teachers in many public schools here in the United States, as well as principals, and even whole urban districts, that do not subscribe to the philosophy of “teaching to the test.”

Mr. Holden, at my school, is one of numerous teachers who, while needing to prepare their students for the test, are also committed to the idea that education cannot stop with test prep. No matter how much pressure is brought to bear on them from state and federal departments of education that have made testing the guiding force in a child’s schooling, teachers like Mr. Holden believe that city children cannot be quantified by a score and should not be taught only in the language of multiple choice.

And although many of these teachers, like Orwell’s Mr. Brown a century ago, do their work in isolation, Mr. Holden is lucky in another way: He teaches at a school with a principal who shares his beliefs, in a city that has worked hard to install a curriculum that goes far beyond just the drilling of facts. There is a shred of sanity amidst the madness, a breath of warm air in rooms cold with testing. Orwell, if he could spend a morning in Mr. Holden’s classroom, would have reasons to feel optimistic.

Jane Ehrenfeld teaches 1st grade in the Roxbury section of Boston.


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