Friday, August 21, 2015


     You may have seen the movie, Babette’s Feast, about the Frenchwoman in difficult financial circumstances who has to leave Paris and seek lodging with two older sisters in a small village, for whom she agrees to cook. One of the sisters is patient enough to teach her how to soak in water the dried fish which is the staple of their diet, explaining kindly, while showing her the technique, “Soak, soak.”

    And you know that at the end it becomes apparent, thanks to the accident of Babette winning a lot of money in the lottery, that this boarder who has been trying in little ways to vary the diet of the sisters, has in fact been, in happier times, the head chef at one of the principal restaurants in Paris, famous for her dishes among those who know fine dining in that city of gourmands. 

    As she uses her winnings to prepare one last elegant meal that none of them will ever forget, we can’t help but be reminded of those early days, in which, without any comment, she accepted the instruction set: “Soak, soak...”

    I thought of this the other day when I read about students in summer programs at the Johns Hopkins Institute for the Advancement of Academic Youth in Baltimore. In The Boston Globe the article said: “Students from 21 states and 15 foreign countries—some as young as seventh grade—devour full-year high school courses in the arts, history, math, science and languages in only three weeks. For a rare few, a normal nine-month curriculum is absorbed in seven days.”

    These students are our Babettes, perhaps, and when they return to our regular classrooms, they will not be surprised to hear us say, in a nice way, “Soak, soak,” as we try to help them stand a two-semester curriculum that some might be able to master fairly easily in a week. 

    If the most gifted students can finish a full year’s high school course in seven days, and the next brightest in three weeks, we might wonder whether even some of our slower students are being unduly restrained in their seats by our need to fill 180 school days with something to keep them off of the streets and generally out of trouble...

    We could stand to admit that the ways in which we dumb down and slow down our curriculums in fact do a lot to cause the excess boredom, tardiness, absences, and even dropping out that we see too frequently in our high schools, not to mention the students who decide that they want to stay in school but, given the glacial mindlessness of the challenges presented to them, they can easily work 30 hours a week, get paid, and waste their money (and their time) on CDs, video games, clothes, cars, and shoes...

    How much are we doing to drive all of our students, not just the gifted (unusually bright) ones, to distraction because we have done so much to lower our expectations for them? The United States Marine Corps has, for many years, working with some of these same teenagers, managed to convince them that both the curriculum and the Drill Instructor merit their very closest attention and their very best efforts, and many high school coaches achieve a similar degree of focus among their charges.

    In our classrooms, however, most researchers now report finding disaffection, anomie, boredom, napping, efforts to change the subject, and other evidence of the absence of real challenge for our students. The teachers often do feel challenged, sometimes even overwhelmed, but that is not really the point of the exercise. 

    Albert Shanker liked to tell the following story about Jaime Escalante (The Best Teacher in America): It appears that after Mr. Escalante moved to Sacramento from East Los Angeles where he had made his name, the local press was very interested in the success of this teacher about whom a movie had been made. They were thrilled to find a ninth-grade girl who said he was a bad teacher. “Tell us!” said the media. And she reported that when she had a problem with something in algebra and went to him, he kept her after school for several days and brought her in on a Saturday morning. “And what happened!?” said the media. “Well, I finally got how to do it,” she said, “but he didn’t teach me anything. All he did was make me work!”

    How many Babettes do we face who would like us to make them work and let them shine?   

[Will Fitzhugh]