Essay Contest: Seek Learning Out of the Best Books

Another essay contest entry, by Alyson Williams


The current approach to education reform in the U.S. reminds me of a well-known scene in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Tom needs to whitewash an entire fence before he can get on with what he’d really like to be doing. Not able to get the job done on his own he comes up with a clever plan and one by one gets the neighborhood boys to take over his work by making the job look really appealing, by convincing them it is something that want to do of their own accord, and by the flattery that only certain people are capable of doing such an important job. After all, Aunt Polly was “awful particular” and didn’t trust Jim, or Sid with the task.

Sound familiar? Federal and private education reformers have been trying to push through policies to centralize power over education for decades but could not force the sovereign states to comply. Who knew all they had to do was convince a few of the “neighborhood boys” that they would make great reformers and call the plan “state-led.”

I find in the dialog between Tom and his first dupe an especially uncanny metaphor for the adoption process of Common Core and the other Stimulus-driven education reforms.

Tom expresses doubt that his friend Ben can be trusted with such the important task at hand saying, “If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it …”

Ben assures Tom that he’ll be careful and deciding he’d better give something to Tom in trade he offers, “Say – I’ll give you the core of my apple.”And then as he sees Tom hesitate, he adds, “I’ll give you ALL of it.”

So Utah gave away our Core, but who wants just the core of an apple? Do we really think they’ll be satisfied with that?

The story continues saying, “Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart… the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash.”

The narrator says of Tom, “He had a nice, good, idle time all the while – plenty of company – and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.”

The vignette ends with the observation that Tom “had discovered a great law of human action… that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do” but that people would happily work at doing something if it was voluntary.

How ironic that this was so similar to the process that led to the adoption of the English Language Arts standards that sacrifice the time once spent feasting on classic stories in favor of the informational-texts of the 21st-century, global workforce. Stories that, like this one, would serve as a cautionary tale to Governors, Superintendents or others racing to support common education standards for our nation when they would likely never had been such enthusiastic participants if the objective had been assigned or decreed. When deftly positioned as a voluntary “state-led” initiative, however, and presented along with the ego-stroking idea of themselves as the only leaders who could be entrusted with such an important task, the Common Core State Standards Initiative swept Governors and Superintendents into bids of what they each might offer (in the form of Race to the Top grant applications and often the entirety of the cost of such commitments when the grant was not awarded) for the honor of participating.

One key reformer, Education Secretary Arne Duncan later bragged to an international audience at UNESCO of the early success of this strategy saying, “… today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have already chosen to adopt the new state-crafted Common Core standards in math and English. Not studying it, not thinking about it, not issuing a white paper—they have actually done it.”

As a result, the fence standing between reformers who would centralize key aspects of public education and their goal of getting on to more mischief with our local schools was whitewashed in record time. The dupes gave up the whole apple and more, and just like Aunt Polly, many an unsuspecting citizen accepted the trickery as a praiseworthy achievement.

In the engaging tale of an American boy, Twain gives all who would read a great insight into what motivates people (think of it as leadership training 101) but also alerts would-be dupes against such schemes as the one currently enabling a concentration of power over the education of the rising generation.

In this example we see the power of a good story to develop both literacy and wisdom regardless of the century or the economy in which the reader lives. It might lead one wonder if we really want students to spend more time dissecting excerpts of everyday informational text (characterized as “critical thinking”) or whether we all would be better off with a little more Tom Sawyer or other classic works that have outlived educational and political fads by masterfully capturing human interactions in language that speaks to our hearts and souls, entices us to learn more, and gifts us timeless ideas and ideals to think critically about.

–Alyson Williams

2 thoughts on “Essay Contest: Seek Learning Out of the Best Books”

  1. Alyson, that was profound! You not only found a written work of art to illustrate your point, you masterfully crafted the correlation between the two, and then drove the point home like a sledgehammer, using what we’ve lost as evidence of its importance. Extraordinarily well done! We will now be reading Tom Sawyer together as a family, followed by your essay so that we can all be enriched, educated and on guard. THANK YOU!

  2. Great essay, Alyson! I have cringed every time I hear the word ‘voluntary’ describe the direction of both education and health care reform. Your essay beautifully articulates why.

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