Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Was school as complicated when I was a kid (or college student) as it seems to be now?  I'm sure it was.  I still have nightmares* about the schedule I endured for six years at prep school, which was embodied in a six-by-five grid that rotated one or two periods downward each day.  The only thing that was harder than figuring out where your day started and ended, I feel sure, was the teachers' job of figuring out which group of kids would be in front of them at any given moment.

In fifth grade, Archer has A-days and B-days and Fast Days (when double periods for math and language arts are cut in half and activity classes like art and music take up the slack).  As I predicted, he's taken to this nomenclature and structure like a duck to water.  The backs of many of the worksheets he brings home are covered with diagrams of A- and B-days, along with the many varieties of Fast Days he might encounter.  Just as the classroom doors of his teachers display laminated signs to remind students in the halls what kind of day it is, A or B or Fast, his charts reproduce the same iconography.  I picture the calendar in his head festooned with those signs, all lined up along the column of a dayplanner's hourly layout.

The students I teach in college have unconscionably complicated schedules.  Leaving aside their scheduled classes, with any vagaries introduced by syllabi (don't meet this day, meet outside of class this week), they live in halls with mandatory meetings and inspections, belong to organizations with mandatory meetings, and have a never-ending stream of cultural and academic co-curricular experiences thrown at them, sometimes with course credit attached.  I saw an exceptionally organized student with heavy sorority involvement display her planner that was color-coded for different types of responsibilities -- Greek, campus ministry, class, residential, social, who knows what.

Add on top of that the various bureaucracies students must navigate in order to make progress toward their degrees, like the registrar that controls their access to classes, the major and minor advisers (or general advising for undeclared students) who have to press the magic button to unlock their registration screens, the financial aid office that writes the checks that pay for their books or meal plans, and so on and so forth -- and it's no wonder few students have the mental energy left to care about their institution's well-being or long-term policies.  The few that do strike me as miracle workers or superheroes.

Things probably aren't more complicated now than they used to be; in fact, with web-based information systems, it's potentially a lot easier to find out where you stand and what steps you need to take.  But it's not necessarily the complexity of the educational system that astounds me -- it's any system you have to deal with as an adult, or an adult in training.  When you look at how over-the-top labyrinthine it is to buy a house or file taxes or handle medical insurance, and then read any story about what it takes to file for government assistance or register for benefits of any kind, you wonder who anybody -- let alone the chronically poor and undereducated -- could possibly navigate these hurdles.  The more avenues there are for advancement or for help, the more Brazilesque (or Kafkaesque) those lanes tend to be, littered on all sides with those who just couldn't find the next paving stone to jump through, or who were banished back to the start on a technicality.  I'm astounded that anyone manages to get through at all.

* The typical nightmares of missing a class for the entire semester and then having to face a test or exam.  The complex schedule of my high school years makes this scenario seem all too plausible, at least in my dream state.

1 comment:

Doc Thelma said...

I have the same dream about the GPS rotating schedule. Somehow it's always calculus class that I miss.

But more common for me is the nightmare that some signature was missing or some paper improperly filed on my PhD thesis, resulting in me having to move my family back to our one-room Berkeley apartment for me to complete it.