Sunday, August 17, 2003

Pseudo Cum Laude

Number 2 Pencil relates the sad, sad story of a young woman who would be her class’s valedictorian if not for her inability to pass a basic math proficiency exam. Eugene (thanks for the pointer) quotes Joanne Jacobs’s summary of the story: “They were giving her As for being a good kid. But they weren't teaching her.”

All this reminded me of a key passage in one of my favorite books, The Bonfire of the Vanities. I’m cutting it down substantially so this post won’t be ridiculously long… but as the saying goes, read the whole thing. And by thing, I mean the book.
“Actually, I’m calling to inquire about one of your students, a young Mr. Henry Lamb.”
“Henry Lamb. Doesn’t ring a bell. What’s he done?”
“Oh, he hasn’t done anything. He’s been seriously injured.”

“Henry Lamb … Oh yes, I know who you mean. Well, that’s too bad.”
“What I would like to find out, Mr. Rifkind, is what kind of student Henry Lamb is.”
“What kind?”
“Well, would you say he was an outstanding student?”

“… I gather you’re not from New York. … Then there’s no reason you should know anything about Colonel Jacob Ruppert High School in the Bronx. At Ruppert we use comparative terms, but outstanding isn’t one them. The range runs more from cooperative to life-threatening.” …
“Well, how would you describe Henry Lamb?”
“Cooperative. He’s a nice fellow. Never gives me any trouble.”
“Would you describe him as a good student?”
Good doesn’t work too well at Ruppert, either. It’s more ‘Does he attend class or doesn’t he?’”
“Did Henry Lamb attend class?”
“As I recall, yes. He’s usually there. He’s very dependable. He’s a nice kid, as nice as they come.”
“Was there any part of the curriculum he was particularly good – or, let me say, adept at, anything he did better than anything else?”
“Not particularly.”

“Will Henry Lamb graduate, or would he have?”
“As far as I know. As I say, he has a very good attendance record.”

“Let me ask you this. How does he do on his written work?”

“Written work? There hasn’t been any written work at Ruppert High for fifteen years! Maybe twenty! They take multiple-choice tests. Reading comprehension, that’s the big thing. That’s all the Board of Education cares about.”
“How was Henry Lamb’s reading comprehension?”
“I’d have to look it up. Not bad, if I had to guess.”
“Better than most? Or about average? Or what would you say?”

“…these kids haven’t reached the level where it’s worth emphasizing the kind of comparisons you’re talking about. We’re just trying to get them up to a certain level and then keep them from falling back. You’re thinking about ‘honor students’ and ‘higher achievers’ and all that, and that’s natural enough, as I say. But at Colonel Jacob Ruppert High School, an honor student is somebody who attends class, isn’t disruptive, tries to learn, and does all right at reading and arithmetic.”
“Well, let’s use that standard. By that standard, is Henry Lamb an honor student?”
“By that standard, yes.”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Rifkind.”

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