Most of us are familiar with some of Dr. Seuss’ children’s books ranging from Green Eggs and Ham, to How the Grinch Stole Christmas to The Cat in the Hat. Many of his books are silly and full of fun rhymes and tongue twisters, but some also have little “life lessons”. In fact, there are so many that are so popular, that there is at least one compilation of these little “Seuss-isms“. Oh The Places You’ll Go has become a quintessential graduation gift for both high school and college graduates precisely because of these witty life lessons.
Just a few weeks ago was “Dr. Seuss Week” (the things you learn when dating an aspiring children’s librarian!). Em brought home a Dr. Seuss book that neither of us was familiar with – Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! It was a very interesting book that is rather timely (despite being published in 1998), and one that I will consider assigning if/when I teach sociology of education (or cover that topic in an intro class).
Dr. Seuss tells the story of the rather wacky teachers at Diffendoofer school who each have their own personalities and methods of teaching the students. We can see right away that this unique school is one where creativity, independent thought, and variety are valued.
But one day, the principal comes in with some news:
“All the schools for miles and miles around
Must take a special test,
To see who’s learning such and such –
To which school’s the best.
If our small school does not do well,
Then it will be torn down,
And you will have to go to school
In dreary Flobbertown.”
We learn that Flobbertown is a miserable place where everyone dresses the same and does everything the same. The kids have to sit in single file, they don’t dance, the lunches have no taste… In short, there is absolutely no creativity and the kids cannot think of a more miserable place.
The kids are rightfully worried to take some sort of standardized test that may or may not test their abilities, but their teacher reassures them:
Miss Bonkers rose. “Don’t fret!” she said.
“You’ve learned the things you need
To pass that test and many more –
I’m certain you’ll succeed.
We’ve taught you that the earth is round,
That red and white make pink,
And something else that matters more –
We’ve taught you how to think.”
Of course, the children end up doing well on the test and save the school. They also save themselves from going to dreary Flobbertown.
It’s a happy ending in the world of Dr. Seuss, but does this mirror reality in any way? It seems that we are currently in an era of education with an unprecedented amount of standardized testing and assessment (now being directed towards teachers as well as students). With increased standardized testing and funding that is contingent on results from these tests, teachers have been forced to “teach to the tests” which often cuts any sort of fun or creativity out of the learning process.
At some point, we need to ask ourselves what the goal of school/education should be… Is it to systematically train kids for standardized test after standardized test and move them along in the most efficient and calculable way possible? Or is it to try and get individuals to enjoy the process of learning and teach them how to think?
That’s not to say that all standardized testing or assessment of learning is bad, but do we want to end up like Flobbertown where everything is the same for everyone? “Critical thinking” is something that is often stated as a goal at nearly every level of education; I’m not sure that is a skill that develops from more and more standardized tests. Dr. Seuss would agree with me on that one*.
Obviously, this book would only be a launching point for a discussion on education. But it would be a little bit different than a standard text or article and probably a bit refreshing for students to read. It would be a great entry point for discussing the pros and cons of both Flobbertown and Diffendoofer as well as standardized testing and education reform. It’s a great opportunity to see which place their own experiences mirrored and which they would have preferred.
This book will eventually find its way onto a syllabus or into a class discussion. I highly recommend it even for those who don’t plan on teaching/discussing this in a class.
*I definitely do not think that this short Dr. Seuss book is the final word on education – neither in defining all of the problems nor offering all of the solutions. Education is a large and complex institution that has a variety of issues that cannot be solved with one simple solution. But I certainly think that this book highlights an interesting perspective, and is certainly a timely read at a time in which testing is ubiquitous and sweeping reforms and assessments are being debated. It opens the discussion.