Wednesday, October 04, 2006

There are no cold days. There are just thin jackets.

It's another one of those lines that sounds great, and that we very much want to be true, at least in spirit: "There's no such thing as a learning disability. There are only teaching disabilities." The line comes to us from one Anthony D'Angelo, motivational speaker and founder of the Collegiate EmPowerment Company, who wants all students to be able to realize their dreams. D'Angelo puts on seminars and provides individual coaching designed to show colleges and their constituent instructors how to get young adults to work at full potential. He also served as a contributing editor to--here's a shocker--Chicken Soup for the College Soul.

First of all, I doubt that D'Angelo means the first sentence literally--that all children share the same learning capacity. Broad-scale aptitude tests and other measures of cognitive function make clear that, despite the glowing language of the Declaration of Independence, we are not "all created equal." D'Angelo himself seems to concede as much when he explains that his basic approach is to get students to focus on their strengths instead of their weaknesses. But Tony-baby...wouldn't a weakness be a "disability," kind of? And besides, if we're all the same, then we wouldn't see things as strengths and weaknesses...would we? It'd just be "the way it is."*

Which makes the second part of the quote highly/logically dubious as well. After all, we wouldn't need the exceptional teaching ability that D'Angelo touts if all students were above a certain baseline in learning capacity. It's because of the under-performing students' deficiencies that a professor must work that much harder to educate them--and, despite his or her best efforts, will sometimes fail anyway. (Understand that I'm not ascribing "blame" here. It's not the students' fault that they can't learn as well as most of their peers--though in at least some cases, students will milk the opportunity by taking refuge in their victimhood.) So to say what D'Angelo said is a bit like saying, "There are no sick people. There are only bad doctors." Uh, no. The sick people get sick first. Then the doctors get involved. It may be true that a bad doctor will cause a sick person to stay sick longer. But the situation didn't begin with the doctor. If nobody ever got sick, we wouldn't need doctors in the first place. (By no means is this a perfect analogy--few are--but it's workable for our purposes.)

Why should anyone care about this? Thanks for asking. I have a couple of reasons. It distorts reality and miscasts the nature of the social contract. It's not always society's job to remediate your personal deficiencies; in fact, I'd argue that it's seldom society's job. We don't want to sound hard-hearted, especially when dealing with young people. But come on. We can't all be senators or CEOs or play centerfield for the New York Yankees. And if you want to play centerfield for Joe Torre and I--as your college coach--can't quite get you on that track, hey, it's not my fault, fella. Them's the breaks. (Don't today's teachers have a tough enough job without also being "guilted" for students who just can't cut it?) Platitudes like D'Angelo's also create ill-advised expectations. I grant you that this is a tough call, because you don't want to go around indiscriminately and too-casually telling young people that their options are limited. We have no way of knowing how life is going to work itself out, thus it seems almost cruel to tell kids who are relatively low on the aptitude scale that they should settle for a certain career path. Who knows what magical, unexpected things may be in store for them? On the other hand... As we've seen so many times in my book and in this blog, false empowerment is no empowerment at all. We are all to some degree constrained by limitations, and the lower you are on the aptitude scale, the more constrained you are. What's the real point of filling the heads of ultra-low-performing students with grandiose dreams that are only going to end in crushing disappointment for most of them? Could it just be that it makes us feel better to tell them that?

I'd like to close with a few related questions that I hope do not seem excessively harsh. They're honest questions, and I will read and think about any responses I am given: What are learning-disabled students doing in college in the first place? Has college simply become an expected rite of passage that we must make accessible to all? And if you have to dumb down the college experience in order to meet the kids who can't hack it at their it still college? Just curious.

* If everyone were 4-foot-11, then 4-foot-11 wouldn't be "short." It would be "normal."


Cosmic Connie said...

Mmm....Chicken Soup For The College Soul. Sounds yummy!

Here's a motivational thought: There are no awful self-help book series, just readers with awful taste. :-)

Seriously, though...I'm all for encouraging self-esteem, but as you said, false empowerment is really no empowerment at all. But the feel-good cliches sell books, and they enable keynote speakers to command an inflated price for standing up and repeating those cliches. It's a shame that our educational system is suffering for it, though.

PS -- Is there a Chicken Soup for the Vegan Soul? And if so, wouldn't that be sort of contradictory?

Steve Salerno said...

How about Vegan Soup for the Chicken's Soul? Or Vegan Chicken for the Soup's Soul? Or....

It's been a long day, Connie. Forgive me. I know not what I do.