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Ignorance and Apathy

J. Kevin Tumlinson

There's an old joke that goes like this:

Two kids are sitting in a high school auditorium, listening to the principal give the welcoming speech for the year. The principal says, "The two greatest dangers that students face are ignorance and apathy."

One of the students turns to his friend and asks, "Dude, what's 'ignorance and apathy?'"

The other student, bored and restless and wanting for the speech to end says, "I don't know and I don't care."

Those two kids are in my class, by the way. I see them every day. It's one of the most aggravating aspects of my job.

It should be expected that kids won't know everything. Why would they need to come to school if they did? But at times the depths of ignorance are unfathomable. And the worst part is that even when the kids are aware of their ignorance, they simply do not care. No matter what I (or my fellow teachers) say or do, with some kids it's like driving headlong into a brick wall. You stop short. You can't get through.

In many cases this general ennui comes straight from whatever social situation the student lives in. It's cultural - namely the culture of poverty.

For kids who live below the poverty line it's hard for them to see why anything beyond their circle of friends and family should matter to them. They are focused on here and now and very little beyond. To ask one of these kids, "What are your plans for the future?" is to set yourself up for a frustrating and aggravating conversation. They simply don't know. And they don't care.

There's certainly no cure for poverty in today's world, but can we deal with this general apathy and ignorance and the malaise that eventually accompanies them?

Three steps to being less ignorant

Step one would be education. Unfortunately there is a severe lack of qualified educators in this country, and the task of filling those roles is made more difficult by the low pay, long hours and insane demands that teachers must deal with. It's said that you must love teaching for ITSELF to be a teacher, and that's true. No one would take this job for the perks.

Step two would be to alleviate the poverty problem, even if only a little. It sounds impossible, but the truth is there are ways out there. Money is literally sitting around in our government, waiting to be spent. Just ask Matthew Lesko, that guy who dresses in the question mark tuxedo and shouts about government grants. The government has a ton of money earmarked for certain things, why not move some of that towards helping those in poverty? Set up a better school program, pay teachers more, heck even GIVE money away - something's got to help.

Step three, the final step, is for schools to stop spending attention, time and money on those stinking standardized tests. Here's the bottom line, everyone - those tests are not doing anyone any good. They're useless. They do not tell education agencies anything useful about a student. They are geared entirely towards ferreting out whether or not a teacher is "teaching to the system." In other words, the tests don't help students, they merely try to catch teachers who aren't complying. It's time we started actually TEACHING students, instead of training them for the standardized tests.

No change comes easily. I'm not proposing that anything could have an effect over night. But I believe that the best way to combat our two greatest enemies, ignorance and apathy, are to be educated and to CARE about something. I care about a great many things, and my students see that and they tend to care about them, too. I make an effort to know things, and when my kids ask a question about something I DON'T know I make the effort to learn it, right in front of them if possible.

These are the weapons I have against ignorance and apathy. I think it's time to arm America's students in the same way.

J. Kevin Tumlinson is a writer and a schoolteacher living in Lake Jackson, TX. He doesn't know if you don't care.


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