When it comes to education, is there a difference between zero tolerance and intellectual intolerance?
At one point the nonprofit I head up maintained three very large websites, one of them massive, on our own powerful tandem servers, all on a shoestring budget. We were able to do that because of three phenomenal undergraduate programmers I hired, who designed and maintained systems far beyond their educational and experience levels. They were three extremely sharp young men.
Years before when one of them was in the high school computer lab, the phone rang, and the teacher said to my future programmer, “Computer services at the school board wants to talk to the student on machine 14. That’s you.”
Taken aback, the young man picked up the phone and a school board employee said to him, “We don’t know how you’re doing what you’re doing, but please stop.” He had been running rough-shod through the school board’s filters and firewalls, and they couldn’t figure out how to stop him.
When to Follow the Rules
Not many of us approve of a student breaking rules, but I think we would all agree that the sort of technical, creative and analytical skills the young man was using are exactly what we need from modern education. In fact, in additiona to all of the many considerations I have posted here on the topic, we could also view liberal and conservative as simply rule abiding and rule breaking. Conservatism generally means, ‘Do it the way it’s always been done,’ while liberal suggests, ‘Try something different.’ Again, it’s not a question of which is correct, but when it is correct.
Rule breaking can apply to simple things like the rules of grammar, the principals of product design, or the implementation of technical solutions; but it can also involve large, important things. We speak in hushed tones about the Founders of our country, forgetting that they were rule breakers; they were traitors under the laws of their day. Indeed, had they failed modern history books would describe them as loathsome criminals.
One illustration of the problem is the pop-culture challenge of the Kobayashi Maru from the Star Trek series: what is more important in a leader, that he can maturely accept defeat? Or that he won’t accept it under any circumstances, and insists there is always a solution?
Zero Tolerance in Education
Because today, my former employee would be suspended or expelled for breaking the rules. School boards have developed a ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward certain kinds of misconduct. One of them is a zero tolerance for violating the strict limits imposed on computer use.
To be fair, it’s because the public, the media and the legislature hold school boards to something very much like zero-tolerance: one minor scandal and the crap flies everywhere.
But the upshot is that schools don’t allow students to do the embarrassing things we expect them to do. There’s zero tolerance for them to be kids.
Where it gets interesting, however, is that schools won’t allow students to bully, taunt, curse, fight, or injure another student.
Not at all. Zero tolerance.
Ever been to a high school football game? Taxpayers and spectators pay good money to see public demonstrations of bullying, taunting, fighting, and cursing. Oh, and don’t forget injury: in 2011, 40 students died in athletic activities, and the #1 cause of ER visits for patients 15-17 years old are sports injuries.
In defense of sports, that’s just what it takes to play the game, and to play it fully. If kids are going to be kids, and exercise their bodies, there will always be some risk involved.
However, my first question is, Why the hypocrisy? Because that is also precisely the danger, and even the point, of educating students’ minds. There will always be some risk involved.
Second, Why do we hold physical education so much higher than intellectual education? If we are willing to risk broken bones in sporting events, but broken rules in the computer lab, that’s a pretty strong indictment of our priorities.
What Kind of Toughness?
Finally, What do we want and need in the democracy, and in the marketplace? Every employer wants athletic toughness and competitiveness in their new hires; but except for bouncers and body guards, what employers really want, the military included, is mental toughness. The brain is critical, not the brawn. Face it, who would you hire for your company: the kid who dutifully follows all the rules, or the one who can figure out how – and most importantly why and when – to break them?
And more importantly, which one do we want pulling levers in the polling booth?
Do we want the future look like Captain Kirk? Or Walter Mitty?
Because ‘zero tolerance’ means exactly that: zero tolerance for mistakes, zero tolerance for exploration, zero tolerance for experimentation.
Zero tolerance in education means to be intolerant of education.