Zero tolerance for rule-breaking is zero tolerance for challenging our ideas. Which is inseparable from intolerance for learning altogether.
At one point the nonprofit I head up maintained three enormous websites on our own high-end 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 extremely sharp young men.
One of them once told me about an incident when he was in the high school computer lab. The phone rang, and the teacher said to him, “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 the ‘experts’ couldn’t figure out how to stop him.
Rule Breaking, and When
Not many of us rule breaking in general, but I think we would all agree that the sort of technical, creative and analytical skills this young man was using, are exactly what we need from modern education. In addition to all of the considerations of conservative and liberal that I have posted here, we could also view the two 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 breaking the rules of art, the principals of product design, or the traditions of science, which are approaches that we can all see as important, even essential, in the right contexts. But rule breaking can also involve large, important things. We speak in hushed tones about the Founders of our country, forgetting that they were rule breakers, traitors their own country of England.
Indeed, had they failed, today we would consider them as loathsome criminals, a minor footnote to the flow of history.
One illustration of rule breaking is the pop-culture trope of the Kobayashi Maru from the Star Trek series: what is more important in a leader, that he can stoically accept defeat? Or that he won’t accept defeat under any circumstances, and will fight with this last breath to find a solution?
Zero Tolerance in Education
In today’s schools, my former employee would be suspended or expelled for rule breaking. 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 all 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 try new things, challenge the status quo, break the rules, and do exactly the embarrassing things we expect children to do. In effect, there’s zero tolerance for kids.
Where it gets interesting, however, is that ‘zero tolerance’ originally applied to bullying, taunting, cursing, fighting, or injuring another student. Which is understandable.
Unfortunately, that ‘zero tolerance’ is completely bogus. Ever been to a high school football game? Taxpayers and spectators pay good money to see public demonstrations of bullying, taunting, fighting, and cursing. And injuring: in 2011, 40 students died in athletic activities; the #1 cause of ER visits for patients 15-17 years old is sports injuries.
That’s just what it takes to play the game, and to play it fully, completely, and with passion. If kids are going to be kids, and exercise their bodies, there will always be some risk involved.
Why the hypocrisy? Why do we spend billions of dollars annually, and willingly accept lethal danger for our children’s physical development, but refuse to expend bureaucratic hassle, to allow them to take risks in perfectly safe activities, for their intellectual development? Because there is also risk involved in educating our children’s minds.
They might question our dogma.
Why do we prize physical education over intellectual education? If we are willing to risk broken bones in sporting challenges, but not broken computers in intellectual challenges, that’s a pretty strong indictment of our priorities.
Granted, we cannot allow students to crash the school’s computers anymore than we can allow rough-housing in the halls. But we work tirelessly to provide athletes safe(r) venues, where they can rough-house in order to develop their bodies.
Where do we provide safe venues for our scholars to behave recklessly, in order to develop their minds?
What Kind of Toughness?
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, including the ability to know when rule breaking is important, either to support the mission, or to stop the mission. Even in the military, the brain is critical, the brawn is secondary. 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 start rule breaking?
And more importantly, Which one do we want pulling levers in the polling booth?
Do we want the future to be build by Star Fleet Captains? Or mindless, joyless, bureaucrats?
Because ‘zero tolerance’ means exactly that. Zero tolerance for mistakes. Zero tolerance for exploration. Zero tolerance for experimentation.
Zero tolerance in education means intolerance of meaningful education.
‘Baby with Computer’ courtesy of PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.