Four-Syllable Words

By Dr. Eugene Maier

"My goodness," I thought, "They think education is competition!" I had just read a comment made by the Chairman of the Oregon State Board of Education while defending Oregon's standards-based testing program: "We are not talking just about standards that make our young people competitive in Oregon or the United States, we are talking about standards that make them competitive globally."

Competition—a contest between rivals—and a world-wide one at that. What a dismal, dour prospect. Schools becoming boot camps to prepare youth to come out on top—intranationally and internationally—in head-to-head strivings for superiority. Civil War and World War all at the same time, to gain those top test scores, to be ranked number one!

Perhaps I'm given to hyperbole. I suspect the State Board would think so. No one is advocating bloodshed. Just sweat and tears. To make sure our students are the best in the world, we must hold them to high standards, and to make sure they meet those high standards, we must give them high stake tests—tests that become the ultimate measure of success; tests that let all the world know who's getting the job done. Thus bringing the global competition down to the local level; where school competes against school and classroom against classroom to gain the accolades of being first and avoid the stigmas of being last.

What's the result? Winners and losers, of course. That's to be expected if education becomes competition.

If we're going to describe the educational process with a four-syllable word; there must be a better choice than "competition." A word I like is "expedition"—an excursion undertaken for a specific purpose; in this case, comprehension of the world about and within us.

The expeditions I have in mind are not grandiose like those intending to scale Mt. Everest. They are more homespun and down-to-earth. Like volksmarches. A volksmarch, if you've never been on one, is a non-competitive walk along a designated trail. The trails—I quote from the web page of the American Volksport Association—"may be in cities, towns, forests, rural areas, anywhere there is a pleasant or interesting place to walk." They are selected "for safety, scenic interest, historic areas, natural beauty and walkability" and are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 for difficulty.

You start at any time you like within a several hour range and you proceed along the course (or, in Latin, curriculum) at your own pace. You can walk by yourself or with a group. There are checkpoints along the way to monitor your progress. If you don't want credit, most walks are free. There is a small fee for credit, which consists of a stamp validating the event and the distance you went, as entered in a record book you keep. For an additional fee you can get an award such as a medallion, cup or patch which commemorates the event.

Viewing education as competition evokes for me a tense, stressful, winner-take-all setting ill-suited for meaningful, long-term learning. On the other hand, seeing education as an everyday expedition—a volksmarch at a comfortable pace along a scenic trail with checkpoints to gauge one's progress—evokes an entirely different prospect. One that's educationally rich yet friendly and short on stress.

If the educational process is to be epitomized by a four-syllable word, I vote for "expedition." You may have another choice. There must be many that are better than "competition."