And now I think that no one should teach children, and no one should run a school, without reading this book.
That doesn't suggest that I think your first reading will be easy. Høeg is a brilliant and brilliantly complex writer. Reading (or hearing) his work takes time and patience. Borderliners is much easier than one of my absolute favourites, A History of Danish Dreams, but it is far more difficult than his most popular book in English, Smilla's Sense of Snow.
Nonetheless, I think you must read it.
I need to return to Borderliners periodically to remind me of how school operates. Of how even the best intentioned schools often operate - if those schools believe in what Høeg summarizes as the concepts of linear time and human progress. It is important to be reminded of the damage done to children by the unquestioned assumptions which lie behind "school-as-we-know-it." For we cannot really begin to change the system of education until we understand the philosophies behind the decisions that make education as it is.
Borderliners is the story of inclusion in Danish schools in the 1960s, and is far more than that. It is a deep exploration of the idea of, of the intent of, education in "western democracies." Borderliners is the rare book which understands the purpose of school and what drives educators. As I listened to it this past week I realised that this is the writing which explains why people like Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton support laws like No Child Left Behind, and why Britain's "New Labour" too often falls into those same traps.
But at its heart Borderliners is the story of children. Of children and western culture. Of children and the idea of progress. And if you read this book, you will never see your students in the same way again.
On my last post Brian Wojcik asked about how far inclusion might go. He specifically asked about "students with moderate to severe behavior and emotional disabilities." And I responded that inclusion could only go as far as the structure of the school could be altered to accept. If the entire structure of the school is not altered it is not "inclusion" - it is "integration." And when most schools talk about "inclusion" they are really speaking of "integration." Differing students are accepted into a school as long as they can conform to the way the school has always been. Back in the 1960s and 1970s in America black kids were allowed in to white schools, but the expectation was (and is) that the white schools held all the correct behaviors, rules, and learning styles. Today, "special needs" students are allowed into "regular" classrooms, with those same "normalising" expectations - now literally encoded into law by the US government.
Borderliners will let you see why that does not work.
A few quotes:
"When you assess something, you are forced to assume that a linear scale of values can be applied to it. Otherwise no assessment is possible. Every person who says of something that it is good or bad or a bit better than yesterday is declaring that a points system exists; that you can, in a reasonably clear and obvious fashion, set some sort of a number against an achievement.
"But never at any time has a code of practice been laid down for the awarding of points. No offense intended to anyone. Never at any time in the history of the world has anyone-for anything ever so slightly more complicated than the straightforward play of a ball or a 400-meter race-been able to come up with a code of practice that could be learned and followed by several different people, in such a way that they would all arrive at the same mark. Never at any time have they been able to agree on a method for determining when one drawing, one meal, one sentence, one insult, the picking of one lock, one blow, one patriotic song, one Danish essay, one playground, one frog, or one interview is good or bad or better or worse than another."
On Cultural Bias in Intelligence Testing:
"A letter came from her. It was not in her own words, it was a quote straight out of Binet-Simon. She must have learned it by heart, just by reading it. "There was once a grasshopper, who had sung merrily all summer long. Now it was winter and he was starving. So he went to see some ants who lived nearby and asked them to lend him some of the stores they had laid up for the winter. `What have you been doing all summer?' they asked. `I have sung day and night,' replied the grasshopper. 'Ah, so you have sung,' said the ants. `Well, now you can dance.'
"Beneath this she had written: "What is the moral?"
"It was so deep. It showed how she had figured out that this was a problem from the "fourteen years" level and that I must have had it. She had, therefore, used what I had written to her and discovered the system behind Binet-Simon.
"At the time when I had been given this story, I had come close to answering that the moral was ants were not helpful. But this would not have fitted in very well with the other problems. Instead I had sensed Hessen, and then I had said the moral was that one must seize the moment."
On Progress in School:
"Of course, it was only from the outside that the days seemed the same. Deep down they were meant to be different. It only seemed as though the same subjects and the same classrooms and the same teachers and the same pupils came around again and again. In reality, the requirement was that you should, with every day, be transformed. Every day you should be better, you should have developed, all the repetition in the life of the school was there only so that, against an unchanging background, you could show that you had improved."
On the Classroom:
"At Biehl's you had to sit down for five to six hours every day not including the study period-five days a week plus Sunday for the boarders, more than forty weeks a year, for ten years. While constantly having to strive to be precise and accurate, in order to improve.
"I believe that this went against the nature of children."
On "No Child Left Behind":
"Of course, there were schools elsewhere, too, this I know. But surely no place with a vision such as Biehl's.
"Elsewhere, in other countries, they have held children in the grip of time, for a while they have held them. But, in time, those children who could not cope, or whose parents did not have the wherewithal, were given up, dropped.
"But Biehl would not give up on anyone, that was the exceptional thing-maybe the exceptional thing about
"It is as though that thought was almost insane."
On the Cosmology necessary for "No Child Left Behind":
"Fredhoj and Biehl never said it straight out, but I know now, with certainty, what they were thinking. Or maybe not thinking, but sensing. What the cosmology was, upon which all of their actions rested. They were thinking that in the beginning God created heaven and earth as raw material, like a group of pupils entering Primary One, designated and earmarked for processing and ennoblement. As the straight path along which the process of evolution should progress, he created linear time. And as an instrument for measuring how far the process of evolution had advanced, he created mathematics and physics.
"I have had the following thought: What if God were not a mathematician? What if he had been working, like Katarina and August and me, without actually having defined either questions or answers? And what if his result had not been exact but approximate? An approximate balance perhaps. Not something that had to be improved upon, a springboard to further achievement, but something that was already more or less complete and in equilibrium."
Anyway, I'd love you to read The Drool Room this summer. But if I could get teachers to read one thing, it would be Borderliners. There are no easy answers in this book. The children you will meet in these pages would, perhaps, make any teacher insane. And yet, they are all kinds of students we might most cherish, if we knew how to break down walls instead of how to build them.
And when you've read it, send me an email, and I'll let you know how the Danish title of the book actually translates into English. It's important.
- Ira Socol
Three blogs that relate: At Coffee-on-the-Keyboard we are asked, "What kind of classroom do you run?" Whether that classroom is a classroom, or even a blog. At Grad Student Madness we are asked to consider the value of liberal arts education, and that western canon. At History and Education - the same question is asked but with a slightly different focus - why do we have liberal education?