Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Poetry in High schools: a parable.

You are an unwilling visitor to a country whose language you do not speak. You know very little about the place and don’t know if the part you are stuck in is characteristic of the country as a whole. You might be on an island the size of Bali or in a country the size of Siberia. Via and interpreter you are told that the only way out is to hire a car, but before you can do that, you have to pass a written test which shows you know the local road rules.

The test procedure is explained to you as follows:

Step outside the test centre and flag down any passing vehicle. You will see some disreputable types lurking near the exit. They will try to get your attention before you get into a car. You will ignore them; everyone else does.
The driver will accept you as his or her passenger, and take you on a circular route of his or her choosing and deposit you back where you started. During the drive, which may last up to one hour but no more, and which may go anywhere the driver pleases, you will not be able to ask any questions. Your task is to infer the whole country’s road rules from the little you observe.

When you return, ignore the scruffy people at the door. You will be given a written test. When you have finished your paper will be placed in a device which sends it randomly to one of three rooms. Depending on your results you are taken to one of three doors. Behind one of them your hire car is waiting.

What they do not tell you is that the test consists of one of two papers chosen at random. One is a blank sheet with the words “What are the road rules?” written at the top in your own language. The other asks: “You have two hours to explain why scrungeblobs are not allowed within fifty zorthopeks of the disfustilator. Give at least seven reasons why this is fair.”

There is no way out of the room unless you write on the paper. You will notice that the “random” device sends most papers to the room on the left. Through the frosted glass you can see it is has the most markers. What else they don’t tell you is that it is staffed by people who know as much about the road rules as you do. This is actually a good thing: if you sound like you know what you’re talking about, they will be too scared to call your bluff. Otherwise whether they tick pass or fail depends on the time of the day, what they had for lunch, how bad their night was, or how bored they are. Behind the other doors lurk those markers who think they know the road rules, and those who think the ones who think they know the road rules have got it wrong. They will both fail you.

Whether you pass or fail is also irrelevant. The first door, through which most people exit, leads to an airport departure lounge where you are flown home, never to return. Why would you want to? The middle door leads to a long tunnel which eventually leads back into the largest of the three rooms where you will find a desk with your name on it and you will be paid to mark papers. You will not have learnt what a scrunglebob is, nor will you have seen anymore of the country. The third door, through which very few pass, leads to the hire care.

And the last thing they don’t tell you is that it will only take you on exactly the same route you went on earlier. Endlessly.

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