Monday, March 4, 2013

Dr. Frankenstein's Epic Fail

I assigned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to my Senior English class because of the book's unquestionable stature in literary circles but also because I had never read it myself.

I had no idea what I had missed by skipping over this gem.

While discussing the book with my students today, I was singularly dissatisfied with my own summary and I tried in vain to get at the thing that escaped my grasp.  It came to me while driving home.

You see, Dr. Frankenstein sets out to create a life.  He succeeds but he detests his creation.  Terrified, he denies what he has done, he abandons his creature and much suffering results.  His monster suffers most.  The monster works hard to become human but fails in the end to "feel" human, because nothing can or will ever love him.  He is too hideous.  Rejection and violence  turn him into a murderous wretch.  Frankenstein tries to kill his creation but he fails.  In the end, the reader is left feeling that society is somewhat to blame for the creature's inability to find its proper place in the human race.  We don't think that society is an excuse for the monster's brutal killings, but it leads the discussion in why Dr. Frankenstein's experiment was a failure.

But, I think Shelley missed something.  The dialogues between Dr. Frankenstein and his creature are very detailed, logical, and convincing.  They are the meat of the story and we get pulled into the debate of what it means to be human very rapidly.  The problem is that Dr. Frankenstein's creation is not human.  He is a close approximation; close but no cigar.  He doesn't grow gradually over, say, 20 years, until he has  fully formed intellectual and emotional apparatus.  Everything about him is unnatural.  From the beginning, he was a solution in search of a problem.  Since he is a fake, every reaction he has and every moral conclusion he draws is highly suspect (well, to my mind, anyway).   Dr. Frankenstein's monster is more like a mythological creature.

Yet, because the rabbit is placed into the hat ahead of time ("Dr. Frankenstein's creation tells us what it means to be human ....") we mostly spend time in this space in discussions about this book.

You'll never guess where I'm going with this blog.  Right .....education.

Books, newspaper articles and, internet articles are proliferating on topics in education and they ALL put the rabbit in the hat.  We find ourselves in deep debates about bullying policies, merit pay for teachers, school boards, standardized testing, teacher's union contracts, school safety, tax increases to fund school improvements, curriculum choices, school bus violence, grading, the list is endless.  No one seems to notice that the rabbit is already in the hat, so no one is asking the most important question.  Just as it took me a while to say ....'wait a minute ....Frankenstein's monster is NOT human and that's the most important thing in this debate' ....it seems that no one is willing to ask if public education is sensible. Everyone assumes that it is necessary and somehow legitimate.  No one is asking for a complete redo because of the myth of public education.

American education was founded on myth and myth reigns there still.  Myths are created to explain things that are otherwise impossible to decipher.  America needed answers to social ills, crime and unemployment, among other things.  The idea of compulsory education as a way to control, indoctrinate, influence and streamline took hold and state conditioning centers spread like crab grass.

When we read Greek mythology, no one is actually outraged when Cronus eats his own children because, well, it's myth.  But, when we have a bloated population of young adults who cannot read at a high school level, it is time to call a myth a myth and demand a re-do.

Until the spell is broken, America will continue to watch this failed experiment spiral tragically downward, to this predictable outcome:  those who can afford better education will find it in expensive private schools and those who cannot will fall further and further behind.

I say to the architects of public education the same thing I would say to Dr. Frankenstein , "It was a bad idea
from the beginning.