The following piece about the Bartleby Project was written by Timothy D. Slekar, Head of the Division of Education, Human Development and Social Sciences, Penn State Altoona. The Bartleby Project is an act of civil disobedience, where students write “I do not want to take this test” on their exams, and then refuse to answer the questions. It is really just one of many possible ways to fight back against the standardized testing mania. Some states, like California, allow parents to opt out of their high stakes exams and they should, on principle. Teachers, too, can refuse to participate, but it is risky as they can be threatened with dismissal for failing to execute their duties as teachers. However, if most teachers refuse to give the tests, then what are they going to do, fire us all? Of course the unions
"I'm inviting you to join a real conspiracy, call it an open conspiracy, with real consequences on millions of real lives. I know that sounds megalomaniacal, but be patient. If we pull this off, a great many will bless us, although the school industry few will curse us. This is about a project to destroy the standardized testing industry... This adventure is called 'The Bartleby Project.'" John Taylor Gatto. (Weapons of Mass Instruction, New Society Publishers 2008)
My 11-year-old son loves the show Myth Busters. From the first time he put two Legos together he was hooked on constructing intricate things (200 piece Bionicles at age 5). He creates Rube Goldberg contraptions and loves animals. He can manipulate through different technologies (Google Earth, iPad, iPod, Facebook, Sims, etc) and he doesn't need instructions because his curiosity enables him to navigate and learn new technologies. He also loves football. He watches the NFL channel around the clock and can give you just about any statistic related to the game or players. This is just a snapshot. A quick glimpse of my son outside the insidious institution we call public schooling today.
I am currently thinking hard about asking my son to participate in the Bartleby Project and to write "I prefer not to take your test" across the top of his state test in March. In Pennsylvania we don't celebrate March Madness. Instead we practice it. March is the month when Pennsylvania schools administer the Pennsylvania State System of Assessments (the PSSAs). The entire school year comes down this one week in March. This is when schools and students across the Keystone State are held accountable. This is the big time. This is what it's all about.
Is it fair to ask my son to carry out an act of civil disobedience? Should I place this social burden on his shoulders? What will the consequences be? Can he handle the pressure? Should he even have to handle the pressure?
Since late in August, my son has been subjected to a system of indoctrination that has essentially squashed his inner desire to learn -- the Ruinous Culture. Five entire months devoid of intellectually-stimulating classroom experiences. He has been forced to complete worksheets in language arts and mathematics. He can alphabetize spelling words and find the main idea of a paragraph. He's had practice in sequencing. He can round numbers. He can add, subtract, multiply and divide with fractions and decimals. And he has mastered the scripted art of estimating (Who knew there were incorrect estimates?). He has had multiple PSSA practice tests and according to these tests my son is ready. He has been trained for five months to produce scores that will help his school achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). I'm sure his school is counting on him.
But what has been lost during these past five months? He sits in social studies and science classes that have been shortened to allow more time for reading and math instruction. He hasn't been given the opportunity to engage real children's literature. His reading teacher is clueless about his interests. Five months of drudgery. How much can he take before just the thought of going to school immobilizes him? There is real damage being done. Something has to happen before my son loses all curiosity.
As his father, I need to advocate for him. But I don't want to just go in and take him out of school. I want him to learn something. I want him to experience real opportunities to learn in school. I want him to learn about the courage needed to change social structures that are designed to ultimately guarantee mass failure. Maybe he will be the start of a movement. As Gatto said in 2008:
"No demonstrations, no mud-slinging, no adversarial politics... [just] peacefully refuse to take standardized tests."
This is the perfect opportunity for my son to learn about social justice. He has a chance to fully participate in the democratic life we are supposedly striving to instill in children. But why does he have to do it? Because, as Gatto said:
"Adults chained to institutions and corporations are unable to; because these tests pervert education, are disgracefully inaccurate, impose brutal stresses without reason, and actively encourage a class system which is poisoning the future of the nation."
Is he capable of sitting down at his desk during March Madness and simply writing, "My name is Luke and I refuse to take your test?" Will this be the start of something? I'm sure it will start something, however, I'm not sure what. Luke may be on the verge of becoming a hero. His classmates may cheer him and go home to tell their parents that they want to "be like Luke." Or, it may begin the process of social blackballing. Would it be bad if either of these outcomes materialized? What should we do?