Not The Target Market

Make No Mistake: It’s a Dilbert World

Inventory-Optimization-Follow-the-RulesLast week I read about a father in the U.K. who was fined for taking his daughter to Disney World in term time.  He refused to pay the fine, which was then doubled, so he took the case to court and won. It’s rare that one gets a sensible outcome when dealing with inflexible bureaucrats and I cheered.

Some background: in an effort to stem truancy, the U.K. has enacted draconian attendance laws, applicable to everyone. Parents may not take their children out of school for anything but the direst of emergencies. Period. End of Story.

I find this troubling for a number of reasons. The first is that there is big difference between habitual truancy, and missing school for a family trip that for one reason or another has to happen during term time. Furthermore, habitual truancy is certainly not the same as missing school to visit family in another country.

This leads to the second reason I find it troubling: who says that education only happens between 9 and 3, at a desk, enclosed by four walls? Can these bureaucrats say, with a straight face, that it is NOT educational to travel to a foreign country, to experience a different culture, even if the prime motive is fun? I commented to my daughter last October, as were leaving Old Sturbridge Village, and her three children were capering around us begging to come back and recounting their adventures with the blacksmith and the schoolhouse and the animals: “Too bad nothing educational happened today.”

The third reason I am appalled is that the laws do not take into account a child’s general attendance, or his general progress in school. Common sense would say if he doing well, a week or two off is not going to materially hurt him any more than a week at home recovering from chicken pox or the flu would.

And the fourth reason I shake my head, is the utter lack of imagination these bureaucrats/teachers show. Do you mean to tell me that it is impossible to give a child a packet of work to take with him? That parents couldn’t be told: “Look, this is what we will cover when you’re gone; here are the spelling and vocabulary words, here’s the math sheets/concepts, here’s the reading, etc. You need to make sure your child knows this so that he can jump right back in when he gets back. Have a great time.”

In addition, why don’t the teachers take advantage of a trip and make it an assignment as well? Require a journal or a short essay. Ask for a short presentation in which the student can compare/contrast life in the U.K. with life wherever he just went? Real education is about preparing students for the world; this necessarily takes the student and his circumstances into account. Teachers and schools promise they do this, but I suspect it is much rarer than we are led to believe.

Here in the U.S. we can get all smug and think that at least we are saved from that kind of educational nonsense bureaucracy. But we would be wrong. Let me relate the story of close-to-home ridiculous that also has to do with the timing of when education must happen.

The dramatis personae of this narrative are my brother, his three sons (who for the purposes of this blog are called Major, Minor and Minimus, and his young daughter, (the Benjamin of the family) who we can call Bennie. There is also the Principal of the small, local Catholic high school.

All seniors at this high school are required to complete a two week internship with a local business. This is the brainchild of the principal and something touted as making the school different and superior to others in giving all the seniors a look at life in the business community. This thinking ignores the fact that anyone in the business community who hears “high school internship” shudders. Both my brother and I have been asked in the past to take an intern. The trouble is that there is really not a lot a high school intern can do. In Massachusetts you can’t ask an unpaid intern to do anything that you would pay someone to do. It would be horrible to think that a business could profit from a little voluntary, short term, free labor.

These internships are really “shadow days” stretched into two weeks. The students are required to write a paper on them and give a presentation. They must complete their internship to graduate. Talk to most of the kids who have gone through this and they will tell you of the excruciating boredom of sitting at a desk with nothing to do and being thrilled beyond belief when asked to make a copy of something.

The students are also required to find their own internships. My brother, who knows the Abbott of the local Trappist monastery, asked if there was any way Minor could do his internship in the jelly factory. The monks aren’t in the business of religious tourism and wouldn’t normally have said yes to such a request. But, because this was a graduation requirement and because of my brother’s relationship with the Abbey, Minor was all set to live with the monks, pray the hours with them and help out where he could. The only stipulation the monks made was that it couldn’t happen during the two weeks in May that the students were supposed to be doing internships. During that time they would be having a conference of novice directors at the Abbey. However, the week of April vacation was fine.

The only thing left to do was clear this with the Principal, which my brother felt would not be a problem. After all, how much more unusual or fabulous of an internship could there be, especially for a young man who wonders if he might have a vocation to the priesthood?

The principal said no. Absolutely not. The reason she would not budge (even when approached by Minor’s religion teacher and the Vicar General of the diocese) is that internships must be done during two weeks in May. Period. She even added that this was not the first time students have had to turn down amazing opportunities because they couldn’t be done in May! And if she bent the rules for Minor, she would have to bend them for everyone. So much for a small school, where every student is known and cared for, where every student’s needs are taken into account…

At least in a private school, when faced with such examples of rule worship and departures of common sense, parents can go elsewhere. As my brother put it, why should I pay to experience such ridiculousness? So, Minimus will not be continuing at the school next year, nor is it likely that Bennie will find her way there, either.

It may have been the final comment that did it: Too bad the Monks couldn’t be more flexible…

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