Full disclosure: as a former contestant, it's pretty difficult for me to watch Jeopardy! (Grammar question: should I put a period at the end of that since the exclamation point is part of the show's title?) Having had the misfortune of facing Roger Craig in his epic run during Premiere Week in 2010, it pains me to tune in to the typical mid-season episode filled with more average players and ponder what might have been. I mean, we really could stand to remodel the kitchen and the money would have been nice.
Anyway, last night's finale of the 2013 Teen Tournament did several things for me. First, it reminded me that when a game of Jeopardy! is good, it can be really good. To set the stage, recall that the finals of such tournaments consist of two-day games in which the totals earned in the two games are added together to determine the winner (that is, the day one totals do not carry over into the players' pots on the second day). The three contests were Nilai Sarda, an Indian immigrant living in Marietta, GA; Barrett Block, from Lexington, KY; and Leonard Cooper, from Little Rock, AR. I'll have more to say about them later. Their scores after the first day were Nilai: $19,000, Barrett: $17,600, Leonard: $3,000. So, clearly Leonard was in the hole and probably had no chance to win.
Except he did. Late in Double Jeopardy!, with $18,200 in his pot, Leonard found the second Daily Double hiding under an $800 question (which meant it was likely to be fairly easy). Category: American Lit. Wager: $18,000. He had to do that if he wanted any chance to win, given the day one totals. He answered correctly, essentially doubling his money. He did not get the Final Jeopardy! answer, but it didn't matter (only Barrett correctly answered Eisenhower, but he couldn't wager enough to beat Leonard).
When Leonard got the Daily Double we all let out a huge cheer. You see, we loved this kid. An African-American young man with big hair, Leonard was wearing a windbreaker, a t-shirt, some baggy pants, and a pair of Chuck Taylors. During the interview stage, where we learned about Barrett's community service and how Nilai had been runner-up in the previous year's National Geographic Bee (an event, much like the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, which has become dominated by children of Indian immigrants for some reason), Leonard told us that he was learning to play the electric guitar, just because he was interested in it, and that he looks to Jimi Hendrix as an inspiration.
Which got me thinking about No Child Left Behind, of course. It seems to me that the most deleterious effect of NCLB is that it has turned students in K-12 into relentless box-checkers. That is, the system is constructed in such a way that it is more important to have done things than to do them, and to document instead of experience. This is especially vivid right now as we receive applications for the program in which students will sometimes list, in excruciating detail, their high school activities, sometimes going as far as to tell us about the one hour (!) they spent on a particular service project. The message these students seem to be receiving from somewhere is that they can succeed by a preponderance of evidence of their excellence. They may or not actually be excellent, but their individual mounds of data sure give them a feel of excellenciness (with apologies to Stephen Colbert).
The Barretts and Nilais of the world will no doubt be successful since they are doing all the things they are told will lead to success. But it feels like a cold sort of success, lacking in passion and heart. Please note that I am not picking on these two young men--I'm sure they're great and I'd love to have them in my classes. My larger point is this: are we not doing our children a disservice when we encourage (force, really) them to engage in activities that will "get them somewhere" rather than learning to play the Star-Spangled Banner a la Hendrix? And, more importantly, is that why pop music is so awful these days?