Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sailors on the Seas of Fate

My title is a variation of a book title by Michael Moorcock (from the Elric of Melnibone series), a title that has always stuck in my mind.

I am a literal-minded person to an extreme, and as a result I am not good at making up analogies: I would rather discuss the reality than some comparison to that reality. However, I've come up with an analogy that might help students and teachers understand what's going on in many classes, so I'll explain it here.

We are all figuratively "cast upon the seas of fate" in a class, or in life as a whole. But we respond to that differently, in ways that are relatively easy to see in a class. Some are captains of sturdy sailing vessels, some are sailors on small boats, and some are castaways on makeshift rafts (or, like a message in a bottle, bobbing along on the waves without direction).

The Captains are guiding their ships, looking for the best winds and currents, keeping a "weather eye" at all times. They intend to do all they can to reach port. Some of the Captains have helpers (significant others, family, friends, mentors) providing support, some are "solo sailors". But all depend on themselves first of all to get where they need to go.

Their answer to the following two questions is to "disagree". "Luck plays a big part in what happens to me" and "When I'm required to do something (as at work or school) I do just enough to get by." They recognize that much of what happens to them is their doing, not someone else's fault.

Yes, these Captains can be thwarted by the "perfect storm", by circumstances (such as illness) that they truly cannot control. But they're doing their best to avoid those situations.

In terms of students, these are the ones who keep track of when work is due, who actually read textbooks (well, in the current generation, sometimes), who know what "study" means, who are trying to get an "A" rather than a B or C.


At the other extreme are the castaways, or the "message in a bottle", drifting along on the waves, hoping that they'll be carried to a good destination. Like a message in a bottle, they have little influence over where they're going. Like a castaway on a makeshift raft, they might have rigged up a sail, or they might have a paddle, but when things go wrong they often just throw up their hands and say "it's not my fault" instead of doing what they can to guide their fate. These are the folks who tend to blame everything that happens to them on someone or something else. They may indeed have difficult family circumstances, financial problems, and so on, but in the end it is usually a lack of WILL that will do them in.

Their answer to the two questions is to "agree". ("Luck plays a big part in what happens to me" and "When I'm required to do something (as at work or school) I do just enough to get by.") "It's not my fault" is their mantra. They may feel that the world "owes them something", but they find out that in the adult world that isn't true. The "world" is cruel and heartless. In classes, they are likely to fail, or to get really poor grades.

The third group, the sailors, are the "in-betweeners". They are looking to survive rather than to prosper. They try to guide their small boats, but often wish someone else was in charge, and sometimes aren't very diligent. Often they are looking for help. Sometimes they can get it, from family and friends and acquaintances (and teachers), sometimes not. In the end, in a class, you have to do it yourself, and sometimes they're up to it, sometimes not.

In classes they sometimes do what they need to do, sometimes not. They are often content with a C grade, or maybe a B. Their responses to the two questions are often in the middle, of course. They may learn better habits and become captains, or they may fall into the castaway category, or they may muddle along as sailors.


In a community college class you'll find a big proportion of sailors, quite a few castaways, and a variable number of captains. At Duke or UNC-CH you'll find a great many captains and few castaways, but still a goodly proportion of sailors. Many of the sailors will soon become captains, however.

Unfortunately, most K12 education is now designed to produce castaways far more often than captains. People are often told exactly what to memorize for the "end of class" test, regurgitate it, and go on to the next year, without having learned much, certainly without having learned good habits. What they do during the year in class doesn't matter much, what matters is the end of class test. Consequently the students are trained rather than educated. So in college, especially community college, we get many people who are ill-prepared to succeed in classes (or in life, unfortunately).

Where is the teacher in all this? The teacher is the Admiral, the Convoy Commander in wartime, trying to shepherd their fleet to the proper port(s) through dangerous waters. Unfortunately, the Admiral cannot sail every vessel; and when there's a straggler, the Admiral cannot stop (and endanger) the entire fleet for one member. The Admiral can only provide an example, and lead, and provide assistance when practical, and hope that all will follow.

So I say to students, imagine you are "cast upon the seas of fate". How are you going to react, what are you going to do about it?

Lew Pulsipher

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This was a really great analogy, btw :D

Ian said...

This makes a lot of sense.

"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest."Mark Twain
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Albert Einstein

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Albert Einstein

"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." -- Aristotle