Being a complete non-traditionalist, I have questioned the method of
awarding honors for quite some time.
My teaching has taken the form of nearly twenty years of group mentoring
to youth who attend our hands-on, electronics and mechanical projecting
program. We don't teach anything, but we do establish a technically
enriched environment and answer thousands of questions as the youth
interact with their environment.
The youth who are our top projecteers (e.g., the ones who absolutely
love science and mechanics) seldom are considered to be good students in
their respective schools. But, every week throughout the year they
spend dozens of hours happily tinkering at what we call self-directed
It is amazing to see the depth and breadth of education that, over time,
such devotion to learning can bring to a student.
When applying for a job, these extraordinary youths often receive
lackluster attention by a company's personnel office, simply because
none of the massive effort that they have voluntarily put forth has been
recorded in their school records. To make matters worse, other than
through their grades, personnel officers (most of whom are technically
ignorant) have no way of evaluating a youth's true technical competence.
However, there are a few folks who seem to appreciate these youths. A
counselor at Rose Hulman Institute of Technology once told us that they
love having the A and A+ students enrolled because it makes the school
look good, but it is the C students who returned with the endowments.
It is said that Tom Edison was thrown out of school and admonished to
never come back, but few would argue that he did some pretty outstanding
things, all accomplished without his suffering through the formal
process of modern education.
In the early days of our states residential, math and science high
school, we thought that "at last we had a wonderful opportunity to work
with a whole group of kids who would be eagerly interested in
scientific tinkering". During the two years that we presented our
program to the three hundred youths in attendance, we found less than
fifteen who had any interest in hands-on activities. From that group of
fifteen, there were only three youths who displayed the level of
interest that we had become accustomed to seeing in our students. After
many failed attempts at getting the other students involved, we finally
came to the conclusion that their only interest was in chasing grades,
and since our voluntary program produced no grades, it made no sense for
them to participate.
More often than not, the kids that we work with have their own, unusual
"agenda for life". It is a personal agenda that usually fails at making
a good match with society's concept of what constitutes a proper agenda
for a conventional education. The youth in our program do not, or
cannot seem to wait for their education to be delivered to them, but are
eagerly reaching out to learn those things that excite their souls and
fill their lives with meaning.
Ours is only a small group, but I often wonder if all across America
there are brilliant youths who are languishing in mediocrity, their
extraordinary talents being wasted, simply because the "good students"
(e.g., the ones who played the system), are getting the awards.