Pigeon-Holing in Life and Learning


In a college sociology class, I was first exposed to the concept that our sense of self is at first defined by those around us. The theory states that we define ourselves by how others react to us. Over the course of time, our interpretations of these “reactions” come together to shape the structure of our personality.

Since those college days, I have found a fair amount of truth to this theory. We certainly are products of our environment. This process of building a self-identity seems quite natural and it occurs over a long, unconscious period of time. What scares me is when I see a systematic approach to shaping people’s sense of self.

In a recent Washington Post article, Marion Brady wrote about a school administrator who took the 10th grade standardized test for high schools around the United States.
The administrator did very poorly on both the math and reading portions of the exam (It’s important to note that this school administrator held two masters degrees and had 15 credits toward a doctorate in education). He had this to say about the experience:

If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail “cut score”? How?

I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.

I think the lesson here is that at some point, we have all been guilty of making swift judgments about people based upon current education, social, and economic standards. We forget that these standards are only historic benchmarks and that true evaluation of education, people, and a society can only come through constant questioning and validation of these standards.

As individuals, as well as members of society, we are all responsible for looking deeper into the ways in which we shape our opinions about others. We can’t be lazy and rely on other agencies, governments, or organizations to solely shape our opinions for us.

It’s kind of like using a Global Positioning System (GPS) to reach your destination — the path seems clear because it’s spelled out for you right on the view screen. But when you rely on that GPS with a fearless, blind faith, you may end up at the Gas n’ Go in Findlay, Ohio, asking a real person how to get back home.