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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Ambition

More On Boys and School

Nadine’s report that her first grade son was forbidden to read nonfiction is horrifying — anyone else have similar experiences? Or opposite experiences? I wonder how common that kind of blindness disguised as concern is. Her story reminded me of another recent classroom experience and helped crystalize one of my concerns.

A teacher I was listening to mentioned the Invention Convention that will come at the end of the year. She was at great pains to insist that the parents spend no more then $10 on supplies and that the kids should not build robots or machines designed to clean kitchens. Instead, she singled out as the appropriate kind of creation a recent project by a young girl. The girl was having trouble keeping all of her pencils on her desk. So she made a desk guard, a bumper to hold them all safely in place.

I am sure the teacher has had to deal with too many exasperated parents and frustrated kids and so was trying to guide everyone towards safer, more reliable, shores. But her attitude bothered me. She was praising the safe, the modest, the contained, the neat, the dutiful. All of those are certainly praiseworthy virtues. But they are not the only qualities to look for in an invention convention. When Bill Gates and Paul Allen were teenagers and just getting the hang of programming, Bill set out to create a war game with complex tactical and strategic options. He never finished the game — and learned a great deal in the process. The success for him was in the trying, not in completion. The first company Bill and Paul created was set up to use computers to measure traffic patterns. They got the system to work, but had hardly any buyers. But, once again, in trying Paul gained invaluable skills that, soon thereafter, allowed him to create the program that launched Microsoft. 

What I see in those robots that certainly will not work is ambition, dreaming big, setting large goals. I understand safety concerns about electricity. But it seems to me that a school should be fostering ambition, not guiding all of its students towards the safest harbors. For some, a simple practical invention will be very satisfying. For others, a mammoth task that never quite works will be just as rewarding. We need ambition in both genders, and practical, pragmatic, reliability in both genders. We should not call one success and the other failure.