“Race from the Bottom”

Question: What do you get when you combine “No Child Left Behind” with “Race to the Top”?

Answer: A “Race from the Bottom”?

Perhaps. But if so, one in which the bottom itself must drop away. Imagine the scene in the movies where the bridge crumbles behind the heels of our racing hero. Otherwise s/he would be duty bound to go back for the less fleet of foot.

Is there not a secret nationalistic logic being put to work here? It allows one to be inclusive—”no child left behind”—while, with plausible deniability, filling the vacuum invisibly and implicitly with the students of competing capitalist nations.

Meanwhile, “Race to the Top,” on the other hand, calls for a good old fashioned competition. The sporting competition of the Olympic dream, in which everyone is already a winner just for being there.

In any case what is intolerable is a race in which everyone crosses the finish line at the same time. This, we know, can only be grade inflation. And it messes with things like accreditation. One cannot succeed too well, or it is a sign of failure, or cheating.

We can only begin to confront the paradoxical logic as a joke:

Two friends decide to go on a hike in the woods. Walking into a clearing, they spot a bear, who in turn spots them. The bear, clearly agitated, is on the verge of charging, when one of the hikers calmly begins to unlace his hiking boots, and put on his running shoes.

His friend, frozen facing forward, hisses at him out of the corner of his mouth: “what are you doing, you are never going to be able to outrun that bear?!”

To which his friend, calmly limbering up, replies: “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you…”

Badump, bump. But what makes this funny? Isn’t it that the “friend” has said the unsayable, having the gall to populate the last place, that by agreement remains unassigned and unspoken? But more than that, do we not recognize the perfect reasonableness of the solution, with which we likely have an intimate familiarity?

This is, among other things, the bell-curve. Student vs. student, in which the teacher takes the high ground of not holding them to a fixed finish line. The rational here is that statistically they are safer playing against each other than against the bear itself, mano a garra. But this poses at least two threats. The internal one, which requires a friendly sacrifice: one of us must be fed to the bear. And the external one: while we are busy playing games with ourselves, the entire group may be found flat footed in relationship to a global race.

It is also the rubric: the current weapon handed to teachers for defending ourselves within an impossible situation. This despite appearances, since the rubric functions to externalize and grid the standards, lest we be mistaken for the bear itself. The teacher as adminstrator. Pre-categorized, it is the student’s performance that dictates: student vs. spreadsheet. The illusion of legality and transparency. The rubric displaces the logic of the bell curve onto the grid itself. Regardless, the threat is the same: too much or too little differentiation. If everyone huddles too close together, the bear has a smorgasbord; if spread out, it is easy pickings.

What is this bear? Let us agree in advance not to speak of such things.