Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Whose heaven?

Q: Some Japanese chefs have a "problem" -- their restaurants earned one or more Michelin stars, the world's biggest culinary honor. The chefs say they cook for their customers, not strangers, and they don't relish the attention. Top Western chefs have a beef, too, saying Japanese chefs mostly stick to tradition, so their dishes aren't as praiseworthy. The two cultures seem to define success differently. What are the consequences of each approach, and is one better than the other?

"The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune," said renowned author Toni Morrison in the lecture she gave in Oslo when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, framing one of my favorite metaphors for the dominance of one way of thinking or speaking.

The collapse of the tower, she goes on to say, is typically viewed as a consequence of "the distraction" of too many languages, when, according to the conventional wisdom, "one monolithic language would have expedited the building, and heaven would have been reached."

Domination -- one language over many, one culture over all others, one belief system prevailing, one way of judging everything from cuisine to student achievement -- such domination, and the quest for its power, is the root cause of much human conflict, war, oppression, poverty, and the shattering disappointment of French chefs.

List-making and competitive rankings are modern civilization's version of the Tower of Babel. If all chefs used all the same ingredients in exactly the same way, then any cuisine anywhere could be judged by the same standards. (We have that already. We call it McDonald's.)

The glory or humor of the divine plan for civilization is that, in fact, we are all very different and have tastes as diverse as foie gras and chitlins. Michelin stars in Kyoto certainly signify a different palate from those awarded in Paris, but each meal can be delicious to the taste buds it is designed to please.

Defining success according to one dominant set of standards might pose interesting quarrels among chefs, but the quest for hegemony becomes infinitely complicated when it comes to the education of students from diverse cultures trying to enter one homogenized society.

The current controversies over school reform and standardized testing are the educational versions of the Michelin stars controversy. Is there only one way to learn, one way to measure learning, one dominant language of academic success? Who decides? Should teachers -- the "chefs" mixing together the heady ingredients of student lives and cultural frameworks -- be judged by one externally-imposed rating system?

Teachers know that students bring many ingredients to the table of learning -- some bring robust larders full of everything necessary to enjoy a complete intellectual meal, and some bring scraps gathered along the pathway to school. Some children are ready to create a four-star dinner, while others can barely make soup. Yet, the reform movement would have all of them -- and their teachers -- judged according to one set of standards without any consideration of the context for learning that each child brings to the table.

Morrison asks, "Whose heaven?" Whose version of success? Perhaps, she suggests, the failed builders would have found Paradise right there had they taken the time to listen and to understand each others' languages.

Perhaps the western chefs who are complaining about the Michelin stars awarded to Japanese chefs should spend a year in the Kansai region learning that craft.

Perhaps education reformers should take the time to live in the neighborhoods of children and teachers in order to understand the complex layers and flavors on the table of educational success.

Perhaps the idea of the tower, itself, was the problem. Perhaps we should spend less time building inanimate things like lists and ranking systems, and more time learning to appreciate what each human soul brings to the table of life.

By Patricia McGuire  |  November 1, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Defining success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Well written, however fundamentally flawed. Rankings provide a means by which we can compare. I don't want the lowest ranking surgeon performing a heart transplant. While the low ranking surgeon might be a great guy (or lady,) when it comes to assessing skills -- objective criteria is critical. As soon as emotions get twisted into the educational (or culinary) debate, success becomes political. Now concerning the Japanese chefs -- they have every right to reject Michellin -- they themselves don't care -- but other people might. To suggest that we have to reject a ranking just because the ranked doesn't like it is absurd. The "touchie-feelie" assesment of students (or chefs) is about as dumb as kids soccer games that don't keep score. Success is driven by the market. One can't choose not to be a part of the market, unless on lives in a vacum. Communist ideals such as "everyone is equal" or "everyone is a winner" have proven false time and time again. Rankings are reality. We can agree that a ranking from one group (i.e. Michellin) might not be as relevant to another, but I'm willing to bet that those Japanese chefs do care about how they rank among their customers. Those that reject all concepts of ranking usually are the ones who are less likely to be the best at what they do. No one ever hears from the students that actually love the SAT system -- we always here about how unfair it is. Yet, nothing in life is fair -- we must all compete.

Posted by: superacidjax | November 1, 2010 7:40 PM
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