Syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell recently got a letter from a fifth-grader at Sayre Elementary School in Lyon, Michigan asking the PhD economist what to do about the economy. Sowell could have ignored the note, or sent back a brief greeting. He had a different idea.
Instead, I replied to his parents: With American students consistently scoring near or at the bottom in international tests, I am repeatedly appalled by teachers who waste their students’ time by assigning them to write to strangers, chosen only because those strangers’ names have appeared in the media. It is of course much easier — and more “exciting,” to use a word too many educators use — to do cute little stuff like this than to take on the sober responsibility to develop in students both the knowledge and the ability to think that will enable them to form their own views on matters in both public and private life.
OK, Dr. Sowell, point taken. Maybe the assignment wasn’t particularly well thought out, but give the kid–and his teacher–a break. If you want kids to understand that writing is a means of interacting with the broader world, there’s little harm in using the power of the pen to try to engage people in positions of influence. Churlishly, Sowell is having none of it.
What earthly good would it do your son to know what economic policies I think should be followed, especially since what I think should be done will not have the slightest effect on what the government will in fact do? And why should a fifth-grader be expected to deal with questions that people with Ph.D.’s in economics have trouble wrestling with?
Maybe he should have written to Kate Gosselin instead? Frankly, if one of my 5th graders chose to write to Thomas Sowell instead of an athlete, actor or musician, I’d be pretty impressed.
I never assigned my kids the task of writing to famous people, but there were a couple of occasions when a little attention from the outside world made my 5th graders especially proud. NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein once sent my class a nice note congratulating my students for completing an ambitious reading project. And back when DFER’s Joe Williams was the education reporter for the NY Daily News, he wrote a piece inspired by letters my students wrote to the NYC Department of Education, offering to help correct a city-issued student code of conduct that was rife with misspellings and grammatical errors. In both instances, it was a thrill for the kids to get a reaction from people in the public eye. It made them feel powerful, and see that their words and work mattered. No harm in that.
Give the kids a break. Take an interest. Write a nice letter back. They’ll remember it for the rest of their lives, and you might just inspire them to greater heights.