The Monster at the End of this Book

Unlike Grover, we may have good reason to be scared

Arthur Chiaravalli
May 6, 2017 · 6 min read

The Monster at the End of this Book has been a favorite of mine since childhood. It’s a spirited postmodern send-up of the old Oedipus myth minus the patricide and incest.

Grover, upon hearing the title of the book, begs the reader to halt the progress its pages. In the end, Grover realizes that the monster is none other than himself, but rather than greet this moment of anagnorisis by gouging out his eyes, he expresses mild embarrassment. The collapse of the “old polar schema” has brought him relief, not anguish.

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time deriding the ‘scoreboards’ of standardized summative tests in education. How they privilege lower cognitive skills. How they falsely claim to render an ‘objective’ account. How they create a pervasive sense of boredom and fear. How they dehumanize, neuroticize, even criminalize those who cannot fit within their mold. How they convey a false sense of success and worth to those who can.

What I haven’t accounted for is our continued subjection to this summative monster which, like Grover’s, awaits us at the “end of this book.” As much as we try to buy our students time to learn and grow, we eventually must confront the monster.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Part of it is institutional momentum. Part of it is the capitalistic bent of education reform. And as Peter Anderson so capably explains, there’s a lot of history behind it.

But regardless of how much we complain about the state of things, I wonder if we have a vested interest in the status quo.

I wonder if we are the monsters at the end of this book.

Many of us feel stuck in a kind of troubled comfort zone these days. We move from one state of confinement to the next, seemingly unable to evade the unblinking light of measurement, observation, evaluation. But the prison searchlight can also double as a spotlight, one that makes vague promises of prosperity, popularity, purpose. Unless you want to end up a nobody in this life, you must jostle and elbow your way onto the crowded stage. You must prepare your song and dance, hone your elevator pitch, brand yourself. You must be ready to show the world “what you got.”

As Plan C argues, “In this increasingly securitised and visible field, we are commanded to communicate. The incommunicable is excluded.” Inasmuch as deep learning resists most mainstream modes of communication and demonstration, we are limited to those kinds of learning that can be objectively measured and quantified. In our social lives, too, algorithms herd us into easily defined, binary positions. Political expression becomes a choice between vague, polarized absolutes. Only as consumers do our options seem open to a limitless vista, forever out of reach.

Increasingly, freedom and empowerment means the right to select among choices eviscerated of any coherent content. We express political identities by drawing lines on a ballot. We communicate our learning by bubbling options on a Scantron sheet. We may not be able to leave an indelible mark on this world, but we can fill in our bubbles completely and make the mark dark.

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And perhaps, this is where it all started: we bought into the idea that it was important to communicate with machines, submerging ourselves, our learning, our teaching, our self-expression, our subjectivity into scannable, certifiable dots.

When did this activity begin to feel more important, more grounded in reality than those things we used to do — things more consonant with our dignity: art, music, dance, poetry, literature, philosophy? How did these come to seem inconsequential, unreal?

Personally, I would have preferred something more obviously dystopian, a machine more impressive, one you can rage against. Something that grinds people up like the cogs in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or some rogue, weaponized Twitter account (wait, that one actually exists).

Something that could occasion an inspirational speech like Morpheus’s in The Matrix Reloaded:

Zion, hear me! It is true what many of you have heard. The machines have gathered an army and as I speak that army is drawing nearer to our home…I stand here before you now truly unafraid!…I remember that for one hundred years we have fought these machines! I remember that for one hundred years they have sent their armies to destroy us and after a century of war I remember that which matters most! We are still here!

But no, it’s mostly been a lot of little things. Stupid little machines that proliferate and surround us, making us dumber. Nowadays, my students love playing Kahoot! (That exclamation point is part of the brand name, not my excitement.) Just what is Kahoot!?

It’s a competitive multiple-choice exam with MIDI background music.

Why do kids love to play Kahoot!? Why does its reggae-tinged bass line reverberate through the cinder block walls of our schools? Is this what “engagement” looks like, getting fired up for musical multiple-choice test?

It’s why I wonder if we are the monsters at the end of this book.

The machines only do what we program them to. None of them is gaining sentience. It’s not the riddling Sphinx that awaits us at the end of our educational wanderings. It’s us.

As Teiresias puts it, “You are the slayer of the man whose slayer you seek.”

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Gustave Moreau, 1864

I’m saying there’s a reason why we don’t want to turn the page on this era of surveillance, objectification, measurement, evaluation. It’s because our brief encounters with freedom and responsibility have been way too exhausting. And while I acknowledge the sociological and political dimensions of this predicament, I think the problem goes deeper than 1984 or The Matrix. In the end, most of us are like the betrayer, Cypher, who willingly trades reality for a comfortable counterfeit.

We want someone to give us a world. We want someone to lay our clothes out for us. Jean-Baptist expresses this sentiment in Camus’s The Fall:

Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Hence, one must choose a master, God being out of style.

Grover thought he’d find a terrifying monster at the end of the book. What he found was himself. We seem fated for a similar encounter, one which could both rend and enrich us.

Perhaps it will help us counter the profound nihilism of our times.

What do you think? I want to hear from you! And please click the so more people get to see this.

Teachers Going Gradeless is a global group of educators convinced that teaching and learning is better when we grade less. Find us on Facebook!

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Arthur Chiaravalli

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Teacher, learner, thinker. Exploring what’s possible in education.

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