In IB we trust?

Liam Julian

At first glance, the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program appears to be an education reformer's ideal. It boasts a demanding curriculum. It concentrates on core subject areas (experimental science, math, languages, etc.), and it integrates them with a Theory of Knowledge class that shows how the subjects are interrelated. Students must also complete 150 hours of community service and a 4,000 word "extended essay" - a high school version of an undergraduate thesis. IB is designed to form well-rounded minds, spark esoteric interests, and prepare students for sparkling success in college.

And IB doesn't only impress advocates of core curricula. It scores points with accountability hawks, too. Each IB student must face, in the final months of his or her high school career, a battery of comprehensive examinations. Those students who don't achieve the required point total don't receive an IB diploma, regardless of their classroom performance and grades - no exceptions.

But for all the positive characteristics that have made IB the darling of reform-minded school administrators, it is not an educational panacea. The intentions and ideas are sound, but without proper execution the program fails.

As a 14-year-old, I was drawn to IB by its promises of educational exploration. When I attended freshman orientation, the teachers lavished praise on (and parents practically drooled over) IB's blend of high expectations and achievement. It sounded fantastic: a college-like experience, where students are encouraged to question their teachers and probe for deeper knowledge, in high school. I trusted the promises and prepared to enter, finally, the world of real academic inquiry.

I soon learned, however, that academic inquiry was constrained by a curriculum that tried to be all things to all people. For instance, literary merit wasn't in the mind of those who created the reading lists in my IB English classes; multiculturalism and gender concerns were. After reading some Shakespeare and Dickens's classic Tale of Two Cities, our dead-white-guy quota was just about full. So, instead of Plato's Republic we read Ngugi wa Thiong'O's Weep Not, Child; instead of Catcher in the Rye we read Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony; and instead of Dante and Cervantes we read Soseki and Rulfo.

Some of these books were bad, others were quite good. But those Western classics that form the foundation of our literary canon - The Sun Also Rises, The Grapes of Wrath, The Scarlet Letter - were absent. So, too, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Literature that had stood the test of time was sacrificed for contemporary works that addressed immediate cultural or feminist struggles.

The absence of Western classics is not merely frustrating; it's a serious and inexcusable omission that deprives students of an essential piece of cultural currency. And it's particularly disgraceful to forgo teaching such important works because of dubious diversity concerns. This was not the core knowledge I had been promised.

Academic inquiry lost battles on another front, too. It was the looming specter of final IB examinations - not scholarly investigation - that motivated my teachers and drove onward the classes.

The intense focus on testing wasn't without merit, of course. Some of the exam preparation was useful. The unending array of essays and papers I composed during those years taught me the finer points of writing. Moreover, a few of the classes, such as geometry, biology, and chemistry, conformed well to the relentless exam-driven pressures. But many others, such as my 10th-grade history course, did not. On one occasion, after receiving a C- on an essay about (to quote the assignment) "the evolution and history of the American Revolution," I went to speak with my teacher.  

"Why did I do so poorly?" I asked.

"You didn't mention all the battles we talked about in class."

"But," I retorted, "I didn't focus on the battles; I focused instead on the political intricacies and fulminations between Britain and the United States that led to war."

"Right," he said. "But you needed to mention battles."

My teacher didn't want analysis, really, even though the assignment was framed this way. What he wanted was a list of battles that I could, if asked, regurgitate successfully on the IB history exam. Similar circumstances (in which I made the mistake of analyzing and synthesizing information instead of repeating it) arose many times in other classes, too.  

The combination of politicized curriculum, obsessive focus on exams instead of learning, and rampant hypocrisy deeply upset me, and, little by little, I stopped going to school.

Instead, I got up in the mornings and went to the beach. There I could sit and read books I knew were great. It was a rash move, sure, but at the time I was passionate about taking charge of my own learning. I didn't feel right allowing mediocre teachers and books to rob me of my time.

When I did attend school, my frustrations were evident to all. I wasn't intentionally combative or disrespectful, but I felt fully justified to point out hypocrisy and inconsistency when I saw them. Of course, the school kept track of my public indignation. And when I'd tallied enough points for acting "with sedition," undermining "school authorities," and the like, I was removed from the IB program.

Chalk some of this up to a combustible combination of teenage idealism and rebellion. I was pompous, self-assured, and, quite frequently, insufferable. But I still believe that parts of my dissatisfaction were valid. And while my accounts are personal, they point to a larger problem in programs such as IB that purport to cater to students who thirst for knowledge.

There is no better way to quash a youth's enthusiasm for learning than by exposing institutions of learning as hypocritical and inconsistent. I looked up to my teachers and to the IB program. I was more than let-down - hurt, really - by a system that sacrificed parts of my education for non-germane political interests and that seemed more concerned with test scores than with learning. 

IB has good ideas (demanding classes, core subjects, an integrated curriculum). But ideas alone don't make the program. Rather, what truly matters is how those ideas are transferred into practical application. IB has the potential to serve as an ideal for American education. It also has the potential to show what can happen when positive strategies are implemented poorly and when the real mission - learning - is lost in the mix.

It's funny how history repeats itself. Now that I've landed at Fordham, I'm once again wrestling with the same issues that troubled me in high school. Where in education to draw the line between regulation and flexibility? Does a focus on high stakes tests adversely affect classroom instruction? Can there be too much accountability?

The issues remain. But it's nice to know now what I didn't realize then - I'm not alone in my dissatisfaction with the status quo, and I'm not the only one who hopes to change things for the better.