When I was on my way out of the first college I attended, my parents asked me to take a career aptitude test, something to try and motivate me since I certainly wasn’t motivated to do well in school. They were very disappointed that I had failed out of college, especially when my excuse was, “I don’t want to read what they’re telling me to read.” To please them, I took the lengthy exam. It said I should be a park ranger. Thankfully we’re not living in the world that Roth created in Divergent, or I’d probably be out half-assing it somewhere without a phone signal.
When I think of dystopian literature, I think of an argument. What is the author arguing about in the world today by giving us a glimpse of the possible outcome? In 1984, Orwell warns us of a totalitarian government, while Atwood does the same of a religious theocracy in Handmaid’s Tale. But what about Divergent? What do you think Roth is telling us about society?
Maybe it’s on my mind (I’m reading Reign of Error by Ravitch right now), but I think it says something about our love of testing and compartmentalizing people with sets of skills. With the current obsession in the US to ensure that students are “college ready” through objective measures like standardized tests, it’s only a matter of time before those same testing advocates believe that we can track children into a career by a test score.
While Divergent is certainly the extreme end of this, I do think that Roth makes her point clear about where objective standards go wrong when applied to human beings. I find the argument to be most evident in Beatrice’s last conversation with her mother. Discussing what makes them Divergent, her mother says:
“Every faction conditions its members to think and act a certain way. And most people do it. For most people, it’s hard not to learn, to find a pattern of thought that works and stay that way…But our minds move in a dozen different directions. We can’t be confined to one way of thinking, and that terrifies our leaders. It means we can’t be controlled. And it means that no matter what they do, we will always cause trouble for them.” (p. 441-442)
Not everybody wants the same things in life, and not everybody stays on the same course once they’ve discovered what it is they think they want to do for the rest of their lives. However, here in the US, we seem to be convinced that a one-size-fits-all education and testing system is the best way to ensure that children grow up satisfied with what they learn. I feel that Roth is warning us of how this system can take a turn for the worst.
I’ve never had a past student contact me and tell me how relevant and necessary the state exams were for them, and how lucky they were to have passed them or how terrible it was that they failed them. My students email me and ask if I still have papers they wrote that I praised, or talk about how events in their lives are similar to the issues we discussed in novels. And sometimes they say their English comp class is easy because of what they learned in my class.
I’m certainly an outdoors person, so being a park ranger would be pretty cool. But I wouldn’t be nearly as happy as I am as a teacher. I love what I do, and I loved the 11 years I worked as a high school English teacher. I speak with many good teachers who tell me that they hate their jobs (and they have many good reasons), but I never once felt this way. As a Texas teacher, there were a lot of good reasons to change careers and lament the education policies, but my love for teaching teenagers literature was always greater, no matter what the state education department or my district was demanding. Thankfully I didn’t let a test steer me toward another direction.
This week, I don’t need you to respond to the post. Instead, come prepared to class with the argument you think Roth is making about today’s society along with evidence from the novel to support your claims. I think this book says so much more about society than just our over-testing, so don’t be so quick to agree with my perspective. Remember, I’m supposed to be a park ranger.