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Daniel S. Katz read the New York Times’ article “Is Your First-Grader College-Ready,” and he was not sure at first whether it was a spoof or for real. Evidently, it was for real. He introduces us to the useful term “Poe’s Law.” Wikipedia describes it thus: “a literary adage which stipulates that without a clear indicator of an author’s intended sarcasm it becomes impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.”*
It takes close reading a la Common Core for Katz to figure out that the article was for real, not a parody. Yet it still reads like a parody.
So what is almost satirical about some of the approaches described in the Times?
It is one thing to talk to first grade students about what they want to be when they grow up. For students who are growing up without many community models of post-secondary education, I can see potential in the middle school activities described that emphasize recognizing what would be needed to accomplish their ambitions. However, the early elementary discourse transforms from surprising to comical to frustrating in very short order. Six year-olds are not simply talking about what they want to be as grown ups; they are naming specific schools and filling out mock applications for the bulletin board. The first grade teacher is quoted discussing that it is not enough to ask children what they want to be: “We need to ask them, ‘How will you get there?’ Even if I am teaching preschool, the word ‘college’ has to be in there.” The approach is not simply being applied in districts with high concentrations of disadvantage; the article quotes a college planner from Westchester County, New York who compares college preparation to becoming an Olympic skater whose training begins in earnest at age 6.
As a mother and grandmother, I can recall many conversations with young children about what they want to be when they grow up. The answers ranged from “a cowboy.” to “a fireman,” to “a movie star,” to “a baseball player,” to “an astronaut.” Why in the world would six-year-old children fill out mock college applications? Isn’t there plenty of time in high school to think about college, which courses to take to be prepared, which colleges are a good fit for one’s interests, which colleges are affordable, etc.? There ought to be a law that little children are allowed to have a childhood before adult compulsions are forced on them. They should be playing with dolls and building sand castles and making things out of blocks and coloring in coloring books and molding things from clay or Play-Dough; they should dance and sing. Why can’t the grown-ups let them be children? They are NOT global competitors; they are children.
*According to Wikipedia, Poe’s Law is of recent vintage. The article says:
The statement called Poe’s law was formulated in 2005 by Nathan Poe on the website christianforums.com in a debate about creationism. The original sentence read:
Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.
The sentiments expressed by Poe date back much earlier – at least to 1983, when Jerry Schwarz, in a post on Usenet, wrote:
8. Avoid sarcasm and facetious remarks.
Without the voice inflection and body language of personal communication these are easily misinterpreted. A sideways smile, :-), has become widely accepted on the net as an indication that “I’m only kidding”. If you submit a satiric item without this symbol, no matter how obvious the satire is to you, do not be surprised if people take it seriously.
Another precedent posted on Usenet dates to 2001. Following the well-known schema of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, Alan Morgan wrote:
“Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook.”