Tina K. Russell

March 20, 2008

Bad Move

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 1:14 pm

Idaho Turns to Chess as Education Strategy – New York Times

This bugs me. All right, I’m positive that chess has beneficial effects for kids growing up. But, I have had it up to here with bold educational experiments. I’m skeptical that, with this nation in a profound education crisis, this attempt to bring chess into every school in Idaho (starting with a 100-classroom pilot program) is viewing the game as a kind of panacea that will fix anything, or at least an easy way to cram many disciplines into a short amount of time.

I have absolutely no doubt that some kids are going to latch onto chess and it will be their intellectual awakening, a life-saving intervention that will change their lives forever. I also have no doubt that some kids, no matter how hard they try, will simply be no good at the game and it will be a waste of time to push them to be better. Also, if this program is such a sound idea, I’d like to ask a) why one game and b) why chess? The first indicates a lack of serious investigation; the second suggests cultural bias. Why not go, shogi, backgammon, or poker? Why not, for that matter, Advance Wars or StarCraft? In fact, why not bring D&D or GURPS into the classroom, where players can learn creative skills and people skills while gaming? Why not be like economists and use simple games like the Prisoner’s Dilemma to bring up fundamental questions of human behavior? (My brother tells me that the TV show, Deal or No Deal, does a good job of bringing game theory to the masses.) There are plenty of reasons, I’m sure, to choose chess above any of those, and to focus on one game, and I’m sure some of them are culturally grounded (after all, it would be hard to get your shogi on in a typical college environment). However, this article provides none.

And you knew that this would piss me off:

“So many kids spend their time plugged into video games, iPods, television and so they are more isolated,” she said. “They learn give and take in chess. There are courtesies that you follow. It has been really beneficial for them.”

And of course, videogames have none of those elements.

Oh, and look at this:

There are no studies showing that teaching chess has benefits for children, but there is anecdotal evidence, Mr. Luna said.

And we all know that anecdotal evidence is a wonderful basis for any $200,000-$600,000 program.

I’m not saying for a moment that chess shouldn’t be in schools. Chess should be in every damn school. I’m merely questioning the logic of forcing teachers to take valuable classroom time away and making every student play the game. Not all students are going to take to it. Besides, plenty of schools, in my experience, have board games set aside for students to play them, and good schools will have chess clubs and ways for students to learn advanced strategy. I’m sure there are benefits to chess, just as there are benefits to playing the trombone and benefits to learning molecular biology. There are benefits to things I like, like drawing and playing Advance Wars. I’m concerned, however, at this proposal’s leaning towards defining chess as a metaphor for all things, “learning give and take” and social skills, which sort of demeans the game by saying it’s not a worthy end in itself (and anyone who’s played with forced association knows how easy it is to make anything sound like anything). I also go into a demonic, woman-scorned, high-flying rage when teachers insist that students “plugging in” is necessarily a bad thing. What if somebody implements chess on an iPod? What do you do then, huh?

I should say that I imagine chess is a very potent metaphor for one hell of a lot of things, and will no doubt boil down important life lessons like the need to make sacrifices and the balances you must strike among the many and the few. I also think that there are students that will undoubtedly take to chess and have it become their “one thing” that gets them through school, which is a lot of why I think every school should have it. Also, chess is a game, and games need defending as they are such a convenient scapegoat for everything wrong with the world. I simply don’t like the idea of pushing it as a cure-all, and any enormous expenditure such as this in a time of crisis for American education would need such an extraordinary justification. Also, I do not like the idea of pushing chess on every student, some of whom will never take to it, and some of whom would no doubt enjoy and learn more from go or Advance Wars or whatever. It just seems like one more attempt to define one magical solution for every child in America.

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