Musing upon an IB Education
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace,
The burning keeps me alive
— “Life During Wartime”, Talking Heads
I grew up on Talking Heads, particularly Stop Making Sense, the live album and film of the same name. Listening to the album again today, I notice I’ve always remember them vividly, and they strike me now as a good representation of what IB (International Baccalaureate) was like in high school.
Making the leap to the Diploma Programme (11th-12th grade) was incredibly arduous, particularly in English HL (Higher Levels). At my school, you needed to make the large conceptual leap to analyzing texts on your own using the tools presented to you. Personally, I found senior year much easier to handle, as we were given specific, rigorous tools with which to critique. Believe it or not, I struggled hard that first semester junior year, most troubles centering around English. Looking back now, I see why it was so hard. Students went from a lecture format environment to a discussion environment with no lectures, and were expected to interpret and speak well. I probably collectively spoke more in those classes than I did in college. I worry whether my extemporaneous speaking skills have dwindled.
Students were also dropped into texts with barely any context. We read a work of High Modernism, and unfortunately, a small side project to research what Modernism ‘was’ did not suffice the plunge into Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. And sure, I learned the phrase “existence precedes essence”, and knew it came from Satre, but I struggled at its meaning and how it related to The Metamorphosis. I got it. Eventually.
What really hits me looking back is how much struggle there was to it all. Every English HL class was an upward battle first semester junior year. I just didn’t get most of what we were reading until it was explained to me. The term lunkhead comes to mind to describe how I was back then, but perhaps that’s a tad too harsh. It might also connote disinterest. Of course, I did care, deeply. I remember pacing the room crying the night I realized I could print out my first paper on time. But I felt so lost, adrift in a swirling sea. Alone. And the pressure was on myself to perform something I’ve never done before with little tools or guidance.
I can’t help but shake my head at the pedagogy of that junior year English class. An apt illustration is trying to teach a kid how to swim by throwing them into a pool. No context at all, and it’s sink or swim. When we read The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, the was no historical introduction to Yukio Mushima at all, save for an off-hand comment how he publicly committed suicide. It’s text that begs for a Freud/Lacan interpretation or insight into Mishima oeuvre. Suffice it to say we never got one. At least not that I remembered. Context gives light to the author’s influences (intellectual, material) and so much more: themes, goals, etc. it would have made that class so much easier, and I can’t totally justify its absence as an effective way for students to think for themselves.
In senior year English HL, we were given a remarkable list of tools for analyzing poetry. They were clear and cogent, and they’ve held up so well I’ve adapted them for analyzing song lyrics. We were also given effective context for the works we read: a PBS documentary for Zora Neal Hurston, info on the history and practices of pueblo Indians for Ceremony. Concrete information was a wondrous gift. I suspect my classmates however disliked the structured engine my teacher ran, and much preferred the looser style of last year, voting that teacher to give the National Honor Society speech our senior year. I found the change an incredible relief, and relished the style. It was still hard work of personal interpretation, but at least there was a roadmap of where to go.
With my new found love of camp and the theatrical, I worry about my abilities to catch and interpret nuance, particularly in literature. Have my ability to read deeply suffered from neglect?
I look back on my IB years, undecided how to feel about them. College was a breeze thanks to the coursework, at least. My senior year in college, I slacked off in courses I had little investment in: core classes in the morning that were a waste of my time that I’d rather use to sleep. Perhaps because I had already ‘made it’ to college I felt I could afford such lackadaisical performance, but moreover, they were courses I already had with more depth and intensity in high school. In that environment, stress was a constant factor, as was homework. I was always on the edge, but a hazardous semester of English class pushed the tension to be always on the cusp of success or failure at once. It burned like a furnace, but the burning kept me alive.