Lighting a Candle Against Mediocrity

Bethlehem Market

Bethlehem Market

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart takes its title from a Yeats’ poem The Second Coming. The novel neatly telegraphs the tragic impact of British colonization on Achebe’s people, the Ibo and his flawed protagonist, Okonkwo. Achebe’s passing in March of 2013 prompted me to read his first novel. Yeats penned his poem in the aftermath of the First World War. Viewing the breadth of death and destruction the war wrought, he wondered “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” A worry that  Achebe shared.

In his 2011 memoir of Nigeria’s civil war Achebe observed:

What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entire travesty is the fact that mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war — ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery.

His observation seemed apt not just for Nigeria. More specifically, as is often the case for me, I thought about education.

Looking at the the state of educational attainment in New York, and in the US more broadly, it is hard at times not to feel like we’re slouching towards some unkind fate. But rather than a rough beast, mediocrity looms as the larger threat we face.

But as you know well by now, ICS is about lighting a candle, not cursing the darkness.

We don’t present Achebe’s masterpiece in 3rd grade. But we lay the groundwork so at the appropriate time children can appreciate literary allusions such as Achebe makes as he leaps (metaphorically) from Onitsha to Ypres to Bethlehem. From the polytheistic beliefs of the Ibo to the Christianity of the British.

We teach geography that helps them to locate US states, and countries like Nigeria, Israel and Belgium on a map. History that helps them to understand how religious belief has influenced social development. Age-appropriate literature like Achebe’s Chike and the River that helps them understand universal themes like respect and family embedded in tales rich with local details. Art and music that renders these themes vividly for younger learners.

On Thursday I met with the leadership of the International School of Brooklyn, a private IB program in Carroll Garden. A beautiful school led by a talented and multi-cultural teachers who generously shared their experiences with me to help ICS succeed. I plan to return to observe classrooms, as I will be doing at a number of nearby schools in the coming weeks.

I walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge that afternoon. On a warm spring evening, the light reflecting off the East River and the Statue of Liberty standing tall in the distance, it felt like no obstacles stood in our way.

We’ll face challenges and be tempted by mediocrity.

But we'll recall Achebe’s warning. Relying on our parents and trustees, we know we will succeed