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Lawrence of Arabia and the Road to Hell

  • Not too long ago, I was struck by a comment I read: “Chinese students are constantly striving to excel, to separate themselves from their peers while Americans, with more privileges than any other people in world history, are often content to just coast.” I’m certainly in no position to testify to the accuracy of the generalization, although years of college teaching lead me to believe that it has more than a little merit.

In reading this, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a blind college student a few years ago. She phoned to talk about a research project she would be doing over the summer. As we were getting ready to end the call, she said, “Well, I guess I’ll have to talk with the Office of Disabled Student Services on my campus to make arrangements to use the library where you are.”

I was absolutely dumbfounded. We both knew that the two universities had reciprocal arrangements enabling students of one school to use the library of the other. Why in the world would this intelligent, highly focused young woman think she needed an intermediary to intervene on her behalf?

I would suspect that her behavior was an unintended consequence of her experiences with the educational system. Blind and visually impaired students graduate with a different set of experiences than their sighted peers. Beginning in kindergarten, they are assigned teachers whose role is, among other things, to insure that their textbooks are accessible; to check that testing materials are in a form they can read; to help identify and procure appropriate technology; to work with the conventional classroom teacher if necessary to overcome problems in learning unique to their blindness; and a good deal more. If the student goes on to college, the nature of assistance changes, but the Office of Disabled Student Services, at least to some degree, assumes the role of intercessor on behalf of the student.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of these efforts. All of these resources, when properly used, are of immeasurable benefit. They are only intended to help.

The catch is, however, that, having someone routinely intervene on your behalf year after year can become habit-forming. Everyone concerned – parents, teachers, school administrators, and students – needs to remember That these efforts are dedicated to assisting the student to be independent once they leave school. These resources will disappear the minute the student graduates and will never return the rest of their life.

There is a very thin line between helping the blind student and helping the student to learn to help themselves. When the educational system works as designed, that’s exactly what happens. As T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia said, “It is better that they do it imperfectly with their own hands than it be done perfectly with yours.”

I’m pleased to say that there was a happy ending to my story about the blind student. As soon as I said, “Why in the world do you need someone to speak for you with the library?” the lightbulb went on, and, to her great credit, she immediately answered, “Oh, yeah. You’re right.” The rest of the story (to coin a phrase) is that a few months later she spent a semester abroad in a foreign country with none of the resources she was accustomed to in the US and did quite well. Anyone who can do that, at nineteen and totally blind, has mastered the lesson.

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