There’s something wrong with the baby (Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3)

When I wake up in the morning
And the alarm gives out a warning
I don’t think I’ll ever make it on time
By the time I grab my books,
And I give myself a look,
I’m at the corner just in time to see the bus fly by
So I whistled for a cab and when it came near
The license place said “FRESH” and it had dice in the mirror
If anything I could say that this cab was rare

But I thought ‘Nah, forget it’ – ‘Yo, homes to Bayside’
I pulled up to the school around 7 or 8
And I yelled to the cabbie ‘Yo homes smell ya later’
I know I’m in a mess
And my dog ate all my homework last night
But it’s all right
Because that’s how I became the Fresh Prince of Bayside

It’s April 5, 2014. The top song is still “Happy” and the top movie is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a scathing indictment of the security culture of global surveillance. Speaking of surveillance, in the news, the Irish government establishes a Cabinet committee to investigate the Garda phone recordings controversy, involving years of government phone taps on incoming and outgoing calls at Irish police stations. In other news, the High Court of Australia recognizes a third, “neutral” gender; the U.S. Supreme Court votes to overturn aggregate limits on campaign contributions by individuals, because the Alito court is really, really determined to find ways to protect the right of the super-rich to buy elections; and the Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador demonstrates that you can indeed explode twice.

On TV is Amy Keating Rogers’ last entry of the fourth season, “Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3.” Credit where credit is due, she knocks it out of the park; she has improved drastically since the first season, in part as a result of increasingly taking or being assigned stories that play to her strengths, but also, as this story demonstrates, in part by dealing with her earlier weaknesses.

To very briefly recap those weaknesses, which I discussed in depth back in Season 1, the largest is a tendency to repeat cliches and common narratives uncritically, perpetuating toxic stereotypes not out of malice, but because they are “in the air,” so to speak.  Secondarily, she is distinctly better equipped to write some characters than others; she writes Pinkie Pie extremely well, but precisely because she relies on broad-strokes, cliche-driven characterization, she struggles to depict a more nuanced character like Rarity, and rarely overcomes the issues with more problematic characters like Spike.

Thankfully, Rarity and Spike are barely in this episode, and more importantly, it is entirely about critiquing a particular common attitude, and thus for once avoids the trap of letting that attitude seep in unremarked upon. Specifically, this episode is about learning styles; Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle clash because Twilight’s attempts to help Rainbow Dash study for her test are all rooted in the notion that Rainbow Dash has the same learning style as Twilight. For Twilight, successful learning comes from very traditional means such as reading textbooks, listening to lectures, and studying flashcards. But this is ineffective for Rainbow Dash, who is used to absorbing information from a multitude of sources at high speed–all of Twilight’s methods are too ponderous for her, and her attention wanders. She has similar problems with Fluttershy’s dramatization, Pinkie Pie’s music, and Rarity’s museum-like “history of fashion” display.

Because she is unable to learn from any of the methods presented to her, Rainbow Dash naturally despairs, and decides that she is stupid; what the episode reveals, however, is that she is really quite brilliant within her particular specialty, which is a sort of hyperawareness and near-perfect recall of everything she sees and hears while flying. Given the history lesson in a form that caters to her learning style, Rainbow is able to learn the information quickly, thoroughly, and accurately.

Twilight ends the episode penning the lesson she’s learned, effectively that learning styles vary and should be accommodated before judging anyone’s intelligence, making this the most overtly and straightforwardly political “Letter to Celestia” in the show’s run. Twilight, after all, provided precisely the kind of learning opportunities that typical, traditional schooling entails, such as textbooks, lectures, and rote memorization; Pinkie and Fluttershy provided some of the more generally painful forms of education familiar from public schooling, the unwatchably amateurish skit and the badly outdated, cheaply made attempt at a “cool” song, while Rarity provides the alternative of a museum and Applejack the escape hatch of hands-on, on-the-job learning of a trade. No one, however, provides what Rainbow Dash needs–and in our modern system, it is Rainbow Dash who would likely be punished for the failure of the educational system to meet her needs. Her intellect, if such a thing exists, would be left to flounder unnourished, and that brief scene where she declares herself “dumb” could very well last a lifetime. Indeed, we may see here the origin of her antipathy toward books and “eggheads” back in Season Two; the Equestrian school system shows every sign of operating more or less like our own, and it really does seem as if no one has ever told Rainbow Dash she’s intelligent before–she expects to fail at academic tasks, and affects an attitude of nonchalance toward them until one appears as an obstacle toward her life goals. It seems very likely that Rainbow Dash was very poorly served by her education; it would be in character for her to choose not to care about her schoolwork in order to avoid failing at it–and of course, without instruction that works with her unique learning style, she will fail.

We tend, as a culture, toward victim-blaming both gross and subtler. One of the subtler ways is that we tend to treat systemic problems as “belonging” to the victims rather than the dominant parties. The pay gap is seen as a women’s problem rather than an employers’ problem; high incarceration rates of black men are seen as a black problem rather than a justice-system problem; pollution is seen as a problem for the communities poisoned by it instead of the industries that generate it. And so we tend to view a child failing in school as a problem of that child–they are “dumb” or “lazy” or have a “learning disability.” And sometimes perhaps that’s the case, for example the child is choosing not to participate in their education because they’d rather play video games. But at other times, especially where “dumb” or “disabled” kids are involved, it’s that the child’s learning style isn’t something that fits neatly into the narrow range of styles we’ve arbitrarily declared “normal.”

And that’s where this becomes an intensely political episode–and given some strong views and personal circumstances Rogers shared in regards to the Derpygate incident, almost certainly intensionally political–because of course the only way to broaden that range is to train teachers in more styles, which costs money, and have them spend more time with students with less common styles, which requires more teachers, which costs money, and provide them with the resources necessary to deal with those styles, which costs money, and thus ultimately comes down to the question of how much we choose to prioritize education as a society, which is of course a completely political question.

Yet it is fundamentally a straightforward ethical imperative when phrased in this way: of course a child should be given every chance to succeed. Of course a mind with an unusual gift should be nurtured, even if it doesn’t respond to the “normal” methods. Of course Rainbow Dash shouldn’t be made to feel dumb. Yet from that fairly straightforward, not particularly controversial ethical position we arrive at a moderately controversial political position, that schools should do more and therefore we as a society should spend more money on them. Which is, of course, just the inverse of the more familiar process in which an extreme political position leads to unethical behavior; politics is just ethics on a larger scale, yet somehow our instincts don’t seem to always make the jump when the scale shifts.

And yes, we can argue about political parties and tax rates, revenue streams and budget deficits, but in the end it all slams into the blunt fact of the Rainbow Dash’s of the world, and the ethical failure they represent, just one of many, many ethical failures we hide behind political rhetoric. But they remain, an indictment of our system and our politics–and one so obvious that even a show for little girls can elucidate it in twenty minutes.

Next week: Farce!

0 thoughts on “There’s something wrong with the baby (Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3)

  1. I actually heard a relevant quote not too long ago. “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

  2. Yeah. I thought about bringing up that quote, but I wanted to attribute it, and that turned out to be complicated:

    Anyway, it's not really the same. The quote is saying “fish can't climb trees, but they can do other things, so don't judge them on their tree-climbing while ignoring their swimming.” The episode is more, “fish can't learn to climb trees the way we do, so if you want your fish to climb a tree, it's on you to find a way to enable it.”

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