I happened to catch this article about a Florida school that hands out a “Writing Power” bar before the kids take their literature exams. Time Magazine calls it an attempt to engage the placebo effect on test scores.
OK, so it’s not exactly Vodou. But it is what Jason Miller talks about in his entry today, where he rules out two possibilities — first, that magic is just psychology, and second, that psychology isn’t magic. Handing a kid a power bar that’s basically a granola bar, but labeling it differently, may in fact have the same kind of meritorious effect as placebo drugs. Kids may in fact perform better on their exams through this bit of placebo work. Is it magic? Is it psychology? Is it a little bit of both?
I’d like to add in another part of this, though. Have the teachers and test administrators done the ‘magical’ work here, or the students? It’s kind of a two-parter, isn’t it? On the one hand, the teachers and administrators know that the success of their school depends on their kids getting good test scores. So they’ve performed an enchantment to provide every kid with a consumable talisman for success. The kids may have noticed that they were being fed a talisman, or maybe not (they probably wouldn’t know it was a talisman – a device for transmitting magic). It’s definitely built with the intention of creating a long-term advantage or result accruing to a town — its students, its families, its educator-employees, and more.
Something similar was undertaken in the 1980s with SmartFood. These were bags of cheesy popcorn, as I recall, and I distinctly remember them being marketed to us in my high school’s school store, as “food to eat before exams.” Our newspaper’s cartoonist, a very famous Seth, even made fun of that particular marketing gimmick in one issue.
Gordon, in his blog, regularly writes about magic’s central place in the history of our species. All kinds of things, from drumming to SmartFood, is in part an effort to influence the world to act in our favor. And hey, if the Egyptians can build pyramids and write a Book of the Dead, why not hand out talismans so kids can do better on their exams?
This begs the question of why have examinations in the first place, but that’s for a different post. One that I write, after I’ve finished digesting and processing Seth Godin’s new manifesto about education.