Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Educational Wish List

"Getting our kids ready for a complex world is the nation's second-most important challenge, behind controlling terrorism. The education challenge grows even more important when you factor in the large – and irreversible – wave of Latino immigrants enrolling in schools across America."
-An editorialist for the Dallas Morning news writing yet another article about education's importance.

The chant for better education in the American public system continues. The message drones on and on, everyday, ad nausea. A concerned American may only read the paper for three days, and find at least five editorial columns on education. The writers will demand that school ends poverty, racial inequality, crime, unassimilated illegal aliens, sexual immorality, obesity, and naturally, widespread ignorance. The newspapers actually have more items on this wish list; these are simply the latest to be read. The editorials accomplish very little since they offer absolutely no ways to actually address these demands in social progress, but they do effectively cloud the definition of school.

Writers and pretty much everyone outside of education don't know that their clamoring often makes the problem more difficult and, even worse, puts the creation of a solution into the government’s hands. Of course, they don’t intend to do this. They just seek greater accountability from a bloated, poorly run government institution. This is a valid judgment for most public school districts, especially ones in big cities, which are in fact bloated and poorly run. However, simply asking schools to do more does not solve the problem. Rather than offer solutions, so many columnists cynically make their demands and conclude with a "Shape up teachers!" with the tacit consent of frustrated parents who need someone to blame. Unfortunately, piling on so many more duties and burdens to school create a philosophic conundrum for schools: Just what are we trying to do?

This question used to be easy. People knew that schools were meant to guide (notice, I didn't use the verb, force-feed) kids in learning how to read, write, and reason logically. Like a mother bird regurgitating food to the baby bird, the teacher regurgitates these huge skills into digestible servings that the student can handle at their respective level. If the student follows the teacher's instructions, he will climb the tower of knowledge, and eventually arrive at a point where he can teach himself and keep informed. At that point, he could find a trade or attend a college or university and try to pursue the reaches of his intellectual potential according to his own academic proclivities. The student's success depends on his willingness to achieve, which in turn depends on his parent's willingness to encourage achievement. If these qualities do not present themselves, the student wouldn't have to burden the teacher nor wouldn't burden the student.

Now, school has become a complicated place. All children must attend it, even illegal aliens and the severely mentally disabled. Actually, this rule has necessitated vast truancy departments set on catching miscreants playing hooky. All students must learn material at a certain level at the same or similar pace despite having very different capabilities and very different backgrounds. All students must take seven or eight different classes everyday and spend at least 7 hours a day in a school building even if it's unnecessary and even detrimental to independent study. All students must proceed to some kind of higher education after completing 13 years of school as if a four-year college was the only way to adequately prepare kids for the real world. All students must find some intrinsic motivation in learning, despite the frequent pointless assessments and ensuing punitive consequences for not performing that effectively blow that concept of learning for fun into the realm of fantasy. All student behavior and discipline must be held accountable to the national standard even if they are criminals, addicted to substances, or come from families that encourage irresponsibility. All kids must be physically fit (this is a relatively new one) despite their poor meal choices (including school lunch) and chronically lethargic living habits. All kids must know the details of reproduction and effective contraceptives even if they still continue to have children regularly like their parents did before them. All kids must learn a foreign language despite their struggles with English. All kids must be capable on the newest technology, so they watch it become obsolete the next year if it's not obsolete already. All kids must read the designated canon of books, which are often years beyond their level.

In essence, schools must now become the omnipotent ubiquitous influence in every developing individual. Every aspect must be covered from sexual activity to a nominal understanding of the prescribed canons of school literature including riveting works like The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations. Furthermore, every demand must be implemented and assessed collectively. Every moral failing of parents and the students themselves (don't be fooled, young people aren't completely blameless for their stupidity) must be undertaken and accounted for by the school. Luckily, the endless vices of materialistic modern society amply provide a continuous flow or moral failings and thus more demands. Finally, for all those who don't have these failings in discipline, morality, or character, they will be put with those that do and gradually be pulled down with them. Schools will determine success and failure in all matters of life since they will eventually encompass all levels of judgment. The good teacher will be the one that effectively keeps his kids in a prosaic delirium. The good student will be the kid that follows orders (no matter how irrelevant they might be) and complains the least. Surely, someone might find their valedictorians having this obsequious quality instead of actual cerebral aptitude.

If this sounds Orwellian, it's because it is. One only needs to visit the nearest school and remark the eerie resemblance it has to jail or factory. Schools are the intimidating monoliths of the collective. Like every collective, they will never endow brilliance or virtue. No collective ever has. The decisions made by the individual will always triumph over the decisions of the collective. Like they were in the past, schools should only be the tools to enlightenment providing the means to individual progress, nothing more. Otherwise, intellectual responsibility, personal discipline, and academic quality in general become severely compromised. Just take a look at American public schools.

Still, how can people hold schools accountable if not by making demands of them? After all, kids need to be ready for the new challenges of the modern world. Schools need to teach the kids before China takes over and every menial job not done by machines will be exported to Asia or South America.

The only way to improve is to stop making demands. Clean the slate of school's responsibilities and determine, realistically, how it can serve the intellectual progress of students. Allow the kids and parents a choice in what they want. Pave the way for independent study instead of clinging naively to the extended sessions of jejune worksheets and standardized tests. That huge, nasty school bureaucracy that infects every large community can be purged and greatly simplified. Real results or progression could be achieved instead a great mass of nothing that costs so many tax dollars. Kids shouldn't have to wait until college to actually learn something on their own.

Unfortunately, government never gets smaller. If any improvement arrives, it will come from a resilient individual conquering the barriers of the collective. Good parents and good teachers are also necessary, but they’re very few of them. It's unfortunate that most students would have to follow the advice of Mark Twain for now, "Don't let school get in the way of your education."

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