Man, I have been thinking so much about this over the past couple years, and I cannot seem to get my brain around it… what are we doing with education in the world today and why are we doing it?
Albert Einstein, who most people acknowledge was a pretty smart guy, defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I think he was really onto something there and I would love to hear what he might have to say about the state of education in the world today. [Especially since his educational experiences were interesting and widely misunderstood.] My hypothesis is that he would be horrified, but I may be projecting my own horror here.
I am a teacher. Not an English speaker who, by that qualification alone can teach in Asia. (If that sounds arrogant, whatever- I am a better teacher for my training and experience and I know that is true.) I believe in sharing ideas and information and enthusiasm with other people, and I think this is teaching. Since I believe that teaching is a dialog, and dialog [proper] should be dynamic, it makes sense that to have the same dialog over and over ad nauseum is pointless. As put forward here, Shift Happens. So, why aren’t we shifting??
I left my job in the US feeling very disenchanted and disconnected with “education”. I was watching the people who worked the hardest get treated the worst among my colleagues and the students who needed the most attention get the least. Everyone, from my administration on down wanted to take the easy road, and everyone was okay with this attitude as long as no one talked about it or brought it up.
I am not sure I have always been a popular teacher. I hear I give too much work and grade too harshly and have too high of expectations. [Which, by the way, sounds pretty much how lots of people I know personally might judge me as well….] But I do know this: For the students who were willing to TRY and to INQUIRE I was willing to do anything for them. Hours after school, during school, on weekends… anything to show them that the joy in learning, in any endeavor really, was in working things out and understanding things in new ways.
I spent years justifying my curriculum to my schools (they thought it was too risky or unusual or unnecessary – Human Geography? they said, Why would anyone need to take that?? Bowling for Columbine? I think that might be a bit too much…); justifying the courses to my students (which I don’t mind because they deserve to know why they are doing something and I do not think that anyone really ever sat them down and told them that education for education’s sake is important); justifying my work to myself… (why was I always fighting this uphill battle? If kids don’t want to learn and parents don’t want to be bothered and faculties and administrations don’t want to notice, why should I?)
Now I teach in Hong Kong where these attitudes have been distilled down to something much more concentrated. Hong Kong [international] students want to do whatever it takes to get into “good” universities, and if this means they have to take a variety of classes that comprise a “traditional” liberal arts curriculum they will do what they have to do. But there is little joy there and it is totally results-driven. The process is irrelevant and the material just something to present for a grade to send to the College Board. Local Hong Kong students want to be accountants and therefore find little of interest in humanities, believing that their decade of Chinese History lessons was more than adequate and torturous. Of course they are all “good” students because they all want “good” grades and to get into “good” universities… but this brings me back to my original question: WHY????
Why go to school at all if this is what it has become?
Are we better off being “educated”? Does it matter any more? Does anyone really care WHAT you know, or is it just WHO you know?
Is thinking really all that important, or is it just getting in the way of streamlining the career-track?
There are articles being published all the time (and this is not really a new phenomenon, here is a good read, and here’s another good one, and also here) about the crisis in education today. About how university students require more remediation, that they are not thinkers, that they would prefer to just get the facts please, ma’am. About the dangers of a public education. The gist of a lot of this thinking is that the schools are flawed, that the system is broken, that No Child Left Behind does exactly that… leaving us all behind. And I agree with those sentiments by and large… But I do not think that is the root of the problem. I think the real problem is far more insidious. If these were the real problems then Hong Kong students would not have the same deficiencies that we see in American students (Hong Kong students have far better test scores, but still struggle with the same things US kids do once they enter the prized Universities – thinking.) In Hong Kong there is ample money in the schools (they are mostly heavily privatized or subsidized), the teachers are all ‘highly qualified’ (save many of the Native English Teachers in local schools), and there is no NCLB legislation. In fact, Hong Kong is reforming education so that it looks less like the traditional test-results driven machine it has always been, and what NCLB is striving for in the US. But the reforms are of little importance because the clientele and the practitioners in education are really still concerned with the same thing – the result rather than the process and so, the process is lost.
That process is thinking… abstract thought, analysis, criticism, argument… all gone.
The old cliche tells us, it is about the journey not the destination, and a simple Google search of this phrase returns half a million hits. People enjoy a good turn of phrase, but what about the message there? The only thing we reward in education IS the destination. I cannot count the number of students I worked with who made such incredible leaps and bounds in comprehension and piqued their interest and curiosity in the world, only to be ultimately judged as average or inadequate because their finished product was formatted incorrectly, or didn’t meet a standard on the five-page rubric. They received no acknowledgement of their thoughts or questions and after the amount of work [ie: THOUGHT] they had put in, why would they be motivated to do it again? (See the Einstein reference above.)
We have all the tools to be bigger, faster, stronger, smarter… so what is the problem? In 1949 when George Orwell published 1984, he postulated that what would lead to the demise of humanity would be the withholding of information and the universal imposition of our worst fears. Seventeen years earlier, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World suggested that what would really kill us was complete access to everything we wanted and desired. In other words, keeping us fat and happy and sexed up and with a shitstorm of information would keep us complacent, calm and easily manipulated because no one would be paying any attention. I believe Huxley had it right. In a commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ted Gup says as much when he describes how the abundance of information has dulled the senses and created a more isolated society than connected one. When I look around, I must agree. Check out Idiocracy and let me know what you think.
So I ask again, what do we want our “younger” generations to get out of school? And are we willing to work to articulate these goals and follow through with a little consistency tempered with flexibility and work? [Yes Maynard G. Krebs – I said work!] If we are not going to tangibly reward thinkers and the pursuit of education for the sake of education, then let’s just be honest about it and call it a day. Why should people in ALL the strata of society be informed and critical and articulate? Well, why shouldn’t they? I know a lot of people say that we shouldn’t force thinking on those who don’t want it; if he wants to dig a ditch and watch Jerry Springer, why does he need to study history? But this only underscores my original point… which, if you have lost it is this: IT IS CRIMINAL THAT WE HAVE CREATED AN ENTIRE GENERATION (OR MORE) THAT DOES NOT WANT TO THINK.
And we need to fix this.