What is the point of school anyhow???

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.


About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
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6 Responses to What is the point of school anyhow???

  1. Amanda says:

    PS: As if I hadn’t said enough, I just wanted to comment on something I hear all the time, which is that “schooling isn’t necessarily the best education…” To which I say:
    1) That is a huge problem with the school system, because IT SHOULD BE
    2) It is a very rare bird indeed that can self-educate… the socio-cultural aspect of school matters
    3) The world cannot be understood by those who do not or cannot think… and so “seeing the world” will only help those who have honed their sklls. Where are they doing this? I mean, the arrogance! Even Socrates knew you couldn’t do it alone.

    If schools are not necessarily the best education, well… I don’t know what to say, but I sure want to know WHY.

  2. Carl Roth says:

    Just cause I don’t have a lot of time it may sound curt – but you’re a gem, so bear with me. I think you are on the right track, but maybe you do expect too much out of your students. Yes, you would give anything to those that asked it of you, but those sound like the self-educating kind the way you describe it.

    I do believe there needs to be a serious overhaul of the system, but that will take decades. You’re insight into those that you have worked with that put in the thought, the change, the discovery process experienced only to be graded as average, you are on to an area that needs to be addressed. Until you said it like that, I hadn’t considered that point of view. Never even saw it for what it was really.

    State of kids today at the harshest:


    Read this issue of Hellblazer, “Shoot”. It was pulled from publication, for reasons you will see. It will be a quick read for you.

    In a sense, AinHK, you may need to dumb it down a little for the purpose of attracting the darkness to the flame. You have the chance to inspire through perhaps mundane, yet effective means to get more people thinking. In a sense, you are a life guard in a world of people who don’t know they can swim. Offer the hand. It will take patience to adjust your style to get ‘different results using different methods’, but you have the tenacity to pull it off. That I can see in the passion in your writing.

    Peace, love and rockets!


  3. Carl Roth says:

    P.S. I teach kung fu and get really into it. Sometimes, I overdo it with my students as far as imparting of info or expectations on progress. I have to continually adjust my teaching methods. I’m more passionate than they are about it, most of the time. But, it’s fun to do.

  4. bill says:

    “How Do I Disagree With You, Let Me Count the Ways.”

    If I didn’t get the idea from your treatise that you were referring to FORMAL education, I would agree with a lot of what you said. “Education for education’s sake” is true for some, just as “Them that can, do, and those that can’t, teach” is true for some.

    I am uneducated [I do have three college credits. 1963, U of Illinois, Navy Pier branch. I received a “C” from Robert M. Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” although I had dropped out of school just after mid-terms to play poker in the student union. He apparently liked my writing. However, he was soon after institutionalized by his family].

    I am not qualified by education to teach pre-school, yet who is better qualified to teach a business class? I have employed 1500 people over the years, many of them students. The books I’ve seen from the business students are a joke.

    I don’t care if the person that fixes my car, (or builds it) or feeds me in a restaurant, or takes care of my yard, or cleans my clothes, etc. ad infinitum, has a MA or PHD.

    My partner in the delivery business went to trade school in LA after high school (heretic for a Jewish boy). He opened an auto repair shop after “graduation”. By the age of 35 he had a beautiful Victorian near downtown, several rental properties, a condo in Tahoe and enough money to send hid kids to college if they so choose. He can’t spell.

    The inference that one cannot THINK, without formal education is the hight of arrogance (but I still love you).

  5. Amanda says:

    Ah, but I think you agree with me more than you think… My issue is that if people aren’t learning and practicing thinking in school, why bother going? [“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.”]

    And the larger problem is that I do not think people value thought in general because it does not have a clear enough bottom line.

    And of course, I am speaking of secondary education most directly, not the tertiary/voluntary level. We make mandatory a flawed practice… it would be like you requiring that your cooks hop on one foot the entire time they cook… yeah, some of them would still be great, but really what would be the point? Make it meaningful or can it. That is my point…

    People should want to be thinkers… and I know you are, degree or whatever… And I bet you attended at least as much high school as I suffered through (good ole’ PHS) which is the larger focus of my ire.

    And you know I adore you no matter how much I irk you…

  6. bill says:

    I suspected that we might be in agreement, at least in part, about the public education system. Your piece was probably over my head.

    My take is based on the dark ages when I was in school. Firstly, you did not progress in grade school unless you met certain basic requirements. There were 3 or 4 17 year olds in my 8th grade class, including one guy who had lied about his age and joined the navy.

    There was no such thing as Junior High School. My observation from when my daughters were in PJHS is that they are an abomination.

    There were two vocational high schools in Chicago and most others had wood shop, metal shop and auto shop. That was a good thing.
    We would be better off if those whose IQ’s are below a certain level not be allowed to think at all. Manditory trade school.

    I knew a lot about good ole’ PHS through many years of many employees. I told my daughters that it wasn’t a great school, but you can get an education if you want. They both did zero hour the first three years and graduated with 4.65’s. I’m sure you did well there also. Much better students then their dad!

    You don’t irk me at all…you make me think, and that’s a good thing. Helps fight off senility.

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