At a very early age in our development, many of us are expected to go into educational institutions that prepare us for the real world. In theory, we should prepare young individuals with the life skills they will need to be successful as they reach adulthood. Subjects like science, math, English, and history can be seen as fundamental components to a well-rounded individual – and crucial for social progress into the future.
An adult that doesn’t understand basic math or English will likely suffer due to their lack of knowledge. They will have a hard time adapting to a world that expects you to be able to keep track of your own finances, or write an e-mail to a family member, friend, employer, or politician.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the educational institutions we have now are the only (let alone the most desirable) way to teach children these fundamental skills. In fact, our educational system today seems to come with many drawbacks and unhealthy assumptions regarding how to properly educate children.
I’ve been critical of today’s schools ever since I’ve been a part of them. It’s not because I’m bitter for getting poor grades (actually, I was mostly a straight A student who took a college semester’s work of AP classes before I ever graduated high school). I was technically “smart,” in the sense that I knew how to perform well on tests, but that’s not all there is to a good education.
I also don’t think that my dislike of school is due to my specific circumstances. Meaning, I just happened to be put into a bad school. From what I gather, New York has some of the best public schooling in the country, and my particular high school happened to be one of the “better” ones in Nassau County. By all measures, my peers and I were quite “privileged” to attend the schools that we did. Yet, the system still seemed ridden with problems and short-comings that I believe have led to some long-term struggles for me. I imagine these problems are equally represented in other schools around the country (or even around the world).
While I could probably write a book elaborating on some of these things that I believe ruin our current schooling system, I’m going to narrow my focus to 5 main points that I think are fairly universal among most schools. Some of these will likely resonate with your own experiences. Others may not.
1. Grades are more important than knowledge
This is one of the most common critiques I see regarding schools, and rightfully so. There is a world of difference between knowing how to regurgitate facts on a multiple choice or “fill-in-the-blank” test compared to actually understanding the material you are learning. In school, we are taught that an “A” is the highest level of achievement. And so long as you know how to memorize the right things and take a test, then you are presumably “intelligent.”
Why it doesn’t work: When we teach our students how to be more focused on grades, rather than the love for knowledge, we set ourselves up for an intellectually lazy generation. One that is content on mediocrity and “getting by,” rather than developing a true sense of wonder and curiosity.
2. The key to success is obedience and conformity
As I mentioned in the introduction, I was a very good student on paper. Teaches usually liked me because I didn’t cause a ruckus, I didn’t question what they said, and I was very obedient and complacent to what they demanded from me. Even when we were told to write persuasive essays, I usually argued in favor of something that I knew the teacher would approve of (even though in my head I wanted to rebel against these social norms). My few experiences trying to deviate from what was expected usually back-fired on my report cards. I remember one time writing an essay about why video games were good for children, I remember my grade being significantly deflated compared to the times where I argued in accordance to my teacher’s values.
These troubles were especially prevalent throughout my history classes (which were by far my least favorite subjects). As a social science, you cannot teach history without presenting the information from some kind of point-of-view. The best history teachers are the one’s who try to cover issues from a variety of different perspectives, but often times your history teacher is personally biased to present information in a certain way. Critical thinking often becomes diminished for the sake of being a “good student.” To add to the fire, these classes are usually our first taste of politics, so we become molded into a certain way of thinking before ever having the ability to form our own beliefs.
Why it doesn’t work: Often we aren’t just learning English or history – we are implicitly being taught how to conform to the teacher’s worldview, beliefs, values, and personal philosophy. Parents may think they are sending students to school to learn fundamental and universal skills, but often children walk out with a cleverly molded view of reality. (This of course is also true in parenting and other early experiences throughout a child’s life, but the point still stands strong, and schooling is one of the biggest culprits).
3. Procrastinate ’till the last minute and you’ll be OK
So many people I know bullshitted their way through school. They learned all the tricks on how to perform well on homework and tests without ever really putting in any planning or effort. For example, in English class, I used spark notes the night before I had to write an essay way more than I ever read the books we were supposed to read. And grade-wise, I did just fine. For most tests, I could usually cram some memorization in the night of and pass with flying colors. By the time the test was over, I forgot everything I “learned,” and got prepared to bullshit for the next chapter.
Maybe I was smart, maybe the classes were just too easy. That’s one problem you’re going to have when you try to standardize the curriculum to fit hundreds of individual’s varying needs. For me? I rarely felt challenged. I left school thinking I could cut-corners everywhere (and I still face the consequences of this mindset today).
Why it doesn’t work: Now that I’m in the real world, I know that the success I want to accomplish is going to take deliberate planning and hard work. I never learned these lessons in school – I’m trying to learn them now.
4. Your individual interests are largely irrelevant
In this great interview, John Taylor Gatto describes the origins of our current school system. He claims today’s system is largely modeled after the Prussian educational system in the mid-1800s. In the U.S., the Prussian system was advocated and financed by industrial power giants like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and JP Morgan. They viewed individuals in a population as essentially cogs in a wheel; individuals were described as “raw materials” that needed to be “processed” in order to fit the demands of the current economy.
Instead of supporting students to pursue their individual talents and skills, their potential was largely ignored or thwarted, and instead the demands of society as a “whole” (mainly decided on by a select few social engineers – industrialists and politicians) became of primary importance. In essence, the education system was designed to manipulate and control populations on a massive scale. I would argue much of this still holds true today.
Why it doesn’t work: At the very least, the current education system diminishes our potential to evolve and grow, both as individuals and as a society. As individuals – our talents, skills, interests and values are placed as secondary importance. As a society – we lose out on a lot of creative and innovative thinking that could otherwise improve social progress. See this classic TED lecture by Sir Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity.
5. Social hierarchies are rigid and hard to break
One aspect of education that isn’t exactly related to class work is the social hierarchy that is often reinforced behind school walls. Of course, every child has certain social inclinations. Some may prefer large groups of peers, while others may prefer to hang out with smaller groups. The problem with schools is that there isn’t much breathing room to accommodate different student’s social preferences. Most students are usually mandated to be in a classroom with 25-30 students everyday of the week for 6-7 hours (this is usually the standard in both private and public schools).
As a result, introverted individuals, who may need extra time away from people to “recharge their social batteries” won’t get that accommodation met. Instead they will be uncomfortably placed in social settings that in-fact inhibit their social development and make them incredibly nervous and anxious.
School doesn’t directly teach us how to be social or manage our relationships, it just sort of throws us into a social cage and whatever haphazardly develops out of it is what we get. Often for males, aggressive jocks and alpha males rise to the top, while passive nerds and geeks get bulldozed over. And for females, looks and gossip are of primary importance if you want to fit in. Of course these are cliches, but it touches on a general tendency that develops and becomes reinforced throughout many school hierarchies. In return, many students graduate with a warped view of others.
Why it doesn’t work: Schools are a very confining place for social interactions to develop in a healthy manner. They are rarely a good environment to foster compassion and empathy toward others.
I’m sure you won’t agree with everything I said here – everyone’s experiences at school are a bit different. For some, middle school and high school may have been the best times of their lives. For others, it may have been a complete nightmare.
The big point I want to make here is that there are some obvious drawbacks and limitations that come with our current schooling, which unfortunately we don’t seem to have many viable alternatives for.
In general, I think the attitude towards learning that is propagated in many schools today runs at the antithesis to a proper education. Curriculum has been standardized to the point where it only appeals to the lowest common denominator of people. Meanwhile, most individuals, especially ones with passions, skills, and talents, usually have their strengths minimized for the sake of conformity and easy management. As a result, I really feel we all hurt our potential.
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