Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Disservice That Is The American Education System

Our education system is a joke.  We are clinging to an antiquated system that serves to teach our kids almost nothing truly of value in the twelve or thirteen years that they are imprisoned in it.  What's sad is that there is a strong movement among teacher-education programs to inculcate cutting-edge teaching approaches and techniques but at the same time the subject matter--the true core of what a teacher is expected to impart in terms of knowledge--hasn't changed, in many ways, for almost a century.  Instead of worrying about which industries and fields are serving as the gateway(s) to the future, administrators and politicians like our beloved Mayor Mike are obsessing instead about such trite and useless things as Regents examinations and other standardized tests. 

This might come as a surprise but kids who do well on the chemistry and physics Regents do not necessarily go on to become elite NASA scientists and engineers.  In fact, those who are becoming the leaders at the forefront of the American technological movement, particularly in the sciences, aren't even American by birthright!  Instead of focusing on grooming our own future physicists, chemists, and engineers, we are, for all intents and purposes, stealing them from other countries!  Okay, perhaps stealing is a bit harsh.  Maybe we can go with "borrowing" or at least "luring" instead.  Don't believe me?  Listen to what Professor Kaku has to say on the issue:

We should be educating our students about things that are far more salient than the current trend of nonsense that fills our curricula.  School, in its most ideal American sense, is designed to groom our children to be fully functional, productive citizens who can enter the workforce and make effective and efficient contributions to improve our country and the world at large.  How the hell can we expect that to happen when we (as teachers) spend our time "teaching to the test," running through the same type of material that our grandparents learned as children, and ultimately wind up ignoring the subjects and real-life experience that will help to edify our students in ways and to degrees our current system couldn't possibly achieve?  Our history teachers waste time providing instruction about the War of 1812 and the Magna Carta when they could be focusing on the cyclical nature of history and what we can expect to face in the coming years.  Our English teachers ignore or are unable to cope with the fact that their kids cannot write at a sufficient grade level and choose instead to keep plowing through novel after novel, preparing their students for the English Regents but not a job interview.  Instead, you have teachers like my friend Mr. Adrian and myself who are forced to teach in spite of the mandated curriculum that gets forced down our throats.  Though I've never sat in on one of Mr. Adrian's history classes, I can guarantee you that, even when he covers the "material" in the textbook, he does so in a way that truly educates his students.  He uses his time to teach his kids about life--about how to be better people and why the world is the way that it is.  He gives them the tools to help them to transcend the labels they've been given or the futures that have been prescribed for them.  We could have classrooms filled with insightful, thought-provoking men and women like Mr. A and instead we have elementary school teachers who continue to spoon feed our kids the same pointless lies about Native Americans and pilgrims.  We continue to twist the truth but to what end?  To shield our children from the horrors that are our true collective past?  Face it kids: Thanksgiving never happened the way you've been told it did!  Columbus and his European pals came to this continent and wiped out an entire race of people.  Deliberately.  Shove that up your horn-of-plenty!

My own experience with teaching high school helped me to see first-hand how ridiculous our education system is.  The most important parts of that experience--indeed the most rewarding aspects came not from having my students learn about literary elements or understanding the themes in Cry, the Beloved Country.  No--the most critical things that happened were more intrinsic and certainly not part of the state standards.  They were the times that I listened to a kid who was having trouble at home or when I said, "Good morning" to a student who, to that point, felt invisible not just in school but in his or her life.  They were the moments that I spoke to my class about life and got them to think, truly and deeply, about themselves and their futures.

But that kind of stuff isn't part of the standard lesson plan format, now is it?

We continue to follow the same inane format that's been in place since the beginning of the twentieth century...but to what end?  In English, we still teach poetry and have our kids read novels from the same list of poets and novels that's been used for fifty years.  In math, they're still teaching things that, despite the assertions of the well-meaning teachers, most students will never use in their lives!  Don't even get me started on history and science (or the lack thereof as it pertains to the latter).

So what should we be teaching?  How about things that will help our kids figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives or at least get them moving on a productive path?  More importantly, why aren't we teaching things that will help our kids live better lives, period?  We teach them how to write a five-paragraph essay but not how to craft a solid personal statement that they can use when applying for a job or for college.  They learn geometric proofs but not how to manage their own personal finances, for crying out loud!  And we wonder why debt among eighteen to twenty-four year olds is so high!  Have you ever noticed that when a kid turns seventeen, all of a sudden they begin to get mail from credit card companies?  Or what about those same companies that set up booths or sign-up stands outside of colleges during the first few weeks of the semester?  In both instances they lure kids in with language that they couldn't possibly understand (how many eighteen year olds know what it means to be pre-approved or pre-qualified for a credit card?) and promises of the ability to increase their purchasing power exponentially (at the cost of their credit and future income).  What kid is going to read the fine print on those "checks" that credit card companies send out from time to time, promising free money in exchange for nearly usurious interest payments on said cash advances?

It doesn't stop just with the typical subject teachers.  How about gym teachers?  Instead of teaching the most basic skills in a broad cross-section of sports, why not focus more on the importance of proper nutrition and eating habits?  Why not focus on explaining why fast food is so bad for you or pointing out that a single can of Coke has the equivalent of ten packets of sugar in it?  Then again, it looks like an uphill battle, especially when Congress is trying to establish the tomato paste used on those god-awful cafeteria "pizzas" as a vegetable!

And so I'm forced to ask this question: just what exactly are we doing through this so-called education that we are giving to these kids?  What do they walk away with from their thirteen year stay?  A confused jumble of information that they'll likely forget by the time they're twenty, if that long?  What transferable skills do they have?  What direction do they graduate with?  I just finished tutoring a really bright kid who is now halfway through his senior year of high school.  He has no idea what it is that he wants to do with his life...and how could he be expected to?  In all his time in school, what has he learned about the myriad fields that are available to him?  How can he decide whether he wants to be an architect or an astronomer, a brain surgeon or a busker?  Why aren't we spending more time on exposing these kids to as many different career possibilities as we can instead of wasting our time reading Jane Eyre and harping on the French Revolution?

You could say that we should start in elementary school but, in many ways, that's where things are the worst right now!  Thanks to a ridiculous wave of pacifism and a penchant for political correctness, our kids are becoming softer with each passing day.  Instead of helping them to build up their self-esteem through valuable life experiences like failing a test and finding redemption on the next one, we're trying to shield them from the very things that will ultimately serve to build them up.  Rather than tapping into the inherent but occasionally latent competitiveness that exists in all of us, administrators are seeking to end the use of number grades and switch instead to a gentler system that still upholds the students' fragile self-confidence.  Bullshit!  Give me a break!  You know who wants change like that?  The parents of the kids who aren't getting high grades.  Rather than encouraging their kids to try harder, to seek out additional help, and, ultimately, to challenge themselves to find a way to succeed, they choose to alter the system to mollify the dangerously-breakable spirits of these children.

Now before you start citing all sorts of papers dedicated to proving why the use of grading in school is counterproductive or inefficient, let me remind you that grading occurs everywhere in life.  In some places, it's more overt like companies that have an Employee of the Month award, but in most it's more subtle and yet ever-present.  What sort of preparation for the real world are you giving to a kid by constructing this fallacy that everyone is intellectually equal and that seventh place is just as good as first when that's not how it is in business or in life?  It's going to come as a rude awakening to that kid who joins a rotation at a huge investment bank and then finds out that he or she is the only one who wasn't given an offer for long-term employment.  What will that kid or those parents do then?  Sue the company?  Blame unfair comparative practices for their inability to measure up to the competition?

In some schools, they're even removing such vaunted honors as valedictorians and salutatorians.  I'll tell you right now--I would be pissed beyond words if my kid busted his or her ass for four years (or however long) and earned the highest average in the entire school only to be denied the honor of being named valedictorian because some other sissy kid's self-esteem might be damaged because he wasn't named valedictorian.  What happened to merit-based rewards?  And what's next?  Will children's sports be the next field to take a hit?  In five years will games be played without any points or scoring so as to ensure that all the players feel an equal level of self-actualization?  My, my!  Bless their little palpitating hearts!  Will everyone come in first place because no standings were kept?

As teachers AND parents, we need to stop being so goddamn passive and start acting and effecting change.  We need to fight to get the curriculum changed--not just a little bit but a complete overhaul.  Let's stop outsourcing our "geniuses" and start focusing on developing our own!  Let's prepare our students for college, for the job market, and for the rest of their lives instead of handing them their diplomas and tossing them out on their asses with a "Good luck, Chuck!" mentality.  Let's put more emphasis on helping these kids to develop respect for themselves as well as for others--for their minds, their bodies, and their spirits.  Let's teach them the importance of proper nutrition, proper rest habits, and proper exercise routines.  We need to give them the skills that will help them to succeed in life instead of sitting back and letting them grope about blindly in the dark.  We need to tell kids who are failing that they are failing and then give them the support, encouragement, and guidance that will help them to succeed.  We need to stop worrying about offending people and protecting everyone else's feelings and start toughening up instead of using carefully crafted terminology when referring to certain types of people.  Saying "handicapped" or "handicapable" (or any of the myriad politically correct terminology that exists today) won't change the physical limitations that have been placed upon that a given person; only his or her spirit, will, and desire to succeed will determine whether or not they rise above the lot they've been given.  And if they are offended or disheartened by an archaic referential term then they need to reassess both their priorities and the direction into which they are putting their energy.

So let's stop coddling our kids, let's stop regurgitating the same banal material, and let's start figuring out how we can help our students and children reach their full potential not in math, science, or English but in life.  Isn't that what being a teacher and/or a parent is all about?  We need to take ownership of the state of our education system and resolve to engender transformation as a result of our action.  Let's turn our pacifism into anger and that anger into something productive: the courage and motivation to fight for an end to the disservices that are being done to our kids in the form of the modern American classroom.

"Man...I see all this potential and I see squandering. Goddamn it--an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war--our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."  --Tyler Durden