Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Death of Education in America

The Death of Education in America
     More Americans than ever before attend an institution of higher learning. Yet we are no longer a leading global power in education, or any other thing for that matter. These statements appear at odds with one another, but in actuality they are totally unrelated in that the number of people attending a university has no bearing on the quality of the education these people receive. In fact, the latter is a symptom of what is ailing our dying educational system. You can’t lead in anything if the populace does not know anything. We are, in a way, ignorant because we lack the essential fundamentals that transform knowledge into power: innovation, creativity, and passion. I would argue that higher education in particular has become relatively useless and a devastating waste of money in its current state.
     I know you’re thinking, “wait, doesn’t she work in higher education? How can she make such ostentatious claims when she is a part of the system?” Let me clarify: no longer does one need an institution to bequeath knowledge onto them as knowledge is, and has been for some time, readily available to all who seek it. Hundreds of years ago men went to institutions to learn because books were not in as great supply as they are now. Knowledge was reserved for those with money; money bought the admittance to higher learning and money bought books.  The working class had no time or the financial resources to purchase either.  Of course women weren’t permitted in universities for some time, though if their family was rich enough they could reach a bit of knowledge through books purchased by the family (of course this is a generalization and there were a few women who did the unthinkable and ruined their ‘reputation’ in the conquest of knowledge). In a way, knowledge was rather mysterious to a great deal of people because it was simply harder to attain.
     In 2013, there are libraries and bookstores galore, and the internet does a decent job of filling in the rest. Every book I have every taught out of is available for purchase on amazon.com, as is every essay I use as a teaching tool. So why do people go to university if all they need is available elsewhere for a fraction of the cost? There is, of course, something to be said for having a professor as a sort of mentor and having classmates to bring in new perspectives, but I insist that these benefits offered by a traditional education are rarely utilized when students lack of innovation, creativity, and passion.
     I think it is a fair assumption to say that it takes a great deal of self-motivation, self-disciple, and self-confidence to take on the task of either educating oneself or gaining education by using the tools available at a university. Note all the ‘self-‘s. If you are going to do something for yourself with no one to forcing you do it, as I attempt to do every day in the classroom, you have to want to do it. You have to have a passion for learning and you have to be creative enough to see the connections between subjects (this refers to the well-sung complaint I get from students about how they don’t understand why they have to take Calculus when they are not a Math major). And, you have to be innovative enough to take the knowledge from books and the internet and apply them in shocking, new ways. Most people simply cannot do this. So, they go to the institution of higher learning solely for a quick transfer of knowledge and a slip of paper that may or may not land them in their dead-end dream job. Yet this does no good, clearly. If there is still a lack the aforementioned criterion, it is all just memorization of facts (usually short-term) and the mimicking of processes. What possible good could come from a country whose people can only memorize and mimic?
     But, this is not the fault of higher education. It has been rendered useless by the education one must receive before entering a university. The three key ingredients needed to make one truly intelligent should be learned as early as elementary school.  And this is not because we need more qualified teachers (a stance our government has taken). Qualified or not, teachers simply do not have the time to truly teach. Why? Because of bureaucracy, namely the standardized test.  Teachers are forced into the ‘teaching to the test’ mode for many reasons, including school rankings and government funding (and possibly job security). The students must memorize and mimic only what will be tested on and there is no time to foster any sort of passion for the subjects or projects that demonstrate creative and innovative problem-solving. Sure, there is the PACE program for gifted students (once they reach the third grade that is), which meets about an hour and a half once a week. But that isn’t enough.  And the rest of the students, well I guess they are on their own. 
      The students grow to hate school and subsequently hate learning and that is a terribly hard mindset to undo (I am aware this is a generalization and that there are students who do, in fact, love to learn, but they are most definitely in the minority).  I see the remnants of this mindset in my college students. They say they want to learn, but what they really mean is they want a B or an A so their GPA looks good on their future resume. They want that A or B handed to them essentially; they do not want to work for it because they do not really want to learn. They expect to exude minimal effort and reap the maximum rewards.  And some teachers just give up and give them their A or B because they know it doesn’t matter what they do. Others fail them over and over and over until they have a credit deficit and their financial aid is cut off, leaving them with no degree and upwards of 20,000 dollars in student loan debt.  Yet I maintain this isn’t entirely the students’ fault either. This is the way our educational system has programmed them. How can we now scold them for fulfilling the contract?
     I see the same thing now in my own child, who once loved school and learning until around the second grade. I moved her from a private Christian school to a public one because the quantity of material covered was lacking. I do not regret the move, but with one thing gained another was lost.  It’s equivalent exchange. I traded a narrow minded, slow paced, ‘fun’ learning experience for a broader spectrum of education that teaching memorization and mimicking. Neither would be good in the end, as I have witnessed the products of both in my own classroom. In all honesty, my best students are those that received at least a few years of home schooling.
     So, now we know the cause and the effect of our current situation. The only thing left is the solution. One thing that doesn’t work is money. All the money in the world will not foster a love of learning in these students. The money may buy SMARTboards and ipads. The money might make learning a bit more engaging for a while, but only because it feels like entertainment.  No, money cannot be the answer. But, getting rid of standardized testing might just be a great beginning. Of course, we still need tests, just a different sort; the sort that you can’t just feed into a machine for scoring.
     If teachers could teach what they want within the expectations of their grade level, if they could slow down enough for students to develop a passion for the knowledge, if they could teach in a way they believe is effective for their particular students, and then test students in a way that lets them use creativity and innovation, instead of memorization and mimicking, students might actually become something higher education can work with. And, we just might be able to save this sinking ship.

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