Wednesday, November 17, 2010
posted by Q6 at 6:34 PM
There are lots of things wrong with education today. Lately, and not at all in a good way, I find myself asking, "Why?"

I guess my first criticism of the current educational paradigm came when I started teaching High School English in the inner-city. The novels I was "forced" to teach (although standardized and aligned curricula was still years away, required reading lists were well established) included The Outsiders and The Scarlet Letter. The first, written about teenagers in the 1960's midwest, would only be mildly accessible to students in 1990s South Central Los Angeles; the second, written in the late 1800s about events in the mid-1600s, made even less sense to me. Classics, yes, agreed -- but aren't these the books people are supposed to read AFTER they develop the ability and a passion for reading? I came to a simple conclusion: we're doing it wrong.

I taught them, of course. I was a young, new teacher interested in keeping his job. Fortunately, the rules did not forbid me from teaching additional works, so I added Stephen King ("Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption") and John Grisham (one year, The Runaway Jury; another year, The Street Lawyer). And wouldn't you know it? Both the interest as well as the discussion were greatly heightened with books that the students were able to access: modern literature, written today, about today. In time, I think, those students would learn to enjoy reading enough to take a bite out of Hawthorne or Fitzgerald or Hemmingway or Austen.

Years later, as a secondary administrator, I see student after student running at top speed toward a brick wall. What is the purpose of high school, these days? I know a [more frequently disgruntled each day] colleague who is not at all fond of high school athletics, who describes the student athletes' school lives as working day in and day out to achieve nothing more than putting a ball through a hoop or into a net. Lately I see AP and Honors students working like mad to satisfy college entrance requirements and I wonder if there's any difference at all between the two?

Of course, once I start to doubt the logistics (or even the legitimacy?) of the educational system, similar thinking seems to come out of the woodwork. (It's like buying a Volkswagen Bug, or becoming pregnant: as soon as it's relevant to you, it's suddenly everywhere.) There are blogs and movies and more movies and Internet videos that make the same arguments, and I'm left wondering where it's going . . . and why I can still stomach being a part of it.

I see the current education system as a large tunnel, a one-way road through an enormous mountain. It has parameters, it has a course to follow, and once you emerge on the other side you can make turns, choose your own direction, or even blaze your own trail. And as wonderful and noble as that all sounds, I use the tunnel metaphor because it includes some very serious setbacks.

Example: a tunnel, though it keeps you on track and on course toward a goal, blinds you to everything outside the tunnel. If there are better roads, or landmarks of which to take note, or scenery to enjoy, it makes no difference inside the tunnel.

Example: a tunnel keeps you focused on one goal, and one goal only -- the light at the end. So what happens when someone comes along and tacks on four more years of tunnel extension, calls it college, and makes it a [more or less] required part of your journey? It's not like you can turn back.

Looking even closer at my tunnel metaphor, I can't help but think that some of the problems we now have to deal with -- concerning not only educating young people but just concerning young people in general -- are not just a burden to the educational system, but a direct result of the system.

Example: ADD/ADHD can be described (and, for all I know, has been described) as the educational equivalent of claustrophobia. If we go back to the tunnel analogy, consider: students who "have a difficult time concentrating" demonstrate that they are not comfortable or able to focus while in the tunnel. As there is no other option to travel this particular road but through the tunnel (at least, no generally accepted way), it becomes necessary to alter the brain chemistry to the degree that it can function within the tunnel. When did ADD/ADHD begin to become prevalent? Well, it would be stupid to assume that this condition, which most agree is nothing more that the specifics of brain chemistry, arrived so recently in our evolution as the early 1990s, but that's exactly when this particular condition of brain chemistry was named and treatment for it was developed. So what else happened around that same time to bring things to the forefront?

Every system -- be it eco-, socio-, or otherwise -- has what's called a "carrying capacity," which is a term that describes the amount of consumption that a system can sustain and remain viable. If the system is under it's carrying capacity, there are plenty of resources to go around (and then some); if the system is at its carrying capacity, there are only just enough resources and we'd better not waste any; if, however, the population of the system exceeds the system's carrying capacity, there is fierce competition for the available resources, and those who go without are not sustained. I believe this is what happened with the college system beginning in the 1990s: colleges and universities, plagued with insufficient seats for those who wanted them, began to exceed their carrying capacities. Before this, as far back as the 1800s and as recent as the 1970s, not eveyone went to college and there were ample post-secondary resources for those that wanted them. Today, the mantra has changed: "You GO to fucking college." The university system, unlike the compulsory K-12 public education system, is neither designed nor funded to accommodate everyone, has exceeded its carrying capacity, and we now find ourselves with a problem (the "problem" being that you now need a 4.3 GPA in order to even be considered for entry, which is mathematically, staggeringly asinine). Where some people once stayed out of college by choice, we now find many who are left out against their will ("their" being a stupid term to use to describe the will in question, as many are going to college at the behest of parents, societal pressures, or economics -- their own desires being last, if present at all, in that list). Those students who, so long ago, would not have opted for college -- and now must -- find themselves needing medication in order to fit through a tunnel of that length and duration.

Add to all of that the transition we made from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, a transition that many seem to have either missed or intentionally ignored, as we haven't really changed the education system since the transition and have made few (or overwhelmingly misguided) efforts to prepare students for the radially different workplaces the 21st Century will have to offer them. (Some would suggest that calling this the "Information Age" is, in and of itself, unwise -- I observed a 12th grade AP Literature class the other day as they analyzed a poem: not one of them knew what a "bog" was, nor could they describe some other simple thing. For children born into the "Information Age" they seem to lack the requirements for the title.) I shudder whenever I hear someone say that the students we're currently teaching must be prepared for jobs that don't exist yet -- how the hell are WE supposed to prepare them for something like that?

And so, at the end of it all (and if you're still reading, thank you for putting up with all of that), I find myself asking, "Why?" Why do we continue to turn the crank on an antiquated educational paradigm? Why do we push so hard, so far, so fast? With all the technology, knowledge, and expertise at our disposal, why can't we figure out how to slow down? Why can't we have a 21st Century Period of Enlightenment that enables us to change our focus and relieve the pressure?

Why do we do all of this, again? And why don't we do it differently?