Schools reflect and influence culture at the same time.
I’ve made a similar argument in previous articles, but I think it bears repeating.
When Americans criticize their education system, they focus on an analysis of schools. Many of our schools are ineffective, so it’s not misguided. If we buy Susan Engel’s argument in this video (and I do), schools might be damaging a child’s natural capacity to learn.
After more than a decade teaching English at a community college—years of facing classrooms where a small fraction of students come with enough reading skills to comprehend a textbook—I should admit that the rat nest of problems I see now has me far more confused tha I was when I started teaching in the 90’s.
The problems I’m articulating in this post are not exhaustive. They are, however, at least from my view, primary. Our education crisis is in danger of becoming a social catastrophe, and the signs are already here. To change that, these three items need dismantling.
1.) We don’t actually like learning
Not really. Not for the sake of it. Not the way toddlers like learning.
Last week I graded an essay that argued college requires too many classes. The student’s goal was to become a first grade teacher, and she felt she should only have to take classes that “led to her goal”. Her greatest complaint: she had to complete Humanities courses, and she described what a “waste of time” an Art History class had been. It required a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago where she had to look at “pointless pictures”.
My response: Why do you want to be a teacher if you don’t like learning, if you think human expression is pointless? This shocked her. She expected me to say, “Right on! Fight the man!”
I’ve lost count of how many aspiring teachers have complained about having to learn something. A famous complaint, and it comes often, is self-incriminating: “I’m only going to be teaching third grade, but you want me to bring my reading up to 12th? You want me to take college algebra, but I’m only going to be teaching arithmetic.”
These students do not grow up in a vacuum, and they’re more common than you’d expect. The opposite student, the one fascinated by the elegance of the Pythagorean Theorem or moved to tears by a Clyfford Still, is extremely rare. Of course, as toddlers, we all used to bring sticks to our parents and scream, “Wow!”
Our culture is not fascinated by that stick, and we do not feel that the examined life is worth living, that human expression is valuable all on its own. We tie most of our tasks to outcomes. Why do it if there’s no benefit?
If we can’t predict any benefit, we conclude there won’t actually be any. What benefit might motivate us?
2.) We’re motivated by rewards and punishments.
I always find it odd that people—usually administrators—most strongly opposed to eliminating grades are also those who believe we should not hold anybody back. Students fail, the idea goes, because teachers have failed to teach properly. But we can’t get rid of grades because there won’t be any way to motivate. They don’t the see the obvious contradiction: if everybody’s passing, grades don’t really exist.
Students internalize the myth that grades represent something. If grades were accurate representations of skill, 100% of my Composition students would be reading at level. The actual number is around 10-15%.
The same students have also internalized the idea that there’s no reason to do anything unless someone else is giving them something or because someone else might take something away. A teacher who grades an essay is not suggesting an alternative viewpoint—that an aspiring teacher should shift goals and actually enjoy the opportunity to tour a world-famous museum—but instead takes away the student’s chance to “get the job she wants”.
Here is, then, the conundrum. Learning something does not justify itself. However, desiring something does.
A further complication in this mentality is our definition of reward: bursts of dopamine. Texting is worth it because it makes us feel good. But reading the news is bad because it confuses or “takes time away” from more pleasant activities. Texting rewards and the news punishes.
So, why learn anything? Well…because you might get rich later. Or if you don’t learn these things—if you don’t “hop through these hoops”—you might end up penniless. We dangle the threat of poverty in front of our kids in one breath; in the next we use phrases like “saddle our children with debt” while discussing the cost of college. We actually expect our kids to pay for their own schooling—if we didn’t, the phrase would be saddle the nation’s parents with debt—when we’ve been teaching them that education offers financial rewards.
We believe our own mythology, leave our contradictions unexamined and expect our kids to buy in.
Of course, some expectations are more damaging than others.
3.) We feel our children represent our status.
Deep in our social consciousness, buried beneath all of our supposed optimism and can-do spirit, we Americans have a troublesome POV. It’s actually a white elephant, a viewpoint framing most any debate we have over a social issue, and we’re nowhere close to losing it.
We believe that human beings need to justify their existence. How else to explain the debate over health care? What have you done to deserve quality health care? Why should someone else take care of you if you’re sick and unable to do it yourself? Why haven’t you accomplished what others have accomplished? Now you want your neighbors’ help? What makes you think you’re worth it?
We equate human value with earning capacity. That capacity is not only the individual’s but also the system’s: we are valuable when we earn and also when someone else can earn off us.
To be fair, this is a debate, with vocal opponents on the opposite end. But the assumptions underlying these points of view influence our society—and, therefore, the culture of our schools—more than we consciously recognize.
Take this question, posed so often by parents to educators: Will my child amount to anything?
To answer it, I’ll defer to Shin’ichi Suzuki, a master violin teacher. This is from his book Nurtured by Love, where Suzuki responds to a mother wondering if her child will ever amount to anything.
No, ma’am, he won’t be a thing…
…But your child will be a fine human being. That’s sufficient, isn’t it? I’d recommend avoiding the implication that it’s not worth the effort unless he’s particularly gifted, and that you’ll have him give up the training otherwise. It feels to me when parents question whether a child will amount to anything, that behind the question lurks an unwholesome view of the child as potentially a usable thing, or worse, a profitable thing.
I prefer to think that a parent nurturing a child should be satisfied with helping the child develop, to whatever degree possible, toward becoming an accomplished and beautiful-hearted person, and to head toward a path of happiness. If the child develops respectably as a human being, a respectable path will open up for him. On the other hand, if the parent makes him hopeless as a human being, the child has no choice but to walk along a hopeless path.
Your child’s violin playing is developing wonderfully. Let’s you and I together continue our efforts to refine his heart.
Of course, to refine the hearts of others, we have to refine our own. To do so, we have to like learning, and we have to be motivated by the opportunity each moment provides us to examine ourselves.
Photo: edans / flickr