What would happen if we admitted most of what we say to young people about education is false?
I’m among those educators who hope Americans can begin to rethink the assumptions we have about education. The situation is worse than most people imagine, and it’s particularly bad for men, especially when they’re from the underclasses.
We actually distract ourselves from the true issues behind our flawed education system, and we do it by focusing on things like policy, curriculum, the quality of teachers, etc. These are worth attention, but they’re just symptoms. The truth is that our system is flawed because of what purpose we believe education should serve. Greater and greater numbers of people in our society are developing habits and perspectives that keep them from learning. And we don’t teach people how to learn.
The following are myths. At the end of the article I’ll explain how I believe they affect young men.
Education is necessary
No, it isn’t. I don’t mean it isn’t necessary in order to find work or to discover happiness. Education isn’t necessary, period. Job training is necessary in order to work a job. But education and job training are two separate things. In short, an educated person learns to analyze information, consider issues and problems from multiple points of view, and introspect. A trained person learns to perform tasks, often in systematic ways.
Given this, it’s damaging to believe one ought to get educated.
We think we’re motivating people when we threaten them with visions of poverty. In truth we’re disenfranchising them. How? When you’re told education is something you need, you look at it the same way you look at a bologna sandwich or a sewage system.
It is not a means to an end—education doesn’t lead anywhere, not by itself. In order for education to have the effect we like to think it does, it needs to be in the hands of someone with a strong sense of agency. Generally speaking, that’s an introspective person with a keen sense of what they desire and why.
I’ll simplify it: you can’t get what you want unless you know what it is. If you think you need education, you are immediately confused and assuming education is something you “can get”. Of course, you can’t. Education is a state of mind, a process and way of being; to “finish” is to stop learning. Only the patently uneducated ever think they’re finished. They got the “thing they needed” for the “next step”. But these people often haven’t even taken the first one, which is to be honest and mindful about what you want, why you want it and to watch yourself and your desires changing as you’re in the process of achieving them.
Education is expensive
This point is a trick. Credentials can be expensive. However, actual education is virtually free.
The neoliberal model that treats systems of education and schools themselves as businesses, marketplaces and revenue generating entities, pitting teacher unions against administrators, sharing incestuous sheets with textbook publishers and testing companies, sometimes also with builders and contractors, is philosophically perverted. Students are a priority when they represent income but not when they’re in the process of learning.
Young people need to be shown how to subvert this system for their own ends.
It’s easier than anyone wants to admit. All you really need to do is read independently. Read all the time, and ask yourself this question about every single text: What is this author trying to change my mind about and why? All texts, no matter how trivial, are trying to change your mind. That’s why they exist. And that’s why, over centuries, they’ve been feared.
If you’re a high school student or a college freshman reading this article, know you can empower yourself without any teacher or professor assigning you a thing. What you need to do is read. Confused about where to begin? Here’s a good list of books. You should also read the Business, Politics and International sections of at least two decent newspapers consistently every week. You’ll be shocked by how much you actually understand, especially if you try to do it three or four days in a row.
If you find things you don’t understand, admit it and note them. Bring those to someone who can provide an answer. Demand that they tell you. If someone refuses, move on to the next person. Your community has learned people interested in helping youth. They work in libraries and schools, but they’re also in places like your community center, your church, or you might find them among your parents’ friends. There are also loads of online communities where people discuss geo-politics, current events and books.
Learn as much as you possibly can about the history of ideas, economics and the forces that are shaping the world right now. If you do this for a year, you’ll be able to have discussions most people can’t, and if you maintain the habit, you’ll remain informed for the rest of your life.
If you continue on through college, you’ll have a vitally impressive context that will set you apart from the vast majority of your peers—indeed, you’ll be far better informed than most American adults. You’ll also have a much better idea of what college can do for you.
There’s a chance you might realize you don’t need college at all, not if the only thing you want is wealth or to work for yourself. It’s possible to learn how to take a loan and open up your own business simply by reading about people who’ve done it or by working for them. And there’s nothing stupid about it. It’s rare to meet a stupid person who has earned a lot of money.
Earning money is expensive, at least in the beginning. It requires investments of time and resources, patience and tenacity, and there’s always the risk of loss.
Like the rest of us, colleges have learned to put price tags on themselves based on what people are willing to pay. The price tag leaves many people believing that college is the customer service desk.
And there’s the catch. Our higher education system isn’t designed to do anything for anyone besides provide an environment of resources. But if you don’t really know how to learn on your own, no amount of money will provide you with the skill. A college student who doesn’t know how to learn will spend a lot of time floundering around. It’s rarer than you think to stumble across a professor who’ll take the time to help you.
I’m saying something simple in a roundabout way. The credential you might want will be expensive. But the most important skill you need in college, the capacity to learn on your own, is free to acquire. Loads of people, even many college graduates, never acquire it.
Education is responsible for (fill in the blank)
Education is not responsible for anything.
There are definitely correlations between levels of education and certain types of behaviors and social circumstances. But to say that some community’s lack of education is responsible for their high rate of crime or poverty is far less accurate than saying people without buckets will be unable to carry water. Are you a criminal because you’re uneducated or uneducated because you’re a criminal? Is a community poor because it’s uneducated or uneducated because it’s poor?
We should be offering everyone in our society equal access to quality schools. Of course, we’re nowhere close to doing that, and many people become so furious at the idea that we really haven’t had the necessary discussion. That’s partially because we bend things to horrible angles when we believe that the overall culture and education are two separate things.
People are uneducated because we don’t value education. A lack of education does not cause our culture; it is, instead, our actual culture. It’s one that considers readers of novels “elitists”.
Instead of education, we value a series of fetishes, including the cliché I see over and again at the community college where I teach. Students say, “I work really hard.”
At what? Usually at repeating the same bad habits. Students will resist strongly, sometimes feverishly, if you try to break their habits. They want to spin their wheels because it’s comfortable. The goal of the educator is to change the student but the student wants to be rewarded for being the same, congratulated on what they already know and do.
Effects on men
In my experience—and I am only an observer, not a researcher—I feel men are harmed particularly by these notions of working hard and “needing” a credential. Men learn that they have to “be necessary”. And so they approach their education as a series of “steps” and “hoops” which “lead to” the final goal, a credential that will make them valuable to someone.
When they focus on the credential—on the degree—they ignore the skill set. Their experience of education becomes formulaic:
If I come to this class twice a week, hand in all this stuff, say the right things, I’ll pass.
Rarely along the line do they gather they’re supposed to be demonstrating a newly acquired skill. They “handed it in”. Where’s the reward?
Yes, young women treat their education this way as well. However, the women in my classes—who generally tend to be older—seem to understand the concept of “hard work” differently. They are much more open to asking, “What should I be working on?” The guys rarely ask this.
As a group, the men also tend to read a lot less. They’re worse at it, and so they do it less often; as they do it less often, they remain bad at it. As a result, they introspect less. Most of them trundle around, barely aware that they have no real interest in taking college classes. They go through the motions simply because they believe someone thinks they ought to. By the time they learn that no one does, they’ve wasted time and resources. Suddenly, they find themselves needing to figure out what they should want. They wish someone could tell them what they should be doing, confused in a world where this person never arrives.
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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