Below is a selection from a journal entry I wrote for a class a few weeks ago, in which I agitate for an education revolution more than a little bit. My high-school self would be shocked at how radical I’ve become. Enjoy.
In a conversation I had with my mother recently, she said something about “Be careful that you’re not getting involved in indoctrination.” This provided a great segway into me telling her about Seth Godin’s assertions (in Stop Stealing Dreams) that the American public education system has been essentially that for most of a hundred years – a way of training compliant workers. I think she can see the lack of sense in that. Actually, I’m very hopeful that most people who have passed through American public education will quickly realize the truth in Godin’s words: they’ve lived it, after all, and I can’t imagine any of them really, really hoping that their children will go through the same thing. But there are parents and parents, after all, and voters and voters, and too many of them have been trained for too long to fear change, and to avoid really researching and thinking about a problem (because their computers are fearful demi-gods, rather than tools – an attitude they probably also picked up in school, no doubt).
I’m not trying to demean anyone – I myself would certainly be far less knowledgeable about all of this if I weren’t diving headlong into it. I’m taken back to recent class readings about poverty (Jonathan Kozol’s Fire in the Ashes, among others), and how so many parents don’t have either the time or the resources to be as involved in their children’s education as might be ideal. The readings on poverty also connect to Godin in showing education to be something which is essentially forced on poor students, with lackluster effort made to show them why it’s relevant. Who has greater need of imagination than a family struggling to feed themselves and keep their water running? I’m sure they have it in spades; forcing them to lose it seems like the greatest possible crime a teacher could commit.
It really is shocking to me to be confronted so exhaustively with the degree to which my country’s education system has been designed to rob human beings of the thing which makes us so unique on this planet, and perhaps the universe: imagination. It’s almost creepy, almost Orwellian, to the degree that I almost want to disbelieve it; but I can’t, the case has been made too well, and all the elements of it are a long-time matter of public record. Looking back, I can see the effect it’s had on generations of my own family. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my grandfather, not all that long ago, when I was flipping through one of my old Astronomy textbooks at the kitchen table at my parents’ house. He asked me what I was reading, and I told him, and without missing a beat he said: “Astronomy? What in the world is the practical application of that?” At the time, all I could do was splutter defensively about Kepler’s laws of motion making Grandpa’s precious satellite-TV-delivered football games possible; but now, looking back, I can tell that what he was really saying was, essentially: “How is that information going to help you get a job? In the workplace? On the assembly line?”
Or perhaps, “Why in the world would you learn for fun?”
I don’t blame my grandfather for his attitudes; I’m sure, now, that he was very thoroughly trained to have them, being a product of Midwestern public school in the 30s and 40s. This ties very well into a question I’ve been wrangling with: why many students come to see being “smart” as bad, something to be avoided; why so many middle and high-schools have money only for sports, where extracurricular activities are concerned. I just get the sense that there’s this pervasive, self-reinforcing attitude that school is not really meant to train a student to think – it’s meant to – I don’t know what. Make sure the student’s jumped through all the hoops society requires? Make sure the student’s done everything his or her parents and grandparents did, thereby confirming his or her willingness to continue their same legacy, with little or no change to the formula?
So much of what I’m writing sounds almost paranoid – I used the term Orwellian above, because ever since I finished the Godin reading for this week I’ve been seeing education as this massive institution organized specifically by the “ruling class” to crank out obedient peasants. That’s basically the charge that Godin makes (or at least part of it). What’s truly terrifying is that I’m about to jump into the heart of that beast, and it will be up to a combination of luck, wit, good networking, and grinding labor whether I end up in a school where things are different – or, at least, where I can make a difference. Or, maybe, pie-in-the-sky, these thoughts will pervade this nation over the next five or ten years, and win people’s hearts, and begin to make a difference across the whole system. Revolutions have happened before – in fact, it is guaranteed that they will happen again. I just hope we get the right one this time.
A final thought: I find “revolution” to be actually a rather inappropriate word in this context. “Revolution” includes the root-word “revolve”, i.e., “return to the starting-point”. We think of revolutions as massive changes, shifts to a completely new paradigm; but, just to give an example of how this word has changed over the centuries, the reason America’s founders considered themselves “revolutionaries” was because they considered what they were doing to be a return or a restoration of what they saw as their natural rights. They considered themselves English, after all; and England at that time already had a “democratic” tradition, present in the houses of Parliament and the Magna Carta. Men like George Washington (a cousin of nobility, it must be remembered) saw “revolution” as meaning “I’m getting back what I’ve been denied”. It implies a return to an older state – not a dramatic move into completely new territory.
I want American education to move into new territory, not “revolve” into some mythical, nostalgic “good old days” caricature of a past form of itself. How the heck am I going to bring it about? At least I can say that I am very, very ready to help make it happen.