can’t see the forest

On Success and Education: Question Your Tenets, It’s Healthy and Cheap

Posted in business, Education, Lifestyle, Social and Politics, USA by Curtis on 10/1/06

This is just sort of personal musing; I’m not going to include any statistics or any real perspective on history. I don’t have a profound point to make (I never have too many of those handy at any given moment.) Feel free to add your thoughts or arguments, as always.

Cap & Gown Day - MacalesterIt seems to me that in the United States and probably in a lot of other countries, there is a lot of indoctrination that goes on as to exactly what success is, with regards to education. There’s a common light in which education is viewed which I think is generally harmful to society as whole, and is ultimately beneficial to only a tiny percentage of the population.

We know that individuals with undergraduate degrees tend to make more money than those without. Post-graduate work and advanced degrees tend to attract even greater pay. The key word is tends, because of both small fluctuations and wider trends in employment markets which determine who’s going to get hired for what.

So what we have is an education system in which you’re going to find, very roughly and generally, two types of individuals: those who are at school to go through the motions in order to achieve the desired economic effects, and those motivated by a passion for their particular area of study.

Of course it’s not really so black-and-white as that. People have to make a living in a certain way under the terms of our economy, and in theory there’s nothing wrong with wanting to increase earning potential, whether in a field about which you could ultimately care less or in one with which you take great interest. Many excel in college realizing that their field of choice is not likely to lead to a big salary.  And life is a learning experience. Things happen, minds change, courses are altered. So it’s a really big gray area we’re talking about, and what I want to look at first are the parts outside this electron cloud: what comes into the education system and what comes out of it. Then we can ask why that is.

When I undertake this approach, there are serious concerns apparent to me from the beginning, problems which lie in the nature of the standardization of education and of state-sponsored education particularly. For example, in primary education: We take children from different backgrounds and of differing capacities, with different strengths and weaknesses, different interests and disinterests, translating to totally different educational needs. Twelve or thirteen years later, all of these children are to graduate from school with an equal opportunity for success in the future.

Well, call me crazy, but my idea of giving a child the best opportunity for success in the future is to maximize attention to his or her strengths while working to develop areas of weakness so that you have a confident, well-rounded whole. A principal goal of public education is to produce well-rounded individuals, but since individuals are brought into the system with different needs in this regard, a homogenous treatment across the board will inherently fail to achieve the intended goal. And the less well-funded an institution of education, the more homogenous the educational process has to be. There’s a certain amount of uniformity built in on a low level out of basic considerations, but funding determines the number of programs a school might have for gifted students, for challenged students, and so on; even these basic acoutrements are often undesirably stone-graven and bureaucratic in how certain types of students are classified and are dealt with.

Now, zoom out and look at what happens after graduation from high school. You have students who have been prepared for the future. They may have started out on unequal footing but they’re all in shape now. I don’t mean to be cynical, I’m just saying—that’s how it’s viewed by industry, at least, very much so. Well, what is it that makes all of these kids now equally poised for the starting gun? The only thing backing it, in reality, is a piece of paper. The real-world effects of the education process are relegated to secondary importance. This student has been through the process: this student is acceptable.

Very different students are measured along the same standards. If these standards are met or exceeded, the student progresses. If a student does not meet the standards, there is, most often, a replay of the exact same learning process which is likely to produce a similar failure, without some sort of special intervention. 

To measure performance, a system of grades is introduced. Whether or not a student passes his or her exam, and to what extent, determines success or failure. Whether or not the results are graded on a curve, there is a uniform standard to which all the students are held, and this standard bears no relationship to the personal best achievable by each student; it merely adheres to a predetermined standard of convention which is supposed to represent some sort of mean level of achievement that is generally nonresponsive to the needs of individual students.

The quandary is especially difficult for educators. The logistical demands of enforcing this standard can be quite taxing and pressing, and can be somewhat disheartening. I know this from conversations with educators, and from my own experiences teaching music informally. The teachers see the children as they are, but must treat them, to some degree, as they are not: as the equals of one another in inclination and in capacity. It’s a daunting challenge, and educators often can do much to treat the problem symptomatically. I was fortunate to have a number of teachers in high school and in college which were great at this. But there is very little going on to resolve the conflict institutionally.

Here’s my personal example: I was a very poor student in high school. I tended to ace tests but to neglect homework assignments. My attendance was usually on the fringe of truancy. More often than not (but not always) I was able to squeak by with a passing grade after my test scores (high As) were averaged with my homework or participation scores (low Fs). I paid close attention in class and participated in discussion, where it was allowed.

This absolutely exasperated some of my teachers and both of my parents. The immediate and unwavering diagnosis was that I was a lazy kid with low self-esteem and no sense of motivation. I think, to a large degree, my parents still believe this. But a careful look at the circumstances surrounding my education will show this wasn’t true. The truth, hard and cold, is that I was a bright, energetic, and highly motivated individual. I just couldn’t have cared less about my grades. I was obviously demonstrating my mastery of the subject matter without having to do the pages and pages of calisthenics prescribed by the system, and many others in my class were as capable. But for the most part they cared about their grades because they were motivated to stay at the top of the class. This, they’d been told, equated to success in the future: and under a certain very limited definition of success, this is true. Well, I knew the material backwards and forwards, regardless of what the report card said. When I needed practice I did the hackwork. If I didn’t, I didn’t. I devoted the time I would have spent doing this hackwork for no real reason to pursuing subject matters of interest to me: music, foreign languages and literature, the outdoors, even a bit of a social life. One could only consider me to have been amotivated if the accepted definition of motivation in this case was ‘a desire to achieve high scores according to a predefined standard.’ And that wasn’t me, and it still isn’t. 

It isn’t any child anywhere in the world, at least not until he or she has been thoroughly indoctrinated to think in this way.

Now we are getting into the murky territory in which we must look at the effects of this kind of indoctrination of what success is and isn’t on greater society. Ultimately we have a paradigm in which viability is judged by one’s performance in competition with others against this sort of phantom-standard that’s imposed. The result is a culture in which working together is often a foreign concept unless it’s undertaken for purposes of competition with another group. This is a defining ethic of team sports, and the notion is carried over into the concept of ‘teamwork’ in the business world. Ideally, in the academic world of serious research, the competition is against one’s own best understanding, which is healthy. But in the business world the competition is against one another. For better or worse, I think that’s a major fault of the way we conduct a (supposedly) free market economy. The results are great for businesspeople, but they’re responsible for a lot of bad attitudes and questionable ethics elsewhere.

Empty ClassroomSo let’s look at the cause of this ‘cookie cutter’ way of educating people. Some would say that the causation is the necessary logistics and economics of educating a lot of kids. My music theory teacher in college told me, after the second week of class, that he realized I was comfortable with all the material he was going to teach throughout the term; he just needed me to follow the rules and be quiet so that he could get on with class. And that’s understandable. Given the structure of the curriculum and of the environment in which it was administered, I had to find constructive ways of dealing with my boredom that were not detrimental to the learning process for everyone else.

I was able to help tutor some of the students who were having trouble with the material, and it was a gratifying learning experience. But there was really nothing in it for me in terms of success in the course. The teacher was fully aware that I was helping other students, but if I didn’t do my homework because I was out gigging for money until five in the morning, even though I was putting to professional use some of the same skills he was teaching, I got bad grades. In fact, I failed head over heels a course which I entered as a master of the subject matter. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault—he’s a great guy and a fine educator. Occasionally he played the same dates I did, and we’d admire each others’ bloodshot eyes the next morning in class. The fault in this situation and in countless millions analogous to it is with the pedagogy, the teaching methods imposed by the structure of the education system, which is explicitly designed to favor quantity over quality for very real reasons.

But the cause of the discrepancy in situ shouldn’t be taken as the ultimate cause. The cause is socioeconomic. The cause is that manpower is more crucial to our economy than brainpower, nine times out of ten, unless we mean brainpower in the business sense of besting one’s competitors. 

Many of the manifestations in society, in politics, and in lifestyle of the ethics behind this indoctrination are beyond the scope of what I have available for this post. For now, I’ll just say that I don’t have to look very far or very deep to see an ugly side to the notion of equality in opportunity. The questions that aren’t asked nearly enough are the most important ones: In what way equal? Opportunity to do what? And why? And what effects does this have on the individual and on society?

Is the cause of our rather industrial processing-evocative system of education really that we have to educate kids en masse and this is the best we can do? Aren’t there some deeper concepts about education and about success that we might have wrong in the first place, and aren’t there some rather nasty byproducts associated with carrying on in this way? Are all of these school shootings really simply the results of kids from broken homes listening to a certain kind of music, or has our education system become a sort of social pressure-cooker which is almost wholly indifferent to the needs of the individual? Certainly I see these questions dancing back and forth between the lines when I read the news.

That this system is the best we can do is a myth. Given recent advances in technology, for one, very few of which are being sensibly, appropriately, and broadly implemented, not a lot of change is happening. The reason is that the economy doesn’t need ideally educated minds. In certain respects it does, but mainly what it needs is efficient fuel. Human resources. And in the business world, financial motivation and willingness to engage in competition of the sort I’ve discussed here is viewed as a marker of success potential. I’ve seen it firsthand over and over again. This is not a dirty secret; peruse the classified ads for careers in business and you’ll see that it’s quite openly discussed, quite widely valued.

So what can be done? For now, I’m going to cop out here and try to do a little research over the coming period as the fancy strikes me. We’ll chalk it up to my lack of motivation.




7 Responses

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  1. nomdebplume said, on 10/1/06 at 9:41 pm

    There’s no place for a square peg in our cylindrical education system. I learned this when my son (who will be 23 this month) went through the public school system. What made him a “square peg” is his high IQ, which makes him see the world entirely differently than anyone I know. It also gave him certain gifts, namely in art and writing, but also the ability to grasp concepts quickly. So, like you, he had a lot of time on his hands before hitting the midway point of a course because he had already completed it. Unfortunately, he didn’t care to use his time helping others – he preferred drawing attention to himself (this was the beginning of high school), but also saw no need to complete homework. Ultimately, he saw no need to complete high school, either, and opted for a GED. Success? To him, yes.

    What always irritated me was why he received bad grades in all his subjects. As you described, averaging good test scores with bad homework scores will give a bad grade, but he became a “marked man”. When a writing assignment was given, there was nothing wrong with the technical elements, but they didn’t care for the subject matter, so they would give him a bad grade. The most confounding example was his doing an art project that was described as “excellent” in art class, but he still received a bad grade for it. The teacher said he talked too much in class. Not yelled or screamed… “talked”. The one class he should have received a good grade and the teacher still managed to cut him down. By so doing, teachers cut down students’ self-esteem. They expect a strict conformity from everyone that is unfair to demand.

    Yes, those school shootings. Whenever I express sympathy for the shooters, I am chided and sneered at. I’m sorry, I can’t help feeling that a child – and to me, these students are still at the tail end of childhood – must have gotten to a pretty awful place to do something that drastic. Their inability to conform, or to fit in, or to perform, or to learn must have caused them more pain than they could deal with in a healthy manner. It’s just so extreme. And remember, to sympathize with the shooter in no way detracts from the sympathy one feels for the victims.

    Me? I was a straight-A student. I followed all the rules and conformed. It was nauseating. As far as school is concerned, I suppose I qualified as “successful”. But that was a long time ago… just ask my kids: they like to tease me and say I got to and from school in a covered wagon… :-/

  2. Drima @ The SudaneseThinker said, on 10/2/06 at 5:45 am

    I absolutely agree with you. This is the same argument I always make to my dad. All my lecturers keep telling my parents, it’s a tragedy I don’t get a 4.0 every semester when I can.

    The thing is that I don’t even see the point of getting a 4.0 CGPA. I’ve got my own unique interests and I would rather get 3.5 every semester while having time for things like music, reading things that matter and blogging too ;)

    It’s sad how society defines “smart”. A degree is supposed to mean you’re smart when it doesn’t mean anything. I find EQ more important than IQ. At the end of the day what matters is having the emotional capacity to execute logic and information. IQ with no stable EQ means you perform differently under different situations with varying intensities.

    Nice post.

    BTW do you have a Myspace page so I can listen to your music??

  3. tellitlikeitis said, on 10/2/06 at 5:52 am

    I agree with you, Deb, that there are more fundamental problems with kids that decide to turn school into a killing ground. In retrospect I probably should have been more clear about that. I just think that the role that ‘the system’ plays in exacerbating those problems, if not creating them, is often downplayed because it leads to very ugly questions about the nature of our society. Thanks for your comment and I hope my stomach story wasn’t too gross.

    Drima–yes, I do have a MySpace page. If you’ve got one, pass it along, I’d love to hear your stuff. These are quickly-made, sort of sloppy demos that are a couple of years old and the range is really narrow as far as representing all the types of stuff I’ve done. Everything on the tracks is 100% me, so it sounds sort of thin at times but I think the tunes are good, they just need to be developed a little more and re-recorded when I can take it more slow and easy and can be thorough. I haven’t been to the studio in a while; that’s a goal for the first of next year. Enjoy, and thanks as always for your interest.

  4. nomdebplume said, on 10/2/06 at 9:39 am

    Twelve hours ago I was leaving a comment that included statements about school shootings, and right now, one is taking place about 20 miles from my house at a one-room Amish School house. Brings it to a whole different level…

  5. namasikho said, on 10/2/06 at 11:38 am

    I seem to be the only educator responding to the view you expressed and I can’t say it’s not one I don’t hold myself. The problem is the lack of a sensible solution that’ll provide a more holistic education to the vast majority of people. It’s a bit like governments: they’re a pretty nasty concept and they don’t do us much good except take our money and spend it on things we don’t often want them to but, in the end, they’re the best solution we have for running the huge numbers of people that live in any given territory. Schools offer the best solution to the problem of educating a mass of people and preparing them to be of benefit to complex economies.

    I found your anecdotes and those of the others who’ve respondd the most interesting. I had a good friend at school who was a brilliant writer. She was obviously extremely intelligent and very able but she did abseloutely no work. Her girls school streamed classes into two bands reflecting their grades: a,b,c and d,e,f. Because she was essentally disaffected – she loathed both school and all the girls at the institution she attended, she ended up in the d,e,f band. Thus an absurd situation transpired where she would achieve high A grades in English and Drama, but was in the D class for both subjects. She never fully recovered from the effects of this and, last I knew, she was still a waitress at 30 havingg never studied.

    Personally I’ve always enjoyed the odd ones – they’re often the best writers – and will always do my best to encourage and motivate them but often to no avail. I have a previous student with whom I still keep contact who slept through most of my lessons but has done very well at University, completing a degree in film studies.

    I think the horrible conformity that school insists on, and the bullying some receive for being different, can, ultimately benefit some in a perverse way: think the creators of South Park and Marilyn Manson. But it can be cruel it’s true -I just wish teachers were generally more responsive to the needs of disaffected, bright students. Sometimes it’s because they’re just too dumb themselves.

  6. tellitlikeitis said, on 10/3/06 at 5:06 am

    I really appreciate the perspective of an educator, that’s what I was hoping for.

    My sister is a junior high school teacher back in my home state of Alabama. I remember her talking about this kind of thing all the time.

    You make a very strong point, that the role of the educators themselves is crucial. I don’t know what the scenario is like abroad, but in the US, the curriculum itself along with a piledriving need for political correctness seems to very stringently limit what educators are able to do to develop the individual.

    There’s always, at every US election, lots of talk about who’s going to spend more on education. So education is just this huge machine into which dollars must be fed, and the more dollars, the better it’s going to work. There is almost never any talk in politics of re-evaluating the methodology and the structure of public education–primary, secondary, or higher. If it is proffered, it’s not taken very seriously by the public. They have enough to worry about just getting their kids back and forth to school, making sure they’re safe from gunmen, etc., etc. It’s like a taboo unthinkable to discuss things like restructuring the education system.

    The education system in the US offers the best solution to the captains of industry; all the other benefits, as far as I can see, are trickle-down and come with their fair share of hidden unpleasantries. Maybe that’s a naïve or overly caustic-idealist point of view. I’m willin’ to accept that.

    A really interesting subject of study to me, and one that I need to peruse much more deeply before writing any further on this topic, is the beginnings of public education in America. I imagine there are strong parallels with the development of education in Britain, but I don’t know. A lot of historians, particularly leftists, have pointed out that it was very openly discussed in the dawning years of the system that a major goal of the education process was going to be to take a certain sense of independence out of all the kids who were growing up on family farms. It was to be replaced with state-subservience. Of course it wasn’t phrased anything like that, but that’s what the line of thought in government amounted to, according to some. It was necessary, for purposes of structuring the new industrial economy, to indoctrinate young people into embracing what amounts to wage slavery as an acceptable and respectable way of life, because that sort of lifestyle and social condition was highly antithetical to the tenets widely valued in early America. It’s been written that Thomas Jefferson, for one, absolutely abhorred the idea of separating workers from their means of production by treating time and labor as an intermediary commodity.

    So it was once an American ideal; now it’s called socialism and is generally reviled. I guess discussing the issue of education reform at this level really sort of irresistably points towards economic reform; because I think it is true that the education system as it stands is the best method of feeding fuel to the inexorably hungry economy that we have. I’ll agree with that, certainly.

  7. Gracie said, on 10/7/06 at 6:32 pm

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with Thom Hartmann’s books but I’ve found a wealth of information in his writings. He does address the debate that took place favoring the structured classroom preferred by the, then Prussian King in the early 1800’s which was considered the first compulsory public school. My oldest son went to Bard College and if I remember correctly, they still do not use a grading system. (or Bennington) Let me get back to you on that one.

    Anyway, my youngest couldn’t adapt during high school, similar to your situation, and we struggled constantly with the system to make it work.

    It’s an excellent topic but check out Hartmann’s articles over at his website or CommonDreams.

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