A Different Education
Education in this country has fundamentally stayed the same in terms of the subjects we learn and the basic ways they are taught. Although we now have access to technology and use it to aid in our learning, the basic tasks that we perform during a regular class are barely different than what a school day looked like a few decades ago. This system has stifled creativity and intellectual curiosity and has made many wonder whether we may need to completely replace the system with one based on student ingenuity and forget about the textbook. Others have pushed back and said that education has improved drastically and while there are some problems, we do not need to make many changes and we should appreciate the advances that we have experienced thus far. However, no one has proposed a middle ground that satisfies both ideas. To develop an education system that serves our students with fact-based knowledge and a deeper meaning for society through creative thinking, we must base our education of the fundamentals of educational topics and encourage students to find the societal impacts their studies could have.
Many high-profile societal figures have questioned the existence and the efficacy of a classroom education and demonstrated that a classroom experience may not be vital to the intellectual growth of a person. One such person was the civil rights leader, Malcolm X. Malcolm X had never received a full education and had been thrown in jail for civil disobedience. While spending time in prison, he learned to read and write on his own after seeing other inmates with highly developed oratorical and writing skills. According to him, his journey to becoming educated began “back in the Charlestown Prison, when Bimbi first made me feel envious of his stock of knowledge. Bimbi had always taken charge of any conversations he was in, and I had tried to emulate him (Malcolm X).” Malcolm X was inspired by Bambi’s knowledge and skills and decided that he would try to teach himself how to read. He went to the prison library everyday and read directly from the Dictionary copying down every word and definition on each page. After repetition for months and years, Malcolm X became fluent in English and had developed his writing skills to levels that most would only expect of a well-educated person. He noted how many were shocked at his abilities and often wondered where he had been educated and described their surprise at the fact that he had never received a formal education. The story of Malcolm X gives us a case study for self teaching and demonstrates that a formal classroom setting may not necessarily be the best environment for learning. However, it still highlighted how certain classroom items such as dictionaries do serve a purpose which describes the middle ground of what education could look like. Schools should provide students with all the resources they need to succeed but at the same time should not stifle how they use their resources, as to not possibly cut-off intellectually curious students from finding personal truths and creating something that could have a positive impact on society which Malcolm X did.
Schools have the opportunity to create great thinkers who will do good for society but they often fail to do so due to the rigidity of their curriculums and forms of teaching. Education needs to be a holistic experience centered on society as it is now. James Baldwin pointed this out by describing how “the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society (Baldwin).” Education is meant to serve society and if the education that we are giving to students is ignorant of society, that it may be defeating its own purpose. We are currently teaching subjects out of context and the idea that “context matters” should not just apply to the things we say out loud, but should apply to the systems around us, especially education. If we teach subjects out of context students will struggle to draw connections and look for faults in the system. James Balwin described the idea “that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated (Baldwin).” Education should provide us with not only information but with tools. These tools are vital to examining the current state of society and looking for problems to solve and finding ways to solve them. Exercises such as these build critical thinking skills which are vital to problem solving. Each generation has a unique set of problems to face and if we are not preparing them to solve those problems or trying to hide the fact that such problems exist, we are doing a disservice to students and a disservice to society as a whole.
The system that we have in place currently not only traps students but it has trapped teachers as well. John Taylor Gatto explained how “teachers are themselves products of the same twelve-year compulsory school programs that so thoroughly bore their students, and as school personnel they are trapped inside structures even more rigid than those imposed upon the children (Gatto).” The current structure of education gives teachers and students little to no flexibility often resulting in boredom and a lack of real learning. Teachers are not always at fault for a lack of student learning because they themselves are trapped by a myriad of restrictions and regulation that is bound to them by school and labor contracts. Most do not know what an engaging and forward thinking learning environment would look like as they themselves went through the same system and therefore have little to no perspective on what a better education could and should look like. However, we see that in certain subject areas, students enjoy themselves more and often do beter. This department is Social Studies. The topics can simply be described as the Study of Societies. Classes include history, government, economics, and psychology. In many of these classes students can draw direct connections to society and find interest in the various topics. Students learn a subject or learn about an event and then look at a current issue and apply it. Students who take AP Government are often very good at this. In the class, you learn about the systems that run our government and how they interact. When students turn to any news channel, whether it be CNN or Fox News, they can draw connections and apply their skills to those issues. In this current crisis, government students may find interest in the processes that congress uses to pass stimulus bills or in the constitutionality of many of the bans on public gathering and travel. Economics students have likely drawn many connections due to the severe economic impact the coronavirus has had on the global economy. Students can examine the measures that institutions such as the Federal Reserve Bank use to help support the economy such as cutting interest rates or quantitative easing. These show how involved students are in their learning when they are interested and can draw real world connections. However, the ability to draw real world connections seems to be trapped within the confines of the Social Studies Hallway. In most other subjects such as Science and Math you hear the groan of students asking their teachers in the middle of lectures, “what is the point of learning this” or “when are we ever going to use this in real life.” These complaints aren’t from bad kids who just don’t try because most of them are often engaged in Social Studies classes, but that engagement turns off when they go to their other classes. If we want to stop students from making complaints like this or even worse, not understanding or caring for the material and failing, we need to change the way we teach those subjects. We need to release students from the walls of a strict curriculum and introduce connections to society that will build interest in the subject and encourage students to work harder in that class. Students will finally do real learning, meaning that they can take what they learned and apply it to the real world. Education needs to focus on tailoring students to solve real world problems and the current system is unable to accomplish that.
Many detractors to this idea claim that creating an education environment as such would be very difficult and that the current state of public schooling was an ambitious success in and of itself. Jack Shneider from the Atlantic stated “American schools are charged with the task of creating better human beings [a]nd they are expected to do so in a relatively consistent way… It is perhaps the nation’s most ambitious collective project; as such, it advances slowly (Shneider).” This statement is an unfortunate appeal to authority that describes the system as slow moving by nature. However, it does not have to be. Revolutionizing education doesn’t require us to put more regulations and material into the curriculum, it is the exact opposite. To make education better in the United States, we need to ease off of the hundreds of programs that we have introduced in public schools and instead concentrate on building a classroom environment. While it is fine to give schools a baseline for the material to be covered, telling them how to teach that material is an overreach and is what causes the failures of education. Those who run education should provide the barebones for what needs to be covered and leave the rest to the teachers. Schneider argued that consistency would be a problem but I argue that consistency may not necessarily be a good thing. Each class is different for reasons ranging from demographics to location. Allowing a little bit of inconsistency may be a good thing because it means that schools can teach from the societal outlook of where they live. Although a teacher in Connecticut and Texas may need to cover the same material, they can go about in different ways and explain it to them using relevant events and ideas that are specific to their location.
When we give students this freedom, we will see the fruits of intellectual curiosity bloom in our classrooms. We just need to relax our regulations and be less strict on students. John Taylor Gatto stated, “[w]e suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves (Gatto).” If we want to build the thinkers of the future, we need to loosen up our system and let intellectual curiosity guide our students towards their future. It is therefore apparent that instead of having a system that teaches us a strict and heavy curriculum or a system with no curriculum at all, we need a curriculum that prepares us with the basics of various subjects and we need the opportunity to launch independent discovery into our interest in each subject so we learn about how we can make society better with that newfound knowledge.