Monday, November 2, 2009

fuck the system

Education is broken. I firmly believe this, and it's going to be hard for me to type this without crying--mostly because when I get this frustrated, I don't know what to do with myself, and, annoyingly, my response is usually tears.

This will be raw--maybe not yet ready for public discourse--but hear me out.

We're killing education. We're making systems of credentials, standards, hoops to jump through and we've forgotten about knowledge. No fucking wonder that people don't care about education. School isn't about learning anymore, it's about the end goal: diploma, higher-paying job, line on a resume. When I asked my students if they felt like they learned anything at school, most of them said no. Not just because they're 7th graders and think they know everything, but because many of their days are a mind-numbing monotony of factory-style bells shuffling them from one place to the next, a repetitive motion of slumping into their desks and waiting out the next bell that tells them to get up and move again. They say no because school has become a slew of tests and discrete "skills" to be mastered--skills that may actually have value but are divorced from any larger context until they are unintelligible, totally removed from life.

Of course, it's not that bleak for everyone. The other teachers I'm teamed with are pretty fucking great. They care about students, not just their curriculum. They want their students to learn, not just pass a district test. They're fighting the good fight. But curriculum and testing are largely taking the place of learning, exploration, joy.

Yes. There are certain skills that everyone should learn. Students do need to be assessed to see if they've learned them--but that's the key: that they've learned them.

Learning is not about being able to plug the right answer into a worksheet. It's not about being able to fix the incorrect sentence scrawled on the board. It's not regurgitating the right date on a test. Learning is a soul-searching process of becoming the person you want to be, discovering what excites you, what makes you passionate, what you can do for this world. Learning is hard work and, ultimately, one of the most rewarding things you can do. But learning is not what we encourage in public schools. We encourage credentialing. And the lesson we all learn from that, the lesson that we're sending to kids from the first time we tell them that they have to go to school to get a good job, is that learning is just a means to an end.

Again: it's no fucking wonder that people don't care about schools. Instead of giving kids the tools to enrich their lives with learning, thought, wonder, we're teaching them that what we mistakenly call "learning"--what we do to them in schools--is just something to endure until they're ready for real life. It's something that stops when they--thank god--graduate. It's a performance for someone who evaluates and judges them, not something that enriches and defines their own lives.

I'm not sure what the answer is. Of course it's something I fight against in my own classroom, but I'm so, so frustrated lately by how small an impact that seems to be. I see kids for an hour every day, for ten months of their lives. How is that ever going to be enough to fight against the overwhelming tide of influence all around them the rest of the day? What do I do to encourage learning--real learning, hard learning, fulfilling, passionate learning? How do I fix this?


DocSocrates said...

I hear you. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of them, they are headed off into a ridiculous "adult" world where they are shuffled around to the tunes of bells and made to jump through ridiculous hoops and the like.

Whenever I'm feeling that I can't reach my students to teach them philosophy, I backtrack and teach them something that they can use and implement right away — like how to right a proper & polite email.

What do you do?

DocSocrates said...

Oh yeah...and I teach them how to proofread their blog comments for ridiculous typos. ;-)

KatieGirlBlue said...

I don't know that you have to fix anything. I think you're most likely teaching your students to be lifelong-learners by the way you live, the way you strive to make the world a better place. I think your example is a great teacher to them, even if you can't get them to understand Conrad or Gogol. Yet.

Ricardo said...

Was our education bunk?

I totally hear what you're saying, and I'm honestly wondering if we got lucky or are just fooling ourselves.

DocSocrates said...

I don't think our education was bunk. We're all reasonably smart and came from backgrounds that nurtured learning and outside stimulus.

I think, Stasia, that your question is more interesting in the context of younger education. I can tell you for a fact that by the time they enter my classroom, I cannot even drag the horse to water — let alone make him drink.

What do you do? I always try to inspire everyone. But I sure as hell inspire the ones who are already in the right frame of mind. There's always that 5 to 10% who want to go beyond the hoop-jumping.

I think we are a biased bunch because I think we were in that category of students. At L&C, I knew a few students who didn't have any ambition to go beyond the assignments. But not many. And now I'm surrounded by them.

Andrew said...

Well now, that read like something I would write. Though I'm sure the initial inspiration for this posting has long since passed, I didn't come across it until now and couldn't finish my day without providing some sort of a response because the resonance is too big to ignore.

Firstly, I agree 100% that our education system is inherently flawed and like you I'm still searching about for an explanation (much less an actual remedy, theoretical or otherwise). What confuses me is that I know so many of the teachers I had the privilege of learning from had nothing but the best of intentions as I'm sure is true of you as well. And that's particularly puzzling to me because it's hard to understand how a relationship which is primarily an inter-personal one -- that of teacher to student and vice versa -- can somehow fail to arrive at a desired outcome despite both party's best interests. And this is a phenomena I see reflected in other parts of our society as well. The people at the DMV have as little desire to be there as the customers, to cite just one example. Nobody appreciates the endless hoops you have to jump through, the reams of paperwork, the ever increasing fees and fines. Not to mention the queue lines. And yet somehow it all continues on anyway -- perhaps because everyone thinks they are too small to affect legitimate change. Look at our whole political system for another example. Being smart and educated generally qualifies you for snarky outsider commentary these days and little else.

I've long thought that disillusionment is only the first step towards making changes: recognizing the problem. Unfortunately it seems all too easy to get swallowed up right then and there and never get out. I don't really have any satisfactory answers on this particular topic. In many ways I feel like I'm still fighting back at the idea that proper education is the gateway to a happy and fulfilling life (and working at a major university doesn't help). But I suppose one thing I can say at the moment is that having just one teacher who understands that the social markers of academic success are essentially empty in themselves does help. Having just one teacher who recognizes that whatever happens in that one hour of your day is a very small part of your day-to-day life experience. Because that's really the important thing. Like everyone else kids want to feel safe and secure, they want to feel healthy, they want to feel like nobody is going to ridicule them for who they are. And sometimes they want to be heard. And all of that is more important in the long run than whatever grade you get on an assignment. You're in a rather privileged position I think where you get to observe the very best and worst that humanity has to offer at times. And you can make a difference for one kid somewhere, if only in some small way, I know because certain teachers have for me.

little happinesses: said...

Wow. Andrew, that was a very timely comment since I've been feeling particularly hopeless about having any sort of impact on anything lately. Or maybe it's like you said--maybe I just feel too small to effect legitimate change.

It's a lovely romantic notion to say that one can affect the lives of many students and thus slowly change the nation's pattern of thought (or something), but in reality it's a very hard thing to have faith in. From a typical day at school--full of your normal classroom management issues, kids acting up, kids who you can't give the right thing to, kids you haven't yet been able to reach--from there, it's really hard to feel like you're making any sort of headway. Especially because even if you are, these kiddos probably won't realize it (nor will you) until lots and lots of years from now, looking backward. It's a funny position where I feel like I just have to believe with all my might that I'm making a difference, based on nothing but the fact that some others in my position have in some other cases made differences--at least, anecdotally speaking.

I'm just feeling kind of small and unimportant, I guess, in the grand scheme of things. And maybe that's how everyone feels at some point, and why more change doesn't happen, because we convince ourselves that we can't do it anyway. I'm not giving up, I mean. I think I can make changes. I'm just not sure how, exactly, and I have to hit upon something that feels bigger than what I'm doing now;)