Stumped, Part Two: Born Into This

As we discussed in my last article, American education is in crisis. The evidence is well-known: flat-lining and/or sinking test scores, disproportionate dropout rates, far more skilled jobs than qualified workers, misguided government policy, skyrocketing costs amidst a declining economy, etc etc. Much heated debate surrounds these issues, and it all sounds like attacking the symptoms instead of the illness itself.

I’m going to ask that we stop focusing on differences – low income, high income, low IQ, high IQ, low scores, high scores, public school, private school, charter school, home school, whatever-because the whole debate has consisted of comparisons and contrasts and it has yet to resolve anything. The only thing this binary discourse has proven so far is that no matter what kind of education we have, none of us has learned how to get our heads around the big picture. We’re all caught in the same cycle: asking the same question a thousand different ways, hoping with each new rephrasing that this time we’ll get an answer.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

-Robert Zimmerman

I didn’t learn any of this at school. School didn’t teach me how to think critically or creatively, how to attack problems from the ground up, how to see things in their true context. I had to learn all that on my own. And mind you, I went to high school in Bethesda, Maryland, at one of the most highly ranked and highly funded public schools in the country. Yet all of my learning took place in between, not during, classes.

Prior to high school, bad behavior had landed me in a series of “special” schools for “bad kids,” many of whom were bused in from the DC ghettos. These kids were often much smarter, nicer, and just plain cooler than my suburban peers.

Please try to imagine how I felt when I left that world and went to my home high school, where I saw some of the wealthiest kids, the rudest and most entitled I’ve ever met, skate into the Ivy League without lifting a finger because their parents were paying tutors $100 an hour to do their homework for them, while my alternative school homies were getting chewed up and spat right back out into urban blight.

The differences being debated mean nothing because nobody is learning anything. We’re all children left behind. The differences are just distractions we’ve constructed because we’re too scared to face the real problem. In order to get there, we’ll have to retrace our steps all the way back to the beginning and dig until we hit the root of it.

We’re all products of a system intended for a completely different time and place. Once upon a time, school was optional, with curriculum crafted by teachers on a case-by-case basis to suit each child’s needs. Compulsory education is not the result of democratic consensus. It started with the Industrial Revolution, when manufacturing moguls paid the government to mandate schooling for all children with a curriculum designed to teach them how to work in a group under one leader, in order to ensure a steady supply of factory workers. The streamlined teaching and grading system we have today was implemented because it was logistically impossible for teachers to give individualized care to this tremendous influx of forced new arrivals.

School sure as hell didn’t teach me about that.

It’s now over 100 years later, and every aspect of American life has evolved vastly except for this one. Everyone is a victim of this disconnection and dissonance. We were all thrust into the same maze of contradictions with no map showing us the way out. What does it say about our concept of education when the most educated people are just as confused as the least educated?

If everyone sitting around the debate table would shut their mouths, take a look around and listen, they might begin to figure that out. More on that later.

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Image: Merchandising Plaza Co; originally drawn by Mike Judge