‘Educational’ policies have committed schools to the proclaimed importance of using new standards, so that every public school in our nation will be held accountable for achieving results. This may sound like good news on the surface, yet after speaking to some of the most passionately concerned teachers in local elementary and high schools in my area, I don’t believe our enthusiasm for the new ‘standards and testing’ approach is warranted. Teaching our children to perform well on tests teaches them to ‘think’ in very specific ways. When they read and study they tend to scan for certain types of information only—the types that typically appear on their tests. Other types of information, issues, implications and possibilities become increasingly ignored with continued practice and success at passing exams.
The intrinsic rewards of broadening the mind, expanding the imagination, and appreciating fine writing become replaced by the extrinsic rewards of ‘good grades’, public approval, and the allure of a good job. The examinations become a conduit leading our children down a garden path created by… who exactly? And for what purposes? We need to take stock of the fundamental nature of the results we’re so intent on achieving and who they actually benefit.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with ‘raising standards’ as such, but teachers are becoming increasingly pressured to raise their students’ test scores as the sole measure of their success. School curricula have become increasingly centered around comprehensive tests and teaching in general is becoming teaching for specific standardized exams. This may indeed raise test scores, but are the students who perform well on these examinations any ‘better educated’ than those who do poorly?
The teachers themselves have no part in deciding what gets included or excluded on these short-answer tests and neither do parents nor the students themselves. These tests are designed by corporate-sponsored and federally controlled programs which get implemented locally by specially trained ‘change agents’. The powers dominating the system at the very top thereby maintain decisive control over the shape and content of our precious school agendas, curricula and the social values on which they stand.
Higher test scores look good politically, but what does ‘well-educated’ really mean? If it means the ability to follow instructions precisely, to operate strictly within narrowly defined limits, to repress innate curiosity, to marginalize the drive for creative expression, to discourage improvisation and innovation, to avoid questioning authority, to efficiently jump through whatever hoops are presented by force of habit, to pursue isolated tasks without concern for related issues and consequences, to regard ‘education’ as generally boring and unpleasant—certainly way less fun than being entertained—then we’re making progress. We’re turning out good little worker bees who will not balk at subordinating themselves to ‘superiors’ and following instructions without concern for the bigger picture or the larger social implications of their efforts.
If ‘well-educated’ means a balanced, well-rounded appreciation for a wide range of interrelated priorities and topics, the ability to think critically for oneself and to have a healthy respect for some basic values like human welfare, fair play, consideration for others, the joy of teamwork, personal integrity, a broad, informed vision of the world, and the joys of enriching our minds and imaginations as a lifelong creative adventure, then we’re not doing nearly so well.
[The task of education] is to reorient the individual, to enable him to take a richer and more significant view of his experiences, to place him above and not within the system of his beliefs and ideals. [It] sets the mind free from the servitude of the crowd and from vulgar self-interests. In this sense, education is simply philosophy at work. It is the search for the “good life.” Education is itself a way of living. […] That which is important about the philosophy of education is not method but that background of knowledge which enables its possessor to judge what is worth knowing and doing. —Everett Dean Martin, 1926
My experience in school was that those students who got the highest grades were not typically the most intelligent, informed or engaging students I met. Later in life, a college professor who was a friend of mine told me that the students in his classes who consistently got A’s were never the most intelligent kids in his classes. Often, he explained, they were organized, polite, obedient, narrow, predictable, and easily influenced by authority of any kind. I can see the appeal of this kind of training for those who favor large institutions and top-down control, but as parents we may have some serious reservations.
Shouldn’t we be teaching our children to love learning and to find joy in the process? Shouldn’t we hire teachers who love to teach and allow them to help shape the teaching process and its environment along with our guidance and oversight as concerned parents? Shouldn’t we help ignite our children’s passions for pursuing those subjects they have a strong fondness for? Well educated students will be equipped to learn and think on their own, at their own pace, following a zealous or at least sincere interest in what they’re studying. If more of us were working at careers we genuinely enjoyed for their intrinsic value and satisfaction, our whole nation would gradually become better educated and more well-informed.
‘Schooling’, in many ways, increasingly functions as the major foundational root of ‘mind control’ in our society. Everyone gets conditioned to accept whatever they’re told, believe whatever they’re taught, and do whatever they’re instructed. Serious thought and questioning are discouraged while independent learning is effectively marginalized. New insights and fresh understandings are typically rejected. Overturning or even attempting to challenge existing dogmas can result in extreme punishment.
These attitudes encourage everyone to accept there is only one correct answer to any given question, problem or predicament—something we know from long experience is not true. This type of ‘schooling’ locks students into narrow views of ‘reality’ that they tend to grow up with and then work to keep control of all their lives. Instead of open minds exploring fertile ground we wind up with closed minds powerfully invested in maintaining their fixed ‘correct for all time and all people’ conclusions, often to the point of discrediting differing opinions and viewpoints or even attempting to destroy people with widely differing worldviews. This is the direct opposite of what education is purportedly attempting to achieve and merely pointing out the error in this approach, repeatedly seems to accomplish nothing. Simply describing the problem clearly does not thwart the continuing practice of closing minds to the potentially exciting adventures of creative problem-solving and critically analyzing questionable assumptions in our schoolrooms.
When I complained about this in school to those who would listen to me, the few people who could understand what was bothering me could not understand why I didn’t just accept things the way they obviously were, make the best of it, and do what I was told so I could get the best-paying career I possibly could. Since there was no other immediate option, why didn’t I stop behaving like a naive idealist and make the best of the situation like everyone else was doing?
In hindsight… I guess the fact that I found it mind-numbingly boring, soulless, grossly disrespectful of true learning and valuable knowledge and often just plain stupid, was enough for me. Even without another option, I knew I was strongly opposed to this ‘only option’ they were pushing on me. Can we not even allow ourselves to consider creating a better system and how we might accomplish it? It’s a significant fact that home schooling is becoming increasingly popular in spite of how much time and energy it demands of already busy yet very concerned parents.
Many of our problems as a culture stem from our preoccupation with money and profit; greedy self-interest and lust for power—“vulgar self-interests” as Martin put it. If our leaders continue to value money and power more than human life and if students and the rest of us continue to follow their directives—pursuing careers primarily for their money-making potential—these problems will persist and worsen. If people start learning to find joy in their pursuits our culture may eventually become a more enjoyable place to live, with happier people earning livings doing things they genuinely enjoy for their intrinsic worth and interest and the opportunity to express their innate talents, temperaments and very personally unique ‘intelligence’.
To my mind, an educated person is not merely one who can do something, whether it is giving a lecture on the poetry of Horace, running a train, trying a lawsuit, or repairing the plumbing. He is also one who knows the significance of what he does, and he is one who cannot and will not do certain things. He has acquired a set of values. He has a “yes” and a “no”, and they are his own. He knows why he behaves as he does. He has learned what to prefer, for he has lived in the presence of things that are preferable. I do not mean that he is merely trained in the conventions of polite society or the conformities of crowd morality. He will doubtless depart from both in many things. Whether he conforms or not, he has learned enough about human life on this planet to see his behavior in the light of a body of experience and the relations of his actions to situations as a whole. […] it makes little difference whether he has been trained in philosophy or mechanics. He is being transformed from an automaton into a thinking being. —Everett Dean Martin, 1926
If realizing and demonstrating these kinds of values doesn’t start with inspiring our own tender children right now to explore what they enjoy and feel passionate about, then where and when and with whom does it begin?