Education & Schooling

I was talking with a friend the other day, and it came to my attention that to anyone other than my parents, I’ve been quite vague about what, exactly I’m talking about when I say that I have “issues with public Education.” In this episode of Northern Befuddlement I’m going to attempt, at least in part, to rectify that. 

First, some categories: personal failings, and deeply held beliefs. The first category runs: I’m not a good teacher. I’m not a good teacher!? I’m not a good teacher!!! Because, well, I’m new. And, while I do have talents, management is clearly not one of them. Communication isn’t either, except under certain special circumstances. I imagine this particular category of difficulties will rectify itself with time. Enough said.

Second category: my beliefs about the nature of humanity and of education are inconsistent with the beliefs implicit in the structure of governmental schooling. Enter a few more sub-categories: Freedom, attention, and something I’ll call, for now, simplicity.

First, I object to the massive governmental control of schools. It’s oppressive and profoundly unhelpful. Of course there are all kinds of historical and pragmatic reasons why the federal government is involved. But it’s grating. With the government comes laws to oppress teachers and laws to oppress students and more laws to oppress parents. While paying lip service to multi-culturalism, our authorities, when confronted with a culture that’s genuinely different from most of the country, forces upon them twelve years of education under teachers who know nothing about the local culture, and are given no resources to learn about it, and who then more often than not leave before we have time to learn about it, in an endless succession, for the past fifty years or so. It’s a little better than it was: now the schools are in the villages, instead of boarding schools – but in some ways that means that students get to have all the same resentments without the quality of education boarding school can provide. Governmental force applied to that very personal (though by no means private) activity of becoming educated is wrong. Morally wrong. I don’t know what a perfect solution would be. A better solution might be to have fewer positions for us random new people, and more positions for those who may not be certified, but who do know something about the culture. If nothing else, a semi-official way for us newbies to learn what the community wants supported, and what kinds of culture they want preserved might be a good start. But the problem of governmental force is only exacerbated in native communities: it exists in many places. Places where inner city kids are forced to go to dismal schools because of their address; places where parents can’t teach their own kids without a long and expensive process of indoctrination called “teacher’s college;” places where ESL kids go through six of seven classes every day in a language they don’t understand; states expecting teachers to write curriculum as them go, with no resources but the internet and a set of standards that seem to be written in some kind of decadent legal language aimed entirely at obfuscation. 

Attention and simplicity go together. It would be an exaggeration to say that public education creates the modern complete lack of attention in many young people, but it certainly panders to it. Days that are cut up into seven or eight one hour chunks, in seven more or less unrelated subjects is… ludicrous. Having teachers teach six unrelated subjects plus a sport or two is, if anything, more absurd. Then, even those fifty minutes must be further chopped up: ten minutes of typing, an eight minute lecture, twenty minutes to practice what was learned, a wrap-up, and then write out an “exit pass” mini-assessment. One day a week we’ll have a state mandated online practice in basic skills, another perhaps we’ll read aloud to each other, and on another we’ll do a “cooperative learning method.” But half of the students, usually the ones already having difficulties, won’t show up for two of those days. So nothing can be really important unless a teacher is willing to explain it individually to each person who may have missed it – and to remember for a week what, exactly, that student has been missing. In six classes. First period more than other, because only 20% of the students show up within the first five minutes of class. This is not an exaggeration! Longer periods do not seem to help: then teachers just have to cut up a period into seven chunks instead of three, and keep track of strange, rotating periods. 

I hardly even know how to properly describe how this affects an attempt to teach or learn anything, or where a person might begin to reform it. There are so many things in learning that need, more than anything, time and space and attention. Reading, for one. There are kids who only ever read in school, in fifteen minute chunks. What can this possibly do to their power of concentration when trying to follow the plot of an entire novel? 

I have a decent ability to concentrate, and an interest in most things academic, and I still never managed to pass more than five classes in a semester. Even then, it was something of a balancing act where I would put some hard thought into two or three subjects, and ignore two, then switch emphases after a large paper or project. The only class I ever took that had the kind of relentlessness every high school class is supposed to maintain, I flunked, despite being both interested and motivated.

There’s no conclusion I can offer to sum that up neatly, other than saying that there’s GOT to be some way to teach that’s more in accordance with the way humanity does actually learn, instead of spending endless energy trying to train kids to do things that adults stop doing as soon as they possibly can. My opinion would be to start by pruning the current jungle of “necessary,” state mandated subjects to a few important ones. Why on earth should a person be taking Web Design when they cannot read, and have no interest in making a web site? Why should someone take art who has no interest in it, and knows nothing about pretty much anything yet? 

This is all immensely frustrating, because the solution, as far as I can see, begins with people not expecting that there be a universal solution. I can’t teach people who don’t care. people who write on the board “so boring” as random intervals. I can’t teach subjects that are fuzzy enough to mean anything or nothing, and that have no content. I can’t teach things that I myself don’t understand. I certainly can’t teach people who don’t show up! 

Usually writing casts light on a subject, but writing on teaching seems more often than not to caste only darkness. My discontent doesn’t make any more sense now than it did before; my categories are shaky, and my reasoning flawed. More than anything, I’m being inconsistent, being part of a system that I adamantly disagree with, and that’s problematic.


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