The Suffering Student

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Every semester over several years, I set my students the task of writing an “education journal,” a series of short responses about their experience of and opinions about high school and college education and how well they felt they had been prepared for university studies. Many of these journals were deeply moving and powerful documents owing in part to their invigorating candor—no jargon here—and in part to their often passionate ineptitude. One is chastened by the spectacle of young minds striving to break free from a condition of galloping agraphia caused by inadequate schooling, lack of reading, media overdose, and systematic neglect at the hands of just about everybody involved in their upbringing and education.

From such instances we learn what we have done wrong and how the pillar institutions of family and school have collapsed upon our children, rendering them largely unfit for the brave new world we are so busily and blindly preparing for them. The following passages are the concluding paragraphs culled from a handful of typical productions which, for all their touching bathos and occasional inarticulateness, identify a number of important truths we tend to dismiss as professionally inconvenient. I give them in their uncorrected form. As Wittgenstein said in his Tractatus, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

–To conclude this journal, if this is what you call a journal. I know I have stated that the education that I have taken in is not up to standards to what most teachers would think as great academic work. But I believe that I am a reflection of what the education system has provided. It is not only the system that has failed but it is all of the western world. My mother always said, “Back in my days, we learned algebra in elementary school.”

–It is quite apparent that I am quite unhappy with the state of our education system. I do not feel it is giving me the tools I need to succeed in the world, it is giving me what they think I need to succeed. By they I mean the hundreds of bureaucrats working in the educational system. I have been pretty hard on the teachers but ultimately it is they [i.e., the bureaucrats] who should receive the blame. They cram more kids in a class and do this without ever setting foot inside the schools. They wonder why there are so many drop outs or why their standards are not being met. But instead of solving the problem they simply lower the standards or take the difficult material out of the course. As long as they are running the system it will most likely get worse. They have had their change and they haven’t done a very good job, it is time for a new way to educate.                                                                                

–If we want our children to progress as individuals, I think it is reasonable to depend on the trial and error method, personal experience, as well as                preaching a love of wisdom, philosophy, rather then solely our conventional and industrialized, formal schooling we hve today. I believe that along with learning the ability to read, write and communicate in a fashionably and respectful way, we are forgetting to teach our children simply how to think and make decisions on their own.

–I think that the level of education is weak because we are so worried about    getting the bottom percentage of the students to read and write that we dont have enough time to push the top percentage of students to excel. We try to   make sure that everyone is mediocre rather than have certain students excel   and others be weaned out. There seems to be more funding for special education than for talented and gifted programs.

–Why do things get worse and worse when all the bigshots keep telling us their going to get better and better? Why can’t we just have smaller classes    and unburnt teachers and maybe a couple of cheaper books to study from?

–Today educational system doen’t allow people to move a head.

These kids are evidently in serious trouble and I sometimes fear that it may be too late to do much about it. Although my respondents tend unanimously to indict the educational system for their malaise, I am tempted to lay the principal blame on a generation of parents who have given little intellectual attention to their offspring during their formative years. What does not begin well often does not end well. As Cicero put it in the Brutus, “It makes a great deal of difference whom one hears at home on a daily basis, with whom one speaks from childhood on, and also in what manner one’s father, teachers, and mother speak.”

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  • clarespark

    I appreciate the Solway essay, and have contemplated the same problem for decades. Here is one attempt to explain the Great Dumbing Down, as I call it:…. I blame all of "progressive" culture starting with the post-Civil War period, but accelerating after the Great War, and even more accelerated during the New Left ascendancy. In the end, look back to the rooted cosmopolitans of German Romanticism, starting with Herder and his followers. The title of my essay is "Jottings on the culture wars: both sides are wrong."

  • guest

    I thought by increasing educators salaries to astronomical levels and providing lakes of cash to spend as they see fit was supposed to stem "the rising tide of mediocrity"

    Maybe they need more money…

  • tagalog

    For what it's worth, the journal entries you included in this commentary are pretty articulate, the spelling and grammatical errors seem below average (that is, they're pretty well-written for what they are), and they all contain complete sentences. They know how to make a point and support it with examples.

    Plus these students have been able to hold on to some degree of judgmentalism. In most of the public high schools I know of, that's one of the first things that's taught out of them.

    So these students maybe should not get a pat on the back for the quality of their educations, but they're far from the worst.

    The erosion of public education is far deeper and more extensive than these samples reveal.

  • Jim_C

    My kids are learning algebra in public grade school…is that supposed to be some benchmark?

    The "problem" with education: most people, including very educated people, do not understand whats, hows, and whys of education–they only think they do, because after all–they went to school. I count myself one of them. At this point in history, I'm not sure how best to make good citizens.

    It's easy for "old timers" to wax nostalgic about the 3 R's they learned and how kids these days aren't learning those. In the old timer's day, let's face facts–there simply wasn't nearly as much to learn about, nor did the world they were entering require they know it all. It was, in all respects, a much simpler–if maybe less luxurious–world. They didn't have to understand the architecture of software. They were not bombarded with information 24/7. There were many "givens." Mom and Dad stayed together whether they wanted to or not; Dad won the bread, Mom cooked the meals. Dad may have went to college; Mom probably did not. But college wasn't necessary to earn a middle class living, nor were two incomes necessary to support a family.

    In the 21st century, we still have not come to terms with the massive compression of technological advancement and the enormous socio-economic and demographic changes of the 20th century. Kids aren't any dumber–but their world is full of rapid fire, blinking screens, divisive politics, empty pop cultural facsimiles of joy and gratification. Their time is way more regimented than mine was (remember playing baseball just for fun?). They shop at chain stores, not locally-owned stores. Their communities, if they have any–are small and niche.

    And yet we're supposed to address all this with an educational system built essentially for farm kids 100 years ago?

  • Jim_C

    And do you honestly think the curriculum and teaching talent is that much better in private schools?

    And I'm not talking the types of private schools that cost upwards of $30,000 a year. I'm talking the types of private schools people can usually afford by making the equivalent of a monthly new car payment.

    These schools do perform marginally (though not significantly) better on average, but guess why that is? Parental investment, parental involvement. The tuition payment proves the parents value education. It also keeps the riff raff out. And the parents make sure their investment is paying off.

  • Schlomotion

    Credit is due. This is a great article, especially the criticism of parenting and of the precession of a reductive cybernetic mindset in education. I also think that Jim_C's rebuttal about the inadequacy of a hundred year old farm educational system is true as well.

  • aspacia

    Solway is correct about pedagogical theory being garbage and too many teachers are not masters of their discipline. When the teacher is a master, the other teachers submarine her or him, and argue against teaching spelling and grammar. Currently, I have regular 11th grade proficient students writing Freshman, university level essays in MLA format, complete with in text citations and a Works Cited page. Because of this success, I am being moved into American History. Why? I hold an M.A. in English and B.A. in history, and few in English want to teach the basics.

  • aspacia

    Also, we need to ditch the numerous vacations, especially the 3 month summer break. Too much information is not retained.

  • Kevin Stroup

    Education is merely a facet of American society. It has gone downhill for the same reason so much else has. Entropy. We forget that to sustain a system, let alone upgrade one, requires energy inputs. We on the other hand, expect something for free. Businesses make bad decisions and are bailed out by my tax money, politicians in bed with business on an unprecidented scale, utterly useless people are held up at cultural icons, we are mammon worshippers without restraint, failure is tolerated sometimes even extolled. Did you really expect outstanding successes from a culture that is this corrupt? Schools, teachers and students do not exist in their own separate universe, they reflect the culture that produces them.

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