The Suffering Student

The problem with education today.

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.”

Every student I have polled in my classes has spent years of his or her life parked before a TV set or a video game and practically none can remember being read to at an early age or conversed with in their maturing years on cultural, political, historical, or literary questions. This goes a long way toward explaining the critical deficiencies from which they suffer in both the lexicon and the morphology of the language, the privation of the latter being most evident in the confusion of their written productions. Clarity begins at home with reading to children, with literate discussion and good speech habits, with diligent monitoring of homework, with expressions of concern. This is obviously an ideal scenario, but as Emerson urged in Society and Solitude, “Hitch your wagon to a star.”

Regrettably, there is no doubt that the educational system in which our kids are trapped does almost nothing to ameliorate their situation and in fact only exacerbates the predicament in which they find themselves. Far too many have been ideologically indoctrinated by progressivist teachers, taught to nurture an unearned feeling of self-esteem and to assume a sense of entitlement. Very few are actually trained in the protocols of thinking and studying, to take course work seriously or even to write properly. Thankfully, as we see from the above exemplars, some are conscious that they have been short-changed.

These latter are the students whom literary scholar Janice Fiamengo, in an as yet unpublished paper, calls “the teachable remnant.” Like them, we should be aware that on the whole students are treated very superficially indeed, despite the pamphleteering cheeriness of our school representatives, in what amounts to little more than the promotion or imposition of a kind of shuck-and-chuck pedagogy. But since it is less problematical to try to modify the school than it is to rehabilitate the family or transform the culture, I come to the reluctant conclusion that, faute de mieux and even if the eleventh hour has already passed, we have little choice but to tackle the problems where we empirically meet them.

With regard to the schools, parents need to get their act together. They must offer critical support to their children’s responsible teachers, many of whom are struggling to retain their dignity and effectiveness in a rapidly degrading environment and who must be encouraged to resist both the shortsighted attempts—aka “reform”—to repair the intellectual mutilations from which students suffer and the techno-administrative ideology that is defrauding them of their birthright. Parents must also be pro-active in discerning and protesting against those teachers who are a discredit to their profession, who have not invested in mastering their subjects, and who are content to float their way to retirement. Those who can afford it might consider enrolling their children in the better private schools, as do most of our politicians who, despite their laic advocacy, wouldn’t dream of sacrificing their kids to the Moloch of public education. And parents who do not enjoy the means to defray the tuition costs of the private schools, but who are educated and committed, have the option of home schooling.

One does not need to be clairvoyant to agree with Quebec intellectual Jean Larose, who writes in L’Amour du pauvre [The Love of the Poor] that the new curricular dispensation will produce chiefly des esprits conformistes…incapable de concevoir d’autres réalités que celles de leur milieu et de leur experience immédiats. Parce que les mots leur manquent, parce que les formes leur manquent, ils se trouvent souvent sans originalité au moment de concevoir…condamnés à réinventer le bouton à quatre trous… [conformist minds…incapable of conceiving other realities but those of their immediate environment and experience. Because they lack words, because they lack the forms (of thought), they find themselves without originality at the moment of intellectual conception…condemned to reinvent the four-hole button…].

This numbnuts curriculum is refracted in the practical sphere as programmatic reform—a synonym for useless theoretical busywork—, as the application of a cybernetic mindset to curriculum and methodology that dissolves subject matter into a swarm of innumerable and contentless objectives, and especially in the continuing moral, psychological, and professional diminishment of the student. But it is precisely such a process of student demotivation and institutional contempt that makes any restructuring program or curricular renovation which does not focus on the basics and the disciplined formation of the mind pretty well idle if not downright harmful. If this situation is not reversed or even partially remedied, we can write off the next generation more or less wholesale.

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