Last summer, I was working on a series of letters for my nephews to read when they’re older, under the guiding principles that a) prepubescence and early adolescence can be abysmally confusing times of life, b) kids in that age bracket can find it immensely difficult to talk with adults–especially adults they know and love–about feelings and uncertainties they don’t yet know how to put into words, and c) those transitional periods are nonetheless critical to a child’s development into a healthy, self-aware, compassionate, and purpose-driven young adult. Letters that were simply around for them to pick up or put down at their leisure; documents that could not interrupt their own, desperately personal stories to say “I know just how you feel” or “I felt a lot like that when I was your age”: These, I thought, might be just the way to be a helping hand for them.
I came to an abrupt halt with that series, though, when I reached what I thought would be an easy letter about the importance of education. As much as I wrote about the importance of critical thinking, of exploration and curiosity, of mindful reflection on what one cannot and should not expect from one’s elders, I couldn’t bring myself to post a word of it. None of it felt quite right. So I put it aside; I told myself I’d get back to it after I’d finished a bit of my PhD studies. I had so hoped to reclaim a sense of certitude through immersion in my own educational path.
The trouble is that my own sense of education–what it should do, what forms it should take–is in a constant state of flux, and I know not to what end. The more I progress through post-secondary education, the more I realize how much institutionalized learning is often at odds with genuine understanding–and the more I chafe at the hierarchical impediments to effective transformations of ailing programs and curricula. I follow studies and discussions negotiating how very much (and wrongly) universities are run as for-profit businesses; how bureaucratic roadblocks limit the average citizen’s direct access to research funded by their tax dollars; how laws intended to make access to post-secondary education available for all have allowed universities and third-party businesses to hyper-inflate student fees on the backs of loan programs that leave young persons with staggering debt loads after four-year degrees; how undergraduate degrees have preposterously become baseline qualifications for a variety of entry-level positions in workforces that often make use of entirely different skills.
There are, suffice it to say, a tremendous number of issues with the university system–just as there are a slew of different (but related) issues with the high school education system. I hold that one should never lose the desire to learn about the world, to challenge one’s deepest preconceptions, and to engage in conversations of meaningful use to the betterment of oneself and one’s society–but how? Through what metrics, practices, and institutions?
Sugata Mitra has run a few experiments that demonstrate the power of technology to provide learning opportunities fortified by the power of peer groups to self-educate. His talk is part of a series of TEDtalks about how to fix how we engage with education, and why. The latter point is also well made in this series by Sir Ken Robinson, who argues that our current systems kill creativity. At the heart of Sir Robinson’s argument, for instance, is this haunting observation:
Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side. If you were to visit [public] education as an alien and say, ‘What’s it for?’ … I think you’d have to conclude, if you look at the output–you know, who succeeds by all this, who does everything they should, who gets all the brownie points … who are all the winners–I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education, throughout the world, is to produce university professors.
He goes on to say “And I used to be one–so there”–but that admission really gets to the crux of the dilemma for me: a doctoral student in a post-secondary system that is at once radically changing and also not changing radically enough. By his own valuation, Robinson got to the top of this whole education racket, and now he’s not so sure this is a wise outcome. I’d agree. I’m operating in a system that wants to keep a certain number of “butts in seats” for purely financial reasons, and I’m trying to invite my students to decide for themselves (irrespective of social and familial pressures) whether or not this environment is right for them in the long run, while also trying to teach them critical thinking and communication skills I hope are more universally relevant whatever they choose to do in the years to come.
From where I sit, it’s a muddle of contradictions only further exacerbated by the knowledge that, while university isn’t the right environment for all of them (and indeed, an utter waste for some), a university degree has become almost socially requisite (particularly among marginalized persons) in order to participate meaningfully in the job market and democratic arena alike. Which, then, is more ethical? To encourage sustained, often financially crippling investments in an institution with debatable knowledge outcomes, so that this next generation won’t lose out on heavily skewed opportunities for social advancement? Or to encourage these students to follow their dreams and their passions, knowing full well how much a non-university track generally curtails social mobility and economic marketability, as well as how much harder it is for many extremely talented persons to have their voices heard?
I suspect this would all be easier to bear if curiosity, critical thinking, and purpose-driven action were more frequent outcomes of the high school system–if there were any point in the educational process, really, when one could be more or less certain that the majority of youth have enough of a knack for exploration to fill in the gaps for themselves. I see the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Khan Academy, and Codeacademy, and I think to myself, “Maybe we’re closer to this end than we think. Maybe we can do this after all.” But I also see compelling arguments for how fragmented our exposure to new media is, and I think, “How rampantly confirmation bias skews our lived realities, rhetoric, and jargon into such staunchly divided discursive spheres!” I hear examples, furthermore, of people cheating on online courses that have no benefit to them except individual understanding, and I wonder, “Is our need for status symbol accomplishments really so deeply ingrained?”
I ask myself, too, if I have even the foggiest notion of what an ideal education system would look like–and I honestly don’t. I want to lift institutional proclivities toward standardized testing and specific professional outcomes, but I also want protections against poor teachers–and worse yet, poor parents. I want a system that teaches children to be critical thinkers, to explore and appreciate their universe, to uphold the dignity of their fellow creatures in it, to look for enthusiastic consent in everything they do, to manage their own finances, to plan for families and be responsible parents, to be compassionate and attentive global citizens, to be meaningful contributors to their local communities, to know their rights and freedoms as much as their privileges and responsibilities, to manage conflicts respectfully and self-reflectively, and that being wrong or failing is not the end of the world.
I want, simply put, children who grow up to put previous generations to shame–young persons with more of a talent not just to survive but to thrive than I ever have. But how? How does one person cloaked in structural ignorance even begin to get another ignorant person to the next plateau?
I wonder if I’ll ever find an answer to such questions. I wonder if any of us ever does. Or does each in his own time simply resign himself to the performance of outward authority while these questions yet rage within?
I hope there’s something less contrived to aspire to, at the very least: If my pursuit of education brings me, in the end, to teaching for life, I certainly hope to manage the feat of educating my intended, future betters without all the hypocrisy native to the systems from whence I’ve come.