A Storytelling Serial
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Two life events merged for me this month.
First, after falling in love with Daniel Quinn’s 1992 novel Ishmael—which stunningly answers the question of how our planet reached its modern problems—I read his 1997 follow-up, My Ishmael, which covers slightly different ground in humanity’s search for solutions.
Second, my oldest daughter participated in a nationally publicized teachers’ strike against a major urban school district. Atypically, for several days I closely followed social media for up-to-date information on the happenings of the strike and the progress of its resolution.
My Ishmael spent many pages critiquing the US school system. Likewise, numerous social media posts criticized schools, teachers, and the general state of education in this country.
Missing the Point of Our Education System
Full disclosure: I have an advanced degree in higher education and completed extensive graduate-school research with K–12 teachers. Obviously, I’ve thought a lot about the US education system. But not lately, because for the past few years I’ve placed more attention on adult skills training than on formal schooling.
The book and the strike, however, flipped me back to the other side of my passion for education. And as I pondered the critiques and criticisms (discounting everything that devolved to a social media rant), I confronted an age-old theme that seems to be picking up steam with the passage of time.
Increasingly, many otherwise-perceptive people, including products of our education system, don’t understand why they went to school.
A broad education is not meant to
Rather, the purpose of a general education is to
All this may seem complex and inexact, but it’s what I’ve seen formal education deliver, repeatedly and consistently. These benefits may not be what students want, but they’re what formal learners get.
The education system hasn’t failed; rather, participants and the public have been betrayed by their own mistaken notions of education’s goals.
Ignoring the Root Cause of Teachers’ Strikes
Noneducators necessarily run into a disturbing expectation-reality discrepancy when they misunderstand the various purposes of public education and wrongly assume that schools can function like businesses, following formulas to produce standard, measurable products and returns on investment.
Critical thinking, creativity, and making connections are not measurable, and knowledge is not a standard product.
Job skills are developed through practice-based experience, which is an individualized undertaking beyond general-education settings.
Information changes constantly, along with perspectives for understanding that information. Just compare today’s views of history with those of fifty years ago.
Above any other requirement, formal education serves today’s desperate need for learning how to learn about all that is beyond the narrow scope of family, job, and immediate culture.
And because too many people outside the classroom don’t fully appreciate and honor the crucial importance of schooling’s intent, they respect neither educational institutions nor professional educators.
The teachers in my daughter’s urban school district rallied around pay as a symbol of respect. And they effectively made their point: Teachers are highly trained practitioners who understand the true nature of education, and treating them as less—represented by many teachers who earn so little that they must work second and third jobs to pay their rent while sharing apartments with multiple roommates—is symptomatic of our country’s contempt for the principles of public education.
Wasting Opportunities in Learning
The sad result of expecting schools to provide something they’re not meant to is that we then neglect our responsibility to support and take advantage of what they do best.
Instead of wringing our hands because of low standardized (is there really such a thing for human minds and emotions?) test scores, we could delight in the ways our fifth-graders combine historic events with scientific experiments to understand the processes of invention—in any field.
Ah, but that requires time and resources for robust teaching in both history and science, which are outside the main thrust of standardized testing.
Setting aside concerns that college sophomores aren’t acquiring practical (and who defines what’s practical in any given career?) skills, we could rejoice that they’re forming bonds of friendship—and networking skills—that will support them through their approaching employment roller coasters.
But how can that affirmation happen when relatives and strangers fixate on whether those sophomores are majoring in something, anything, that will lead to a “good” job? (Measured by pay and prestige, so don’t make it teaching!)
When we focus on what we think should exist, we see only the gaps. If we can shift our sights toward the true riches of our classrooms, we’ll be dazzled by the amazing teaching and learning that our education system was designed to provide. And we’ll stop trying to dismantle a process that does more good than we realize. We might even give it some well-deserved respect.
When was the last time you chatted with a public school teacher about their views of education and its purposes? Strike up a meaningful dialogue with an expert working in the school trenches; and in the Comments section below, please share what you learn.