An Educational Ideal for a Changing World, Part 1: The Problem

Elementary education today generally follows a model first developed in the late 1800s, in which students divided up by age are placed in rigidly structured classes where each academic subject is taught in isolation from all others, and all students follow a common curriculum. This model has achieved much in its time, allowing relatively few teachers to instruct relatively many students to a tolerable standard within systematically defined fields. Compared to the widespread illiteracy and ignorance that plagued society in previous years [UPDATE: maybe not, see comments], the educational system produced results that were, on average, quite beneficial. That individuals are almost never educated up to their potential, and that the system was plagued with certain endemic flaws (discussed below), was an acceptable tradeoff.

These days, however, societies cannot be satisfied with a populace educated to be minimally competent and able to follow a centrally-mandated schedule. In the Information Economy, the key commodity is not brute labor but technical expertise, along with fertile creativity and entreprenuerial skill. Here the educational system falls short; most students have the creativity beaten out of them by the time they leave high school, their general educations are becoming less and less effective, and worst of all they are no longer taught to be good people and good citizens. Let us examine the particulars:

1. Grouping children by age allows teachers to approximate grouping by ability, permitting assemby-line educating with large classes. But this is a rough approximation at best; children develop in different areas at different speeds, and to lump them all together necessitates teaching to the lowest common denominator. Children who are advanced in a particular subject are bored to tears, and children who develop more slowly are taught too quickly for them to absorb what they learn.

Aside from this, the whole idea of grouping children by age is wrongheaded. Children mirror the behavior they see; they learn from those around them. Does it make more sense for an immature, inexperienced child to learn from older, wiser children and adults, or to have his unformed sense of etiquette and morality amplified twentyfold and reflected back at him by similarly immature classmates?

In school, children learn from each other social norms that damage them for life. All the physical and mental cruelties that children inflict on each other, the focus on gaining status through crass materialism, or through hurting others, or through deliberate crudeness and violation of common courtesy in order to be "cool," the "lobster-pot effect" in which those who perform best are seen as targets for scorn and ridicule—all these arise because schoolyard society is "Lord of the Flies" writ large, in which no senior voices of wisdom exist to guide the development of a child's behavior (aside from teachers, who usually cannot stop the anarchy and seldom try).

2. Most schools and classrooms are seemingly designed to evoke dread and dullness from their inhabitants, and to make learning itself hateful. People are strongly influenced by their physical surroundings, and particular styles of architecture create different moods. The Capitol Building in Washington DC is a perfect example. When you walk by, you cannot help but be struck by a sense of tremendous pride and awe. Here is a building that speaks of the unlimited potential of man, the strength of this country, its virtues and its goals, and yet makes each onlooker feel as though he personally is a part of it all. Soviet architecture, on the other hand, was meant to impress upon the viewer his insignificance and frailty compared to the awesome power of the state; it is no wonder that the style has been adopted by tyrants the world over.

Most schools, unfortunately, borrow much from the Soviets. In an institution that should represent unlimited possibilities and the power of the human imagination, one often finds constricted corridors and stifling, boxlike rooms. Color schemes are badly thought out, windows are rare for fear of outside distractions, buildings are often made of crumbling brick and mortar.

In a classroom, children are often arranged in rows and columns, surrounded by walls covered with the most saccharine sort of stylized propaganda. Chairs and desks are often poorly designed, causing bad posture and resulting in health problems and constant discomfort. Books are far too heavy, causing spinal damage when the poor kids must carry massive loads back and forth. Children must sit still for hours at a time, leaving them in poor shape and slothful. Most children are naturally active; confinement behind desks is unnatural, causes them to disrupt class out of boredom, and teaches that a high energy level is something to be avoided and suppressed. (Is it any surprise that we have increasing levels of obesity?)

3. Most schools do not adequately teach the fine arts. This is a tragedy both because of the incredible creative talent that is constantly wasted, in graphic arts, music, writing, or sculpture, but also because art is one of the most sublime pathways to greater creativity in general. Creativity depends in large part on synthesizing old concepts in new ways; doing this requires skill at free association, a mode of thought directly opposed to the structured, logical mode of research papers and the like. Schools do not easily tolerate free association; creativity cannot be easily quantized and graded, so children are instead admonished to "stay on task."

Additionally, because schools do not consciously teach students what good art is, they are free to prefer degenerate forms of music and art instead. Their minds suffer as a result. (I encourage readers to listen to a typical rap station, to analyze the experience of having the thudding precussion pounding at your brain, and to see what it does to your thinking for the next hour or two.)

4. Similarly, by teaching the subjects in isolation schools discourage interdisciplinary thinking. The truth is, Western culture in general is far too enamored with reductionism, the idea that components of a system must be rigidly categorized and studied independently. The reductionist method is valuable, to be sure, and has yielded great amounts of scientific and cultural knowledge; but it is also incomplete, and leads to flawed approaches to problems.

The new science of complex systems recognizes what has been known for a long time outside of science, that systems can manifest behavior and abilities that are unexplained by those of each component in isolation. In essence, this is the idea of holism, of examining a system as a unity. Holism too can be abused, and too often served in the past to excuse ignorance of underlying machinery or causes; but generally it is a heathier attitude. The reductionist sees a malfunctioning system and looks for the single source of the problem, that can be corrected by manipulating one part only. The holist seeks balance between the parts, working together in harmony towards a greater goal. The student must learn both of these methods, and when to use each for best effect. (For more reading, see Douglas Hofstadter. It can be dense going, but is incredibly rewarding.)

5. Schools do an incredibly poor job of preparing students for the real world. Most astonishing is how little attention is paid to proper fiscal habits and money management. 99.99% of people never benefit from knowing that lava cools into igneous rock, while most people struggle with imprudent credit-card debt; yet almost all schools teach earth science, while few teach about budgeting, investing, the proper use of credit, or (worst of all) entreprenuerialism. Consider that almost all successful entreprenuers today are either educated by their parents, born naturals, or self-taught, and you can appreciate the vast missed opportunities that our nation has wasted by teaching children how to be employees, not entreprenuers.

6. Most importantly, many schools have largely abdicated their responsibility to teach students morality. This is perhaps to be expected in the public schools, where religion is outlawed; in the absence of the Divine, moral systems cannot be built on anything more than rational self-interest. Yet even rational self-interest is often neglected; instead, students get bromides about universal love and tolerance that are laughed off by the cynical and the feral, and turn the credulous into weak, timorous creatures who shrink from necessary conflict, fit prey for the feral.

Similarly, civics is usually replaced by social science, which (instead of teaching students their duties to country and to countrymen) purports to study the phenomenon of statehood and mass behavior with a clinical eye. That social science is (often) propaganda for why the state is evil is, of course, irrelevant. (Don't believe me? Pick up your child's social studies textbook sometime and flip through it. But first, remove all breakable objects from your vicinity…)

What can be done? Come back tomorrow for Part 2.

UPDATE: A post by Instapundit, in which he references an article in the New Republic about the failing school performance of boys, is worth looking at. (Hat tip: Soccer Dad.)


Henry Cate said...

"Compared to the widespread illiteracy and ignorance that plagued society in previous years, the educational system produced results that were, on average, quite beneficial."

I am confused. All of the history of education that I've read indicates that literacy was very high in the 1800 to 1850 time period, before the compulsory education movement really got started. In 1870 the United States was a nation raised on the McGuffey Readers. Literacy for adults was over 95% for white adults. By the 1890s the blacks were catching up. Children may not have spent ten years in school, but they could read. Horatio Alger sold millions of books to children who could read.

Why do you think there was widespread illiteracy before the system of placing children into grades was developed?

Mastiff said...

Point taken. I was going off of hearsay.

Corrections will be posted pronto.

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