Friday, June 03, 2011

Food for Thought

I minored in education in college and even student taught a couple of classes at the local high school. When I entered college, I thought I wanted to be a history teacher. I still like to teach when I get the chance, and I still love history. My problem, however, is that I have long been a heretic in the realm of education and pedagogy of the American variety.

I constantly bedeviled the education professors and supervisors because I believe that the way the entire American educational system is set up is, frankly, dysfunctional. Basically, the way the American classroom works is that students are taught to think in multiple choice. Classic logic and rhetoric are no longer taught in most high schools or colleges. Latin, which is the vehicle through which one learns such logic, is not taught in most high schools.

Basically, the way the American classroom works is that some reading or assignment is given to be done as homework. American students can't be bothered to read and will only do written assignments at gunpoint (or risk of failing, which at the end of the educational day is the same thing.) The next class period has the professor or teacher basically spoon feeding the class what was in the homework reading/assignment. In other words, the teacher, by various pedagogical methods, takes class time to rehash what the student should already understand, at least on some level. This process is repeated over and over until finally a test (a final exam or standardized) is given, at which point said material is regurgitated, usually in multiple choice form, at which point virtually all the information then leaves the short term memory of the student.

Thus, I posit that the American education system is really nothing more than an ongoing exercise in short term memory. You study history; regurgitate it for the test, and then move on to, say, math or science and repeat the process. Those with good short term memory do well. Those that don't will do badly. Original thinking is not required and is often discouraged. A way of looking at or doing something outside the parameters or thought patterns of the teacher is often met with vehement rejection or criticism by the teacher. Sometimes this criticism is justified; other times not.

American teachers often can't handle the notion that anyone, particularly a student, might actually have a better way of doing something. As politically liberal as many in the field of education are, teachers as a group are extremely conservative in terms of the tried and truth pedagogy of the system. If you doubt my word on this, suggest to a group of teachers some time that we should re-do the k-12 system entirely to the point of eliminating entire grades so as to avoid the burn out of high school juniors and seniors, and watch groups like  the NEA and others froth at the mouth. They talk a lot about changing the system, but it is often just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

I was a master of this when I was in high school and college. I have an off the wall way of looking at things, and always have. I was constantly coming up with my own ways of doing things, and it often drove my teachers crazy. Luckily I had just enough teachers along the way that were bright enough to realize that I was not trying to be a punk when I would do things like this. I was just trying to be more efficient and find better ways of doing stuff.

Though I am an Episcopal priest, I generally tend to grind my teeth at the "We've always done it that way!" herd mentality, at least for its own sake. Being a student of history, I think many times there is a good reason for doing it the way we've always done it. If there is a good and valid reason, I am more than happy to respect that. Where I chaff against the grain is when such a philosophy is held where there is obviously a better way of doing it, or the reason for doing something a said way has been completely lost to antiquity.

I always think of that classic sermon illustration about the pot roast, where a man watches his new wife cut off the tips of a pot roast to cook but throws the tips away. When he asks why she does it that way, the wife says, "Well, that's the way my mother always did it." When querying the mother-in-law the next time they visit, the mother-in-law says, "Well, that's the way my mother always did it." The husband then calls the grandmother-in-law and asks why, to which the grandmother laughs and says, "I always cut off the tips because I only had the one small pot. The pot roast does not fit into my pot any other way!"

I write all this because I came across this very interesting editorial here on CNN.com. I sympathize in part with the writer's sentiment because he voices the same frustration I always had with the educational process in this country. I do applaud him for voicing the universal American heresy: everyone should go to college. I, like he, vehemently disagree with that assertion. The military and trade schools are fine institutions for people who want to learn by doing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, professional trade school graduates probably make more money that most Ph.D.'s I know. I've said for years that the stupidest people I know are grad students, and I stand by that assertion.

I would also disagree with him in part because his logic is atrocious, and he could certainly stand to take a class in classical logic. (For instance, note the emotive title right off the bat. Emotive rants do not good rhetoric make.) If he really thinks that answering e-mails and Facebook are more important than going to class, then...well, I'll let you be the judge of that.

The point I think he is trying to make interestingly disproves his thesis. He, like most Millennials, fails to understand that he is the very product of consumer culture that he rails against. He basically says that people should not go to college because they don't get their money's worth. (That's probably true in some institutions; I could never justify going $100k in debt for an undergraduate degree, even if its from some place like Yale or Harvard.) He wants all colleges and eduction to be his way, as if he's ordering a custom made Dell computer with 320 GB hard drive and a Blaster sound board and delivered to his door. He doesn't seem to want to work towards building his own education and learning for the sake of learning. College, to him, is simply something to be consumed, and if it doesn't meet your individual preferences, then we should not buy it at all.

There are agricultural and technical colleges were you can learn by doing. You can also learn a great deal at any college, if you work hard and take advantage of the libraries on your own time. When I was at Cambridge, I learned that the English educational model is reversed. The teacher comes in and lectures on a topic, then gives a syllabus at the end with a huge bibliography of resources tangentially related to the lecture topic, and the student is expected to go out and have the freedom to go learn what interests him or her and then research an essay on the topic.

This model, of course, assumes that students want to learn, are self-motivated, and can think independently for purposes of research and learning. Since none of those skills are taught or assumed in the American context, such a model might not be feasible in the American educational scene. The problem is that we've never done it that way, and no one can be bothered to try.

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