10 April 2011

On Education

I'm smarter than you are.  I'm better than you, too.

There.  I said it.

Now, you're wondering why I said it.  You didn't come here to hear me get snotty, after all.  In truth, I'm not arrogant but there are an awful lot of people who are convinced I must really be harboring those thoughts.  See, I hold a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Louisville, earned in history.  I was one of only nine students in my graduating class to earn a B.A. in history with honors (cum laude for me; I missed magna cum laude by "thismuch").  And yet, my degree has largely been a liability for me.  I know I have to keep quiet about it around certain people because they're convinced anyone who went to college has a superiority complex.  Such people marginalize the value of an education by saying, "Well, you might be 'book smart', but..."  That's the closest to a kind word I'll get: being dismissed as being better read than them, but with the stipulation that I cannot possibly understand "the real world" because I was off burying my head in something as frivolous as a book.

Is he smarter than his bosses?
Recall, if you will, the song, "Take This Job (And Shove It)," written by David Allen Coe.  The third verse discusses the supervisors of the factory:
The foreman, he's a regular dog; the line boss, he's a fool
Got a brand new flat top haircut Lord, he thinks he's cool
One of these days I'm gonna blow my top and that sucker, he's gonna pay
I suspect that if we asked the foreman, we'd find out he's not a dog at all; but rather, he's tasked with a bunch of illiterate screw-offs.  The line boss would tell us that, yes, he is cool, and the truth is none of his underlings are even capable of doing his job, much less are they qualified to do it.  But we identify with the idea that what's really standing in our way are boneheaded bosses so however they got to their positions must not be working right.

Some people I know are more supportive, but oddly enough they feel most entitled to argue with me about my field of study.  If I were to pop off with trivia or cite a name and date, they'll let it slide assuming I'm right.  But if a conversation arises about interpreting history, then all my time spent on the topic means nothing.  Worse, it has been thrown in my face that I wasn't told "the truth."  Just once I'd like to know how it is that "the truth" could find its way to someone only by not having participated in disciplined studies.  Was it something you saw in a movie, or heard about from your neighbor's dad as a kid?  Any disagreement I have about these topics boils down to the accusation that I've been deceived.

This isn't a recent phenomenon, either.  When I was in grade school, I was similarly dismissed in such a conversation because I was clearly too young to know what I was talking about, and I needed to grow up before I was entitled to an opinion on something.  I was cautioned against devoting myself too much to education; it was little more than busywork that would never prepare me for "the real world."  Speaking articulately got me lectured more than once as a kid about how my $5 words didn't make me better than anyone else and I needed to quit showing off.  I began to feel self-conscious about my aptitude to the point that I began under-achieving.  I should have been at the top of my class by the end of high school, and instead I have little desire to look at my transcript.  My fear of making any further progress as a student became so pronounced that I even convinced myself that I wasn't good enough to handle more challenging concepts.

This culture of being suspicious of education and deriding those who have received one is the largest problem facing our education system.  Everything that undermines our education system can be traced to that attitude and perception.  In my estimation, there are three problems that need to be addressed if we're serious about improving education in the United States.

Firstly, our public school teachers have been emasculated by parents and their lawyers.  Students know that their teachers have few recourses in the event they are uncooperative.  Private school students rarely display disruptive behavior.  Private schools have no problem replacing that student (and hence, are not afraid that they won't still collect tuition), and private school parents view their children's education as an investment to be properly managed.

Secondly, our public school parents have developed the wrong attitude about teachers.  There is a sense that, because teachers are paid through tax money, teachers work for the parents.  There are a lot of parents out there who believe that helping their child with homework is tantamount to doing the teacher's job for him.  If a student becomes frustrated too often over homework, you're guaranteed a parent who will complain that the teacher must not be doing his job right.

Thirdly, public school curricula is at the mercy of politics.  There's always someone campaigning on a platform that they will "fix" or "turn around" the education system.  It tends to work with voters, because they're all convinced that in a "good" education system, their kids won't ask for their help with homework.  The problem here is that education is a macro process.  It takes years for the cumulative impact on a student to be seen.  The new directives for the education system are written, altering the trajectory already in progress.  How can any system be effective when it's subject to such constant meddling?  Private schools are immune to such sabotage, and their students enjoy much greater stability in consequence.

Notice, if you will, that I don't argue our teachers need more accountability.  There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, education is a macro process and standardized testing is a micro level snapshot; it does not tell us anything meaningful about the impact our teachers are having.  Secondly, I firmly believe that if you address the three points I've described and allow our educators to do their jobs without constant meddling and being undermined, it will reveal just how good our teachers really are.

"The Thinker" by Auguste Rodin.
Photo: CJ/Wikipedia Commons
There is also an open resentment toward any collegiate major that doesn't confer on graduates a job title.  If you complete a medical major, you're automatically a nurse, physician's assistant or doctor--those make sense to people.  Other majors, though, meet with scorn and derision.  Having a degree in history is bad enough; I can only imagine how philosophy majors are treated.  "There's no job for a philosophy major," you'll hear.

Philosophy, more than any other discipline, cultivates critical thinking skills--skills that are sorely lacking in our workplace environments.  One wonders how many of our financial institutions could have benefited from having a philosopher on their board of directors in addition to all those people with business backgrounds.  Clearly, the economic interests of very few people were served by the short-sighted practices that led to our current woes.  If we're to succeed, we need true leadership--and we need to consider that those skills may not be cultivated in our business schools.

When I recently argued this in an online discussion, I was met with the following rebuke:
theres no guarantee that one will be a critical thinker after a philosophy degree - in fact expecting a job with no real skills shows a lack of cognisance of the job market.
Claiming to be a "critical thinker" is like claiming to be a "problem solver" its a personal enrichment claim and anybody can be that quite frankly
This is what we're up against, people.  Critical thinking is not considered a viable skill and is actively discouraged.  Until we fix this, nothing is going to get better.

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