17 Years in the “Machine” and the Misnomer of “Education”
Español “Did you ever feel that you were in a machine, that had its own purposes and goals, and had no relation to what you wanted to do or achieve?” Professor Steven Davies begins the LearnLiberty video, “Education is NOT the Same as Schooling,” with this question to his mostly college-aged audience about their educational experience so far.
Yes, Professor Davies, I absolutely did feel that I was in a machine, and sometimes, I still do.
I don’t blame the players, however. I blame the game. The “game” is the system that renders passionate educators as little more than disciplinarians and test administrators. At the university level, this practice is a shame; it insults the intelligence and accomplishment of a person holding a terminal degree in his field by demoting him to a mere manager of curricula.
Davies describes their quest to truly educate as “pushing water uphill.” Without condemning or complaining, he beautifully outlines some of the major issues in calling schooling “education,” and why we have an “impoverished” view of education today.
Today, people my age are encouraged to be innovative, interesting, and individualistic, when our education system is anything but. According to Davies, I shouldn’t be particularly surprised by this feeling of being run through a system: what we now consider the modern school system was implemented by the Prussians after 1806, with the intent of developing “productive and obedient soldiers and workers.”
And in many cases, this system does develop productive and obedient workers and members of society. But, are we kidding ourselves by calling this school system “educational”?
To better understand this, let’s look at the typical day in a US public school. It is centered around “rigorous,” highly structured class periods designed to break down curriculum into bite-sized pieces for students to easily digest and move on.
It sounds like a good way to cover a lot of invigorating material, right? Yes, and no. These short class periods force teachers to look at a student whose ears have pricked up near the end of a lesson and say, “we don’t have time to discuss this further.” A light bulb lit up at the idea of a certain war or people movement, a mathematical relationship deeper than the paper on which the lesson was printed, or a work of art on a slide, but it has been momentarily dimmed.
In a truly educational environment, that child’s spark of interest could be kindled into a roaring intellectual fire. In a school system where other students of all ranges of interest and ability need to be schooled, too, he must indulge his interest elsewhere.
I do consider myself a “happy accident” of these systems, as Davies calls them: which is not to say that I feel like I’ve escaped unscathed, but rather that my teachers were so excellent that they still lit a fire in me to learn more. The public schools I attended growing up were top-notch, at least relatively speaking. The school resources, administration, and enthusiastic teachers formed a solid and supportive net that did a fairly efficient job of pushing water uphill: schooling lots of bright, talented students, “byproducts” of the system who would go on to the best universities.
The college attendance statistics were a big factor in my school’s ratings, which brings me to another point: in addition to trying to educate youngsters by way of schooling, the modern school also tries to sort them. At one point in the LearnLiberty video, an animated man carts students in wheelbarrows to the edges of deep holes titled “Vocational” and “College Prep,” tipping them into their life paths one by one.
This is a stunning metaphor. Young people, who already trust educators to teach them, also look to them for guidance on where to go next. If they find themselves tipped into the wrong hole by expectations from others, it takes a lot of time and energy to find one’s way out. I commend the many who jump out of the wheelbarrow to bravely carve out their own paths.
This probably makes me sound like I regret going to college, which I absolutely do not. It has given me the opportunity to address huge questions that have been brewing since I was a child, unanswered by anything other than gut feeling and intuitive research. It has challenged me to ask questions that I didn’t know I was capable of formulating or articulating. It has also taught me how to successfully manage a seemingly insurmountable pile of obligations with some degree of sanity, which is a practical life skill in many ways.
I would say that the university experience has been gratifying and holistic, and for me, it was worthwhile. But the most real lessons I’ve ever learned have been outside the lecture hall. The classroom is just a place to obtain and discuss new ideas — life is the real classroom.
Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
The analogy of the fish and the tree is a vivid and sadly comical picture of the education system today. However, I think that methods today — schooling people of the same age, on the same material, evaluating them the same way, and expecting everyone to leave equally satisfied and enlightened — are more like caging calves for veal. Someone’s benefitting, and it’s definitely not the calf.
For a system that supposedly seeks to open minds, the modern education system lacks creativity and openness. In its current, dominant form, schooling is also a time-sensitive and highly structured endeavor that seems to expire on graduation day, but education is for life.