Posted in education

Thoughts on the Public Education System

I grew up in America’s public education system, and I’ve heard all the complaints.  “We’re never going to use this in real life.” “All they do is teach to the test, this isn’t real education.” “There’s no point in learning this random stuff.”  “I hate history, it’s just memorizing a bunch of names and dates.”

“Why can’t I just focus on what I care about, and not waste time on all the rest?”

Well my fellow concerned student, let me tell you.


Imagine you’re a kindergarten teacher.  You have a crop of four-year-olds staring back at you.  Some will be doctors, some teachers, some construction workers, some accountants, maybe a few pilots or politicians or athletes, but you have no way of knowing which kid will end up where.  You have to teach them anyway, so what do you do? You start with general skills, stuff that pretty much everyone will end up needing. You teach them reading, writing, and basic recognition, introduce them to how school works, and start building skills like imagination, problem solving, and working with others.  

See, none of these kids really know what they want yet.  Sure Mike might tell you he’s going to be an astronaut, but ask him again next month and he’ll tell you he’s going to be Mickey Mouse.  

Fast forward and now they’re in grade school complaining about times tables.  They still don’t really know what they want to be, but they’re starting to pick favorite subjects and least favorite subjects.  Mike knows he’s never going to be a math teacher, hates math, and wants to quit. What do you do, fourth grade teacher? Do you let him?  Of course not. Like it or not, Mike is going to encounter math of some sort in his life. He’s going to need it throughout the rest of school, he’s going to need it to settle a tab, and he’s going to need it to help his seven year old daughter through her hated times tables.  He’s going to need to learn that some parts of life are more or less mandatory, and they won’t always be pleasant. He’s still in fourth grade with plenty of time to change his mind, and if he quits now he may deeply regret it later.

At this age, kids are still learning things that everyone needs to know at least to some degree.  They’re still becoming themselves.

But now Mike and his classmates are in high school, and certain subjects have never seemed more useless to him.  He’s set on being a physical therapist, and classes like history and algebra are “ruining his life.” He’s balancing his precious time between applying to his dream college, practicing for state tennis, taking the ACT, trying to have a social life. Mike hates just memorizing names and dates and formulas, it’s so pointless to him and he can tell you exactly why.  

He’s never going to use this.

This is wasting his time when he could be chasing his actual career.

He has become a slave to the system!

But Mike, what happens when you get into your dream college, walk into your required general ed math class, and have to delay graduation because you couldn’t pass?  What happens when you enter your first anatomy lab and find that it includes mountains of rote memorization, just like your hated history class, and your physical therapy career is suddenly hanging by a thread?  What if you need a second job and suddenly find yourself with no marketable skills outside your niche, or your dream job also requires experience in networking and web design?

Mike is missing the big picture.  He doesn’t see that if he doesn’t remember when World War II happened, he won’t understand the significance of literature from the 1940’s or the development of the atom bomb.  He doesn’t see that if he can’t do simple arithmetic in his head, he has no hope of doing complex derivatives; he’ll get so bogged down pulling out his calculator for every step that he can’t see the problem as a whole. If he can’t memorize different muscle groups and their function, he’ll never be able to know what his future patients need.  To get to that higher level of thinking, he has to know the basics and he has to be fast at them.  There is no shortcut to knowledge.  In most cases, the only way to know something is to grind, memorize, rinse, and repeat.  In most cases, the only way to get to advanced skill sets and professions is to first work your way through the boring, tedious, awful basics.

As stated by an anonymous Quora writer, “One cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner if one does not know anything to apply.”

Our workforce is a complex and interconnected network with several roles that need to be filled or the whole society collapses.  In each graduating class, we need a new batch of food service workers, civil engineers, psychiatrists, surgeons, bankers, journalists, the list goes on.  Mike’s class needs to fill those roles. The education system faces the task of preparing them without knowing who goes to which role, so it does the best it can: it prepares everyone for everything.  At the end of their average high school experience, nearly everyone in Mike’s class is prepared enough that they could essentially go into any major or any career and have a chance.

When Mike gets to college and decides to change his major to Technical Writing, he isn’t already hopelessly behind because his high school teachers made him write essays.  When Mike presents himself to an employer, he isn’t an automaton with no skills beyond the task at hand; he is a well-rounded human being with a wide intellectual overview of the world.  When Mike continues on through university he does well because he knows how to work the education system, and he realizes that his historical knowledge is making his writing stronger, his time in anatomy is helping improve his tennis game, his math skills helped him save up for a new laptop, and his persuasive writing skills helped him write a great cover letter land a job.  

Because Mike, at the end of the day, education wasn’t for what you thought it was.  It was for helping build you into better person, giving you a vast array of knowledge, and teaching you how to think.  Intelligence cannot be found in a vacuum. Even though your high school subjects are divided and taught separately, they’re really all pieces of the larger puzzle that work together and build off of each other, and you cannot be well educated by ignoring half of them. School was an opportunity, and if it was a waste of your time, that’s partly your fault.

In many ways this system is broken, but in the most important way it succeeded.

Education must not simply teach work–it must teach life.

W. E. B. Dubois
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Author:

I am a STEM student, aspiring artist, self-taught writer, and and lover of the natural world.

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