Thursday, April 4, 2013

Scholastic Snake Oil: Why Schools Can't Educate Them

Scholastic Snake Oil: Why Schools Can't Educate Them

Why Schools Can't Educate Them

From my most recent post, you could probably tell that I don't think poets are made in MFA programs--or, for that matter, in English classes. The classes, and to a lesser degree the programs, have their value and function, but attending and doing well in them will not turn you into the next Wordsworth or, Lord knows, Emily Dickinson.

What I said in the previous paragraph probably seems self-evident, perhaps even trite, to you. ?Almost any sane person--or, at least, almost anyone who isn't an academic "poet"-- would agree with it, whether or not he or she knew that Wallace Stevens went to law school and Shakespeare and Whitman didn't go to any college at all.

More and more people also seem to agree that our scientists aren't trained in science classes, any more than our politicians are the products of our civics classes. ?And the Internet is full of pages and threads in which lawyers, engineers, business people, and artists rant about how little they learned in the classes that were supposed to train them for their professions. ? And it almost goes without saying that "leadership", however one defines it, will never be learned in a class ostensibly devoted to it.

Oh--and most people who are fluent in a language that's not their first didn't become so conversant and literate in their French, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese, Swahili, Mandarin or whatever-language classes.

So why is it that, while most people will frankly admit, or simply agree, with everything I've just said, they still insist on more and more schooling? ?Or, at least, they go along with those who tell us that if some schooling is good, more must be better and will turn us into more productive workers and better citizens?

You may have other answers, and I'd be interested to hear them. But I think one reason is that schools were never intended to educate; they were designed only to manage. ?Now that everyone who makes decisions on educational policy--and the teachers who work under them--have been shaped by this system, it's no wonder that it can't educate even if those who administer and teach wanted it to do so. ?(To be fair, many teachers and professors want that, but have no idea of how to accomplish it.)

If you get young people to sit for a prescribed period of time--until the bell rings, until it's time to go to the next class, or to some other activity--it doesn't really matter whether they're sitting with their hands folded in front of them and their eyes on the teacher, or in the back of the room sending each other pornographic videos with their "smart" phones. ?Whatever their behavior, they are dependent: ?they are infantilized. ?Even fairly dim ones learn how to say just enough of what teachers and adults expect them to say in order not to be punished, in order to pass a test, in order to get a good enough test score and GPA to increase their own ranking in the school and their school's ranking in whatever system is ranking them. ?They know enough to work just hard enough, when it's called for, to get whatever prizes they're trying to get.

A friend of mine who has a natural gift for learning languages tells me of how, after several years of studying Spanish, she was castigated in a beginning French class for working and learning too quickly. ?A classmate, who taught himself calculus when he was eleven years old, was forced to sit through years of math courses in which he learned nothing so he could get the requisite math credits for graduation. ?

And I think of my own creative writing "workshops", in which students were expected to bring a poem to class every week. ?Anyone who didn't wasn't "contributing" to the class; never mind if the budding young poet was working on something that needed time for revision, and if said budding young poet offered useful or at least interesting critiques of other students' work. ?In Ars Poetica, Horace advised poets to put their newly-written poems aside for ten years before showing them to anyone else. ?Can you imagine him in Iowa or Columbia?

In brief, schools as we know them tell teachers and students to fit their ideas, ambitions, styles of learning and anything else related to real education into boxes on a scheduling sheet. ?What can that teach a student but that not only having an idea, but actually carrying it to fruition, is less important than doing whatever he or she needs to do in order to move along? ?What does it tell a teacher who, instead of taking the time to help guide that student, or give a student who is struggling with a problem--whether an academic or life-based one--has to do whatever will raise those same kids' scores on a standardized test?

Schools can school, but they can't educate. ?That is why talk about "reforming" them--which usually involves throwing more money at them for "special" programs or administrative overhead--is naive or dishonest, depending on whose mouth or pen it comes from. ?Schools--at least the ones we have--are never going to educate people for their careers, for their work for their lives. ?


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