Blind Trust in Education

Wow, have I had a frustrating morning! Work has been fine, no worries there. Home life is beautiful, and although the cats were simply ghastly all night long there is no frustration there, either. No, my frustration has very little to do with what I have in my life, and more to do with what I do not have - or, more directly, what I cannot find. You see, I spent a good deal of time today looking for something that simply does not exist in any useful, cogent form.

I was looking for data and statistics on the changes in funding for arts, guidance, and physical education in our public schools.

I'm a pretty good researcher, and care enough about education to know exactly where to look. There are a number of really useful data and info sites out there (this one is my favorite), but there is no real way to quantify budgetary changes in specific programs on a state or national level. You can find information on how much states and districts spend in categories such as "instruction", "transportation", and "special education", either on a total or per-pupil basis; you can even map that against the types (grants, taxes) and sources (Federal, state, or local) of funding, which is cool if not particularly instructive. If you search hard enough, you can even find information about particular programs in particular districts - for example, the school districts around Dallas-Fort Worth average a 419:1 ratio of students to guidance counselors, against a recommended ratio of 250:1. But what I was looking for simply was not there. Really, in some perverse way, I did not expect it to be there.

But I would have liked to have seen it. You see, I have a theory. It's controversial perhaps . . . but I just think I may be onto something.
The theory basically goes like this: public schools are failing, for two primary reasons - the how and the what. The "how" mostly centers around how schools choose to operate and accomplish their mission. For example, they simply try to do too much without a unifying and coherent strategy. They also are so complex to administer, with such a focus on profitability (or at least fiscal responsibility, which they fail at by the way) that many children are simply reduced to a number. In order to operate with as little disruption as possible, they establish a series of controls designed to treat everyone the same to the degree possible, which has the hopefully unintended effect of squashing small things like choice individuality, and learning styles. And of course they also wrap all of that up with a nice solid dose of unbelievable pettiness and short sightedness, like banning things outright that they feel interfere with the learning process. Some of these things that schools do are simply repulsive, and serve as a driving reason behind the fact that the number of families who choose to homeschool in the US more than doubled between 1999 and 2007. But still we put our kids in school, hoping that they can survive and navigate through the BS sufficiently well to extract real learning from the process.

There's no big secret here. I just wish it were different. When you strip away the administrivia, controls, and the "lowest common denominator" approach to education and services, schools are meant to be, at their essence, institutions of education and learning. I know that there is a difference between education and learning, but let's put that aside for the purposes of this post and focus on the fact that most schools - perhaps all schools - want their students to learn. Teachers, administrators, state and federal officials, and the students themselves all want the students to learn, and to ensure that this entire system is helping to achieve some good in exposing students to new ideas and concepts so that students can develop and grow. As the links above indicate, they often go about this in ways that demonstrate that they have precious little understanding of how children actually learn, so I feel safe in saying that, for the most part, schools are pursuing their noble goal of helping students learn - just in the wrong way.

But in some ways, these types of "how" issues speak to things like poor leadership, bad management, inconsistent policy and implementation, and other causes - but not necessarily to bad or malicious intent on behalf of policy makers and administrators to make schools worse. I could rally behind improvements to the "how" much more easily, though, if school districts were also willing to examine "what" they were teaching our children - and "why."

If you like to get your blood pressure up and have little value for your precious time, spend a few hours looking at the Primary/Secondary Education and Curriculum Standards for your state or province. The vast majority of these standards are developed around the concept that a liberal arts education - as opposed to a more focused "skills training" type of education - is the best choice to ensure that students are able to think critically and expansively and to solve problems. There are actually some pretty good arguments to be made in favor of a liberal arts education. Personally, I am not a big fan of any approach that dictates that there is a specific body of knowledge that you need to have in order to succeed in the world; there are simply too many examples of healthy, happy, productive people who know so many disparate things - and don't know so many others - to categorize "good" and "bad" education so simplistically. I also don't subscribe to a pedantic ("I teach you") school of thought when it comes to education, because I believe that people learn best when they enjoy what they are learning and are able to apply those learnings to some practical use.

There are so many examples available to illustrate this, I almost don't know where to start. But just look within yourself, to your own education and learning experiences, and ask yourself if it isn't true that you learned best when you were passionate about the subject. Some of these subjects you likely learned about in school. Personally, I always had a love of history; it was my favorite subject in school as a child, and it has continued as an adult. I love to read historical non-fiction; I love movies about history and trips to museums. My heroes are mostly historical figures. But when I was in school, I always felt like I needed more: more information, more books, more time to study, more time to think about historical issues and their impact on current and future events. When I was done with school, though, I had the time to go out and learn about the things from history that really sang to me. But subjects like science and math were another matter. I never liked science, was never interested in learning about it, and never cared to do anything more that the bare minimum to get by, if that. It simply did not touch me at all. That disinterest continues to this day. Math, on the other hand, was interesting to me but I was not very good at it and could never find a way to monopolize my teacher's time enough to get help. Once I was out of school, I decided to learn algebra and trig by myself for my own enjoyment. But I digress.

A liberal arts education provides for the learner to learn all of the traditional subjects most of us are accustomed to - science, math, history, literature, composition, the arts, etc. The general principle behind this combination of subjects is that it will teach people to think critically and for themselves, to expand their love of learning, and to help make the world more ordered and understandable. Frankly, I don't see how this is possible when the dogma forces us to sit through classes and perform exercises that neither hold our interest nor have any practical applicable value to us. After all, how can I learn to make sense of the world when I cannot understand why I am being forced to learn about something that bores me?

When I was growing up with my liberal arts-based curricula, we spent more time diagramming sentences than we did discussing things we had read to grasp their meaning. We spent more time reading Shakespeare and Dickens, whose style made even the most universal themes inaccessible, than Salinger or Kerouac, which would have been easier to understand and apply. We spent more effort learning the chronology of time than we spent learning how to replicate the good things that people have done, and avoid the bad. We spent more time on theory than we spent on application. We spent more time learning the "what" than the "how" - or, more importantly, the "why." Even with the benefit of hindsight, I struggle to reconcile the stated goals of a liberal arts education - teaching me how to think and teaching me how to learn - with the realities of being forced to regurgitate information about subjects that I could care less about. Over time, these subjects have been ingrained into our psyche as the essential body of knowledge that all Americans should have in order to be well-rounded and productive. Personally, I don't think that a person's "productivity" should be a concern at all, at least not when compared to their satisfaction and happiness; after all, there is no universal agreement as to what "productive" even means. But even excepting that substantial caveat, I have to wonder if a traditional "learn it all" liberal arts education even makes sense in the world of today - let alone the world of tomorrow.

Accepting our public education system as a good choice, then, requires me to suspend my disbelief on many levels. It forces me to accept the premises that teaching is better than learning, that a specific body of knowledge is required to be successful, that you can teach a person everything and that is is useful to do so. It forces me to accept that the education of our children should be dictated by old standards of education, propagated and enforced by people who earn their living from within the system. It forces me to accept poor administrators, unreconciled expenditures, and the sharp difference between the "have" and "have not" school districts throughout our country.

On the off chance that I am able - or willing - to suspend my disbelief for longer than that, I then have to confront the fact that the majority of schools have cut funding for "essential" liberal arts programs such as art, music, and physical education. I have to confront the fact that schools have cut field trips, libraries, textbook purchases, and computer labs. Every class or experience that allows for some creativity, some exploration, some ability to share new experiences with others - in other words, the things that should be the foundation of a liberal arts education - has been reduced or eliminated so that the schools can concentrate their resources on providing pedantic services in which students are often told what to think instead of experiential services in which students are allowed the freedom to explore and develop new thoughts. It's a liberal arts based education, without any of the useful liberal arts that actually enhance and enable learning.

In other words, it's the Sad American Scholastic System once again talking out of both sides of its mouth. I hope that, some day, it decides what it wants to be when it grows up and acts accordingly. And if the people responsible for running this system into the ground were themselves the recipients of a liberal arts education, then perhaps a new, practical, application-based set of standards is in order. There are a lot of dedicated and excellent people working in this sytem and on these problems; I just hope they can stick with it long enough to make some progress.

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