The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.2 (Spring 2015)
Education vs. Mass-Formatting
A Gifted Student’s Letter and a Jaded Teacher’s Postscript
Taylor L. Welles and John R. Harris
Editor’s Note: Over the 2014 Christmas break, one of my best students of the previous fall shared a letter with me that came with this brief, personal introduction. “I sent this to the Secretary of Education from the White House [sic]. I haven’t got a clue if he will receive it or if anyone up there will read it, but I figured it was worth a shot! Let me know what you think. Also, as a fair warning this is quite lengthy. Thanks!” I convinced Taylor to let me publish his missive in this space, for it is welcome proof that the present generation is not wholly unaware of being shortchanged by education “professionals”. I could not resist following up Taylor’s keen observations with a few blunt ones of my own, however. My intent in doing so was primarily that our readers should bear witness to how intricately the rhetoric of change and progress has insinuated itself into the subconscious mind of our youth. Even our very brightest receptors of the cultural torch implicitly view the race as one into a “new and better future” that may outstrip us if we tarry—not one with a man-eating predator at our backs that will shred our common humanity if we don’t “run to stay put”. (Of course, the latter image is incoherent: that’s the essential problem, perhaps, in our Age of the Photon.) In this sense, I believe we all have much work to do. If the metaphors dominating our thought all direct us to the far horizon of misty wilderness rather than to the painfully wrought settlement whereon we perch and gaze, then our distant future is likely to replicate our distant past.
From: Taylor Legend Welles
Subject: A Student’s Thoughts On America’s School System (And How It Might Be Improved)
My name is Taylor Welles. I’m currently 19 years old, attending a four-year public university in Texas.
I am writing to you to voice my opinions on the American school system. I met you in person when you visited Mathew Fontaine Maury High School in the spring of 2012. While Mr. VP went around shaking people’s hands, a friend of mine and myself took a moment to speak with you. I had commented that politicians seem to speak a lot about what they plan to get done, but in actuality, very little action takes place. You told me that “words are cheap, actions are not,” which is about the wisest thing I have heard out of anyone coming from the White House in years.
I’m going to do my best to keep this short; I understand you probably have a very busy schedule to attend to.
There are a number of problems in this country that I feel are not being addressed, and therefore, very little is being done to combat such issues. I wrote a paper for English class last fall for my freshmen semester to answer the prompt: “will our advanced technology cause us to lose our ties with culture?” My stance was something along the lines of, “Yes, but if we use this advanced technology properly, we could actually use that to help create a ‘new’ better culture.” I primarily focused on education under the premise that molding young minds would prove most powerful in terms of spreading thoughtful ideas and creating a new generation of people who are not only knowledgeable but will pass this down to their children and so on. One such idea was to have green energy sources in schools, such as solar panels or small scale wind turbines, where students could be taught the practical implications of such technology (in hopes of these children growing up to become more environmentally conscious consumers).
I’d like to take that “molding young minds” concept one step farther.
Currently our school system appears to be centered around passing standardized tests and conforming to the school’s rules and expectations. I found it unsettling that our school district’s motto in high school was “for our students to become productive contributive members to society,” given that almost nothing I learned in those four years gave me any insight into becoming a productive contributor to society. If, by being productive, you mean “memorize these terms and formulas, regurgitate this information, color in between the lines, obey the rules, et cetera,” then yes, we were certainly on the right path. But personally, I find it hard to believe that we could contribute to anything other than the system which was placed before us.
That, in my opinion, is not progress. Progress will never be made by those who sit idly on the sidelines, compliant and sedated. Where are all the future engineers, the great thinkers, the game changers? History remembers those who dared to challenge the status quo, not the average Joe who tilled on his farm for several generations. The way I see it, America could be so much greater if we allowed more flexibility for teachers and school systems to accommodate their students instead of trying to “herd” every student into a set of numbers off of a statistic pulled from some national test.
- Teachers should be given more control over their curriculum and lesson plans instead of the district/state telling them what need to be taught. From what I have seen, these “higher up” powers who make these curriculums have little to no understanding of what it’s like in the classroom on a day to day basis. In effect, these people make plans that might make sense to them but are far from practical when put into practice.
- To further that first point, having meetings between the department chairs of each subject at a school and the school district’s leaders might help open communication between the people making the rules (the district) and the people who are being asked to enforce them (the teachers). Teachers would be given the opportunity to voice concerns about various issues, and the district would be expected to listen as well as defend their decisions if need be. I would think this would be most effective on a school by school basis, so that the school district could meet with each school individually and address each school’s needs as a separate entity rather than putting everyone in that school district under the same umbrella. Alternatively, there could also be scheduled meetings where each school convenes with one another and discusses various issues before selecting representatives and meeting with the district. I found that there were a number of disparities between the way each school was run within my school district, despite many of the rules being constant throughout. In doing so, schools could communicate with one another and perhaps resolve issues by example (id est: one school has an issue with scheduling janitorial staff whereas another school does not have this problem. By talking between schools, perhaps the school having that issue could learn of a better method to schedule these employees. Or, if one school had adequate staff while another was understaffed, a temporary agreement could be drawn up so that during certain times janitors could be redistributed to another campus in order to maintain equilibrium. By doing this the school having this problem would not need to petition the school district to request for more janitors.)
- From a young age, children could be taught various methods of “thinking outside the box” and encouraged to develop creative problem-solving skills on their own. Not forcing them, but gently “nudging” students in a direction to help foster more open-minded people. I was part of the “gifted” program at my public elementary school where select students were taken aside into smaller groups and taught apart from the others. Often times the material was either more advanced or harder to grasp or understand and might appear as challenging to other less advanced students. One thing I find lacking with our current education system is a challenge. From my point of view, challenging your students would be a good thing. Being told what to learn, when to learn it, how to learn it doesn’t leave very much to be desired. That not only makes learning feel dull and monotonous, it reinforces the ideology that if you can perform the basics of what the school tells you to do, you can and will succeed in life. I cannot help but have the feeling that this mentality is completely and utterly false. I understand full and well that certain corporations want the general populace to be eager consumers and have changed our system of living to try and keep us dimwitted but always buying. I don’t agree with that practice but I understand it is such practices that keep our economy rolling. To counteract this pattern, I propose changing the school system to allow young minds to flourish by tapering down the importance and reliance of the standardized test and instead reinforce critical thinking. I remember all throughout my public school career being in math class learning some new formula or equation. Occasionally someone would find a “shortcut” that would ease the work load or make it faster to find the answer to the problem. While initially every student needs to be on the same page in order to learn the basics, after a certain point I think it would be beneficial for students to share these shortcuts with the class to give a ‘second perspective’ on how to solve the problem. Teachers would often say, “Well, yes. There are a multitude of ways to get the answer to this problem. But for our purposes and for passing this test, we’re only going to focus on learning how to solve the problem using this method. Sorry, we would go into that, but we just don’t have that kind of time.” I could tell these students would feel put down by their efforts; they thought they had done something unique or had found a better path to the same end, but were told that their ‘discovery’ didn’t mean anything within the context of that course. Instead, praising that new idea and allowing that child to explain how they got to that point might help other students understand “oh! So there IS more than one way to do this!” I have head teachers say, “We don’t want to go into that because [I, the teacher] fear that it might confuse the other students and they might not understand the material.” In my opinion that is not the most productive way to go about guiding the classroom, simply because these students will grow up always being told, “Well, there is other stuff out there, but we won’t tell you what it is because we don’t think you will understand it.” The implications of this doctrine I think are far more detrimental than one might suspect from the onset. Conversely, teaching students that it is okay to explore other concepts and go above and beyond the call of duty might enlighten some students who otherwise might not have found they had an affinity for a subject or practice. If you were told your whole life that “we are here to give you what you need to succeed in life, but we are not going to tell you the whole story, because we think you’re too stupid to get the full picture,” you might have a bleaker look on the world than those who grew up before you.
I want my children to have a better experience than I did going through public school. My girlfriend is going to school to become a teacher herself, and she is appalled by the treatment of other educators by the hands of the school system. No good things can come without change, and change may not come without consequence. But I am writing to you in hopes that this might open your mindset or otherwise make you more aware of the current state of the classroom so that in doing your job for this nation, you can leave office knowing it was better than when you found it. I know you are only the Secretary of Education, and quite frankly, I don’t have a clue who else to go to, but for now I would appreciate your reading my words and THINKING about what it is I have said. Often times that is my number one complaint with my generation: that my peers seem to have an aversion to thinking. In a union which is governed by money more than it is governed by reason or good sense, I feel there is much that could be improved so that America can once again become a great industrialized western nation.
Thank you so much for your time and patience. Yours truly,
Taylor Legend Welles
I have a hunch that Secretary Duncan never answered you… so may I qualify some of your observations to him by way of an answer?
I am not knit-picking, I believe, in protesting that the creation of new energy dynamos—such as the solar and wind alternatives whose functioning you would like school-children to witness close-up—begins from the wrong direction. The reason you think this way, Taylor, is because the minds of your generation (and many before it) have been “molded” by people with an inflexible vision of progress. I share your enthusiasm for placing before our children creative engines and techniques that will stir them to inquire into how things work. My protest is against our collective distaste for frugality. By all means, surround the kids with new devices. Maybe they can generate and store some electricity by working specially rigged bikes or trampolines at recess. But why not teach conservation and frugality at the same time? Rooms not in use can be closed up, windows can be opened or shut, glass surfaces can be employed in ingenious ways—and all of these shifts could be linked to a physics lesson. Why must we always think in terms of new energy sources? What about being more resourceful in our use of existing energy supplies?
Farmers have long been some of the world’s greatest experts on efficient energy use, by the way. They take a bit of dirt, water, and sun and produce energy to power a living body—or several living bodies. Don’t be too hard on the poor food-grower, please, just because no history book mentions his name along with Eli Whitney or the Wright Brothers. History is little more than a parlor game played with a deck of hypothetical causes. Real life is lived away from the card table; and the real value of that life, in my opinion, should not be sought in the vain celebrations and commemorations of intellectuals. A good man doesn’t necessarily change anything; the force of his goodness may indeed best be observed in how it procures stability. Don’t listen to the Siren song that croons romantically of new happenings (as in, “No good things can come without change”; one might say precisely the same of bad things). The basics of man’s condition and his nature do not change; and I would make the argument, in fact, that the most valuable education is that which equips young people to deal with the constants and abide in the constant good.
As for more meetings of more professionals to share ideas and produce more coherence… God bless you, lad! May it be so in your day and among your colleagues! In my experience, however, there is a direct correlation between number of meetings and rate of decline. Herein lies deeply buried, and perhaps permanently anchored, one of those human constants. Meetings imply hierarchies. In hierarchies, the people on top wish to stay on top. They therefore promote others farther down the heap who support them; and collectively, this evolving oligarchy creates an ever more complex support system whose ranks are filled through patronage, as political spoils. (I will abstain from speculating here about Secretary Duncan’s Chicago connections.) Those nameless footsoldiers massed about the base of the pyramid seldom speak up because dissent seldom goes unpunished, and always goes unrecognized. The kind of bureaucratic, lock-step non-thinking you so justly lament pulls the strings of pay raise and promotion. Even if Arne Duncan himself were a vigorous opponent of quantifying educational offerings into uniform packets, he would be powerless to effect any change; for statistics are the artificial objectivity behind which innumerable incompetents and deadbeats hide their fecklessness, and from which innumerable new motives for more meetings, more committees, and more bureaucratic hires may be teased.
The future isn’t hopeless—but the present system is entirely hopeless. Our best chance of amelioration lies in collapse. As things grow more localized, and even more individualized, the termite mound will become more humanized: before that time, not a chance. Be happy that the signs of imminent collapse are everywhere, and prepare yourself to create within the rubble. The janitor in the next county doesn’t really have a jet-powered mop constructed in his garage, you know. If your own janitor isn’t getting the job done, find another—or pitch in and do the job yourself. Beware of janitors’ unions.
With Very Best Wishes,
Taylor Legend Welles has shifted his educational career from Texas to Virginia, but he has already–like Odysseus–sampled the cities and minds of many peoples around the world.