Brief Thoughts on the American Education System

by: David Clark

For years when I was a kid I struggled in school. I wasn’t that attentive of a student in elementary school, I still found a hard time becoming interested in being a productive student throughout middle school, and I didn’t have the desire to achieve until over half my high school career was over. I was never a complete failure, but I was never top of my class either. I was what many would call your average C student.

I am 20 years old now, and a college sophomore. Things have certainly changed for me. I have not just become a productive and passionate student, but learned that I can utilize my schooling to see myself as a productive and passionate individual outside of school. I am a musician, a filmmaker, a writer, and I want to be so much more.

But what is interesting about all of these facts is that I feel I have never owed any of that positive growth to my time in the United States public school system. In fact, I feel like in some ways it hindered me from finding confidence and motivation to reach my fullest potential as both a student and an individual. I have observed that among many of my friends as well. I even see it in people I don’t know at all. It’s a stigma across the United States that school is a dreadful and oppressive place that kids are placed just so adults know where they are during the day. Why don’t kids like a place filled with free knowledge; a place in which they can have their questions answered to an endless capacity and find a place to voice themselves as a valued young mind?

I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I get ready to transfer from my local city college to a four year university to begin pursuing my major in Psychology. I suppose this is where I’ll begin: the psychology.

School works because of a phenomenon Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, researched and refined. This phenomenon is called conditioning. He didn’t discover it or invent it, it’s actually something that has existed since the dawn of time. Basically, conditioning is the process by which we learn. There is a neutral stimulus, that has no response, and an unconditioned stimulus, which has an unconditioned response. Then the neutral stimulus is introduced alongside the unconditioned stimulus to result in the unconditioned response until suddenly the neutral stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus. This changes the unconditioned response into its conditioned response.

The story goes that Pavlov used dogs to study these dynamics of conditioning. He used a bell as a neutral stimulus, and rang it every time he put meat in front of one of the dogs. The dog would salivate to the meat at first, and not the bell. But over time it learned that when the bell rang, the meat would be presented, and that the bell must have something to do with it. So, after some time, the dog was conditioned to believe that the bell (now the conditioned stimulus) would present the meat, and he would salivate when it rang (the conditioned response). This, in essence, is the basis of how every intelligent creature learns.

So what does this have to do with school? Well if students are conditioned the right way, and with more complicated means, they become A students, right? I would say it’s not that easy, but the current system would say it is.

For many students, at least in southern California where I went to school, testing is at the center of academic life. There are state tests, school district tests, exit exams, SATs, and an endless amount of graded and practice exams and quizzes to prepare your for it all. Some say that this is how we make sure students are ready for the world, and how we trust that they have done the work, but this is where I would disagree.

There was a YouTube video I watched a while ago in which Hank Green (of Vlog Brothers fame) said that education is “building a toolkit with which to solve problems and applying that toolkit in the solving of problems.” This resonated with me deeply as I had never thought about school that simplistically. He is right in saying that this is what school should do. It should enable a student to function within the world properly so that they may achieve what they desire. He goes on to express his worry for an oversaturation of a toolkit that only equips students with the ability to take a test, rather than solve real world problems. This lack of engagement in skill is the problem.

When Pavlov conditioned the dogs to salivate when the bell was rung, they salivated because they desired the meat. The meat was going to keep them from going hungry. It was going to help them to survive. This desire to survive is what I see as a parallel to the desire to achieve success in school. The information with which I build my toolkit so I may function in the world and build a life in which I feel fulfilled and productive is the meat I need to survive. For many students across the country, that desire is denied of them. A bell is rung to keep them salivating, but it never replenishes them with what they really need. They need to find motivation and excitement to want to become the next generation’s leaders, creators, and producers. The endless cycle of test taking and resulting success or failure will not do this, and it is not sustainable.

There is a gap in this story that I think is important. Where do kids find this motivation, and how does the system change to help them find their way?

When I was getting my diploma at my high school graduation, I felt nothing. No true excitement, no sense of relief, I was only left with the memories of nights when I was yelled at for poor grades and the stress and pressure of trying to be prepared for college. But once I got to college, I became all of the things I mentioned at the beginning of the story. When I finally began to work on the things I found interests in, rather than work on being prepared to pass another test, I found a rich feeling of accomplishment. This feeling is what kids across this country need. They need to feel like they accomplish something they care about. Then they will salivate with that desire to not just survive, but thrive.

David Clark is an aspiring writer out of Southern California and enjoys writing shorts stories which you can check out here. You can also follow him on Twitter.