The True Cost of American Education
Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
-”Ode on Solitude” by Alexander Pope
There’s a certain kind of isolation that only education can afford one. When one sits in a classroom, immobile for hours in an assigned seat with no contact outside of your own head, it can be difficult to hear anyone else, to see anyone else, or to speak with them in a substantial, impactful way. Instead, there remains where a natural, healthy socialization should be an enforced hierarchy developed from the moment students enter the building. A structure designed for control devolves when pushed too far. A structure ingrained in the minds of youth becomes their code through no fault of their own. Regimentation, ostracization, and segregation have wormed their way into the structure of the classrooms, and that is hurting the students, the faculty, and the community that school is meant to bring.
An epidemic that began in schools and has since spread to the rest of those former students’ lives (and yes, dear reader, if you attended a formally structured school this includes you), the clique-contagion is powerful. An exclusivity developed around the idea permeating all of school of those who are “worthy,” “good enough,” or “make the grade.” Some of these aspects are inherent, and that is natural. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about this natural difference as “natural inequality,” something inherent in humans as well as in all of nature. There is little to nothing wrong with this. A child who is more athletic being able to run a faster mile is natural. A child born with dyslexia will often take longer reading a passage or writing an essay. A student with anxiety may not be as eager to present in front of class. These are natural inequalities. There is nothing inherently bad with them. Accepting them as a part of life and a part of those around us is important to efficiently learn, teach, cooperate, and grow.
However, not all inequalities are natural. In fact, most that challenge students are not. These are the human-made hurdles that students, teachers, and faculty are put through. A student with superior athletic skill being given a position of power or authority in a physical education class (not as an additional instructor, for the students who are struggling, but in a position closer to administration) is inherently unequal. A student with dyslexia being sent to lower-level classes in subjects that they are not struggling in because of lower standardized test scores is unequal. A student with anxiety being made to give more answers in class or longer or more frequent presentations because of their anxiety and reluctance to do so in the first place is unequal.
Even though many of these practices started with good intentions (someone with experience helping oversee the class, incentive for growth and study in regards to test scores, or pressure and practice to get over a fear), study, time, and personal testimony have shown that they do not work, and yet the structure overseeing them insists on maintaining these harmful practices. The list goes on — a lack of proper equipment for students in some studies while others operate with a plethora of new and modern equipment, a set of special opportunities solely for students who participate in the student government, classes inaccessible except with great difficulty for students in wheelchairs or on crutches, or polarization of graduating classes in an attempt to raise moral, or a curriculum that is so eurocentric that it ignores large swatches of history, often of students in those very classes, in an attempt to “protect” students from the atrocities of their grandparents and great-grandparents, inevitably and perhaps unintentionally inferring in the process that those were not crimes, or even extraordinary events, for when those students do find out about the crimes their forefathers commited or those committed against them, they will realise that if they weren’t mentioned, they weren’t worth mentioning, and that the punishment they bear, if any, is not worth the attention of their peers or the figures of authority.
The problem of curriculum is one not addressed ere more than that (though, if I may quote another philosopher of the same time period, David Hume, “it has gone on quite too long”, and if I take it up again it shall be in another piece, though it is one that should be considered.
Instead, we shall look at the effects that those problems listed above have.
These do not just make it harder for students to learn. They make it harder for them to exist. A lack of proper supplies can be difficult for students and teachers, but a lack of respect and necessary accomodation makes it impossible. If there is no pool, a swim team will, ironically, flounder. If there is no field, no soccer or football team could host games. No wrestling team could safely practice without a well-matted area. The same goes for the sciences, for the humanities, and for the arts. If there is no space and no resources for the subject, activity, or group to grow, then they will not.
It’s not only extracurricular activities or core classes that suffer this type of negligent or ambiguous distasteful persecution. It can be particular groups of people as well. Students from homes with inconsistent income may need to work another job and thus not be able to keep up with the workload easily accomplished by other students. Students with responsibilities to younger siblings because their parents work may not be able to attend after-class activities or study groups. Students who rely on a public bus system may not be able to get to class early if a speaker or test requires it. If one takes the time to look around in a crowd of public school kids, they’ll be able to pick out kids who don’t have the same support system as others, or who have no way of getting study help, or who, regardless of attempt, have parents who never graduated high school and don’t know the higher functions of geometry or how to identify Amino Acids or what the syntax of a sentence is. If a class is going to be impossible to succeed in without these items, then there should be a way for everyone to have access to this or a suitable substitute. This is not to recommend that teachers serve as a secondary parent (although that already seems to be asked of them), or that they specifically tutor each of their 200+ students individually. This is to say that if success requires tools outside of the classroom, the administration and those who organise the administration should make sure that those students can succeed. Students shouldn’t be made to suffer because their unwilling number in the lottery of life wasn’t called. That isn’t the point of education. “Education,” Horace Mann writes, “beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.” (Women too, but at the time Horace was writing, the equalization of women was likely not on the forefront of his mind.)
But if not equalization and mobility, then what is the role of education? The raising of a workforce? If so, then why do we teach theatre to future engineers, and the structure and function of a kidney to a graphic design artist? Unless we intend to train an unskilled labor force, but if that were the case, why are there no classes on auto repair, woodshop or housekeeping? Unless the focus is on creating citizens who can participate well in government.. But if that were the case, then wouldn’t there be more than one government class available? Wouldn’t all students who come out of a public school be able to name the function of the Speaker of the House, much less the function of the electoral college? If it were the moral training of a new generation, then there is stunningly little moral training, and such proliferation of the polar opposite? (Many students try their first illicit substance while attending a public school. Hundreds more are arrested the first time while attending.) This system does not promote specialization or generalization. It doesn’t promote democracy and it doesn’t promote morality.
Well then, what does it do?
That might be what it does.
When students are pushed to the edge, when it’s all teachers can to to keep the students supplied with textbooks (or maybe all the students can do to make sure they get a copy), when there’s no one there to watch out for the actual children who are put through inhumane conditions with no home of a reprieve except in the possibility of graduation, which seems so far off, or in the solace of nothingness that the grave, the needle, or an abusive, lying lover can offer, it seems a little wonder that our students are sick. Someone didn’t care enough to get them a nurse.
So, what do we do? Will it be too late the next time a student collapses in tears in a panic attack, or when another student goes their third day without food, or when a student athlete drops from the team because they can’t read and pass their literature class (their glasses were too expensive, and contacts even more so)? Will it be enough when another girl comes to school, silent and hurting, because who would love her if she turned away her boyfriend? Will it be enough when a student gets in a car crash? Their car wouldn’t stop, it seems. It was wet, and there’s no railing near that cliff. Will it be when there can be no excuse made any more, when a note left on a desk next to a pair of hanging feet or bloody wrists spells out with SAT vocabulary the inexpressible anguish of this isolation and degradation that these students — Children! — are made to endure every day. Will someone care? Or will someone still deny the fact that there is something deeply, intrinsically wrong with only valuing people when they’re gone, only valuing students when they’re missing, only valuing the work they can’t give because they don’t have the time or the power or the ability to complete what is demanded of them?
We do not value people because of the work they can provide.
We value them because they, like us, are people.
And that should be enough.