The Perils of Formal “Education”

When I look at a high school class, I see students sneaking the Cliff Notes analysis of Hamlet with their phones under the desk during a quiz. I see barren books, devoid of colorful sticky notes, likely unread and “sparknoted.” I see students asking their peers who have already taken the math test about what they will be tested on, so they can cram for it the night before. I see students slumping over their desks, often having slept less than 4 hours. I see mugs and mugs of coffee in front of every student, boosting them with the alertness to focus in class. What I never see, however, is a single student truly engaging in their classes. I never see a student remembering the information they memorized for the APUSH exam two years down the road. I never see a student deciding to challenge themselves with a difficult text in English or go above and beyond what is expected to receive their desired grade.

I can claim no moral high ground and pass judgment; I am a victim of my own criticism. I’m a caffeine addict, I couldn’t tell you what we covered in my freshman year physics class, and I cringe when we start a new book in English, knowing fully well I would have to lose even more sleep to finish it. I have lost countless hours of sleep, my love for reading, and zeal for learning within a span of my three years in high school — the same institution that claims it encourages engagement in education. And it’s not just me. Given the overwhelming prevalence of similar situations among high schoolers across the country, I am forced to wonder whether to blame the student or the system. When school revolves around short-term memorization of seemingly unrelated facts, I am forced to question whether high school graduates are truly educated. The American public school system is on the decline; students display deteriorating engagement, retention, and self-direction. All of these undermine the true meaning of education: fostering a lifelong grasp of concepts that students are genuinely passionate about.

Streamlining students into required sets of courses deprives them of time to take courses they are actually interested in and independence to take charge of their own learning. For instance, when I entered my freshman year, I looked forward most of all to elective classes like introduction to programming and pottery classes. The week before school started, I remember my acute disappointment when I received an email informing that I could not enroll in pottery because I was required to take physics with a lab — against my choice. Instead of pursuing an art class or experimenting in engineering courses, students are required to abide by the schedule set by administrators. Some schools have a system where students, after having enrolled in mandatory courses, may choose one or two “electives.” Of course, heaven forbid actual autonomy prevails, they must still choose one civic course and one arts course and are “highly recommended” to take four years of foreign language and music. Self-touted progressive schools are sold on incorporating student feedback into improving the school environment; why not extend the same idea to the curriculum? It’s not so radical to suggest that students voice their opinions about what they want to learn.

Students often resent the education system for forcing them to enroll in classes they have neither interest nor aptitude in. Most high schools require at least three years of math, science, English, and history. While it is important for students to develop basic skills in all subject areas and be exposed to varied fields, math, science, English, or history present no practical application beyond basic proficiency — unless a student has an intrinsic passion for those classes. Thus, when forced to regurgitate formulas and definitions and vocabulary and dates of wars, remonstrance from high schoolers is to be expected. As Alfie Kohn says, “The mystery, really, is not that so many students are indifferent about what they have to do in school but that any of them are not.” Compelling them to follow someone else’s rules, curriculum, and evaluation, schools breed indifference to education in their students. While I do not condone compromising academic integrity in response to the stifling school environment, the prevalence of cheating on exams and chronic disinterest in classes are not so shocking. If a student has no interest in history, why would he or she spend more time than the necessary to score an A? Why commit something they have no interest in to long-term memory when their time is better spent cramming the pertinent information before a test and subsequently forgetting it? My lowest average grade throughout high school was in that physics course I took my freshman year for which I had forsaken pottery. Of all my classes, that was the one I had least interest in and resented the most. When forced to enroll in classes against their will, not only will students feel bitter but their grades will also suffer.

Here is the most significant and apparent flaw in the education system. Schools are fearful to entrust students with the power to self-regulate their own learning despite numerous psychological studies demonstrating the benefit of students setting their own academic standards and goals. If students can exercise their prerogative in selecting their classes, free from the shackles of mandatory credit requirements, they can take the engineering class they had to forsake for a fourth English class. They can take the biotechnology class they gave up for Spanish. Independence to develop individual schedules/curriculums might just spark passion and interest in lifeless classrooms.

Perhaps the inability to self-regulate learning is why the majority of our education comes from life experiences. Be it through the mini engineering lessons from playing with Legos, lifelong values of gratitude, humility, and altruism parents imbibe to their children, or even a college class that influences the path a student wants to take in her life. These life lessons often stick with us, they are burned into our memory. A truly educated individual is one whose life experiences and formal education sparked in them passion.

I may not be a “truly educated” individual just yet but I can attest to the importance of intertwining life experiences with structured classes. Last summer, I worked in a rural school in India teaching English, math, and science to underprivileged children. Without a doubt, this was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. Each of my students came from families that earned less than $75 a month yet they showed up to school every single day with a smile on their faces. They laughed in genuine excitement when I began lessons. One of them came to school with a deep gash on his hand; when I asked him why, he giggled and told me he accidentally cut himself with a rusted blade he used to sharpen his pencil since he could not afford to buy a sharpener, proceeding to proudly show off to me the homework he managed to finish anyways. That experience in India truly burst the bubble I had lived in that distorted my perception of the world.

Regardless of how many AP courses I take or facts I cram into my brain, I would not be the same person had I not experienced authentic difficulties in India first hand. No class in school has had the same impact on me nor put the skills I’ve learned over the years to a real test. Nothing in school has imparted the same lifelong gratitude and cognizance of the luxuries I have. Mere formal education is never sufficient for an individual to emerge educated.