Boxed In?: Nonsensical Practices in American Education

Susan L. Lipson
Dec 9, 2014 · 6 min read

by Susan L. Lipson

Boxed in by “standards”?

We continue to educate our American kids by forcing them into labeled boxes and expecting them to somehow learn on their own how to think outside boxes to succeed in job markets today. That makes no sense.

We focus on theoretical, rather than practical, education, as if our strictly standardized system truly develops young minds and sparks passion for continued learning (yeah, right). Thus, we discount “practical” education, based on knowledge that is actually needed to function in society, and on interests based on students’ passions and talents; we allow instead a system that implies that courses designed to train self-motivated young people for their chosen vocations (“vocational education”) have less value than academic ones. (This explains why a few young adults I know, who studied at prestigious universities and graduated with degrees in subjects for which they either had no passion or found no practical use in terms of a career, are now enrolled in vocational programs to learn advancing computer coding or graphic design or organic farming, etc.) Our theoretical learning system has no answer for the high school students who question the purpose of studying the quadratic formula when they have zero interest in mathematics or science. The traditional argument of education “experts” has been that many kids don’t know their interests yet and must be exposed to a wide variety of subjects so they can find their true inclinations. I accept that argument; however, exposure can be accomplished by offering generalized, survey-style courses on a pass-fail basis, to establish definite interests within subject areas, and thereby channel students toward electives (like trigonometry) that enable in-depth explorations of a subject. The nonsensical requirement of “general education,” as currently defined by American schools, even continues in most public universities and colleges—and students grudgingly agree to pay tuition for required classes that they have no desire to take, while they are limited in the number of electives they long to take! So-called “higher” education is no higher than its predecessor in terms of elevating the desire to learn for the sake of learning. Grading students in courses that will not benefit them in any way only discounts the interests and intelligence of kids, wastes time and brain power, and ignores the purpose of their education: to learn how to learn in order to grow into their best selves. And that makes no sense.

Extracurricular activities offer the most enriching avenues for students to further explore their passions; but extracurricular means extra costs, and many public school families cannot afford such enrichment. So these kids have even fewer choices to grow their interests and talents, and often graduate high school with no idea what they want to continue learning about—or even if they want to continue learning, since their classes might not have ever inspired them with intrinsic motivation. That makes no sense.

Studies have clearly shown that hands-on learning—especially via workshops, internships, field trips, and visits from known experts in various fields—can have more impact than theoretical classroom learning. Yet we allow administrators in American schools to hand teachers checklists of what they must teach and in what time period, boxing teachers in so tightly that they have little time to develop practical programs to ignite young minds and trigger explorations outside the classroom. Our system’s one-size-fits-all standards develop only extrinsic motivations for both teachers and students to experience the learning process. And the process has been subjugated to product—quantifiable academic success. That makes no sense.

We continue to introduce second languages in the middle-school years in American education, despite the fact that language acquisition is far more natural in the early years of life; and our curricula focus not on fluency or oral communication in the new language, but rather, on the reading and writing of the second language, which produces students who have low odds of becoming truly bilingual unless they enroll in study abroad or language immersion programs as young adults. Meanwhile, students from immigrant or bilingual households, who become fluent speakers of two (or more) languages, are much more capable of valuable, cross-cultural communication than the majority of American students might ever be; and yet, unless they also excel in math, physical or social sciences, history, and/or English language courses, their proficiency in languages will not boost their credentials for most college admissions. That makes no sense.

We advocate equal education for all Americans, but force students whose families cannot afford exorbitant college costs to prepare reams of time-consuming financial aid paperwork—as if they and their families have the precious time to waste, time they need to work so they can support themselves, rather than having to prove how much help they need to do so. Since American citizens file tax returns, couldn’t the financial aid departments communicate with the IRS to verify need based on what the aid-seekers already reported to the government? Our colleges assign academic scholarships and aid packages based on “merit”—an imprecise term that ridiculously comprises academic success and athletic prowess in the same word—as well as on precision in the filling out of a student’s financial aid forms, as though financial aid officers are grading families before their kids can be graded yet again. I know parents whose stress over filling out financial aid forms is as high as the stress over paying tuition bills. None of this makes sense.

We require courses like chemistry and trigonometry in American high schools—courses that only future chemists and engineers will ever use (and the future scientists and engineers still have to retake those courses in college!)—and yet these courses can ruin the enthusiasm and grade point averages of right-brain thinkers who may be limited in their college selections because of not excelling in such courses deemed “necessary for all” by…whom? And both the math wizard students and the non-mathematical students manage years of required high school math classes, but never learn any practical math that they will need someday: the math of finances! This makes no sense.

American students write essay after essay, primarily in response to other writers’ works, yet they rarely learn to explore their own verbal creativity in public school, let alone their own verbal power, via business writing—which workers seem to learn only on the job, if ever! No wonder so many “educated” Americans still ramble incoherently. This makes no sense.

Students who wish to attend prestigious universities must work so hard, taking as many AP high school classes as possible to raise their GPA’s and compete with other applicants, that they have no time to develop their personalities via friendships. Their extracurricular activities in this competitive, college-prep world are limited to those that will “look good on my record.” And let’s not even talk about the time spent on expensive test preparation programs to ensure the highest SAT or ACT scores. This makes no sense either!

I have spent nine paragraphs criticizing the nonsense I see in American public education today, when I could have added nine paragraphs to my current novel-in-progress, or written some new lesson materials for my writing workshop students. But if my rant has raised questions in your mind—you, who decided to read this article because the title ignited your own feelings about education—then this all makes sense. Change starts with a rejection of norms.

    Susan L. Lipson

    Written by

    Author & Writing Teacher

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