A Revolution in Education
It’s been almost a whole 48 hours since I've had to see the frenzied faces of my classmates as they cram last minute for finals, cursing themselves for not having studied harder in the first place or for having watched the Avengers instead of plowing through the pile of prep books that still sits on their desk, unchanged since the moment they bought the books. It’s been almost a whole 48 hours since I've had to walk through the classroom of a teacher who has spent his or her past few weekends putting together what he or she thinks is the crowning achievement of their teaching career. And this situation isn't unique to my schedule or my school: it’s being replayed in thousands of schools across the nation, public and private, rich and poor, from an overachieving academy for the sons and daughters of millionaires to the depraved classrooms in the inner city. From the well-known to the obscure, the American education system as a whole is preparing itself for its annual shaming of itself: the AP tests.
Now don’t get me wrong: I take AP tests myself, as do all my friends, and although our motivations for taking the class in the first place aren't always the noblest, the end game remains the same: survive the class and scrape out some college credits. I don’t love AP tests, but the AP doesn’t love me either, the feeling’s mutual. The relationship that the AP has created with students across America is one that leaves little benefit for the kid, while making him or her an instant source of profit. It’s akin to the vast commercialization that every industry has undergone, from the agriculture industry with the rise of Monsanto and beef conglomerates, to the astronomical profits of sports, from insane prices for tickets at AT&T Park for an afternoon watching the Giants to a $100 for the “fight of the century” that goes directly to the pocket of an illiterate who makes a living beating others. And now, the education industry has followed suit: deeming it acceptable at all levels to monetize to such an extent that even free education isn't really free anymore. From the ludicrous prices of exams in high school to the skyrocketing prices of tuition for higher level education, every single aspect of education has been transformed into some sort of money-maker, except for those classrooms where there’s actual teaching, actual students learning about skills they’ll need later on in life, instead of teachers more interested with how to get a 100% passing rate on an exam that ultimately means little in the grand scheme of things.
And what’s compounding the ill effects of this relationship is the demographics that this idea of being first means being the best resonates the most with. Although it isn't wrong to motivate students to try their hardest or to create difficult exams to separate the elite from the rest of the class, it’s unfair for this pressure to translate into students’ lives outside of school and into societal norms, where one’s parents expect only flawlessness from their children, because let’s face it: even if a student aces a couple of tests, he or she might be the same person who fails the lab practical every time there is one. It’s the intrinsic characteristics of some demographics, particularly Asians, to look down upon anything less than perfect. I pick upon Asians, not because I’m racist but through personal experience and vicarious epiphanies from my friends. I know that for a fact, there’s an unheard but clearly felt sense every time I have an exam that I have to perform at an unprecedented level, to make myself an artist whose magic is unparalleled at doing mental calculations or figuring out the expression for the escape velocity of a rocket. And to be honest, I think I've performed admirably, starting day one in kindergarten when I had no clue what math even was, to today, where I have not only supposedly mastered physics, but chemistry, biology, astronomy, and a whole bunch of subject fields I didn't even know existed.
But it’s not enough, because for all that I do, there’s always another student who’ll do twice as much as me, try twice as hard, and at the end of the day, be the biggest loser because he/she didn't get anything out of the whole process. For too long, teachers and parents have placed a huge emphasis on rote memorization of minutiae, which has little application in the real world, and less of an emphasis on the process to the knowledge itself, something that very few students take the time to reflect and learn from. And the stress to do well, to do better than the competition, has manifested itself in an epidemic that is slowly becoming a major concern today: cheating on a large and almost frightening scale.
It’s not only the little bits of cheating that goes on in classes, searching up answers beforehand and trying to memorize them, or copying off the person in front of you in psychology class. It’s the systemic use of cheating as a means to hide one’s flaws, to dress them up for a while to make them appear insignificant, to rely on cheating as your lifeline for a grade. It’s the fact that many parents condone this sort of behavior, when the logical and sensible thing to do would be to talk some sense into the kid and express a sense of disapproval. When many of us look to our parents as beacons of inspiration in times of hardship, it becomes almost unbearable when our role models themselves do nothing in the face of such behavior. And what’s alarming is the scope of cheating: it’s not just a series of isolated events at high schools, it happens at the most prestigious and elite universities, with schools such as Princeton and Stanford reporting increasing numbers of alleged cheaters every year. It’s also not restricted to the US: media has brought to light two drastic attempts at cheating in India, one involving parents of students in the uber-poor and desperate state of Bihar and the other engulfing the nation’s capital in a sea of shame and disapproval. The extent to which these parents are willing to go to help their children out is both admirable and worthy of disgust, but it underscores the negative impact of an education system that champions memorization and surface understanding over application and utility. Cheating is a one way street, one that demands determination and resourcefulness in exchange for success, but ultimately falls short in doing what it says it does.
But just because everyone else is cheating their ways to top scores on exams while maintaining what appears to be a sense of satisfaction in life, it doesn't grant you the permission to do the same: in fact, it opens a door of opportunity to be the catalyst for change in your environment, to take a stand that says no to cheating, that says no to shortcuts, that says no to the external pressures that force everybody else to succumb to everyone’s expectations. It’s ultimately your decision, and if there’s anything you take away after nearly making it through this post, it should be that you as a student, as an educator, as a member of the society, have the power to motivate yourself to success, instead of using someone else’s work as you own, and most of all it means that only you can decide the path that you will take on your sojourn through the world of education. It’s time to stop rejoicing over scoring higher than another kid in Oklahoma or to lamenting that some student from Massachusetts beat you on the same exam. What’s required is an extensive rewriting of the delicate education system, to clearly define what’s expected and what isn't, and to give students a chance to grow and blossom at their own pace. It’s time to temper expectations, knowing that not everyone out there is perfect, no matter how hard they try. It’s time to do away with an antediluvian system designed in the 1960s to counteract the Soviet education: living in the past will bring little benefit, but living in the present will bring a sense of accomplishment and gratification that we could never have gotten otherwise.
I know a lot of people reading this will have a hard time accepting that we as individuals and as a collective need to change, but I know that an equally large number of people will be in agreement with the sentiment expressed above. It’s time for a revolution in education, but one that comes from students themselves, rather than a self-proclaimed board of educators who don’t have a personal understanding of what it takes for education to truly have meaning.