Over the next several pages, I will detail a process so radically flawed, however, one that I participate in. And don’t let that fact — that sickly ironic fact — slip from your memory, because its existence is more of an argument in itself than I could ever possibly assemble.
I find humorous the expression, oft-used by the pragmatic elder, “get your thinking cap on.” I must’ve thrown my thinking cap into the nearest dumpster before the “juvenile” age of eleven. And not for a lack of trying to fit the one-size-fits-all cap on my dome, but for a lack of application. After all, I’m not the one who designed the cap and never was one to be able to see its value.
My thinking cap was first issued to me at five years old, and at the time, I had no feelings of ill will towards it. In fact, the cap fit quite well and I was content to wear it throughout elementary. I wore that cap with pride and joy in those years, soaking up valuable information on fundamental life skills. I had it on when I read, on my own, my first book, wrote my first words, even when making my first friends of my childhood days. That cap became a part of me, my heartbeat, and the only time that I felt I was truly living was when I was truly learning.
With elementary graduation came promises of greater places to explore and bigger things to learn and to strive for. Fifth grade, to my innocent eyes, was a foreign realm of endless possibility and intellectual growth. And while my thinking cap felt slightly snug that year, even borderline uncomfortable, I held out hope that fifth grade was merely a bad crop in an otherwise thriving garden.
Disaster struck when sixth grade reared its ugly head and sent me to embark on a journey summed up by discontinuance of growth, or arguably, regression; a downwards-spiraling staircase of repetition of the futile. As much time as I spent attempting to squeeze my old thinking-cap over my stress-packed skull in the first few weeks of that year, it was all to no avail. I had grown mentally in ways that the school system discourages students to do. All the while, my thinking cap remained the same size and became a first-hand witness as I fell subject to the horrors of what I would learn over the next seven years is poorly-termed “education.”
I graduated from Natick High School at the top of my class (a suburb, by the way, of the United States’ most prestigious educational state (Stebbins)), one of the 37 students in my roughly 400 student-wide graduating class of 2019 to score high honors throughout every semester of high school. I collected a handsome sum of scholarship money at the generous Class Night, which would later go towards my first tuition bill at a University that offered to take off sixty percent of my payment if I were to attend. I entered the Honors College at the aforementioned school, compliments of my 4.3 high school grade-point average, with what the outsider would have considered a nifty résumé. And while these points may come across boastful, I mention them not because they are some of my greatest achievements, but rather, because they are some of, if not the most, humiliating and regret-invoking elements of my life. Allow me to explain.
You see, I am NOT smart by society’s standards. I am not knowledgeable, I am not an intellectual, I can’t name the elements of the periodic table nor recite the ten most influential events in American history. Hell, sometimes it takes me an embarrassingly long time to read my wrist-watch that I revert to peeking at my iPhone home-screen for the hour.
But what I would argue, and perhaps this mindset is more valuable than one of pure intellectual capacity, is that I am intentionally obtuse, or, if that seems a little harsh, unimpressionable. I have realized that I am a lab-rat in a frightfully backward system and will not sit idly by, being told how to think for seven hours a day, without at least questioning why such is the case.
The students of America need a wake-up call.
In the United States of America, we have an educational epidemic on our hands. We too have political turmoil, true, and an environmental crisis, fair, but we do not have the foundation to be able to problem-solve time-stamped issues because the shelf-life of our school systems has an expiration date itself. The sixth grade, as I cited, but perhaps anywhere from late elementary to early middle school, crosses the threshold into futility. The threshold that entails discarding collaboration and dropping our coloring books in exchange for burly textbooks on Quantitative Reasoning and adjusting to conformity rather than individualism.
The students of America need a wake-up call. What our teachers and our parents deem “learning” is merely a false advertisement. Education in America is not learning, it is regurgitation. A desensitizing process of memorization for the sake of letter grades, prioritizing the recapitulation of often worthless material for multiple-choice tests over essential life skills. But do not blame the teachers or parents who, for the most part, are motivated by true student learning. Blame the policymakers who construct a roadmap for a curriculum designed to confuse and misdirect students into feeling as though an extra four to eight years of outrageously expensive education is necessary.
If you are to only train a dog how to run for the first five years of its life, just to throw it into the ocean thereafter, it will drown, will it not? And unless that dog is properly prepared for the challenge of swimming, it will have lived its entire adolescence believing it is capable, only to be lost in a whirlwind of unfamiliarity in an instant.
In this hypothetical, I want more than anything to be able to swim but am too constrained to be able to do so. I have, for fourteen years, ran as is expected of me, but have failed to venture anything more. Ever since my first day of sixth grade, I have scorned at the notion that I, or any particular student for that matter, will thrive under the practices of American education.
And that is not to say that it is impossible for one to integrate into this system, but rather to claim that it is nearly impossible to escape this system. Remember: I, a member of the student population as far as any in opposition of the system, am still stuck here, jotting down useless notes in math classes and cramming credits for general education courses into my schedule, the whole time uneasily laughing at my failure to break free of the chains that lock my ankles to cold, uncomfortable desk chairs in doleful lecture halls. I am merely going through the motions of an ineffective game in which I have mastered the controls necessary to succeed, without ever having learned how those controls apply to an adaptive environment.
“Why?” you might ask.
Why would I continue to participate in malpractice? The answer is simple: I don’t know how not to. And that is where I have truly fallen short.
Strip away the numbers — the 4.3 GPA, the top 10% of my graduating class, the $50,000 in scholarship funds — and what remains? An eighteen-year-old kid, as confused as any, with a nameless chair in a University hall and no real knowledge in any particular subject field. And while most parents of Millenial and Gen-Z children convince themselves that their children are young geniuses, I regret to inform you that, most likely, your child is not the next Elon Musk or Bill Gates (two college drop-outs, by the way), but instead, he or she is in the same position as I am: smart enough to land a spot in school and dumb enough to accept it.
Now, I do understand the requisite nature of the process of teaching. Where would we be as a society today without the innate process of humans transferring information from an older generation to a new? Of course, this is paramount, such as when parents teach their children the skills of communication or self-control. But where do we draw the line between guidance and domestication? When does preparing youth for universal elements of life, such as the ability to speak or to take care of oneself, descend into the territory of educational assimilation, in which a world of vast thinkers is amassed into a single category of students? In what instance has a practice of this sort ever prevailed? In a diverse world, unification is the starting point towards regression. If all practitioners of religion were force-fed the idea of Hinduism, how would the estimated 4,200 other world religions have come to be? If English was the sole language taught globally, what type of effect would that have on culture? Thus, in a country that preaches the value of diversity, why does our education system operate in a standardized pattern that fails to adapt to student variance?
Take me, for example, a tactile learner who values literature. Compare that student to Student B: a visual learner who values mathematics. And finally, compare those two students to Student C: an auditory learner who values world languages. Sit the three of us down in a 200-person lecture hall in front of a single professor lecturing about the causes and effects of World War I and what do you have? Boredom, frustration, and a royal waste of time for all parties involved. To put that futility into perspective, I have partaken in eleven mandatory classes related to history since the 5th grade, in which I have spent an approximate 74,250 minutes, 1,238 hours, or 52 days cumulative and yet could not honestly compile a list of ten historical facts that I learned.
Yet what angers me about that fact is not my inability to recite a chronological list of the rulers of ancient Greece, because a real-world application is absent and Alexander really wasn’t all that great, but that I am never going to get those 52 days of my life back. And by the way, if you noticed my calculations above, those addition and division skills can be accredited to my 4th-grade teacher rather than my University mathematics professor.
With the aforementioned example in mind, let us discuss “general education.” If I had to sum up my 13-year educational journey to this point in one word, “general” may be the precise term to use. General education is an umbrella during a flood. Merely something to latch onto so that we can feel as though we are acting, when you’d be better off dropping the damn thing and swimming for your life. General education is a laughable term precisely because of how accurate it is. For something to be “general” is to be imprecise, to disregard exceptions. And if a system intended to teach people of all races, all demographics, all belief systems, and all backgrounds is to disregard exceptions, that system is destined to fail a monumental number of students.
Yet oftentimes I hear adults defend the value of general education courses in that they “teach you the processes of learning and thinking.” Sure, I can agree with that claim to a degree, but by the time an individual is of legal age to operate a vehicle, vote for their country’s leader, move out of their home, marry, even put their life on the line as a member of the armed forces, hasn’t that individual already matured to a point where he or she is well-versed in the process of thinking? What type of ignorance are we displaying by mandating the course choices students make when they are free to make their own political, residential, occupational, and life choices?
In an education system that is not only oriented in a way that suggests that a degree is a good idea but one that puts young-adults’ fates in the hands of a CEO reaching out to verify the prestige of that diploma, critical-thinkers are an endangered species in a troubled environment. As Albert Einstein (another college dropout — noticing a trend?) famously stated, “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” (QuoteResearch). I once incorporated the previous quote into a paper in an 11th grade English class where my teacher, clearly taking offense to my critical assessment of high-school, claimed that my argument was reliant on a “logical fallacy,” fuming with intolerance towards an opinion divergent from the expectation.
Nowadays, for those who have realized the inept nature of the school curriculum, it is clear that our system is missing the mark entirely. Measuring intelligence by way of standardized testing on topics with no real-world application is far more a shot in the dark than it is a sensible cycle. And if the CEO, the boss, and the agent’s sole criteria for a hire is their proof of acquisition of a piece of paper suggesting their ability to recite that there were approximately 2,403 casualties at Pearl Harbor or produce an answer from (-b±√(b²-4ac))/(2a), then how can we expect the drop-out, a term with a connotation that should be applauded rather than discouraged, to make it in today’s society? And, since what I would assume to be 99% of the student population based on my experience, have since forgotten how to solve these senseless questions, what is the purpose of their presence in our school system in the first place? Understand that the questions that I am posing are not rhetorical. Many students will draw a blank when faced with these critical-thinking questions, not because they don’t have the capacity to, if nurtured by proper teaching, produce a hypothesis, but because they haven’t been allowed to face and to problem-solve questions of substance and real-world application.
Please do not misinterpret my argument. I am not suggesting that students across the nation should rip apart their textbooks and drop out of school, nor am I suggesting that middle school, high school, University, post-graduate school, or any genre of formal education is entirely detrimental or should be abandoned at once. What I am arguing, however, is that we cannot continue to insist that formal education is the “more correct” route for intellectual growth, we cannot continue to regard the drop-out or even the high school graduate who chooses not to attend college as “incompetent” or “ludicrous,” and we most certainly cannot continue to pretend that the education system in America is flawless, because a dog that can’t swim is powerless and a fish that can climb a tree is nonexistent.
Let me make one other point clear: I do not have the answer.
So if you listened to all of my gibes towards schooling and were expecting me to map out a 10-year plan to reroute the course of the current system, I apologize. But what I do hold as being the first, most important step in ameliorating education is the disposal of the nationalist educational stance. America must stop regarding our educational practices as being superior because they aren’t even scratching the surface of the definition. From there, we must strive to learn from countries that are thriving in their implementation of schooling, if, as a population, we have at this point mastered the “process of learning” enough to do so. Countries such as Finland have made landmark strides in educational reform, providing teachers with better wages, removing homework from their curriculum, preparing students for professional options aside from attending a traditional college, eliminating standardized testing, and concentrating on collaboration rather than competition (Colagrossi). Administering these steps along with reworking a student-driven curriculum, revising teacher-training programs, and revisiting how we measure and interpret success as a society is, if nothing more, a starting point towards creating a system that recognizes and fosters different ways of student learning.
Perhaps, while on the one hand, I am the perfect author for a piece related to a system that I am directly involved in, I am quite the opposite for the same reason. Because as I continue to remind myself, I have failed my rhetoric by my mere involvement, hesitant but continuous nevertheless. I think that the true perfect author would be the nineteen-year-old college dropout who went on to kickstart his or her own business, advocated for and eventually influenced education reform, and who can honestly tell you that there are alternate routes aside from formal education that lead to success.
That dropout is the one with the tools to inform and to instruct America’s people about his or her experience not only as an insider looking out but also as an outsider reflecting on what went on inside. But while I am here, fully present within the system in physical regard, perhaps less so mentally, it must be known that my hidden intellectual prowess is going to waste, yet to be unearthed. And I am not alone.
So the next time you find the need to solve the quadratic formula for any reason other than for answering a test question, feel free to disregard my argument in totality, but until then, do me a favor and replace that outdated thinking cap with one crafted under your own power, and maybe a light will spark at the end of the tunnel.
America, this is your wake-up call.
A fellow confused student.
Colagrossi, Mike. “10 Reasons Why Finland’s Education System Is the Best.” Big Think, Big Think, 7 Feb. 2019, bigthink.com/mike-colagrossi/no-standardized-tests-no-private-schools-no-stress-10-reasons-why-finlands-education-system-in-the-best-in-the-world.
Logue, Gretchen. “Confused Boy at Desk — Education Reform.” The Longest Post Ever: A Pictionary Explaining Education Reform, 9 June 2017, missourieducationwatchdog.com/the-longest-post-ever-a-pictionary-explaining-education-reform/.
QuoteResearch, Author. “Everybody Is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing That It Is Stupid.” Quote Investigator, 31 July 2019, quoteinvestigator.com/2013/04/06/fish-climb/.
Stebbins, Samuel, and Thomas C. Frohlich. “Geographic Disparity: States with the Best (and Worst) Schools.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 12 Feb. 2018, www.usatoday.com/story/money/economy/2018/02/08/geographic-disparity-states-best-and-worst-schools/1079181001/.