Friday, September 19, 2008

school's biggest failure: taking away our sense of purpose and direction

One of the biggest concerns I have about the traditional school system is how little direction its students graduates with. Upon graduation students are either taking a job to support their new independence and the bills that come with it or in their first year at college. In both of these cases its alarmingly normal for students to have little to no idea about what they to do with themselves -- in both the day-to-day sense and the broader "what do I want to do with my life" sense. College students usually don't know what to major in (but are in college because they're supposed to be) and workers are very much in the same boat. They're usually not in their job because it's the first step towards their true calling, but because they've got rent to pay in less than 30 days.

I interpret this as one of our educational system's most powerful and toxic effects. No matter what educational theory one subscribes to, each and every one is designed for the explicit benefits of the child. In every system, books, teachers, buildings, salaries, and materials are all assembled together, for twelve years, solely for the student's benefit -- usually for the sakes of their own learning, success, happiness and well-being. Despite that students come out of this system without having any ideas as to how to address one of their most important personal questions: What do I want to do with myself, with my life, or even, today?

I believe our current educational system's unwillingness to let a student influence or control his or her own education is responsible for this. When the biggest choices a student gets in one's own education are on the level of whether he can study French or Spanish in high school, it's no surprise that a student has no practice or experience with thinking about what it is that they would truly like to work or work towards as an adult.

It's this line of thinking that has led me to think that students need as much autonomy as they can get. They need to weigh choices, make decisions, and feel their own decisions' consequences. Instead of providing a space where students can do just this, we offer them six regimented classes a day that have been decided for them as in their best interest. But what good is the best teaching if a student doesn't know what to do with it?

Young children are often very emphatically clear as to what they want. So emphatic, often, that it's cute. I think this clarity -- this "I want to know more about *this*!' (or do this, or go to this place, or whatever -- "I want to experience this!") is something that adults very often struggle with recovering once out of schooling. Personally, I have spent and still spend tons of time wondering about what I find fun and what I find meaningful, and relish being a young child and having that internal instinct of being able to recognize these things on sight. (Yes! That's what I want to do! Ah! I'm so glad that's happening!) Adult responsibilities and relationships add new layers of complexity that a child doesn't have to sort out, but I think the bigger problem is that we as adults are out of practice. After going through a schooling system which asks us to pay progressively less and less attention to our own curiosity (to broadly encompass the set of thoughts that include finding some things fascinating and are others to be really, truly important,) it is no surprise that this once loud and clear voice becomes a quiet, meek, hard-to-hear sort of thing.

And while I think it's entirely possible to reclaim that pure sense of direction -- to be fully aware of one's own personal interests and one's own deep concerns for her life, and to begin to find the first steps one can take in addressing each of those things -- that it would be entirely better not to submerge it in the first place.


Chris said...

I think that there's way more going on here than you're acknowledging:

1.) Novelty sparks interest - as you get older, less is novel, therefore less sparks interest. Whether this is a significant cause is up for debate, but the fact of it is incontrovertible.

2.) Society is unnatural - 20k years ago we would have been running around killing animals, raping, etc. Life was exciting, hard, and confusing. These days, everything's easy. There's no -need- to make anything difficult because everything is so easy. What do you think school should be preparing people for, exactly?

3.) The concept of "one true calling" or "the point of life" is, in my opinion, idealistic BS. You are born, you do some stuff for a while, you die. You can interpret your life in terms of some cosmology or another, but you're going to be missing out on communication with the 99% of humanity that just slogs from day to day, waiting to die.

As with everything, I think the matter is much more complex than you're making it out to be. School may be a salient factor, but requiring "school or no school" or "school or radically different school" is ignoring the structural and ultimately vastly interrelated nature of all things.

Alex said...

re: Chris

I don't think a cosmological interpretation of human life is necessary to appreciate that men can strive to live lives more personally significant than stuff for a while unto death.

Michael's post speaks to a desire for students to retain an investment in life informed enough to make a wise decision about the type of stuff that they would like to do for a while. I think that's fairly practical.

Anonymous said...; You saved my day again.