“…like ants in a colony we do our share
but there’s so many other fuckin’ insects out there…”
–Bad Religion, Punk Rock Song
There is a problem with education in America, this news is nothing new. Although it is a fresh feeling for a country not used to failure (don’t worry failure, we’re warming up to you). Luckily, we have some of the greatest historians in the world, and if we can just bring up these scores, we can spin this ugliness right out of existence (you know, like the way we made Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders storm San Juan Hill—we can make a hero of you too, test scores) (Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders would be a great name for a dance team of some sort—but really there is no time to talk about that) (Ladies and Gentleman please welcome Ted…okay, you’re right, I’ll move on). Why is it that one of the most affluent countries in the world is having their asses handed to them, in terms of education, by countries that aren’t even sure where their next drink of clean water is going to come from? (I know. I know.) There have been as many proposed theories, as proposed solutions, but for the most part, they boil down to a couple of ideas: 1) Teachers don’t make enough money, and 2) Students don’t spend enough time at school (this is an idea born of a philosophy that we should mimic the work ethic of Asian countries like Japan and China whose students spend much more time engaged in their education than do our students). While the stats are more complex than I care to go into, the view from the cheap seats is that—when compared to thirty-four (34) industrialized countries—the U.S. ranks fourteenth (14) in reading, seventeenth (17) in science, and twenty-fifth (25) in math. But let’s face it, math sucks.
Some of the most laughable solutions have come from the Executive Branch of our fair government, either by those in office, or those desperately scratching the blood-slicked walls of the tower, trying to get in—read: Newt Gingrich. George Dubbya Bush’s administration thought that standardized testing would be a great way to demand accountability in the schoolhouse and bring those scores up. Luckily for him, this plan will probably be lost to history because, though a horrible arrangement, it was not his worst idea…not by a long shot (you know what I’m talking about, Baghdad). The aforementioned Newt had a ludicrous proposal on his way through the revolving door of the Republican Primaries. He thought that America should make higher education less of a priority, and give some students an opportunity to enter our non-existent job force earlier, should they choose. Let sixteen (16) year old kids decide whether they want their collars to be blue or white. He took a beating in the court of public opinion for suggesting “child-labor” as a solution for our economic woes. Though the implication that Newt was in favor of sending child-labor laws decades into antiquity was not entirely true, it was entirely funny to see a politician take it on the chin for saying something stupid. But did Newt simply vocalize a long-held American sentiment about education? Wasn’t he just showing the same Western misunderstanding about the value of instruction?
The sentiment of which I speak is the idea that one can determine the value of any given facet of education based upon how well it prepares one for the workplace. I first vocalized this idea when I was in a Jr. High math class. I decided that I wasn’t going to use whatever the particular lesson was in any real-world situation so there was no need for me to pay attention. I had heard this idea from another kid who I thought was cool, and now we’ve both realized that that view of learning was short-sighted. Or, at least, I have. I don’t know what the other kid is doing with his life, but I’m pretty sure he uses math whether he’s flipping burgers at McDonalds, or making change at the Meth store he operates. We were much younger than Newt…so I’m not sure the excuse he has for his ignorance. I forget my point. Oh yes. Could it be that the problem with education in America is we misunderstand its value from the out-set? Is schooling nothing more than a tool used to train us to become better workers and citizens? Surely a horse would never seek out the training required to plow a field for its own enlightenment…a horse only learns to plow fields if it is going to spend its life plowing fields. Newt was merely suggesting that we learn from the noble horse, right?
Homer Simpson once asked the question, “How is education supposed to make me feel smarter?” And I’m not convinced that everyone who heard that quote had the ability to sniff out its absurdity. To an increasing number of people education seems to have become a tool that others use to make us feel small…to make us feel bad about ourselves. It’s the same old fear of knowledge re-packaged for modern consumption. In this climate Copernicus wouldn’t be considered a heretic; he would be accused of being an elitist.
Low test scores, low teacher’s wages, lack of time spent in school, and lack of parental interest in their child’s education are not the problem. These are merely the symptoms pointing to a society who cares little for education. There is a Western proclivity that cherishes the destination over the journey, as such, education takes a backseat to the things said learning provides. Until we have the same enthusiasm for intellect as we do for fantasy houses and dream cars, test scores will suffer.
It is a great benefit, to an increasingly overbearing governing body, that we see instruction as a mere stepping-stone to gainful employment. Our leaders are huge fans of the idea that we train ourselves to be nothing more than revenue factories. That we, like horses, drop our heads and grind out twenty (20) to thirty (30) years of trouble-free labor. But if we were to take education seriously, just on its face, who knows where that kind of reform might lead? It is never a waste to spend time learning. If one entertains this thought, they do so to the peril of their mind and soul. If this is so for the individual, it only takes time for it to be so for the whole of society.