Advancing academics: What should we demand of our education?

Education like a factory
William Bennett/Staff

I remember this guy in high school who had a pretty messed-up home life, mostly as a result of his parents’ nasty divorce. So he wrote a song about it. He uploaded it on good ol’ Soundcloud one weekend, and by the time Monday rolled around, the entire junior class had heard it. It was raw and passionate; he saw something ugly in the world and made something beautiful of it. I was in awe of him.

That week, we got back a long-term essay assignment in English, and he scored pretty low. The implication was clear: He had no talent for writing.

I was confused at how someone who had clearly demonstrated his creative prowess had somehow had his genius overlooked. I became frustrated that the teacher — and more broadly, the class — had failed to properly assess his abilities. My classmate became dejected, even resentful, after seeing that I had scored better on the assignment.

Why was it that the grading system did not accurately reflect his talent? I doubt there was a significant difference between the quality of his songwriting and his essay writing. What exactly was the teacher assessing, and what was she missing?

After this initial injustice, it didn’t take me long to notice the countless unsung heroes in my classes. I saw students with tremendous abilities receive grades that didn’t reflect their talents because they felt pressured into taking classes that did not cater to their educational needs. Even now, I continue to see students whose intellectual and creative capabilities go unrecognized.

“The current (education) system was designed and conceived and structured for a different age” – Sir Ken Robinson

But the problem isn’t with students, and it isn’t necessarily with teachers; it’s with the education system as a whole.

In some ways, the problem seemed to escalate in college. Here at UC Berkeley, as well as at many universities of comparable caliber, the toxic hypercompetitive atmosphere deters students from taking classes in the arts and humanities in favor of pursuing “financially stable” STEM fields.

Other students are unsure what to study because they were never afforded the opportunity to explore what excites them — they were never provided with a safe environment to try new things and fail without it harming their academic prospects. Compelled to pursue majors deemed “practical,” students neglect their passions and creative interests. And while they wander aimlessly in the wrong places trying to find something that won’t bore them to death, they waste time and money.

There are a lot of reasons why our education system needs an upgrade, but before we can fix the problem, we need to reassess why we have schools in the first place. It would seem that their primary purpose is to produce a people capable of increasing the nation’s economic prosperity. This isn’t a bad goal, but it shouldn’t be our priority.

The goal of education should be to produce a passionate workforce. If we can do that, we will have a fulfilled, happy citizenry that is engaged by the work it does. And if the drive is there, economic progress will follow.

In a TED Talk focusing on how schools stifle intellectual growth, education researcher and advocate Sir Ken Robinson offers an explanation for why schools aren’t properly catering to students’ academic needs. “The current (education) system was designed and conceived and structured for a different age,” he says. Our current system is outdated, and we refuse to change it.

In some ways, schools are like businesses; they are institutions that have clear annual goals to meet. But unlike businesses, the education system can’t abandon an “inferior shipment” of students. And while successful businesses adapt every year, the education system hasn’t undergone any significant changes since its inception. Because our system resists necessary evolution, we are still working with the framework first created more than 100 years ago. In that world, the best thing a person could do for their economy was learn how to work an assembly line, mindlessly, monotonously. Today’s economies require more creativity, and there is room for such luxuries as passion in the workplace.

It’s not unusual to hear students of all ages say, “I hate school.” Schools — places where people can gather to learn information while having their ideas challenged and their minds inspired — are one of the greatest achievements of humanity, but they are so marred by misdirection that the very people they were meant to benefit have become the victims of what might even be considered a misguided social experiment. In many cases, students conflate their hatred for school with a hatred for learning.

The reason students become ambivalent toward learning is largely a result of the current educational framework, in which there is a significant disconnect between what we learn and why we learn it.

The reason students become ambivalent toward learning is largely a result of the current educational framework, in which there is a significant disconnect between what we learn and why we learn it. It is commonplace to hear students bemoan the fact that they must read Shakespeare or seethe at the thought of taking calculus because it is never made apparent why such subjects are relevant. As a result, students feel disenfranchised and detach themselves from the educational journey. Their grades suffer, not because they are unintelligent, but because the education system puts no effort into assisting those who do not conform to its mold.    

Likewise, many of the tools we have developed for improving education have become obsolete and even harmful. The most notorious example is standardized testing. Originally conceived to measure student progress in order to inform necessary adjustments to curriculum and education policy, the once useful tool has now become a convenient way to oversimplify the complexity of student populations. Students who come from a higher socioeconomic background — along with students who are naturally better at taking exams — benefit disproportionately, and those who score lower on the tests not only get denied admission into colleges but also don’t get the help they need academically.  

An even greater tragedy is the lack of healthy relationships developed in the classroom between students and instructors. The emotional distance between the two entities along with the inaccessibility of many teachers contributes to a feeling of isolation among students; students feel alienated from their education rather than immersed in it.

So how do we reverse all this? How do we reshape the current system into one that makes students feel that their opinions are valued? While there is immense work to be done to improve education, both at a classroom level and on a national scale, there are reasons to be hopeful. Project-based school programs are giving students access to relevant skills for specific careers, and charter schools are not without their success stories.

We need to solidify what we want from our education system, and when it comes to addressing its weaknesses — as any good teacher will say — asking the right questions is a great place to start.  

Contact Edrick Sabalburo at [email protected]