The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"School-days, I believe, are the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence.  They are full of dull, unintelligible tasks, new and unpleasant ordinances, brutal violations of common sense and common decency.  It doesn't take a reasonably bright boy long to discover that most of what is rammed into him is nonsense, and that no one really cares very much whether he learns it or not."... ...H.L. Mencken

Commentary of the Day - April 10, 2001:  Assembly Line Education - Guest Commentary by Remy Benoit:

Job Description:

7 1/2 hours per day including home work (minimum 2-3 hours)
Working conditions:

Overcrowded, desk with limited space; noisy; lunch 20 minutes; facilities, but visitations frowned upon and only with superior's permission.  Acquisition of new skills and creativity depends upon determination of workers who must acquire them on their own despite constant barrage of pre-packaged materials to be filled out within specified parameters; attempts to "color outside the lines,"  question in depth, generally not, encouraged.

Personal Liberties:

While Constitution, Bill of Rights are taught as historical documents, must accept restrictions on free speech, and personal property inspection at management's will.


Minimum one per week; announced, unannounced; expertise expected in wide variety of areas.

Job Title:

Student.  Must move through a minimum of five subjects per day at a rate determined by  management, must show proficiency in each, or accept demotion.

Mr. Ford's assembly line crowned the Industrial Revolution; but, we forget the loss of the worker's sense of personal achievement.  Craftsmanship dwindled as creativity was replaced by the rote skills required in the linear process needed to go from A to Z.  This linear pattern became the model for K-12 education.

In most schools students "cover" x number of pages per day.  The student who is unclear on day 3's lesson, proceeds to day 4's without understanding.  While after school help often is available, obligations in student's lives do not always allow them the flexibility to attend.  When discussing education, we are discussing our young people, trying to find their special talents, their purpose.  Huge regional schools with overwhelming numbers of students, make it almost impossible to answer probing questions; to provide space for reflection, clarification, and expression.

Young people must be heard, they must be counted as more than test scores.  They deserve to have their questions answered as they arise.  To quote my son: I've never been in a place so inimical to independent study or thought.  Thousands of wonderful teachers across this country, although devoted to their students, are also hampered by the system.  What is at work here is more than just the sheer size of the school system -- attitudes brought to school have changed because of changes at home and in the entire culture.

The Columbine tragedy must be understood.  Day-to-day violence, physical and verbal, is no longer an aberration in schools.  Students cannot learn when they are afraid; nor when they do not feel that those who are teaching them respect and trust them.  School restrictions are intended to protect the rights of the majority; but, too often they step on individual rights ostensibly to achieve order, widening the gap between student and teacher.  These are problems yet to be faced by parents, school administrators, students and teachers; a national cultural problem.

Funding programs alone cannot provide the answers; interpersonal contact, real listening, real sharing by all concerned are needed to solve the problems.  Solutions cannot begin until the problems are faced realistically, not by media hype, but at the grass roots level of investigation, specification, and collaboration.  It begins with the attitudes of  children sent to school, and with the attitudes directed towards them once there.  Young people have a lot to tell us; we must learn to listen.

How can we stop just warehousing our young and truly educate them in the sense of the Latin educere: to draw out?  We must draw out actual applications; education and creativity, must be measured by that which is actually produced.  Test scores measure test taking skills, not generational knowledge.

A few suggestions about how to begin:

Provide updated curricula with expanded concepts of "neighborhood" studies in a world where children daily converse across the globe. I have often been asked why history isn't done chronologically, with recognition of all parts of the world. Students wonder how they are to understand the evening news and the newspapers, and judge current affairs, if they know nothing of the historical issues at hand.

Students need rational and exploratory approaches to archaeology, history, math, science, sociology, and psychology providing them with broader perspectives.

We need schools that are open to more direct community interaction.  Students benefit from being read to, from acting in plays, from reciting;  from having guest speakers share their worlds and their knowledge.  School facilities neglect their vast potentialities: skilled and experienced elders remain lonely while children lack personal guidance, tutoring, and attention.  We hear about natural resources being squandered, but  not about the neglected resources of our young and our seniors.  Oral history, personal experiences, field expertise can, and should be shared, across generations, to alleviate the alienation of all age groups.

Open schools to high school/college cross classes; to dancing, music, art and history lessons for enrichment, not judgment.  Bring students together with writers, artists, executives, lawyers, paralegals, secretaries, shop clerks, veterans, chefs, computer experts, etc., to help them make life decisions.  Many are willing to share, but no present structure accommodates this.

The young need to be taught self-expression through writing, with a logical, developmental approach, by doing the writing and by sharing the written thoughts of others.  Many have no sense of their place in the world today; voices from the past would help them find it and to realize that people have a common history of shared problems.

Many subjects are presented in a vacuum with nothing done to relate them to life experience, including basic consumer education, communication, and interaction between people.  The problems of public education will remain until all face them openly and objectively.  If we want our children to be students, to take advantage of millennia of human experience, to learn at their own pace, and on their own paths, instead of struggling  in a system that often frustrates them, their unique creativity, their personal learning styles and development, then we must re-evaluate the industrial approach.  We must widen the scope of our teaching  in a world shrinking daily.  We must teach verities: we cannot whitewash war to make it seem less brutal, we cannot fail to teach of the problems of those who serve or carry for their whole lives.  We must teach what hunger, poverty, war, and ecological disaster are, asking for the input of the young on how to solve these problems, which they will inherit.

We are all accountable for what our children learn and what skills they acquire.  School is not a baby-sitting service.  We cannot sit back and look at seven or eight hours of the day as being attended to by someone else for us while we remain otherwise preoccupied.  We cannot condemn behavior of our children in school if we do not understand what transpires there.  If we want schools conducive to learning and to developing skills, then we must become an active part of them.  We can't delegate them to a handful of others, or to teachers with overcrowded classrooms, constrained by antiquated curriculums.

They are all our children.  Which is better, to gasp in horror, or to take collective action?  School curricula haven't changed while the world has.  Curricula need to be modernized to teach not only the "three R's", but also the skills necessary to address the problems of today, including those within the classrooms themselves.

©2001 Remy Benoit
Remy Benoit is the pseudonym of a freelance writer who now lives in Baton Rouge, LA.  She holds an M.A. degree in history from West Chester University and has taught at both the secondary and college level.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.