Education: A System Broken in Premise

School sucks.

It’s just a fact. It seems like everyone I’ve ever talked to has one problem or another with the education system, on a fundamental level.

Every politician I’ve ever listened to in politics has commented one time or another about the absolute travesty of education.

When a solution is brought up, on those rare occasions, it usually just involves throwing more money and resources at the system. However, the cost of education seems to be skyrocketing, and yet the performance hasn’t significantly increased. It’s like a spiraling game of blackjack real money.

I think that there is something flawed with the fundamental philosophy of the modern school system that we have to examine- a system that may have to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Identifying the Problem

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. I’m ecstatic to say that I’ve completed my fourteen years of schooling (and no, I’m not doing my math wrong. I repeated two grades, and graduated with high-honors, thank you very much). After so much time, you would think that I have a thing or two to say about the matter. Yet, as I write this, I’m struggling to formulate exactly what was so terrible about the experience.

It would be juvenile to say that certain classes were “boring”, and it wouldn’t solve anything. Take mathematics. It’s very boring, and grueling to get through, and yet it’s one of the most useful things to learn, or at least be introduced to. Yet there is a significant number of students who won’t find it useful, ever, past a certain grade level, and will think back on those classes like, “Why did they teach us about the Pythagorean Theorem, and yet never explained what a mortgage is or how to handle finances?”

(Only one of the schools I went to was introducing finances in the year I left, and the others don’t teach it).

I’ve used some of the more advanced concepts of mathematics, like trigonometry, that I’ve learned in my final few years while messing around and coding video games, and calculus I used in physics classes. Since this is never shown in math class, most students probably finish high school with the impression that we were just wasting time playing stupid number games, because they were never shown why the subject matters. This holds true in almost every other class too, except for gym class maybe.

I think, however, that we can trace the problems with schooling back to a more fundamental level. The origins of modern schooling can be traced back to 18thcentury Prussia. Before this, we could look at Martin Luther establishing mandatory schooling in the 16th century,
Spartans mandating state-run military schools, Jewish scholars teaching Talmud and other subjects in the home, and the tutelage of wealthy elites and voters in Athens. However, the modern schooling of sitting in a classroom, with teachers, in a school, can be credited to Prussia in 1717 AD, and was dubbed “The Factory Model”.

The idea was to create a standardization of teaching, testing, and learning, where authority is respected and not questioned, and where uniformity and orthodoxy are pushed over innovation and creativity. Everyone learns the same material, in the same way, in order to pass the same tests, in the hope that everyone can go to college, and then get a job.

American writer HL Menckin once wrote, “The most erroneous assumption is… that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence… Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education… is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.”

So let me put forth a question, “Why doesn’t school seem to prepare most students for the future?”

The answer: It wasn’t designed to.

The purpose was to create a modern workforce in factories. People who had learned to obey authority in school, and could be expected to do the same on the assembly line. This rigid, box-like approach to education has stunted a lot of potential and creativity and encourages rote memorization to pass the next test. The curriculum is designed around tests, but standardized tests only prove one thing: That you know how to pass tests.

Think about it – did you take an art class? How much time was spent learning “art history” versus actually making art? How many art students give a damn about the “history”, versus the fun of the creative process? Yet, that’s what is shoved down the art students’ throats, because the only way schools have of measuring “proficiency” is through tests.

Is there a Solution?

I think it’s only after we’ve escaped the 20th century where the mentality around schools has begun to shift. “Project-Based Learning” is a good start, but not every school does it and still it doesn’t address the core problems. Not every student can, or should, learn every subject. Not every subject, not every school, not every teacher, is created equal.

Obviously, it’s impractical to create a custom curriculum for every student, and students below a certain age don’t have the foresight to know what’s best for themselves, but student choice should matter. We need to allow schools the freedom to teach subjects as they see fit, and allow students to begin following their interests and dreams.

Thankfully, I’m seeing a growing movement of people who wish to break the mold. Many pundits are discouraging the younger generation to go to college, where they’ll just end up in debt. Thanks to COVID-19, the greed of colleges is clearer than ever, such as Harvard still charging full price and for room & board despite all lessons now being done remotely.

However, college and university are not mandatory and are becoming less and less necessary for a quality job. Most people with a degree, work a job that either doesn’t require a degree or isn’t even their field.

It’s mandatory high-school that’s still the problem. It’s not a problem that can be solved by throwing more money at it either. A new computer lab or Chromebooks isn’t going to stop flunking kids from flunking. It’s how the money and resources are allocated that’s important.

The allocation of money and resources is far more impactful than the amount of money and resources available, and the data supports this.

In New York, there are schools with bloated, unnecessary administration and teachers who are paid to sit in rooms and do nothing because the process to fire them is so convoluted and frustrating (you can thank the unions for that).

In short, schools need to teach smarter, not harder. They also need to expand what they teach and be given the freedom to teach it properly. Bad, unlikable teachers should be fired. Good teachers should be given raises based on performance. We should have fewer students per classroom, and we should be encouraging more paths than the four-year-college route.

To share an anecdote, when I was in middle school, vocational schools had the reputation for being the school for the “stupid” kids. Then I had a friend go to one, and he would tell me about this shop class they had, and I would think, “That sounds so fun! I want to do that! I want to play with power tools!”

The point is, there are more options out there than you may realize, and they should absolutely be encouraged. Shoving thirty kids in a room with an overworked, miserable teacher, teaching a boring, useless subject, is not the education plan of the future.

I’ll end this with a quote from Pink Floyd, “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control. No dark sarcasm in the classroom. Teacher, leave them kids alone.”