Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dreams Deferred: Ranting about Education.

"What happens to a dream deferred?" Langston Hughes had it right so many years ago, that dreams and goals might languish and die, or explode, if not given the chance to be fulfilled. I was thinking about my friends, about Lee and his sister in Milledgeville, and about how such potential, such intelligence, might be left like the belongings in the homes they leave behind. When does it become too much? When does the strength give in because breaking is so much easier to do? When do the dreams die because there is no use in wishing for them, as someone will knock them down?

And I would say to them, "But if you don't make good grades, you won't be able to go to college!" And then I would think about the people in their lives that have gone to college, and I think, "What's the point?" I could have done so much more than working at a bookstore, and some of their other acquaintances have multiple degrees, but are still living off the government's roles, and caring little about the dreams that they once had. What difference does going to college make in their lives, other than the opportunity to live out the lives of college students, complete with the socializing, fraternizing, and other joys that are experienced and left way too soon for the cold world of reality.

If the school systems would care about the individual, and teach and mold each of the minds of the students into works of art. If they would hown them into sharp minds, sharp blades that would be as skilled as any tool, then there would be something to contribute to the world. But unfortunately, the role of the public school system looks more like the cowboy, driving herds of cattle toward some unknown destination. Would that it looked more like Plato and Aristotle's classes in the days of the Academy in Athens, or the schooling that Henry David Thoreau did as a teacher in the town of Concord, Mass.

I don't blame them for low grades, for dropping out, for giving up. Society lays out for children paths that are easy to follow, but are ultimately useless. They don't allow for the specialization of education and the different needs of the students. I've said over and over again, that I had students in my teaching days that didn't do any of their homework, or care about the lessons they were forced to learn, but they could take apart and put together auto parts and lawn mowers expertly. I found myself agreeing with them. Why should you learn how to conjugate verbs and the meter of poems and how a plant creates photosynthesis? If, instead, they could have learned how to put together automobiles expertly, they would contribute a valuable service to society. Or better yet, teach them how to construct computers, and work their way up to the space shuttle...etc... Or even better, I was listening to Clark Howard, who was talking about conversion kits that would allow a standard gasoline engine to run on electricity, with no dependence on oil coming from the Middle East. What would have happened if all these students that were tacitly proficient, could have been taught to assimilate cars into environmentally and fiscally conservative ones? It would help solve the dependence on foreign oil issue in a matter of months or years, instead of decades. But now where are these students? They have quit school, and although some are working in Automobile shops, others took the negative paths and have gotten in trouble (drugs, crime...etc...) and are now languishing in prison.

This all comes from a certain basic assumption that has gone back to the founding of the country. Namely, that all the citizens of the US have a right to a free, basic education, and that if all men are created equal, the education they receive must be made as such. This was compounded upon in the 1950's by the civil rights movement, which, while their achievements were necessary and critical for the social healing of our nation, the idea of everyone receiving an equal education is certainly flawed. For people are not created equal. Some people have intelligences that go toward math, or science, or technology, or art, ...etc.... And these intelligences go untrained in an education program that only emphasizes core learning. Frankly, it's time for the 19th century idea of public education to wake up, get into the 21st century, and specialize teaching to individual students. They're not training current students to solve the world's problems, but rather herding children towards menial jobs that will do nothing but pay credit card bills from the results of a consumerist society (see previous blogs).

I realize that the previous statements are generalized and definitely do not apply to everyone. There are wonderful teachers out there, and students that will one day change everything. I get discouraged, however, by witnessing the teenagers that come through the mall everyday, languishing as they do (my word for the day), and doing nothing to further themselves. And I've seen friends, who, because of life circumstances, and the coldness of reality, and people who care nothing but greed and power and self-serving interests, are beaten down to the point where a thorough education means little. If a child is struggling for the basics in Maslow's pyramid, how can they hope to achieve self-actualization, to care about learning when they are needing shelter, food, love, happiness?

I guess these are two separate issues, but they blend together easily enough. There is such a magic about what teaching could be, if in an ideal society, where the individual needs of the students, all needs, are met, then they can grow and flourish. But, alas, this does not happen here.

One last thought. It seems to me that the program started by the Bush administration, "No Child Left Behind," is aptly named, but not for what was intended. Looking at the education system as a whole, the program has worked, because no child has been left behind...they curtailed the front-runners so that everyone is in the same place. This is done by reducing expectations, teaching to tests that are created to manipulate numbers to insure passage (and therefore continued funding of programs). And I've experienced this first hand. When I was student teaching at NW High in Macon, the principal at the time gathered all the teachers together for a pre-first day pep talk. And the most important goal was....and of course, I thought there would be some lofty ideal of education and help students achieve their dreams... But no, it was... to teach to the test. So they would continue getting funding and the teachers would get good reviews. The fate of those students were sealed before the year began. The NAACP has a saying, "A good mind is a terrible thing to waste." How true that is.

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