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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Guest Post: What Are We Doing?

Have we lost the whole point of education?

March 18, 2018

Guest post by Peter Greene 




What does it mean to be an educated person, a student, a scholar? Why are we in school? What are we trying to do?

We don’t talk about these questions explicitly or often in the K-12 world, but everything we do with our students suggests an answer.

Sometimes, regrettably, the answer is, “You are here to swallow the answers I dispense to you, then spit them back out on command.” Sometimes the answer is, “You are here to jump through hoops I set out for you, in hopes that by jumping, you will learn something.”

But sometimes the answer is something far more wonderful and exciting. In my tenth grade biology class, I had to design, execute, and write up an experiment. I had to figure out what to do, how to do it, and how to make sense of the results, once they appeared. I had no interest in a career in science, but the class was revelatory for me.

In college, my two most influential professors were Fred Frank and Paul Zolbrod, both of whom made it clear that we could say anything we liked about the literature as long as we could back it up and make an argument for it. Not everyone in my class was excited about this. “Where are my hoops?” they said. “Just tell me what to do so I can just do that.”

I have thought of those students often in the last 20 years, as the pendulum of education reform has swung in their direction, particularly since No Child Left Behind moved standardized testing center stage.

We have shifted schools in the direction of simple, standardized answers. We are not looking for complex and complicated searches for understanding; we want students to perform the simple response that the test manufacturers have selected as the Correct one. And this approach doesn’t just affect answers. We also confine ourselves to the kinds of questions that can be answered with a short, multiple choice selection.

Education ought to involve students learning to become more fully themselves, learning to be more fully human in the world, learning how to continue that work on their own for the rest of their lives. Instead, we are in danger of redefining it as the ability to select someone else’s preferred answers to someone else’s preferred questions. And none of it is to help get a life—it’s to get a job, to make yourself more attractive to your future employer.

I may be a (grumpy) romantic, but I think of learning about the world as the single-handed exploration of a vast and beautiful world. There are some paths, some paved roads, and some wide open spaces. We decide where and how to travel, study the maps others have made, and slowly build a map of our own. The modern model seems to me more like a train ride -- you get yourself strapped into a seat and the train travels down the single set of tracks laid down by other folks. In the new world of reformed education, everything there is to be known is already known, everything there is to be understood someone already understands. It’s just your job to adjust yourself to their railroad understanding.

“Just tell me what to do” students have always been around, but I am unsurprised to hear college folks complain of an increase in the number of incurious hoop-jumpers. We are preparing students with multiple choice tests, but students have to enter an essay question world. What a shock for them when they finally enter a place in life where nobody can tell them what the one right answer is. What a problem for the rest of us when too much of a generation doesn't know how to chart its own path through the world.

​Peter Greene writes regularly at Curmudgucation.


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