During the rather miserable halftime show of Super Bowl XLV, Will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas ad-libbed the following message to President Obama in the middle of “Where is the Love?” lyrics:
“In America we need to get things straight / Obama, let’s get these kids educated / Create jobs so the country stays stimulated.”
When the Founders of our nation were growing up, education was considered a “moral duty” and personal responsibility. Besides being mystified at the appeal of box-headed, glow-in-the-dark backup dancers, I can only imagine what their puzzled reaction would be to a plea for the president to take responsibility for the education of children besides his own.
Yet nowadays, some aren’t content to believe that it takes a family - or perhaps even a proverbial village - to raise a child. Now it ostensibly takes a federal department and federal programs to raise a child (as if the nature of children has changed in the past hundred or so years). Nevertheless, American students as a whole are not nationalist-minded like some of their foreign counterparts. American students remain in a very individualist-minded culture that somehow over time ended up with leaders so disconnected from reality that they seriously believed (and still believe) that nationalizing education would be successful in this country.
Billions of dollars in spending aside, the amount of responsibility for education assumed by government has perhaps subliminally altered students’ perception of learning.
No longer is failure or lack of discipline merely a student’s individual fault. Now the teachers, the school, the school district, the U.S. Department of Education and, by proxy, the U.S. president, take their fair share in the redistribution of guilt. Academic subjects share in the guilt too - those that are too hard must be softened whenever it appears to risk aching students’ minds and lowering GPAs. When it comes to increasing the number of graduates, lowering the hurdle is easier than motivating scholarship - because ultimately, there is no satisfying reason to work harder to prove oneself better at going through the motions than the next person.
What makes anyone think that investing in and expanding upon this school paradigm will result in a more educated populace?
Compulsory schooling, with all its obese bureaucratic entanglements, is so customary in our society that many citizens are virtually dependent upon it.
In the Alabama Policy Institute’s 2004 report “The Cost of Remedial Education: How Much Alabama Pays When Students Fail to Learn Basic Skills”, Dr. Jim Jolly, Dean of Instructional Services at Gadsden State Community College, elaborated on the baffling scenario of students graduating from high school with very minimal skills in math, reading and writing:
“When the students get [to college] they can’t take notes, they have poor study skills, they are not used to working on their own, and as a result they perform poorly on tests.”
Notice that all of the above college-ready capabilities - taking notes, study skills and working on your own - are not things that are necessarily mastered in a conventional classroom. This would explain why homeschooled students are known for being so well-prepared for college.
Since my education was totally privatized through homeschooling, I never saw what my peers were accomplishing in classrooms across the nation. My naivete resulted in me competing against an imaginary ideal of excellence instead of simply trying to out do age-level peers. Because I was a homeschooler, I felt that I needed to work harder to prove myself successful.
I was surprised when conventionally educated children introduced themselves to me with their grade instead of their age - and then said they couldn’t read or study something because it was “above their grade level” (the elementary version of “above my pay grade”, perhaps). Half the time I didn’t know what government instituted grade level I was in – and thus didn’t have the sense to realize that I was supposed to limit my brain power to bureaucratically anointed curricula.
The disappointing grade-based mindset didn’t affect me directly until I pursued higher education. In fact, higher education makes an even bigger deal out of grade level. Being classified as a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior is a crucial - and often limiting - aspect of students’ identities. Semester after semester, I have come across classes in college course catalogues that look thrilling to me…and then I’ve realized they are “graduate level only”. Further observations have led me to conclude that higher education has been lowering itself to compulsory schooling instead of serving as the academic summit.
But in the 2011 State of the Union address, our Ivy League-educated President Obama was certain to not miss out on extolling the value of the college degree:
“America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us –- as citizens, and as parents –- are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed…
…If we take these steps -– if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they are born until the last job they take –- we will reach the goal that I set two years ago: By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” (Applause.)
In a burst of wicked irony, hours after Obama’s degree endorsement took place, the headline “Does going to college make you smarter - or poorer?” ran on Yahoo! News. It was just one in a barrage of discouraging notices that seem to enjoy flying in the faces of exhausted college students, including “The Great College-Degree Scam”, “Useless College Degrees Proliferate; Millions Waste Lives in Academic Bubble”, and “Rip-Off: College Tuition Bubble and Debt Burdens Grow Worse”.
We are suffering from an inflation of college degrees. The value of the college degree has declined because, quite frankly, any idiot can get one.
Yet unlike monetary inflation, degree inflation has failed to sharply decrease the desire to hold this academic currency. Culturally, college has become an extension of high school that every good citizen is expected to pursue - no matter how much debt they might incur - that is becoming less and less worth the trouble (see one student’s “4 Wise Solutions to Fix the Soaring College Debt Crisis”).
It is a truth university acknowledged that a high school graduate in possession of a career aspiration must be in want of a college degree. However little known the feelings or views of such a person may be upon finally exiting compulsory schooling, this rule is so well fixed in the minds of surrounding educators that he or she is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their campuses.
Do not think that my Jane Austen paraphrase is a bashing of higher education. I only intend to illustrate how social pride and prejudice hasn’t dissipated much - it has just expanded forms. A college degree and the pursuit thereof is a status symbol that is expected to entitle oneself to a job, wealth and maybe even a spouse (I know of a woman who said she went to college to get her “MRS” degree).
I come from an academic family where college degrees have always been greatly esteemed. As a youngster I fantasized that college was a place of echoing marble halls where the great intellects of the day gathered to contemplate higher things and solve the world’s problems. When I finally agreed to accept a scholarship and attend college, I told my mother that I thought college was about intellectual people debating great things all day long. To this notion she responded, “That’s how it was in Ancient Greece…”
Because colleges have lowered their academic standards in order to increase enrollment and acceptance numbers, those of us who are interested in more intellectual pursuits than a meager career-primed seal of approval end up being held back. The repetitive style of the standard core curriculum is a speed bump to excellence, not an accelerator. Higher education has to devote half of its time to being a remedial job training ground because of the poor standard of learning that is present in the U.S. compulsory education system.
Consider the following statement (also in the API report) by an owner of a “temp agency”:
“You would think that a high school graduate would know how many inches are in a foot. Sadly, a large majority cannot answer this correctly. The system produces graduates that do not possess even the basic tools to succeed in the workplace. If corporate America produced end-products equal to the end-products of the public school system, our economy would collapse.”
The debate over the U.S. education system has become a complicated one and once again I have only touched lightly on certain points concerning it. As I listened to President Obama’s rather bland State of the Union address, I started realizing that I already have a book length response to it in the works. I am no expert, but I am an observer who values fruitful discussion on the subject. I want to see more students have both the freedom and opportunity to seek excellence in education.
President Obama believes we should “raise expectations for every child”. That is fine and good, but evidence thus far indicates that fundamentally, our conventional school system and high expectations are diametrically opposite.
Ultimately, all that is needed for a good education is independent initiative and access to the truth.
Amanda Read is an unconventional scholar, a Southerner without an accent, a Christian who hasn’t been a churchgoer in 16 years and a college student who lives with eight younger siblings. A writer and artist, she blogs at www.amandaread.com and is the author of the historical drama screenplay The Crusading Chemist. Amanda is majoring in history and minoring in political science at Troy University.
Read more of Amanda’s column Not Your Average Read in the Communities at The Washington Times.
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