The Perversion Of Education

by Trevor King | 12/3/08 3:42am

Education was once reserved for the elite -- those who could afford private preparatory schools or private tutors. Power was preserved in the hands of the wealthy. Our class system could continue with little opposition or awareness of its origins. Then came Horace Mann, "the father of American education." He argued for universal education in the United States and instituted common schools in Massachusetts.

Mann fought for compulsory education because he believed that "every addition to true knowledge is an addition to human power." He also claimed that "in former times, and in most parts of the world even at the present day, not one man in a million has ever had such a development of mind as made it possible for him to become a contributor to art or science ... Let this development proceed, and contributions ... of inestimable value, will be sure to follow."

Most politicians and educational activists today would agree with Mann's reasons for compulsory education. Many even argue that our schooling system does its best to provide the entire next generation with the knowledge they need to lead healthy and happy lives and to be active participants and contributors in American society. This all sounds great, so why would I say that American education is perverted?

Education has become test-oriented rather than knowledge-based. This stems from our society's need for accountability and has been distorted through the application of capitalism to education. Students demonstrate that they understand the material presented to them in class by taking tests or writing papers, which often involves the memorization and summarization of other people's findings and writings. This is a selfish practice and involves spending much time in solitary confinement. Supposedly, once the student has acquired the intelligence set forth by those smarter or more experienced, the student can learn from a higher intellectual platform.

Superficially, nothing is wrong with this. Educators want to ensure that their pupils are making an effort to understand and internalize information. What is wrong is the message being sent, as well as the incorporation of capitalism into the education system. We place such an emphasis on test performance and achievement that we, as students, have adapted our whole learning process. We learn only to perform well on tests and papers. If we did not, none of us would be at Dartmouth.

I'm sure many of you would defend the integrity of your personal education, but how many of us have become bulimic learners? We memorize information on topics we don't care about, then forget that knowledge as soon as we throw it up on a test. That is not the true goal of education.

The competitive nature of a capitalist society should not dominate our school environments. Yes, some form of accountability should be in place, and of course people need some incentive to work. The inability or failure to achieve, however, should no longer be beneficial to those who simply conform to our current educational standards. Education should not be a means to filter our citizens, allowing some access to higher education while denying opportunities to others -- and significantly decreasing their chances for economic stability. Education should not be viewed as something that someone can "fail," as this leads to so many young people losing all confidence in their ability to learn and allows them to justify to themselves dropping out of school.

We should have a more cooperative learning environment in which students interact and share their positions on the information presented in and out of the classroom through the lens of their personal critical inquiry and experiences. Professors and teachers should take more active roles in this cooperative learning experience. Professors at Oxford already do this by meeting with students and probing their understanding of the subject being studied.

This probably seems idealistic, close to impossible. And now, I will reiterate what everyone is currently saying about education in America: We need better teachers. Teachers who can make their students understand why they are being educated, so that maybe, one day, the opportunity to learn will be exciting enough to provide students with an incentive all its own. As Mann said, "A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on a cold iron."

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