Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Crisis in Education

Teachers, school administrators, education experts meet almost any day of the year in one place or another to discuss education. Conferences about education occur almost daily throughout the year. Someone at any of these conferences is bound to talk about “the crisis in education.” For many years now, education in the United States has been deteriorating. Everyone knows it. But all the experts and all the education conferences have not managed to reverse the downward trend. There are unending discussions of schools, buildings and equipment, teachers and teacher training, class size, and many other topics. All of those are important. Many different factors have to come together before children and young persons can receive a good education.
In the United States, however, there is one more problem which does not receive a lot of attention: the vast majority of Americans do not believe that education is important.
How can I say such a thing when we spend huge sums of money on education, on beautiful new school buildings, equipped with computers and the latest audiovisual technology? Yes, it's true that we are willing to spend considerable sums of money on schools and teachers and equipment. But when it comes to education, most Americans think that it has no value except if it prepares you for a better job and for making more money. Most people do not think that education is good in itself. You go to school to enhance your financial prospects, not to learn anything.
Look on the Internet and google "the value of education," "the benefits" or "the importance of education," and you will find article after article explaining how college graduates will earn more money than people who only finished high school and that people who dropout of high school before finishing will earn even less and have more problems finding work. Education makes money; that's what it is good for.
As a consequence, many students at all levels go to school to earn a diploma, not especially to learn anything. In order to earn a diploma you have to pass courses and, preferably, earn a good grade. Learning anything is not the object. Three months after the course is over, most of the content is forgotten. Most importantly, the students did not acquire a thirst for knowledge. Few emerge from school asking questions, looking for answers, trying to understand the world in which they find themselves.
A good education develops the curiosity of children. They discover that learning things about the world is exciting. They learn to ask questions; they learn to wonder about events they do not understand. When they learn to read and write, they learn to formulate questions and articulate their thoughts about the world. When they learn how our government works, they learn one of the important prerequisites for being good citizens. They learn that they live in a society where they can influence their lives together with others. When they learn history, they learn to see themselves as belonging to a human race that has over centuries tried out different ways of living out human lives.
We hear often these days that parents should read books to their children. And so they should. But equally or more important is that parents read books for their own enjoyment and growth. Many American homes have no books except perhaps some college texts that have never been put in the trash. Children in those houses learn that grown ups do not read, that books are only for small kids. Once you have learned how to read, all you need to read is what you have to read in school or at your job.
Children do not learn to be curious if their parents' conversation includes only gossip or last nights' game. Children are encouraged to follow up their own questions when they see their parents talk at dinner about interesting things they found out in the course of the day, or topics they encountered they would like to know more about. Children do not learn to value education if their parents do not ask them what they learned in school, but only ask about their grades. What good are good grades if in earning them your child did not learn anything that will make a difference to the person she is growing up to be? Maybe your child is learning things in school you do not know and you might be glad to find out about. Learning from your children enriches your life and shows them that learning is good in itself.
Education should open everyone's eyes to the immense variety of the world, of persons and places and societies to know, to experience, savor and try to understand. You miss all of that if making and spending money is in the center of your life. You miss what education might provide in your life, if you only go to school to earn more money in the future.