By Devin Burgess
American schools are currently struggling. High school dropout rates are alarmingly high and our literacy rates are lower than they were a century ago. Once at the top of the “educational food chain” we have now fallen drastically behind. In polls done over the past few years we have barely made it into the ‘top twenty’ countries. How have we allowed this to happen? How can a country that was at the top for so long take such a plunge?
One problem is that our methods of educating have ceased to evolve. Our school system is currently utilizing a structure that was designed to function in the late 1800’s. The original purpose of mandating child enrollment was to keep children from working in factories. Subsequently, these children were tossed down the assembly line of education, only for them to join the factories upon graduation. School days were operated in a fashion to accustom the children for their eventual factory jobs. The days were rigidly scheduled and they were taught never to question authority.
We see this mentality echoed in the way schools penalize students for being wrong, even though making mistakes are an important part of the creative process. Thomas Edison tried and failed repeatedly to invent the incandescent bulb, his only remark on the matter was “I didn’t fail, I found 2,000 ways how not to make a light bulb”. Most children start their education with a certain optimistic bravado; they do not fear being wrong, even if it makes them look silly. As they get older and become more ‘educated’ this bravery is replaced by the fear of being wrong, and this is when the creativity starts to evaporate.
Not only have our schools instilled this fear of being wrong, but they have also created a stigma that struggling to solve a problem makes one unintelligent. In American schools those who struggle are punished and demoted to remedial classes making the child feel inadequate. This stigma is not universal, in Asian schools, struggling to understand is accepted as part of the learning process. It shows that the child is emotionally capable of overcoming the problem. When the does child succeed it is not credited to his amount of intelligence, but rather the work he has put into learning the concept.
Budget cuts have forced schools to do away with arts programs. For most children, the Arts: music, dance, painting, drama, are a needed outlet where they can put all their ideas and energy into creating and being original. Too often brilliant children are told that they are not. They grow up being told that they are just not trying hard enough, or that they are not as smart, when they really were exceptional at something, but it was never recognized because the school did not deem it an important skill.
Not only is our rigid model of education detrimental to creativity, but it is not even preparing us for future jobs. When mandatory schooling was instituted the majority of jobs were in factory work. That is no longer the case since the U.S. has outsourced most factory jobs. Our job market has evolved, and continues to evolve, but schools have not. This means that we cannot educate our students for jobs that are currently affluent; for by the time they graduate their skills will be obsolete. We need an education system that teaches students how to teach themselves, so when they encounter a career change they are capable to cope without needing to return to school.
Teaching a child to read well is the easiest way to provide him with the ability to learn on his own. Yet reading seems to be a skill on the decline. In the 1990’s a study released by Senator Ted Kennedy’s office found that since education was mandated, the literacy rate has decreased from 98% to 91%.
We have so much knowledge at our disposal, yet the percentage of students who read is 7% less than those who could a hundred years ago? The only explanation is that children do not want to read the materials they are being presented with. When children first begin reading, the ideas expressed in the texts are ‘dumbed down’, how are they expected to read for meaning if the books literally have none. We are so caught up with making sure everyone can read that we do not stop to wonder if what they are reading is even worthwhile. This turns reading into a chore, killing most children’s love of reading before they even get the chance to experience it.
We are no longer a country built upon manufacturing, yet our schools are still operated in the reflection of a factory’s image. We owe it to these children to provide them with a future in which they can be recognized as intelligent, capable, creative, and most importantly as an individual, with individual thoughts, skills, and talents. This future cannot be actualized in our current school setting. This is not something a simple repair can fix, but neither is it an impossible demand. Other countries have revamped their education with inspiring results. We need to follow their example, demolish our current system and rebuild from the ground up.