Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why Our Education System Is Failing

I recently read a blog entry written by a high-school senior just weeks away from graduation. The essay, from the blog A Boundless World, was called Why Our Current Education System Is Failing. In it, this clearly thoughtful young man said, "It’s obvious our current education system needs major reform; until then, it can proudly boast a fat D- on its fridge."

One could argue, I suppose, that a D- isn't quite a failing grade. Of course, it's not exactly a grade to be proud of either. So just what does the blog's author think our schools are doing wrong?

"Our current education system," says Bud Hennekes, "places too much emphasis on the "A" and not enough emphasis on unleashing the promise that lies in each and every one of us. Education is discovering your passions, then pursuing them....Education is meant to help us find our passion, our purpose in life."

Bud is 18. He talks a lot about passion. But is he right? Is education meant to "help us find our passions" -- or is it meant to give us the tools we'll need to pursue them when we stumble across them ourselves?

We read a great deal now about making education "real," about relating lessons to real life, about teaching what's relevant instead of what's deemed "useless" to today's youth or tomorrow's job market. But should immediate relevancy be the sole arbiter of educational content? I don't think so.

In my long-ago high-school days, I took four years of Latin -- a "dead" language. In the last 40 years, no one has ever asked me to speak a word of Latin. That fact alone makes Latin -- by today's standards, at least -- a waste of my precious learning time. And yet...the number of English words I've understood the meaning of simply because I once took Latin is incalculable.

As a freshman in college, I was forced to memorize the first 24 lines of The Canterbury Tales in middle English. Oh, how I resented that meaningless memorization exercise. And I promise you, in all the years since, no one has ever asked me to recite the first 24 lines of The Canterbury Tales in middle English -- or modern English, for that matter. And yet...when I write today, I don't just write the words, I also feel their rhythm, in part because I once memorized the first 24 lines of The Canterbury Tales in middle English.

I could go on, but my point is clear. My teachers could have spent their time exposing me to the world's greatest writers and encouraging me to join them -- and they did a little of that. But mostly, they taught me spelling and grammar; they made me memorize parts of speech and poetic devices. They gave me sentences to parse and paragraphs to punctuate. They provided me with the tools I needed to write well, and they insisted on the practice I needed to have confidence in my own skills.

Today, I am a writer -- pursuing my passion -- largely because of the apparently "useless" (and, yes, sometimes terribly tedious) classes I took 40 years ago.

So if our current education system is failing, maybe it's doing so, not because it lacks the skill to educate, but because it hasn't yet found its purpose.

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