Photo courtesy of Ivan Aleksic
Why do we go to school? If you asked this question to anyone at Pinewood – student, teacher, or administrator – you’d likely get an answer along the lines of “to learn,” or “to grow as people.” It doesn’t even seem like something worth thinking about. School is just where you have to go as a child; it’s a universal experience that seems unchangeable. Your parents had to suffer through the early mornings, homework, and tests, and so do you. But is it really this simple? The structure of our education system is seen as an immobile part of our lives, but why is it designed the way that it is? Is it really built to help us learn, to help us develop and mature? When we inspect some of the key features of today’s education system, it becomes evident that their attempts to create motivated and successful students end up producing young adults who are disinterested in learning and overly compliant with a twisted sense of self-worth.
Let’s begin with one of the biggest defining features of modern American education: standardized tests. AP classes are seen as the pinnacle of high-school education – their increased rigor is supposed to bring with it a higher level of learning compared to a regular class. A student’s understanding of the advanced material taught in an AP class is evaluated through an AP exam, so a good portion of the class is spent preparing for that exam. However, these standardized exams have to be designed rigidly to allow the millions of students who take them to be evaluated equally. This means that the tests have a very limited ability to measure a student’s understanding of the intricacies of the material taught. For example, the essays on the AP World History exam are graded out of 6 or 7 points, with only 1 point evaluating whether a student has a complex understanding of the topic. Students can easily get a good score on the exam without earning this point, and those who do try to earn it put themselves at risk of running out of time and missing other points. So if a nuanced understanding is not necessary for success on an AP exam, what is?
Students only need to check off enough boxes on the rubrics to earn a good score. Accomplishing this mainly necessitates skills such as understanding confusingly worded multiple choice questions and writing a mediocre essay under a time crunch. If a student has a deep knowledge of world history but is a slow writer, they will probably perform worse on the AP World History exam than a fast writer with only a surface-level understanding. This means that a student in an AP class is more likely to be successful if they prioritize test-taking skills with no real-world applications over an understanding of the material that the class is supposedly intended to teach. The rigidity of this system discourages its participants from trying to develop a deep understanding of the content taught because a deep understanding is not necessary for success.
In a similar manner, school grading systems have a detrimental effect on students’ motivation to learn. Grades are essentially the only incentive schools give for students to do anything – they are rewarded with good grades, and punished with bad ones. While grades purport themselves to be a precise quantification of a student’s skills and understanding, anyone with familiarity with the grading system will tell you that this is not true. I have noticed that the majority of my peers will look for rules and tricks to memorize to be able to put down the right answers on tests and assignments, rather than actually trying to master the material. They will write essays using arguments that they think the teacher will like, rather than ideas that they actually believe in. And these strategies work well enough for people to continue using them. The mindset students generally end up adopting seems to be, “it’s okay if I don’t understand what’s going on in class as long as I get a good grade. It’s okay if I’m not proud of this work as long as I get a good grade.” I have had many teachers who are fond of saying things along the lines of, “don’t worry about grades, just worry about understanding the content I’m teaching you.” I agree wholeheartedly, but why would we expect anything other than this grades-over-learning mindset? We’re placed in a system where we’re rewarded for prioritizing grades and punished for not prioritizing grades. It would be illogical, then, to blame students for prioritizing grades; it is clear that the education system is the creator of this mindset.
Attempts to create motivated and successful students end up producing young adults who are disinterested in learning and overly compliant with a twisted sense of self-worth.
This is not the only toxic mindset pushed by the education system. In addition to being discouraged from caring about learning, we’re encouraged to tie our sense of self-worth to our productivity. Beginning in young adolescence, when our brains are still developing, we’re given hours and hours of work to do on top of the approximately 35 hours we spend in school each week. We’re further encouraged to take on even more work outside of school – volunteering, preparing for the SAT, playing sports, maybe getting a job. We’re then accused of being lazy if we can’t handle all this work. An hour spent enjoying oneself becomes an hour spent doing something less important than work and is therefore an hour spent badly. This ingrains in our minds the idea that productivity is good and leisure is shameful. Stressed out because of homework and studying? It’s your own fault for relaxing yesterday. Have some extra free time in your schedule? Go find something to do to boost your college applications. By the time we’re out of the education system, “productivity is good and relaxation is bad” is almost a self-evident truth to us, like the maxims taught to the sleeping children of “Brave New World.” We move on to the job market conditioned to believe that our value is defined by how productive we are and that any problems in our lives are our own fault for not working hard enough. I don’t see the purpose of a life fully devoted to working with no time for pleasure, and I don’t think you do either. As teenagers, we should be able to enjoy ourselves without the burden of productivity eternally looming over us, and the same should be true when we’re adults. Furthermore, the more work students have to deal with, the harder it is for them to discover their passions outside of school. An essential part of growing up is understanding yourself and the way you want to live your life, but exploring your interests is hard when your afternoons and weekends are spent doing schoolwork. We should not be pushed so hard to adopt a mindset of pure productivity.
Stressed out because of homework and studying? It’s your own fault for relaxing yesterday.
Finally, our education system, by virtue of being incredibly flawed, conditions us into accepting that sometimes bad things just can’t be changed. We’re forced to wake up so early that it’s practically impossible to get an adequate amount of sleep, so we’re often exhausted and miserable throughout the school day. As we get older, we lose more and more of our free time to school-related obligations. We’re discouraged from pursuing a deep understanding of the material being taught in school and encouraged instead to dedicate ourselves to chasing some numbers that don’t reflect anything very important. These processes start at the age of five and don’t end until we’re adults. By the time we’re out of school, we’re accustomed to putting up with malevolent systems, even ones that are central parts of our lives. Being able to understand that there are some problems we can’t fix might sound like a good lesson to learn, but it should be clear that it’s a bad idea to teach the malleable minds of children to just accept that one of the biggest parts of their lives is detrimental to their growth and well-being, and yet can’t be fixed. Society can’t improve if its members think that its flaws are acceptable; change has historically only happened when bold thinkers dared to realize that the status quo should be changed. It is universally agreed upon that school is something for students to dread, and yet there is essentially no conversation as to how to fix it. This bodes poorly for our future – the world still needs change, but it’s going to be inherited by a generation of people who have been taught all their lives that they just have to be okay with their problems. We imagine that school is equipping us to take on the world when we graduate, but it’s really just preparing us to let the world beat us down.
I would like to go to school and feel as though it’s helping me become a stronger, more knowledgeable, more capable person, but because of the structure of the education system, I can’t do that. What I’m getting out of school isn’t a stronger understanding of the world, a set of useful skills, or an understanding of my interests as much as it is a loss of passion for learning and a resignation to the fact that I’m going to be subject to a system with unalterable flaws for the rest of my life.