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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 10/22/16

The Purpose of Education

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In terms of educational reform, charter schools will only make the present system of education more efficient in meeting the specific needs of a maladjusted society and an avaricious industry, as opposed to the human needs of the individual student.

Our present system of education, with its emphasis on "Standardized Testing," is both a glowing success and a colossal failure. The side one may come down on depends on what we may perceive the purpose of education to be. The current clamor calls not for reform but simply for ways to increase the efficiency of a system whose premise and purpose must be questioned. The success or failure of an honest reform of the present system may well decide the fate of the American experiment.

If viewed honestly, the purpose of the current system of education is primarily designed to assure that industry will be supplied with a competent work force and that society will be made up of a stable citizenry. The rewards for compliance are monetary gain and social acceptance. In this respect, there is no question but that our current system is a glowing success, and nothing could better serve this educational purpose than standardized testing. With its emphasis on retention rather than thought, it makes for an unquestioning employee and an acquiescent civilian. This, in turn, makes possible a consumer-driven economy and society in which both value and achievement are measured, most often, in material gain. What we have in place of education is indoctrination. Such a system may instruct us as to the best way to "make a living," but little in the ways in which we might live.

Standardized testing has become the mainstay of both "No Child Left Behind" of the Bush era and the more recent "Race to the Top" and "Core Curriculum." The strategy's dubious success in terms of student and public acceptance has the professionals scrambling for answers. What the public and the professionals cannot seem to come to grips with is the void in student gratification that comes from having little or no voice in the procedure. The pride and joy of learning are replaced with an award for retention of data. This, unfortunately, diminishes the desire to learn, and it is my contention that the best teacher in the world cannot teach a student who has little or no desire to learn, while the student with such a desire cannot be prevented from learning.

In weighing the arguments for or against, I would like to add just two specific failings of the current system that are too often overlooked and ways in which they might be overcome. It may be well at this point to turn for the first to Socrates, who said, "I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make him think." It should be obvious, I should think, that the current system of instruction will, more than likely, actually discourage thinking and depress creativity. This approach stands in sharp contrast to the Socratic practice in which the teacher, by asking questions, guides students to discovery. Curiosity is another victim of the current system in which instruction becomes obstruction. Again, as Socrates reminds us, "Wonder is the beginning of wisdom." Here is a concluding admonition from this great mind that is well worth remembering: "The most important of all knowledge is how best to live."

How best to live is to live a full life. The full life I refer to is a life in which the individual has the opportunity to realize his or her innate and unique potential as a human being. To inhibit this potential is to deny it. The harmful effect of this inhibition for the individual student is incalculable. To paraphrase William Saroyan, it takes a lot of learning for a man to get to be himself. In the present system, this aspect of what it should mean to be educated and human is painfully ignored, and we should realize that the only true happiness one can know comes not from the acquisition of wealth but from the fulfillment of individual potential, whatever that may be. The objective of the system should be to help the individual student to find himself as something other than a lackey for industry and a sycophant for society.

Then, of course, there is the corruption born of a system that moves us from simple need to greed. It's not only the system that becomes corrupt, for ultimately it will pervade the entire society it ostensibly serves. It has been sufficiently shown time and again that standardized testing leads to an irresistible tendency to cheat. It begins with the student whose subsequent life may be colored by what he scores. Then we have the teacher whose very employment may depend on the scores of those students. The same can be said of administrators who supervise the teachers. But it must be noted that it doesn't stop there. An investigative report released in July of 2011 found that 44 out of 56 schools in Atlanta, Georgia cheated on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). Guilty teachers and administrators all confessed to cheating and blamed "inordinate pressure" to meet targets set by district officials, saying that they faced severe consequences such as a negative evaluation or termination if they didn't.

Who can doubt that such a tendency will inevitably carry over into the society at large, and since cheating has become so widespread, can easily be seen as not only an acceptable practice but a mandatory one? Morality is undermined. Trust is lost, and with the loss of trust, humanity is lost. This is a dire picture indeed. Can there be any hope?

I cautiously suggest that there just may be. It will of course demand a reversal of societal values with nothing short of revolution. For those who may scorn the possibility, I would remind them that it was not so long ago that women could not even vote. It was not so long ago that racism was tolerated, schools were segregated, and everyone not a WASP was stigmatized in some fashion or other. Admittedly, no less than with the others, it will be a slow but inevitable process, but I fear that the only alternative is anarchy and a failed state. It will mean that the values of humanity, altruism and brotherhood must replace the greed of a capitalistic economy that has lost its way--a capitalistic society that has planted the seeds of its own destruction. We must adhere to the Socratic admonition, "Prefer knowledge to wealth, for one is transitory, the other perpetual."

As with any revolutionary change, it begins with education. To combat American exceptionalism, history must be revised to reveal the excesses of American imperialism. Geography must be reinstated to help us realize our global obligations. The sciences must be approached from a humanistic standpoint that allows for ethical considerations to keep pace with technology. The arts can no longer be considered a luxury relegated to the periphery. They are a necessity.

There is one last observation which I would like to make in this appeal. Since most of our current curricula are designed to meet the needs of industry and society, any meaningful reform will require an alteration of focus in which the intellectual and emotional needs of the individual student are paramount and properly addressed. In this regard, I would strongly suggest that the abhorrent standardized testing be replaced with aptitude testing beginning in pre-school. With the realization that each child has his or her own unique, innate potential, it would seem that unless that potential is recognized at an early stage, the child's chances for the joy of fulfillment as a human being become limited.

Such an approach will most certainly meet with powerful opposition not only from an industry for which our current system is, in reality, a training ground, but also from a society that is all too comfortable with having us all alike. Before we ask the question of how to increase the effectiveness of the present system, we had best address the question of just what the purpose of education should be.

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Hal O'Leary is an 88 year old veteran of WWII who, having spent his life in theatre, and as a Secular Humanist, believes that it is only through the arts that we are afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. As an 'atheist (more...)
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