Educational sin

If you know me (which you probably don’t), you know that when I was in school, there was a direct correlation between my stress level over coursework and the frequency and fervor of my rantings against our school system.  I read Taylor Gatto with relish, rallied emails back and forth with a professor about the capitalist drive behind the system (what patience, X, what patience you must have – and after I had already put you through a 15-page rant on the topic, a rant that should have been no more than 5 pages).  I wrote a letter to the student newspaper complaining about a new curriculum requirement (made for show, which was my qualm), wrote a mini-essay chiding my school for creeping away from a true liberal arts education, and filled pages and pages of my notebooks (or Word files) with frustration over the way even a student with good motivation must struggle against the school’s structure if she is to give the subjects she studies in class the respect and dedication they deserve.

I was frustrated with other students, who followed along with … I don’t know, the compartmentalization of subjects from each other and of learning from ‘life.’  Who did the work but didn’t really care.  Even when I was in a class because I had to be, I found things that were interesting.  I couldn’t not care, and I didn’t want to; in a way, my classes were personal.  My education was personal.  I don’t ‘get’ students who don’t take it personally when it comes to their classes, their major, their work and their feedback from professors.

But that was nothing compared to the place I work now.  At college, the students who frustrated me were in classes for the major, in the major for a job.  But even so, they could get relatively deeply involved in the ideas they worked with.  They could put me to shame if I ever overstepped my bounds in their realm.  Now, I work at an organization that makes it its business to participate in the ultimate form of (IMO) the ultimate educational sin: teaching to the test.  We provide GED classes for young adults in the community, along with GED prep for kids in one of our crews.

GED classes don’t even pretend to be about helping students become educated or learn the value of continued learning – or of critical thinking, of questioning and investigating the things they hear.  The classes’ sole purpose is to prep kids to take standardized tests, so they can qualify for jobs.  That is it.  That’s the show.  We pretest students to see exactly what they need to improve in order to be able to pass (just pass, not even pass well).  And that will be exactly what the homework covers.  Our people downplay the importance of using proper grammar and correct spelling – for the writing test!  Apparently those don’t affect the score as much as form and focus, so we don’t ‘nitpick’ about them.  (Our instructor doesn’t have to process these job apps I see.  It takes a lot of self-control to not pull out a red pen and–)

And I see some of the ugliest failures of … our schools, or parents, or kids.  Probably some combination of all three.  There are students in our classes who are barely literate; they stumble uphill through sentences that wouldn’t have troubled me in second grade.  And all of these students at least got to high school.  So, how? Who let them pass fourth grade? fifth? sixth?  How can a person proceed through our school system when he can’t hardly read the phrase “twinkle, twinkle, little star”?  Of course, the GED will almost surely let kids ‘graduate’ with a ‘diploma’ when they’re hardly at a middle school level, so that they got to high school on the basis of an early elementary skillset should perhaps be less stunning than it is…

At the same time, though their level of learning appears dismal, and the classes purely teach to the test, this is better than what the students would do otherwise.  They quit school, and they don’t care about the learning aspect.  No one can force that to change, or force them to go back to school.  So through simple need for job opportunities, they’ll get more ‘education’ than they would were it not for the GED classes.  And there’s always the possibility, however small, that they find themselves taking pleasure in the realization that they’re starting to understand something new, something that was once too difficult.  That seems unlikely even to be a possibility outside the class.  So is there some hope even with the worst educational sin?

This is the trouble with seeing multiple angles of the same issue.  One thing’s for sure, though: I pity the professors who get any of these guys in community college.  Especially if it’s a gen-ed class.


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