September 15, 2010
What the President got right, and wrong, about education
President Obama gave his second annual start of the school year address this week to the nation’s students, and many media sources have noted the general absence of the paranoia and outrage that marked the occasion last fall, including accusations of injecting politics into education, socialist indoctrination, and parents threatening to pull their children from school for the day lest their vulnerable minds be contaminated by whatever inflammatory thing the President might have to say to 3rd graders (I’m still at a loss as to what these parents really feared he might say). But I’ve actually found both years remarkable for the almost utter lack of attention paid to the substance of the speech itself.
I was thrilled to hear Obama openly acknowledge the realities and difficulties that many students are facing: financial insecurity and family tension, the wars and the recession, wondering if they’ll be able to afford college at all. I always resented being talked down to or having the truth soft-pedaled to me as a kid so I was appreciative that he didn’t even try. I was glad to hear him ask students to reject bullying and show kindness and respect each others’ differences; I’m not sure it would’ve done a lot of good but that’s something I would have loved to hear a President say when I was in middle school. I think the President spoke with an awareness that childhood bullying, unchecked, grows up into the kind of much more dangerous bullying behavior–lying, smearing, contempt, character assassination, open disregard for the rights or dignity of opponents, even violence–that we’ve seen all too much on display in our political process lately.
I was glad to hear him tell students that “nobody gets to write your destiny but you.” I wish this was the #1 lesson that we imparted to all students: that no one else gets to tell you who or what you are, or what you can or can’t do.
The two big (and almost completely predictable) things wrong, however: the near-equation of education with school success, and the lauding of “hard work” as the key to nearly all success, in education, life and career.
The fact is that the school system we have now is, for many, many students, a tragically counterproductive system or simply a bad learning environment. It has no respect for learning differences, for individual ambition, or for independent thought. Its goals are standardization and submission to authority. By constantly punishing students for their deficits rather than encouraging them and letting them go as far as possible in their strengths, it forces most students to be mediocre in most everything. Schools confer diplomas, not education. When the school system does not serve the goals of education or of the individual student (which was usually, in my experience from kindergarten through 10th grade), then our encouragement of students to fulfill their full educational potential might need to include encouragement to leave school behind and pursue their own education.
And we need real schooling options which will take into account the individual learning styles, desires, and goals of students when those are at odds with what’s considered acceptable by the current school system. The schools we have are failing too many kids. Asking them to keep playing along is not a solution to anything.
“More and more, the kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school. In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you’ll go in life,” Obama stated, as if this is a foregone conclusion. I hope it isn’t. I think that this is a vision of the future that we should and can reject and turn back from. With the exception of highly technical, scientific or medical career fields, there’s no particular reason that it needs to be true. Indeed, this faulty outlook that everyone needs more and more schooling–that everyone needs a college degree–to be successful and comfortable is, I think, is largely responsible both for the explosion of college costs and the increasing meaninglessness of a college degree. And to look at the number of our geniuses, innovators, artists and business successes who were school failures or dropouts or who avow that their formal education had little or nothing to do with their eventual success, is a pretty strong refutation of the presumption that length of schooling is deterministic of how far anyone can go in life. Whereas I worked hard and did well in school and found myself graduating high school with all A’s and almost no skills, something that I had to take it upon myself to fix. People who can teach themselves, on the other hand, who are always learning and adapting, are never confined by their schooling.
Hard work, of course, is a necessary ingredient to most success, but not a sufficient one. We have millions of people out of work right now, and not for any aversion to hard work. Likewise, millions of people are desperate for any job and more than willing to take menial or physically demanding ones, but find themselves disqualified (or “overqualified”) by advanced degrees. Most of them, I’m sure, have worked hard their whole lives, doing what they thought they were supposed to do, believing that hard work would keep them safe. It’s one of our most intoxicating and stubborn national myths, that hard work is the primary necessary condition for material success and security; it’s our way of saying that life is fair at its core and that people ultimately get what they deserve. But it isn’t, and sometimes they don’t. Often, the people who work the hardest struggle the most for their entire lives.
What’s going to restore America’s vitality and point the directions in which we need to go next in so many areas–energy independence, health care, job creation, healing our ecological situation, just to name a few–in addition to hard work, are ingenuity, creativity, critical and fiercely independent thinking, judicious willingness to take risks…and ethical leadership. All of which are precisely the things discouraged by the predominant way in which we currently educate children.
What I wish a leader would say to the nation’s students is this: that in order to write your own destiny, you have to take your education into your own hands. That means being focused and unashamed of what you want out of your life and what you want to accomplish in the world, looking around you to assess whether your educational environment is helping or hindering you in meeting your own ambitions, and taking things into your own hands if it isn’t. Because playing by other peoples’ rules is no future at all, for you or for the country.