Is there really a point to it all?

eliot“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” — T.S. Eliot

That quote by Eliot has been resonating lately with me. I find myself reading about and looking at all this focus on rigor, high quality seats, and test performance, and asking myself, what does it really mean? Please don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge proponent for education, but I find myself questioning our focus. Ten years after a child leaves school, does it really matter if they scored a 20 or a 21 on the ACT, or if they are in the top 20% versus the top 5% of their class? If all that rigor does somehow translate into financial success, are our children equipped to really experience all that life has to offer? Does getting into Harvard make you any better at navigating the challenges life throws at you than say, going to Tennessee State would? If a child’s developmental years are all spent chasing some high-performance metric, how will they live when things settle into the mundane day-to-day rhythms that life always brings, or is this the generation that will break those rhythms and do nothing but exceptional things 24/7?

Perhaps that’s what it will be. Maybe the next generation will do nothing but create exceptional businesses and tackle exceptional challenges. They will read only exceptional books and listen only to exceptional music. I certainly hope not because they’d miss out on the joy of dancing around the living room to “Shake It Off” with your five-year-old or chuckling at an old episode of “Benny Hill.” It’s just that I look at this constant drum of high achievement, and I can’t see a translation to real life. I can’t help but think that we are squeezing children for their data points while leaving them ill-equipped for life. In fact, my Spidey sense tells me that we are setting unrealistic expectations and setting children up for failure. We are, in essence, producing a whole generation of former high school quarterbacks incapable of reproducing the glory days of their youth and thus failing to find joy in their present adult life. The truth is, that while we all seek excellence, the majority of us will live average lives and there should be pleasure in that. This average life has served me well.

Yesterday I was engaged in a conversation with a fellow parent about a proposed switch in high school math curriculum. They threw out the fact that their child was excelling at the current math curriculum, maintaing a 100 in AP Calculus. My first thought was, of course they are, and then it suddenly dawned on me, we only have two kinds of students in our system: those who are excelling and those the system is failing. If there are others, we certainly don’t talk about them. When was the last time you had a conversation with another parent about their child who was getting B’s and high C’s, playing in the band, not first chair but certainly enjoying it, and nobody was wringing their hands? When was the last time you heard a conversation about an average kid with average friends having an average school career, but who was happy and well-adjusted? I’m betting that if some well-meaning adult overheard that conversation, they’d quickly try to move that child into one of the two categories.

After all, with a little extra effort that child could become a highly-achieving data point. If they would just buckle down and realize how important all this was, one more adult could sleep easier at night knowing they made a difference. Or perhaps, if the narrative was needed, we could point to the lack of engagement the school was creating for the child. It could be pointed out that with more rigor, that child could grasp their full potential. This would demonstrate the failing of the public schools and the need for more charters. Would anybody consider for a moment that the child might be engaged in a well-rounded childhood, collecting experiences inside and outside of school that would produce a future well-adjusted adult?

It’s my theory, and remember I’m just a regular guy full of crap on a regular basis, that education these days is being used in a similar fashion as religion has been used in the past. My non-rigorous liberal arts education introduced me to Voltaire who said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” My interpretation of that quote is that the vast uncertainty that is life is so overwhelming that man needs to create something in order to be able to cope with it and give it some structure. I have a co-manager at work that every time she sees my disorganized desk it literally puts bugs under her skin, and she can’t help but try to subtly move a few things to give it some order. That’s indicative of people and the world as a whole. Life is such chaos, and when confronted with it, we feel an overwhelming compulsion to try and create order.

There are countless studies available that show the world has become more secular. However, that doesn’t necessarily translate into acceptance of unpredictability. We still seek order over chaos. It appears to me that we are now grasping at education to serve as a means to control that chaos. By creating a common measurement and aspiring all to fit into its structure, we attempt to make things a little more predictable. If we can get our kids to study hard enough, score high enough on tests on subjects we deem important, get into schools that we consider excellent, that somehow they will live a life free of uncertainty and challenge. Look at the term we throw around regularly, career ready. That conveys an image of being wholly prepared to face life with no need for additional learning. We should try to instill wisdom by demonstrating how education is a tool to be used in navigating the uncertainty of life instead of a weapon capable of conquering it.

As a parent I can easily see how appealing the conquering concept is. I often find myself looking at my children and reflecting on the challenges life has dealt me. High test scores offered no protection against addiction which led to unemployment and almost derailed me for life. I think about my health issues and the challenges they provide. Even though in my head I know that as people, my children will face many of the same challenges and some unique ones, instead of praying that they have the strength and tools to overcome these challenges, I pray they won’t have to face them. In our heads we recognize the need to provide children the tools to handle life’s challenges, but our heart often overrules and defaults to protect. The problem is, this leads to acceptance of a false premise. We also run the risk of creating adults who are intellectually incurious. They have been fed the myth that they’ve learned everything they need to succeed, and thus permission is implied to become static.

Going to an Ivy League school does not offer protection from cancer. Scoring a 21 on the ACT is not a shield against addiction. Being in the the top 10% does not guarantee that you won’t be hit by a car. All the knowledge we are imparting is certainly valuable, but only if we provide the tools to translate it into wisdom. A child’s formative years should be spent showing them the richness of life and the opportunities it offers. If an impoverished child scores a 21 on the ACT, enters a top school, and makes the Dean’s list, will the doors to life magically fly open and they suddenly walk through them to a better life? I don’t know. Consider the life of Robert Peace. Robert did everything we tell our children is important. He was from the projects of Newark and escaped to go to Yale, where he excelled. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough, and his life was tragically cut short. Despite it all, in the end he was just another murdered drug dealer. I understand that this is anecdotal evidence but should certainly be used as a tale of caution. We need to do more than just teach our children academic rigor. Learning to read and add at an accelerated level is just not enough.

One exciting benefit to being a member of the Education Bloggers Network is that it plugs you into a collection of people who are weighing similar thoughts and hypotheses. Recently a comment was made about the need to redefine success. I’ve thought a lot about that over the weekend, and I have to agree. I certainly want my children to, as the Army says, be all they can be. But I want that to come with a balance. I want them to know that the pursuit of a goal is admirable unless it disengages them from living life. Laying on the front yard and contemplating a leaf for a couple hours is just as worthy an activity as spending hours preparing to be competitive in the global economy. Sometimes it is all right to just read and let the author’s words wash over you instead of focusing on the author’s intent and focus, enjoying the magical ability some authors have in bringing words together and transporting us to another world. We need to nurture the concept that it is alright to engage in an activity, be it athletic, artistic or vocational,  just for the simple pleasure it brings, without concern for mastery or outcome.

If we produce adults who drive the global economy yet fail to see the magic in life, is that successful? If we push children to develop skills so they can leave their communities behind, what happens to those communities, and is that considered successful? Shouldn’t our definition of success include the ability to navigate both the unpredictability and the mundanity that life offers? If we treat education as a competition, are we not also instilling the belief that life at its root is a competition? Teddy Roosevelt once said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” We need to keep that in mind in our relentless pursuit to make all kids career and college ready.

A popular refrain with education reformers is that “it should be all about the kids.” I’d add the caveat that we never forget that the kids of today are the adults of tomorrow. Are the data points of today going to translate into the success stories of tomorrow, and what will those success stories look like? As John Dewey once stated, “Education is not preparation for life. It is life itself.” We must never lose sight of that. We must not only fill children’s minds with the measurable but also teach them the value of the unmeasurable. We must instill that life is a journey, and you can only quit learning when you reach the final destination. As Hemingway said, “Everyman’s life ends the same way, it is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”


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3 replies

  1. My good friend, @bluecerealeducation, led me to this post via Twitter and I could almost weep with connection to what you are saying here. I think so many of the same thoughts, raise so many of these same questions and have not yet been fully brave enough to come clean in writing. I am an educator after all and I love my work. And I worry about our relentless pursuit of very limited and in fact, limiting priorities in current education circles.
    Your post will be one I will come back to again to remind myself that it’s ok to resist what sounds like the siren song. Thank you for this gift of candor and insight. Truly.


  1. #7 | Education 352

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