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Life and politics, Media

What hating school does to us

Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash                              Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

Recently I post my texts on Medium as well. Recognizing the popularity of this emerging forum, I wrote a polemic with the text posted there.

Many people hate school. Anastasia Basil wrote about it passionately. I might not be responding if Medium editors did not recommend her article to me as worth reading. So, I read it, including 64 comments (as of August 12, 2019). Out of these comments, 39 (60.94%) were enthusiastically supportive; some of them written by teachers. Terms such as: fantastic article, very good point, brilliant, great article or spot on – are examples of the support from readers. An additional 17 (26.56%) comments, I classified as sympathetic. Only six (9.38%) were kindly critical, where commentators questioned at least some ideas in the text. Barely two comments (3.13%) dismissed, in a friendly way, the idea behind the text altogether. I agree with these two doubters entirely. It makes us three old white males against Anastasia Basil, against the crowd of her 683 supporters who gave her article 6,588 claps, and against the editors at Medium who promoted her text.

I bring up this age and gender distinction because I see how attitudes toward school have changed during the half century since my high school graduation. I sense that the school model that I experienced had been the residue of the much older school concept where only very few went to schools or pursued education above the elementary level. In that old-fashioned approach, it was assumed that those few attending schools would be taking leadership roles in the society, and most likely they were men. Despite all its imperfections, that system worked fine for the men and women participating in it. The dynamics changed when the high school education became compulsory.

My education is my own responsibility
Starting with my first day in school I was indoctrinated by my parents and teachers that my education was my own responsibility. School was to provide me the basic frame, and it was up to me to fill it out. Ms. Basil sees it exactly the opposite: The school is responsible for educating her and she is all frustrated that the school does not perform this function up to her notions.

The high school I attended was one of the best in town. Only those passing a rigorous entry test had been admitted; those not meeting the standard had been allowed to leave for less demanding schools. The presumption was that we had the privilege of studying there and it was our duty to go with the program. For Ms. Basil the student does school a favor by showing up and it is the school’s responsibility to accommodate the individuality of all immature – thus exalted – teenagers.

One can agree with Ms. Basil that individualized education, with the time and effort given to allow lofty young minds to mature at their own pace, and by their choice, is noble. It works well for children of many billionaires. My parents could not afford it, I could not afford it for my kids, and Ms. Basil appears to me to be in the same category. Billionaires fly in private jets, most of us in the economy class. The same applies to schools. Expecting the private jet extravaganza in the economy class leads to frustrations, so visible in Ms. Basil’s article.

Know what you do not know
The school is off to a bad start telling teenagers that they are not as smart as they think they are. Ms. Basil is not helping by listing many subjects, such as math most of all, as unnecessary parts of general education. She advocates against the imaginary “i,” which helped us to understand electricity. Even for someone who may never use this knowledge, it is an expansion of their imagination. Does it hurt? Only those who mastered algebra and trigonometry know how it changed their approach to solving other problems. Not to mention that without good math skills, it is hard to get almost any well-paid job in today’s economy.

Not everyone will become a biologist, but all of us will deal with health issues. We need basic understanding just to be able to recognize the difference between the real medicine and a snake oil. People who oppose vaccination got the education Ms. Basil is advocating for.

She does not see the value of learning ancient history, as it has not occurred to her that during about 5,000 years of recorded human history, human nature has not changed much. We are destined to repeat the errors of our ancestors if we do not know history. For example, for someone who learned a lot about socialism and experienced it firsthand, it is simply scary when about one-third of young Americans, including so many on Medium, advocate for its implementation in the United States.

One of the readers supporting Ms. Basil brings up that he has forgotten most of what he learned in school. There is no way to remember all of what we learn in school, but like this reader, we know that we do not know something. If needed, we know where to go to find it.

Ms. Basil is wrong when implying that someone displaying talent in one area should not waste time studying other things. What if that person becomes so successful in that narrow discipline that they become rich and influential? Expert in one thing, and ignorant in everything else, that person will be simply dangerous, not because of not knowing something, but because of not knowing what he or she does not know. What if a person with this profile becomes an industry leader, a media influencer or a politician – perhaps president, for example?

Knowledge is power
In our complex word, Ms. Basil needs to interact daily with people of various levels of education. In order to make these interactions efficient, all of us need to have a common understanding of millions of things. She complains that schools have a one-size-fits-all approach. For me it is a set of shared reference points that are needed for us to understand each other. We have a national divide partly because schools are failing to teach things that are perceived as not needed. Then, when problems arise, lacking knowledge, too many of us are driven not by knowledge but by anxiety. We are not capable of understanding each other.

No one can know what a teenager should learn in order to be able to function in the next 60 years or so, with life expectancy approaching 80 years. What if the career that a teenager envisions as his or her future becomes obsolete 10 years later? If that person did not get a good math education, he or she will be deprived of most job opportunities. Conversely, by having a broad general education, that person will be empowered to change the career. It is a safe bet that knowing more is much better than knowing less. In our fast-moving world, change is the only thing that is certain. It is the school’s job to prepare a young person for these unlimited, unexpected situations.

Not all days of our lives are shiny, but the self-confidence arriving from a solid education gives us the strength to navigate throughout rough times. That power of knowledge gives us freedom from anxiety in difficult moments. Ms. Basil does not understand that narrowly educated individuals are more likely to act irrationally in hard times. Deprived of some basic knowledge, they find it harder to land a job. They are easily influenced to blame others. They will hate people who look different or think contrarily. In extreme cases, they may kill others.

Ms. Basil is for teaching reasoning and for making algebra optional. She contradicts herself. There is no better way of practicing reasoning than by resolving algebraic problems. When discussing literature or social science, human emotions and irrational beliefs can be rationalized, tainting logical reasoning. There are no human feelings in algebra. It is just cold logic. Advocacy for making math optional has a deep political consequence. Ideologies asking for compassion often are spendthrift with public money and overoptimistic regarding expectations of political actions. People better trained in math are more likely to be prudent with public spending and more critical about political measures. Ms. Basil is right in complaining that two-thirds of millennials do not know what Auschwitz was. I could not find any study asking what Americans know about gulags, Holodomor or Great Leap Forward. But support for socialism among millennials is growing. Very few of them are educated well enough to notice a logical connection between their vision of the government and the economic collapse of Venezuela.

It is not the depth of your abilities; it is what you can deliver
If Ms. Basil were buying a hamburger from me, she would not be concerned with my many talents. The yardstick she would use would be my ability to deliver timely the hamburger exactly as she ordered. This is the standard approach we all use in everyday life, regardless whether it is a hamburger or the most advanced product or service. School testing is done with the purpose of preparing youngsters to this reality. As not all hamburgers are equal and not all people preparing them do an equally good job, some hamburgers are more expensive than others, and some people are paid better than others. The grading system in schools prepares young people for this reality.

Ms. Basil uses wording that any decent school would not tolerate in describing how much she does not like the grading system. To support her case, she uses examples of nonsensical tests. I remember similar instances from my time in school. As long as teachers and administrators are human, schools will be as good as humans are. It is pointless dismissing the whole school system just because of some nonsense here and there. Students should be told that schools are as imperfect as the world they will encounter after graduation. Schools are not the source of the problem, because we can safely assume that the more nonsense there is in the political system around us, the more baloney students will face in schools.

Students should deal with this not by cursing, but by knowing their stuff to the point of standing against the obvious instances of nonsense, following the protocol. By using the aforementioned power of knowledge, they can be in control of their education, and therefore apply pressure on schools to do a better job.

Hating schools makes us unable to learn
In her article Ms. Basil presents a point of view of an eager student, not able to focus, feeling overwhelmed by school requirements, and blaming everybody else for her failures. I had a classmate like that in high school. When I tried to help him, I was shocked that his anxiety level was so high that he could not answer straight questions as simple as how much is 2+2 if it was in the context of a problem he perceived as too hard for him to comprehend. No one taught him that the most complex problems can be disassembled into a series of questions as simple as how much 2+2 is. He barely graduated, but when he got a job, suddenly, all what he had difficulty understanding in school started making sense to him. He became an innovator, authoring a few patents.

My classmate, as well as the student represented in Ms. Basil’s article, has been not taught how to learn. I would split the blame between schools and parents. Ms. Basil is wrong blaming schools for medicine given to fix a daydreaming brain. Schools do not give pills; parents do. Anxiety is normal; it is the parents’ role to teach a young person how to deal with it.

The key to the anxiety-free school is banally simple: paying attention in class. Then, homework is easy. A lot of time is left to develop other interests and enjoying life, whatever one may mean by that. A student staying current has no fear of asking questions when not understanding something during the lecture introducing a new subject. She is not afraid of disclosing that she does not know something she should already know. This puts her in control of her learning process.

At sixth grade I was thrown out of the class by a teacher who was annoyed that I raised my hand and corrected her several times during the lecture. By developing my other interests, I knew enough about the subject to point out some petty inaccuracies in her lecture. The next day, I was called to the principal’s office, where in front of the principal this teacher apologized to me for throwing me out of the class. That experience taught me that if I have my facts right, I should stand boldly against all the school nonsense. Sometimes I was under the impression that when seeing me in class, teachers were more anxious than I. If they were, likely they should have been, because they knew that they were not doing something right. By sharing this experience, I wish I can encourage at least some of the students today.

Lastly, we need to acknowledge that the trembling student depicted in Ms. Basil’s article is suffering. The pain is real. We should be compassionate about it. But this does not make Ms. Basil right.

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