One of the many jobs I’ve had is that of tutor. I’ve helped teach a variety of subjects including math, various sciences, and English. Additionally, I have designed and taught smaller classes, and have also helped siblings and friends study and understand the class material. I spent a lot of time thinking about teaching and about what and how we learn.
Growing up was interesting. My parents were relatively new immigrants to Canada, and it was their first experience with the Canadian school system. Much of their approach to education came from the European systems they were raised in. While grades mattered to them, education was about something more than regurgitating back information and facts. I never realized how lucky I was in some ways for that, until I started hearing students repeating the same idea over and over again: it doesn’t matter what the right answer is, it matters what the teacher thinks it is. The only thing that matters is the grade they get.
It’s not a sentiment I am unfamiliar with. Spend enough time at university and you learn all about how professors are forced by the administration to artificially lower the class average to make the school appear to have a certain level of difficulty and thus exclusivity. The problem of course is that this leads to a situation whereby the class average is not an accurate reflection of the quality of the student’s knowledge. If a professor has an exceptional class one semester, that class will still be forced to have the same average as a class where the average accurately reflected the capabilities of the students taking it. In response students get frustrated. Grades become more important than knowledge gained, in turn leading to an increase in cheating. Students struggle with a system where grades don’t reflect effort and learning, but are still used as a measure of their worth.
Schools, including in many cases universities, have become factories for producing employees. They focus on creating individuals who will conform to authority – unquestioningly, who are used to effort not matching the reward to the point that they will see nothing wrong with being taken advantage of by employers.
Not all of this is necessarily intentional. At least some of it is the result of many of us losing sight of what the purpose of education actually is. Like with English, many subjects often face the question “What good is this? What am I ever going to use this for?” from both parents and students.
What is the point of studying history? How is it going to help the student get a job to know about the war of 1812 or even WW2? When am I ever going to use calculus? Why do I need this?
For many people, the teacher’s answer is something along the lines of: “because it is important to know history” or “because you need it to get into university.” These answers are not satisfying, and students quickly learn not to ask them or to stop thinking about it.
Why is important to know history? Why do universities include these subjects as part of their requirements?
It’s not about the recitation of facts, it is not about the grades, but about learning.
The point of school, the reason it ultimately exists, is to teach people how to learn. In the beginning, this means instilling certain skills, the ability to count numbers, the ability to read, write, eventually however subjects become about providing a necessary basis towards forming informed opinions.
Take a subject like history:
Unless you become a historian or compete in a lot of trivia games, knowing the exact date and time of most events is not crucial. What is more important is understand how things happen. The dates act as a way to keep chronological track of events and help us understand how different events contributed to one another.
For example, it’s not enough to study the rise of Hitler without understanding the ways in which economic factors created hardship and unhappiness which in turn was used by the government to direct ire at a different target. It is important to learn that the Nazis didn’t start with concentration camps, to learn that the people who ended up playing a role in massively organized genocide didn’t all start out hating Jewish people and convinced they should die.
The point of learning how different factors influence world events helps us recognize when we are at risk for falling into the same patterns again. We’ve all heard the adage about “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it”, but if all you learn is a dry recitation of facts how have you learned to avoid the pitfalls?
Similarly, when it comes to the study of science, we know that not everyone is going to pursue a career in scientific research. So why does it matter if we understand how the cardiovascular system works? Or how water becomes rain? What’s the point?
The point is to provide people with the background necessary to be able to tell pseudoscience and snake oil from actual science. In making biology accessible to everyone, we have a better platform to explain how the theory of evolution plays a role in the development of new and more resistant diseases. It makes it easier to explain how vaccines work, and how seemingly dangerous chemicals can actually be beneficial in small doses. It’s not about training every child to be a quantum physicist, but rather giving everyone the tools to be scientifically literate. To be able to look at an idea presented to them and say: “This doesn’t seem right.”
The purpose of education, however, is at odds with what many organizations want to happen. An educated populace asks questions, which makes it harder for governments, churches, employers, companies, etc. to sell you ideas with no merit. If citizenry are empowered to be able to look at research, look at historical examples, then it is harder for a government to convince you that them paying their financial backers back through legislation and tax breaks, benefits you.
If your citizenry has the historical background to recognize how governments manipulate public perception to achieve their ends, it makes it harder to become the hammer they use to crush their opponents. You won’t be so easily led into blaming people for their own oppression, or so easily convinced that refugee children, who are barely alive, are a danger.
So what use is an education system that prioritizes respect of authority? That encourages people to get used to a system whereby effort and work are not proportionally rewarded?
In the case for authority, the benefit is clear. If you teach people that respect for authority means never questioning it, or never pointing out mistakes, then you effectively create a citizenry that will self-police dissent. If people believe that questioning out leaders is wrong, because they know better, then who do you think they are more likely to argue against? Their leaders or the people questioning them? If we teach people that it is appropriate to punish someone for pointing out where authority is flawed or mistaken, then it makes it harder for people to recognize when punishment is being used as a tool of suppression rather than as a method of correction. (Although even here, there is an important conversation to be had about what correction means and so on.) If we learn that disrespecting an authority is an act that excuses even extreme means of punishment, then it makes it harder for us to recognize when we’ve given up our freedom to disagree.
If I asked you if a cop should be allowed to shoot someone who mouths off to him, chances are you will say no. But then why are so many people willing to give police a pass when they kill someone who doesn’t raise their hands fast enough? Or doesn’t agree to have their rights violated for no good reason? Why are we suddenly ok with cops getting away with killing innocent children? Without punishment?
If questioning authority is likely to be met with harassment and anger from the majority of people, then how do we go about changing things? If even asking questions, or simply pointing at facts is considered an act of disloyalty, then how do we move forward?
A few years ago, a group of students were correcting their math homework from the previous night. One of the questions was “What angle is called a right angle?”
The correct answer is 90 degrees, however, the teacher had made a mistake and believed it was 180 degrees. These were elementary aged students, still being introduced to angles and these concepts, and most of the class went along with it. After all, the teacher knows better. One student however, refused to change her answer. Calmly she tried to explain that a right angle was 90 degrees, and gave as her example, a right angle triangle, which could not exist if it was 180 degrees. She even managed to get out her protractor and show the angle to her teacher.
The student was correct, however, for refusing to change her answer she was docked marks, and for continuing to argue against it, she was given a talking to by the principal.
The student had the correct answer. The entire class was given the wrong information, which would in turn make it more difficult to understand the next several math lessons. Eventually, the mistake was corrected, but the student was never apologized to, nor were they thanked for standing by the truth.
This student learned that standing up to authority meant punishment. Meant embarrassment and mocking. What are the chances that this student is going to feel comfortable saying something if they see a teacher picking on another student? Or teaching something they know to be incorrect?
Similarly, learning that work and compensation have no bearing on one another, makes it harder to argue against being forced to work several jobs just to make ends meet. It makes it harder to convince people that it isn’t right that people should go hungry, go without medical care, or go without basic necessities.
Education is a risk to people in power, because giving people the tools to be able to make educated decisions for themselves makes them harder to control. It’s not perfect, the most educated person can still fall victim to con artists and scams, but learning how to question and learn, and think, gives people the tools to avoid major pitfalls.
It’s not about what grade you get. It’s about what you learn.