When discussing education today, everyone seems to agree that it needs to be reformed, although there is often a disagreement on how that should be accomplished. No matter what a person’s opinion may be, one thing is in common: everyone uses standardized testing data as the jumping off point for these discussions. Pundits worry about America’s international standing, districts worry about scores that may or may not signal a government intervention, and administrators worry about whether or not they will be called on the carpet by the district office for test scores.
Although teachers and districts have begun refusing to give these tests (here and here), those efforts, in the context of the hundreds of thousands of standardized tests that are administered every year, are relatively few and far between. Those teachers, and many more of them, should continue to resist standardized testing as a waste of instructional time when teachers should be teaching. Yet, that begs the question: instead of using time for testing, what should we be teaching?
The new catchphrase on everyone’s lips is “college and career ready,” a popularity that is in large part due to the new Common Core standards. The idea is that whether a student is destined for college or a career, that student will be ready for the intellectual and academic demands (i.e., problem-solving and critical thinking, analytical reading, and articulate writing) of his or her chosen path. However, in reality, many high schools focus only on the college part, to the detriment of everything else. Electives, the category that includes shop and technical classes, fall by the wayside during budget cuts and are rarely replaced in times of plenty. As shown here, state and local districts are so focused on college preparedness that career education is becoming extinct. So, schools really, for the most part, focus on preparing kids for college.
But, let’s assume that schools really are preparing our students for college classes and for careers. We condemn students to sixteen years of school (K-12 and 4 yr. BA/BS), constantly telling them that it is in their best interest. Educators rarely listen to students who say that college isn’t for them, telling them that they need to be prepared and go anyways. Why is that? Because we, as educators, know the statistics that students do not know or care enough to consider: that people with more education generally make more money than those with less. So we try to convince them that the monotonous and often irrelevant almost two decades of schooling is for their own good. Often, the AP and Honors students buy into this idea hook-line-and-sinker. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a student in an English III Honors class that went something like this:
Student: Sir, I need an A.
Me: You already have a B+. That’s a really good grade, too. Why do you need an A?
Student: So I can have a good GPA (grade point average).
Student: So I can go to a good college.
Student: So I can get a good paying job.
Student: So I can support my family, and have a comfortable place to live.
Me: But, will any of that make you happy?
(student pauses for thirty seconds to a minute, clearly perplexed)
Student: I don’t know. No one has asked me that before.
The typical student in his or her junior year in America is sixteen or seventeen years old, and about a year from graduating into the adult world of college and/or careers. In all those years and all those teachers, no one asked this student about what the student wanted. Instead, the educational system kept telling that student, along with the hundreds of thousands of others in the nation, that money should be the primary goal. Get money; then, and only then, think about your happiness.
Giving educators the benefit of the doubt, they are trying to do what they think is best for their students. It is becoming increasingly clear that America is being governed by two separate set of laws: one set for the rich and another for the poor (see Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap). Additionally, the “rags to riches” ethos has been part of American culture for a long time, as we see by Horatio Alger stories and the success stories of people like Bill Gates. So, education has been reduced to telling students, “Set your dreams aside. Get good grades. Go to college. Make money.” Many of the educational reforms of the past decades deal with giving students the skills needed in a college or career, to aid in the effort of making money; they deal with the what of teaching, not the why. Yet, is that enough?
Resoundingly, I say no.
In the essay, “Objections to Objectivity,” historian and social activist, Howard Zinn, discusses a similar concern with education. Educators are expected to be objective disseminators of received facts and information, uncolored by personal belief or bias, so that students will be “educated” and “smart.” However, Zinn argues that being objective is a disservice to students. He writes:
Surely, how “smart” a person is on history tests like the one devised by the Times, how “educated” someone is, tells you nothing about whether that person is decent or indecent, violent or peaceful, whether that person will resist evil or become a consultant to warmakers, will become a Pastor Niemoller (a German who resisted the Nazis) or an Albert Speer (who worked for them), a Lieutenant Calley (who killed children at My Lai) or a Flight Officer Thompson (who tried to save them). (41)
Whether or not a student gets good grades or gets a well paying job says nothing about the kind of person that he or she is or will be in the future. It was those with the highest paying jobs at the biggest of national and international banks that created the subprime mortgage crisis that adversely affected the lives of millions and the economies of dozens of countries. The pursuit of money and grades is no indicator of whether or not these students will be a boon or a burden to their neighbors, families, communities, and nations-even the world. Telling students to make money and a job their goal is to encourage them to get onto the “winning” side of our society, instead of doing something about the injustices that pervade it.
Instead, writes Zinn, “Everyone needs to learn history, the kind that does not put its main emphasis on knowing presidents and statutes and Supreme Court decisions, but inspires a new generation to resist the madness of governments trying to carve the world and our minds into their spheres of influence” (41-42). To his statement, I would add corporations right next to governments as entities that must be resisted. Zinn was a historian, so naturally his remarks pertain to the teaching of history, especially at the college level since he was a professor. In high school AP History classes, rote memorization of facts is often emphasized. But, in my own field, English Literature, I couldn’t care less if students remember what a synecdoche or chiasmus or a metaphor or a plot mountain is in ten years’ time. Any novel I teach, I choose with this idea in mind: “How can it help these students question accepted values and ideas? How can it help teach students compassion for others? How can I open them up to the problems and suffering of the downtrodden that they would rather ignore?” I will not tell them what to think or how to solve a problem, but I refuse to accept the status quo in the name of objectivity. It isn’t good enough.
Do I want them to read and write well? Of course I do. But I want them to be able to read and write well so that they can make sense of their surroundings and not be manipulated by governments and corporations that would gladly grind them into dust in order to make a quick buck and maintain power. I want them to read and write well so that they can each fight the injustices of our society. The teaching of literature, of anything, should be to open them up to the problems of the world and encourage them to solve them-to fight them-to resist; education cannot be about money. Insofar as education is about money, it becomes a tool in a system that regularly kills creativity and oppresses the poor.
To be objective is to accept the political and societal goals of a curriculum that is part of the system. That is why I am, and always will be, a biased educator.
– Zinn, Howard. “Objections to Objectivity.” Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013. 29-42. Print.