What is to be done... about schooling?

Aaron Belz thinks the contemporary high school classroom is a bastion of the bourgeois, that students who excel in this environment are gifted at waiting in line at the drinking fountain, and that the Socratic method is a form of hectoring. He offers an alternative way of doing . . . schooling.

Appears in Winter 2005 Issue: What is to be done?
December 1st, 2005

One of the great ironies of modern life is that when people are at their most emotionally intense, physically energetic, and intellectually flexible—when they are poised to develop ambition, to fall in love, to engage in political and social action, in short, to believe—they are compelled to spend most of their waking hours in classrooms.

Most of today's classrooms are hard, fluorescent-lit, crowded places where young people sit in rows of desks while an older person guides them through the contents of a large, heavy textbook. In this intensely bourgeois venue, above-average students find themselves doodling in the margins of their notebooks, below-average ones do not receive the attention they need, and almost all students keep a mobile communications device handy so that they can send and receive text messages to friends across the room and around the country. Today's high school classroom is a hardship to be weathered, dues to be paid on the way to college and career.

The modern classroom frustrates teachers, too, who are required to accommodate during every class period an average of more than twenty students with an impossibly wide range of gifts and interests. Teachers learn how to divide their courses' curricula into fifty-minute parcels, sharing a single seven-hour span with up to five other disciplines, several short "passing periods," and a rowdy lunch period. Add to that an extracurricular schedule packed with sports, performances, parties, meetings, and so forth, and it is no surprise that the kind of people who end up teaching for years, even decades, are not necessarily those who have mastered their discipline. They are those who are able to effectively manage time.

Perhaps, the only people involved with "Western" schooling who do not recognize the paradigm's inherent flaws are average administrators and school board members whose job it is to fund and to govern the existing system. For them, the status quo might be the only politically viable option—a way to stay out of trouble. But for students, parents, and most faculty members, the standards for schooling are barely viable and have been for decades. In 1928, H. L. Mencken wrote: "School days, I believe, are the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence . . . It doesn't take a reasonably bright boy long to discover that most of what is rammed into him is nonsense, and that no one really cares very much whether he learns it or not."

What is to be done? Considering the weight of institutional practice, any practical solutions would seem pie-in-the-sky. Some are undoubtedly steps in the right direction, such as the Harkness Method, and some form of the Great Books curriculum, but let us go deeper into the realm of principle. The key to changing education, at least from the perspective of a former high school student and teacher, is to respect the person and dignity of the student. Almost all of the negative practices or habits connected with our educational system have to do with assailing student dignity.

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