Magazine article USA TODAY

School: What Is It Good for? "The Impact of Schooling Can Be Seen in the Deficiencies of the General Public."

Magazine article USA TODAY

School: What Is It Good for? "The Impact of Schooling Can Be Seen in the Deficiencies of the General Public."

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE CURIOUS features about schooling is that there is no explicit consensus about its purpose. Any assertion with regards to function dramatically should affect both the content of what is taught and the structure in terms of how best to instill the things that are taught. For instance, if the purpose of schooling is to promote democratic values and create an educated citizenry, the form and content of imparting knowledge would be quite different than if the mission were to create a skilled workforce.

For the former, education would require imparting knowledge of current events, engaging in active debates on contentious issues while respecting dissent, providing an intensive understanding of the Constitution and the rights the document hoped to protect, and conveying an understanding of the workings of government and the obligations of citizens. To best impart this knowledge, the learning environment would give students the opportunity to experience and exercise basic civil liberties. For the latter, students would have the opportunity to become apprentices and otherwise engage in real-world scenarios within the workplace in order to acquire relevant skills and develop hands-on experience that cannot be replicated abstractly.

The school environment presents an antithesis to both of these scenarios. Students are deprived of virtually all of their civil rights and learn so little about their own government that a recent survey of adults revealed that only one-third could name any of the branches of government. Learning skills through active participation similarly is taboo because students rarely ever are allowed to leave the classroom, let alone the school grounds.

Other potential purposes likewise are incompatible with the lessons and structure of compulsory schooling. Conceived as a vehicle to impart practical life tools, schools again fail miserably. Essential skills such as money management, basic contracting work and home repair, tax preparation and filing, regulations, and other necessary information about owning, operating, and servicing motor vehicles, job hunting, cooking, cleaning, being an intelligent consumer, handling encounters with the police, to name but a few, almost are completely absent. Concededly, a few of these skills might be available in some elective form, but they are outside the norm and the students who take them are sometimes derided for doing so.

The possibility that schools are designed to promote empathy and create caring people is evidently absurd. The institution is an incubator of sadistic cruelty meted out by both faculty and student peers. Bullying is the norm. That rejecting this possibility requires little explication is profoundly depressing. The research of psychologist Ervin Staub strongly suggests that schools play a significant role in the erosion of empathy by instilling the primacy of obedience to authority over helping others in need.

The final traditionally conceived purpose of schooling is self-actualization through intellectual development. Schools theoretically provide a foundation upon which people can develop skills to pursue their own paths towards fulfillment. This assertion also is problematic. In addition to the concern regarding how an environment that largely is devoid of empathy can foster such an outcome, there is the more practical issue involving the absence of student autonomy. A system dedicated to producing this outcome would promote self-directed learning. Self-actualization, by definition, is about attaining the goals one sets for oneself.

The interests of the student quite explicitly do not matter and this fact often is celebrated by parties who insist they know what is best. The curriculum is comprised of subjects that anyone other than the student deems appropriate. In addition, the top-down method of instruction that is fixated on grades often results in children becoming alienated and resentful of the material they are taught. …

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