Education: A Brief and (Fairly) Accurate History

Ever since the advent of organized public education, folks have argued about who should be served by it. Sadly, children were seldom the main focus—until now, hopefully. There were always a few, like Maria Montessori, who thought in terms of the “whole child,” but politics and industry, it seems, have always held sway, overpowering efforts to humanize learning, emphasize the liberal arts, and place students at the center.

A long time ago, something called vocational education sought to train students to thrive in the practical world of work. Later on, baby boomers experienced the conservative approach to teaching and learning—teachers conveyed knowledge, which students committed to rote memory and then regurgitated on tests; little importance was placed on questioning, analyzing, or, goodness knows, synthesizing; in other words, there wasn’t a whole lot of thinking going on.

The conservative movement gave way to decades of confusion and experimentation. Basal readers began to disappear (probably a good thing), phonics was a bad word, open schools arrived, classrooms without walls came and went, and teaching and learning were seen through a more humanistic lens (for sure a good thing). But in breaking the shackles of the rigid and impersonal conservative period, we also freed ourselves from structure, rigor, and basic skills (not good). It was as if reading, writing, and spelling could be learned through osmosis. Now we’re left with poor readers and writers, as well as mathematicians, and we’ve replaced meaningful spelling instruction with Spell Check. So, what are we stressing now? STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Nothing at all wrong with those subjects, but reading and writing aren’t even in that picture, so one wonders what this focus portends for language arts and literature.

Nowadays, many parents are fleeing failing schools and gravitating to private schools, charters that have the word “classical” in their names, or Montessori programs; in other words, they want their children in an environment that values knowledge and structure, as well as individual differences. It’s not that any one approach to education is better than all the others; we need to embrace bits of all of them: Students should acquire the knowledge base that defines a classical education, learn to process it through a modern lens, tear it apart and analyze it, and then synthesize it into their view of the world.

We know so much more about how children learn than we did generations ago, but it’s a sad fact that we can’t seem to gather these threads of wisdom and weave them into the fabric that is our public education system. Initiatives come and go, teachers are frustrated, and many American children, after attending school approximately 175 days per year for 13 years, lack the skills necessary to excel in post-secondary programs.

America must invest more in our children’s education, but first we need an honest response to this question: Why are so many of our teachers leaving the field after only a few years on the job? These are dedicated and caring individuals who’ve spent years preparing to teach. Is it poor leadership and support? Large class sizes? Irrelevant staff development? Too much time grading papers? Poor curricula? Low salaries? Student behavior? Inadequate training? The answer is probably many of the above, but the latter one is crucial.

If we consider the fact that many of our teachers are products of the same system that is failing, then it follows that they might be hard pressed to shepherd kids through the maze of knowledge that confronts them—to help them connect the dots between topics in math, social studies, science and literature. Colleges and teacher-training institutions need to get serious about making sure that future self-contained, elementary-teacher candidates have deep backgrounds in the liberal arts/humanities, with particular emphasis placed on science, math, literature, writing, social studies, and history. A college student hoping to become a secondary teacher should be required to major in her intended subject area, and expected to round out her four years by studying—yes—liberal arts and humanities. This should be a required regime before secondary candidates move on to graduate school for further training in their specialty.

Our entrenched public education system is in trouble, but the good news is that there are young people who are still willing to give it a shot. We must train them, encourage them, and invest in them. Our future literally depends on it.