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Off the Record
Before this school year, I didn’t study. I didn’t have to study to maintain my GPA, so I didn’t. My teachers always took a day to stop teaching and again cover the material that would be on the test the next day. I did my class work, and I did my homework, but to me studying was extra work, so – in the modern mindset of doing the least amount of work required to get by – I didn’t study. This mindset restrains not only me from reaching my full potential, but many other students today as well. The problem, I believe, begins with a combination of the emphasis that schools place on grades and a lack of thought required on the students’ part. Let’s begin by taking a broader look at education.
Education is often confused with schooling, though the latter is simply a means by which the former is achieved. Education is the process of preparing a student to achieve a goal through teaching. Schooling is a means of educating. Education itself does not have to be formal schooling, as it is nearly always perceived to be. I can educate myself on any issue through research. A football team is educated in the subject of football. Schooling, however, is the culmination of educations. Formal schooling is intended to produce a “well-rounded” person – knowledgeable in the fields of mathematics, language, sciences, history, and the arts, whereas the goal of education is simply to prepare a student for a goal. The goal of schooling should be to give the student options – to prepare him for not only the single field of study that he is most proficient in, but to prepare him for as many potential courses of life as possible. Each education (Algebra II, American History, Fine Arts) has its own goals, but the ultimate goal of each should be to produce an individual who is more capable of forming his own opinions and who has a greater chance of success by his own standards than the student who first entered the classroom.
Society’s view of an educated person is the one who has a college degree, the business executive, the doctor, the lawyer – one who is “successful.” This is what our education system wants to produce. Everyone should go to college; everyone should “succeed.” There’s nothing wrong with this – actually, it’s wrong of us to be content with mediocrity. But the only visible measure of a student’s success in the education system is his GPA – his GPA is what gets him into college, which Bill Gates proved to be crucial to success. To have a high GPA is the goal of any dedicated student of the education system, and to produce students with high grades seems, sadly, to be a primary goal of the system.
This is not a reproach of all schools or of those involved in the education system. The system itself is inherently flawed. The only measure of a student’s learning is his grades. Therefore the grades become the most important part, and the greatest hindrance, of his education. The grades are what help him to succeed. To be accepted into a university, he will not be asked to evaluate the effects of Manifest Destiny on Modern America or to explain the symbolism of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. Therefore, he must know only that modicum of information to make a good grade on his exam and raise his GPA, which is seen by the university. The focus of schooling shifts from a holistic education to a competition to score highest on a test.
A grade is merely a representation of what the student has learned – not, as many students today perceive it to be, a measure of the student’s worth as a person. Granted, this is an exaggeration, but it is much closer to reality than you might hope. In the minds of many students today, and in the atmosphere of many classrooms, a “B” is a failing grade. The academic competition between many students today is so intense that a “B” is unacceptable and a “C” is devastating. In “Best in Class,” by Margaret Talbot, one valedictorian confesses to having cheated to receive the honor. Is this what we want from our students? Isn’t there something wrong with a valedictorian, the “best of the best,” cheating to get to the top?
Through schooling, students should be prepared for the future, yet the vast majority of students are so concerned with their GPA that the purpose of school has shifted from being a “well-rounded” person or being prepared for the future to simply knowing enough to get by – knowing enough to pass the test. The student who would rather learn and understand the material but receive a “C,” than make an “A” and forget everything he learned would be an extreme rarity in today’s society. I’m not that student. And none of the students I compete against is that student.
Schooling, being a culmination of different educations, should provide the student with an appreciation for different subjects. Reading for example: while some children are bookworms, many are completely dispassionate toward reading. A 2002 study by the NEA shows that literary readers are 2 to 4 times more likely than non-literary readers to participate in community service, create art, visit museums, attend plays and concerts, play sports, and perform outdoor activities. Those who read are more involved in their community and are more likely to exercise. Is this not reason enough to teach students to appreciate and enjoy reading?
“Knowledge is power,” and books contain knowledge, yet many honor students, as Professor X says of his own students, “don’t read much, as a rule.” Why is this? Honor students should be the best academics in a school, yet many refuse to read, to gain knowledge; they only learn as much as they have to know to pass the class. There is no desire to learn – no understanding of the importance of knowledge. As author and speaker Sherman Alexie says about himself, “[They are] lucky.” Many are lucky because they have never had to study, never been challenged in the classroom, never struggled to pass a course. Christina Jeronimo, a student at Long Beach City College, says, “The demands of the high school teachers aren’t as great as the demands for college. Sometimes they just baby us.” We have been babied. Those of us who have never struggled in school have never been challenged. We never had to study for hours to pass a test – we probably never studied at all. And what have we gained from it? I have a 4.0 GPA. I always have – but what does that mean? It means that I have never been challenged in the classroom, and have, as a result, not learned as much as I could have learned.
According to an article recently appearing in USA Today entitled “Colleges Spend Billions on Remedial Classes to Prep Freshmen,” “students often report that the hardest aspect of the transition to college isn’t the material. It’s the new rhythm and structure of college-level work.” This comes directly from the source – directly from college students. The harder course material is not what makes college more difficult. What makes college harder is the responsibilities placed upon the student. Jeronimo goes on to say, “One of the things that they don’t teach in high school is time management.” The reason we have never been challenged is not that the material is too easy; the reason is the structure of the class – instead of the student having any responsibility to make an effort in the class, he is given the material that will be on the test, and he memorizes that material. Schools and teachers have a responsibility to their students to make them more responsible students, and this is not accomplished by teaching the student how to ready a study guide, but by teaching the student how to study.
Students, by the same token, should (as much as we sometimes hate it) be forced to think for ourselves and should make ourselves more responsible. In many classes students are provided with the exact material that will be covered on the test. What greater incentive could be given to learn only the material needed to pass? If we are provided with the answer to every problem we struggle with, we will never be able to overcome these problems on our own. In college (the destination to which all academic roads seem to lead) students are no longer provided with the answers. The same is true in life – the answer to every problem is not readily available, and everyone must learn to think for himself.
If education is the process of preparing a student for a goal, and the goal of a high school student is to go to college, then the goal of a student’s schooling is to prepare him for college. Since high school graduates must think on their own, a high school student planning to graduate must be able to think on his own. Thus, one of the core goals of high school should be to provide a student with (or, ironically, to force upon a student) the ability to think for himself; to develop thinking, opinionated human beings, not machines capable of recalling the trivial facts learned in high school.
Many would argue that an appreciation and passion for reading are taught at an early age, along with the ability to think for oneself, and to an extent this is true, but a shocking amount of high school students today still do not (and do not have to) think for themselves and the majority hate reading. In elementary and middle school, students are given study guides on tests as a method to instill a habit of studying. In high school, students are usually not given study guides, but the material that would be covered on the test is still made obvious to the student (“The material on my tests comes from only the notes, so it would be wise to study those.”). Some would still argue that the student must think for himself, because he must study on his own, but there is minimal effort required on the student, and he is subliminally encouraged to know only the material that will be on the test. High school students drive, work, and some even vote – yet they cannot think for themselves.
The belief that one should always do the minimum amount of work required is NOT one that should be taught in schools – this takes place enough as it is. Students should be taught basic life skills crucial to every day life such as a strong work ethic, the importance of learning, and the ability to form one’s own opinions. Without these basic qualities in a person, the number of college degrees hanging on an office wall is worthless. There are certain qualities that are simply necessary for a person to be successful; therefore, an education system aiming to produce successful members of society should set its goals not on producing students with a high GPA, but on coalescing those lessons that won’t appear on an academic record with “school subjects” to produce mature persons capable of making their own decisions. Then, and only then, will we see change in the education system, and, in turn, in society.
Alexie, Sherman. "Superman and Me." The Language of Composition : Reading, Writing, Rhetoric. By Renee H. Shea, Lawrence Scanlon and Robin D. Aufses. Boston: Bedford/Saint Martin's, 2007. 110-11.
Associated Press. "Colleges Spend Billions on Remedial Classes to Prep Freshmen." USA Today 15 Sept. 2008.
National Endowment for the Arts. "Reading at Risk." The Language of Composition : Reading, Writing, Rhetoric. By Renee H. Shea, Lawrence Scanlon and Robin D. Aufses. Boston: Bedford/Saint Martin's, 2007. 147-48.
Talbot, Margaret. "Best in Class." The Language of Composition : Reading, Writing, Rhetoric. By Renee H. Shea, Lawrence Scanlon and Robin D. Aufses. Boston: Bedford/Saint Martin's, 2007. 113-22.
Professor X. “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.” The Atlantic June 2008 18 Jul 2008