In the Politics of Reading course this past week, we read an article titled “Why the Grammar of Schooling Persists.” It opened up my eyes to a core idea that has been woven into both of my education classes this semester. Our modern-day school system is designed for the masses. Children of all backgrounds, ability levels, and interests are taught the same material, in the same way, at the same pace. The article claimed that reforms to education don’t work because they would take away the essential identical “mold” that the system pushes students though.
This drew my attention to an overarching problem that tugs even more on my heart strings. Schooling has turned into a competition. All students are molded and assessed the same way – resulting in the question of who comes out on top? Although to many students, this is not evident until they are fighting their peers for acceptances to prestigious universities, it has always played a role in our classrooms. From bell curves to standardized tests to student government, high school is defined by accomplishing more than your peers. This is the accepted norm for high school as these years practically determine the next step in one’s future, but this competitive environment is prevalent in much earlier education as well.
Since we were in elementary school, we’ve been ranked according to percentiles and at proficiencies compared to classmates. No room is left for students to focus on areas they excel in. Do you remember getting a prize for the amount of “AR” reading points that you received? Do you remember getting an ice cream sundae for getting As and Bs on your report card? Even more likely, you would remember NOT receiving the prizes or the sundaes and being forced to watch the other kids enjoy their rewards. Missing out on an ice cream sundae is, of course, less detrimental and heart breaking than not being accepted to a dream college, but these disappointments are more similar than they may seem. This kind of reward system and assessment has started kids early in the same sort of competition students face throughout their schooling and lives.
As a high school student, I received many comments from my friends and teachers on my bubbly personality and enthusiasm. With this personality, I was always urged to go into education. My take on the matter was, however, very different. School was stressful. I was always focused on achieving the highest grades while maintaining the busiest schedule. The destination was college and the path to arrive was unfortunately paved with stress and anxiety. Did I really want to be the stress and anxiety in other student’s lives?
From first grade through the rest of our lives, we are pitted against our friends, classmates, and strangers. We are compared to them in our grades, we fight for class rank, for colleges, for professional schools, and for jobs. The process of education often resembles more closely a game of trampling others to win rather than a process of growing in knowledge.
American philosopher, John Dewey in his “My Pedagogic Creed”, advocated for an education that encompasses the philological and sociological aspects of children’s lives as well as one that involves community and shared learning. He makes a point in this writing that exemplifies why I’m passionate about education.
“I believe that the education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”
While college still often causes me stress, as it does most college students, it has made me realize that my “end goal” since ninth grade – the beautiful University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – was not an “end” to anything. It is not the final stop in my life, my career, or even my education. It is part of the path, not the end of it. If I’d realized that sooner, I like to think that I would value my education more than the competition, although in our generation, I know the spirit of competition will never totally subside.
Looking back on the later years of my high school, they were often characterized by anxiety. Why would I want to put myself back in this environment I worked so hard to push my way out of? But this competition is exactly why I want to teach: to remind and train students to learn rather than compete, to expand their knowledge rather than simply reach a destination.