Unbundling the Gripe Against Formal Education

Making Sense of Life from Vantage Point of Education. Copyright: Shutterstock

If only for the fact that it might be depressing not to do so, most people with PhDs believe in meaningfulness of education. Having spent a total of six years in postgraduate education to earn a PhD, it would be remiss of me not to jump on the “formal education is meaningful” bandwagon. Add to a PhD degree a career in academia and a PhD holder has to be a candidate for cognitive dissonance, cognitive deficiency, or outright irrationality were he or she to declare education does not have any value for real life. I mean if a PhD holder did not figure out meaninglessness of education by the end of his or her Undergraduate or Masters Program, they really had no business obtaining a PhD in the first place.

With my ‘PhD’ and ‘Educator’ disclaimer out up front, I aim in this piece to discuss the trending view that education is a morass that does nothing to prepare people for real life. You may conclude I am biased because I am an education insider, I hope, however, that you will take time to consider merits of my postulations. At the very least, you will at the end of this piece be able to consider how best to deflate my biased, cognitively sound arguments for merits of formal education. I commence, however, with the admission, which does not require much of fleshing out that education systems are far from perfect. There I said it.

I further am willing to admit not all education occurs within context of attendance at school. I note, however, that education which occurs outside of schools continues to require tools employed within schools e.g. books for effectiveness and efficiency.

That being said, and with outlined important caveats out of the way, let us get to the substance of my bias.

Education is about ‘Becoming’ not passing exams

Regardless of whether we are talking about Elementary, Middle School, High School, Undergraduate, or Postgraduate Education, education is about ‘Becoming’ not passing exams or obtaining certificates. Certificates merely are evidence that a student passed through and completed the process. This is why there only are uniform school leaving exams up until College. Only at College level, the point at which students are expected to have matured are final exams and certificates school specific. If you did not know, now is the time to know the secret.

If parents will teach their children this perspective of education, even flawed educational systems can produce well rounded graduands who understand how the world works.

Is it the case school systems sometimes place more emphasis on passing exams, grades, and other features of education that do not highlight grand importance of becoming? Absolutely.

Is it important that we alter education systems such that they place more emphasis on helping kids become? Absolutely. Until that day arrives, however, the onus lies on parents to prepare their children to view education as a path to becoming, as opposed to a place for competition with other kids for grades. When focus is on outperforming the other kid, a child can outperform yet not get to know himself any better than he did at beginning of a school year.

My first two kids, both boys commenced Elementary School at a school that adopts reading challenges. Kids are encouraged to read as many books as they can, with each book linked to an objectively determined number of reading points. The larger or more advanced the book, the larger the number of points.

My oldest son never won the reading challenge (prior to incidence of divorce in the family), but was a close second or third a number of times. We celebrated him anyway. Never was he made to feel he had let his parents down. The competition had achieved the most important objective — his vocabulary, understanding, and perspective of the English language were becoming richer — he was Becoming.

Not only were my two boys becoming, they learned their parents never would cheat to ensure they win a reading challenge. Did other parents cheat? I cannot say, I have no evidence to suggest any other parent ever cheated. My children learnt, however, their parents never would attempt to cheat so they could win. My oldest son and my third son eventually ended up in gifted students’ programs at their schools. The second, won a reading challenge and continues to do very well at school right at the cusp of the gifted children’s program. Now imagine if these children had been berated for not coming first. What ignorance, what damage that could have been avoided, what thoughtlessness.

Parents who put pressure on their children rather than focus on provision of encouragement and resources for mastering of the education process contribute to ineffectiveness of education for their children.

So suppose your kid is not in a school that adopts reading challenges, meaning you do not live in a community blessed with a high quality school district?

Utilize resources available online for facilitating assessment of retention and understanding of material read by your child. In my family, we did not rely only on the school’s reading challenge in so far as our children are concerned. In addition to readings obtainable through school, we bought books for our children to read, such as the C.S. Lewis series, Bibles, Bible Story Books, good books not available through their elementary school etc., books written not only for the story but for literary value. My daughter, who is the last of our four children started reading early because as she grew she saw her brothers spending a lot of time reading. So what do you think happened? Reading became to her an avenue to becoming part of the children’s club consisting of her three brothers. In no time at all, and at a very prescient time for her age, my daughter already was reading quite well.

If a child still is trying to master language in High School, a period during which focus of education largely has shifted to emphasis on analyses of content, as opposed to mere ability to read and understand, that child will be left behind. Absent developmental challenges, every parent of a child whose reading is deficient out of elementary school is partly to blame for such an outcome.

If parents do not celebrate reading when they have kids of Elementary School age, they cannot blame the educational system for any reading deficiencies in their children.

Becoming by Analyzing

High School is the time for children to begin to apply themselves to acquisition of analytical skills. Math is king in so far as this objective is concerned. In High School, Math is about learning to work with numbers, with progression into some abstract stuff. Given Math begins to adopt more and more of its own language at this point, a child struggling to master English or Reading and attempting to master Math Language at the same time is toying with a hotbed of confusion. If parents do not understand this shift in focus of education and prepare their children for it, they make things even more difficult for their children. In so far as English or Language is concerned, focus shifts from construction, reading, or understanding to analyzing prose, poetry, books etc. At this point, children begin to learn to read with discrimination, that is begin to be asked to critique what they are reading. If a child has yet to master reading, construction, and interpretation, frustration sets in and education becomes the White man’s game for disenfranchisement of everyone in High School with a reading deficiency. Disenfranchisement of this sort of course has no regard for color — White, Latino, or Black, kids with reading deficiencies all are disenfranchised together. By the way, why am I reluctant to include Asian kids? The picture on my profile does not lie. I am black or better yet dark skinned. But “dark skinned” is complicated, so we settle for Black.

Becoming via Widening of Horizons and Specialization

By the time a teenager completes High School, he or she should have developed some self awareness — awareness of strengths, weaknesses, weaknesses incompatible with choice of certain professions, weaknesses that can be addressed such that they do not hinder choice of a particular profession.

By the time I completed High School, there were two things I knew were totally out of the question: Architecture or Engineering and any profession for which Biology was central. Other than these, I was good. Note I was a science student who did well in subjects outlined. I knew, however, that I did not have proficiency for diagramming and other than diddling over sketches of amoeba, which required little or no skill, had no enjoyment whatsoever of Biology. If a teenager does not have any sense of self awareness on graduation from High School, time in High School has been wasted.

On commencement of College Education, teenagers get exposed to a wider range of subjects with a view to helping them better understand their strengths and weaknesses, and with a view to exposing them to new subjects, disciplines or new tools for analyzing of content. Students that already know their strengths and weaknesses obtain new information which improves precision of their self awareness. Students that lack such self awareness likely become more confused than previously. By the end of their second year, students that become more confused are deciding on majors on basis of salary information googled on their laptops. So we end up with kids who have little or no proficiency in Mathematics attempting to major in Finance, a highly analytical and mathematical subject, more so than Economics because Finance Careers pay well. Evidence of lack of self awareness. But someone dropped the ball in guidance of these kids, their parents at the very least.

By the third year of College, the best prepared students know why they are majoring in a particular subject. They are not just taking classes, they are acquiring knowledge for building a life and career. During my one-year stint at Yale University as a Graduate student, I saw Undergraduate students engaging with a course on Game Theory — one of the most difficult courses in an Undergraduate Economics Curriculum. Most understood the value the course presented in terms of knowledge and preparation for obtaining a job on Wall Street upon graduation. There was nary a murmur from these kids throughout an entire semester of grueling homework assignments. They understood the value for knowledge, intellect, and preparedness for life outside of school of the material they were being asked to master. They possessed self awareness.

Now someone may say how does my child attending “So and So State University” get the opportunity to work on Wall Street even if he learns Game Theory? My retort? How does he get the job if he attends “So and So State University” and refuses to attempt to master Game Theory or any other difficult concept of importance in Economics or Finance? If the kids coming out of the top schools know these stuff, do we not have a meritocracy supported by industry connections? So how does the kid who does not have industry connections get in the discussion if he also lacks meritocracy? When the So and So State University kid shoots for the stars and lands on the livable side of the Sun, mission accomplished. It is easier to reach for the stars from livable side of the Sun.

Education cannot fail kids who understand why they are taking classes in College. Such kids understand they are not in class merely to pass exams, they understand, no matter how imperfect their situation is, that knowledge gained in the Classroom has value for a profession, for making the most of non-professional life, and for Becoming.

Becoming vis-a-vis Real Life Deficiency

On graduation, the best prepared kids typically will get good jobs then will proceed to learn lessons that relate to team work, perseverance etc. Given they already have foundational knowledge and work ethic from dedication to turning in all of those assignments in College, they are able to focus on acquiring real world skills needed for success in the workplace.

It is not education that fails some of these graduands, it is workplaces that demand conformity and refuse to celebrate well prepared or brilliant graduands who do not have the exact same mannerisms as every other graduand. When there is no one to take the brilliantly well prepared graduand under their wing so they learn what is not so easy for them exactly because of their brilliance, we allow a dog-eat-dog mentality override and let go of the brilliant mind because of some misconstrued emphasis on yet to be developed emotional intelligence.

Lack of Emotional Intelligence gradually is becoming a crutch for exclusion of brilliant minds from Workplaces. Never mind the fact that barging of emotions into the Workplace gradually is turning Workplaces into Pseudo counseling centers. Placing of inordinate emphasis on management of emotions is turning what initially seemed a good thing — treating people right — into means of exclusion of outliers from Workplaces. But did not someone who wrote a Bestseller link outliers with innovation in Workplaces?

I digress.

For the best graduands out of College, it is not the educational system that fails, it is excessive encouragement of competition among new graduands and refusal to recognize differences in strengths and complementarity that militate against fit of some of the best brains produced by colleges within the work force.

For whatever it is worth, formal education has and continues to have value. It may be imperfect, flawed, no better than already used bath water in need of being thrown out, but if we exercise initiative, we can take out of any flawed education system what is necessary for our self actualization or becoming.

Is this easy? Absolutely Not. But what other option is there but to try? Inaction is death. Ignorance is mummification. Only concerted, proactive action works because guess what?

I understand some folks do not have the knowledge, preparation, or resources to make the most of education for themselves or their children. All I can say is start with what you have, which is time and apply that to making the most of your children’s education. You will be amazed at resources you can obtain for making the most of education even if you have to go to your community library to access the internet. Your children’s preparation for life depends on it.

Mark Twain is quoted to have declared:

Educator and Researcher, Believer in Spirituality, Life is serious business, but we all are pilgrims so I write about important stuff with empathy and ethos