What’s the Matter with Education

With four new sisters-in-law of school age, I’ve recently been reintroduced to the primary and secondary education system. I’ve been away from it since 1992. Things are quite different from when I was in high school: no homework is assigned; they don’t have to take tests on a given day if they don’t feel like it; nearly all of the tests are open book and exact copies of the preparation tests; none of the girls has any idea why they are there.

This last fact disturbs me. The students do not know why they are in school.

Okay, so in my day there were students who didn’t know why they were attending high school either. A good number, however, were well aware of the reason. They were learning how to learn. This would prepare them for postsecondary education, where they would learn how to think.

I have been thinking seriously about starting up a charter school that—rather than dispensing a bland pabulum of minimal expected curriculum to bored and uncaring students—lets them know exactly why they are there, and challenges them to learn how to learn.

Before you say “Oh, but such schools already exist,” let me inform you that my sisters-in-law are already at so-called excellent charter schools which charge good money for the privilege. Much is left to be desired.

Of course you can’t make any student do anything they don’t want to: if they just don’t want to learn anything, find out what’s possible in life, and instead concentrate on socializing with the lowest common denominator, well, those kids just won’t learn. You can tantalize them with new ideas, though, can’t you?

I have seen two quality television shows that do exactly this. I propose they be shown to students somewhere in the grade 7 through 9 range…and perhaps again in the graduating year.

The first is Connections by James Burke. Visual, compelling, and well-explained, this series investigating how sudden changes and unplanned combinations of ideas resulted in our modern world. In the mind of the curious, it creates the desire to start looking, to make connections of one’s own.

Second is Cosmos by Carl Sagan. The first half of the opening episode is entirely visual, a fly-in from deep space through our galaxy and to our home planet. Nobody with an imagination could fail to be impressed and feel the urge to keep exploring. The series goes on to investigate knowledge, the planets, DNA, and the star-stuff that are the basic building blocks of life.

Despite the fact that both of these are shows produced in the late 70s, they hold up very well. The ideas and the history remain valid. The special effects—especially in Cosmos—continue to astound (I have no idea how they achieved some of them). Most of all, the enthusiasm of the presenters consistently invoke in the viewer a desire to get involved and learn more. I review both series consistently…re-learning, re-surprising, re-invigorating myself.

The beauty is, both series are available free online. Connections is, thanks to an enterprising young man I’ll never meet but dearly want to thank, on youtube. If you’re in the USA, you can watch Cosmos on Hulu (sorry, rest of the world…check youtube though: you might be able to find some episodes in pieces there).

In my opinion, if a person were aware of all of the topics contained within both series…not at the niggly-piggly detail level, but at the general level…and could hold their side of a casual conversation about them, that person would be considered intelligent, knowledgeable and active in their world. A far cry from the shoulder-shrugging, mindlessly socializing student of today, isn’t it?