According to today’s New York Times, the high expectations of American tertiary students are leading them to haggle over their grades. The students argue that if they show up and complete all the required readings, they deserve an A, and that the act of putting in effort to meet the standards should be viewed positively during grading. Lecturers argue that merely meeting the  standards required to pass a course – in other words, showing up and doing the reading – should only earn a C, as this constitutes the bare minimum required to pass. It’s the kind of argument that could easily rant on for pages, but there’s one line which, for me, perfectly sums up why the professors, and not their students, are correct. As James Hogge puts it:

“Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.'”

This, to me, is as perfect a summation as one could find on the ultimate consequence of turning education into a commodity. In a society where a majority of students complete at least some tertiary study, the bar for excellence has been raised. Mechanically showing up and sitting through the allotted lectures or tutes is not the same as comprehending – or, indeed, caring about – their content. Reading something to fulfil course requirements is not commensurate with reading for pleasure. What lecturers are identifying, and what some students are evidently struggling with, is the notion that education should be more than a chore, or a means to an end: that it should be delightful in its own right, encouraged for its own sake. Under this model, the extra engagement required to reach an A grade comes from genuine interest, and, if we’re honest, a certain amount of intelligence, neither of which can be faked. And as the ultimate products of standardised testing, a system under which a love of learning is palpably secondary to meeting benchmarks, students are, unsurprisingly, floundering.

More and more, the question of how to engage students is one I find myself grappling with, despite being neither a parent nor an educator. For me, the most important components of schooling should be instilling a desire to learn while providing the tools, guidance and encouragement for pupils to do so. One of these tools, unnegotiably, is language, without which it is impossible to read, write or effectively communicate ideas. Beyond that, any decision as to which disciplines are most important is arbitrary, and while there’s certainly sense in providing as many people as possible with a base level of knowledge in a broad range of fields, such as maths and geography, it’s no substitution for producing an individual capable of selecting their own interests and researching them independently.

Which is where, for me, the entire basis of modern education comes tumbling down like London Bridge: it graphically fails to achieve this most basic and vital of outcomes. Rather, such eager students tend to flourish in opposition to the very system that should be supporting them, springing up like hardy plants between cobblestones. They learn to love knowledge despite the way it is taught to them, despite having their interests routinely cordoned off by the arbitrary barriers of syllabi. In democratising education and providing it to all, we’ve forgotten why it should be provided to anyone. Teaching all children under equal circumstances and without prejudice is not the same as believing that a single mode of tuition will be of equal benefit to everyone: quite the opposite. Except that, in commodifying education, exactly this assumption has been made.

Here’s an elitist thought: some people are brighter than others. They can learn things faster, more thoroughly and in greater number than the average student. Similarly, some people are slower: it takes them more time to register fewer concepts to a lower degree of proficiency. Education does not eradicate this fact. It’s not simply a matter of native intelligence, either: some students might be slower due to language barriers, behavioural problems, poor teaching or any number of social difficulties. Others might be faster because they enjoy a certain subject, because they appear stronger by comparison to their peers, because of an excellent teacher, or because their parents help at home. This is evident to kindergarden teachers the world over – and yet all students are given the same goals. The habit of standardised testing is not so bad in Australia as America, but one can still draw the same conclusion of education in both countries: that passing grades are held to be more important than retaining knowledge. Obvious though it seems, the argument that those who know will pass holds little water, for three important reasons:

1. Rote-learning a concept to pass a test is not the same as understanding it;

2. Those who rote-learn are, through primary and secondary school, treated identically to those who genuienly seek knowledge; and

3. There is no extra reward provided to students who demonstrably want to learn for learning’s sake.

Psychologically, this sets up an expectation in students that wanting to explore a subject further isn’t worth their while – and, academically, it isn’t. They will receive no tangible reward for reading about Henry VIII in their spare time; neither will displaying extra knowledge allow them to move forward at a faster pace, and while the outcome should be to teach a love of learning for its own sake, the way to encourage this from an early age is through reward. If students who show initiative aren’t treated any differently under the education system, then the majority will, through apathy or disappointment, revert to meeting only the minimum requirements. If they are bright, this is looked upon as coasting, a behaviour which, ironically, is discouraged. Much like the ‘intangible benefits’ so laughingly touted by many corporations in place of actual staff bonuses or health care plans, the architects of the modern educational system seem to assume that an absence of reward will nonetheless encourage students to excel in their own time. As for arbitrary in-school awards, such as often take the form of laminated and calligraphied cardboard, these are nice mementos, but ultimately meaningless, comparable to the much-loathed ‘quality awards’ of the new corporate sphere. They are the lowest possible recognition of achievement, inadequate placeholders for actual change, innovation or devlopment.

Which brings us back to American college students and their sense of entitlement. Consider them anew in light of the above. They have been taught for thirteen years that meeting the requirements of the system is all that matters, and that going above and beyond, while perhaps an idealistic concept, results only in extra work for no gain, and, quite possibly, in social mockery. At the same time, they have been told, repeatedly and with emphasis, that holding a degree is vital to their future success: they must continue to work hard. And the operative word here is work, because this is what education means to them. Not knowledge, not pleasure, not investiagtive thrills, but work, a difficult, laborious and time-consuming means to an unspecified end. They are waiting, like so many of us in the modern world, for the joy to kick in: to reach the end of the academic rainbow and find the job they love. But learning to love our jobs is, in many ways, identical to learning how to love knowledge: a process which is the direct antithesis of modern education.

Many people don’t hit their stride until university. For some, it’s the first opportunity to explore ideas that interest them as a part of learning, and not just in their own time. Others finally break through the limits of school and attack the discipline they’ve been hankering for, be it geology or medicine. But for many – and, I fear, for most – it’s a startling disappointment. Like pigeons raised in a dark coop, they have no idea how to stray beyond the bounds in which they’ve been raised. They never realised it was the point – nobody ever told them. Certainly, the system didn’t. They drop out, feeling betrayed, or go on to feel naggingly unhappy in their jobs, donning their disquiet in the assumption that it indicates adulthood. And as the twin stranglehold of commodified education and standardised testing tightens, more and more people will be squeezed into a mould inimical to learning. Those who might love university will, by the time they reach it, feel exhausted at the thought of jumping through yet more hoops, and have no savour for any educational institution; others will have long since given up. And meanwhile, those few people who excel at the standardised system will rocket through with glowing recommendations, completely ill-equipped to enter any profession which requires not only passion, but imagination.

The weight of such people is already warping the tertiary system. In Australia, the rise of full-fee paying students, both nationally from overseas, has placed enormous pressure on lecturers to pass inadequate learners. This payment for education turns the degree into a product, moving the customer to demand value for money. Invariably, such students view their own role as passive. Education is something the university must do to them, not a thing in which they must participate, or for which they might ultimately be ill-suited. And such mindsets, both in the long and short term, can only be harmful to the intellectual development of society.

Because in a time of such need for genius, and yet where genius is thin on the ground; when innovation is desperately needed at every turn, and where social, economic and environmental pressures are forcing the reinvention of long-held or unquestioned systems, we need every intellectual iconoclast, highschool anarchist and rule-breaking miscreant to remember what they loved about knowledge: that it improves those people and institutions who lovingly and eagerly receive it, and rewards those who strive in its persuit.

  1. Sherryl says:

    You’ve made some really interesting comments here, and I certainly agree. My experience of having a reasonably bright child has beenpretty disastrous, school-wise. Luckily she has gone to uni now as a mature-age student and loves the learning. Phew!
    Where I teach in TAFE, I think most of my job is about instilling a love of reading and writing in students – as writers. Too many don’t read, or read only for entertainment. I want to get them to read to find out how other writers do it, and write in order to find out how they can do it. And then to explore reading and writing for the rest of their lives, no matter what they might have to do as a day job.
    Our problem is that TAFE is expected to have a job as an outcome. Novelist is not considered a job! Luckily we also teach other great skills that lead to all sorts of employment. But the constant pressure of “jobs” is like the pressure to get a degree “because you have to have one”.
    You are absolutely right about instilling a love of learning – I think if you have that, you can do almost anything. But sadly, even though we have many keen students, we still always get a few who think coasting is the way to go.
    The ones who find their passion while studying with us are a joy to teach, and I sure hope I help them along the way!

  2. fozmeadows says:

    Hi Sherryl, thanks for commenting!

    Good to hear I’m not the only one who thinks this way. I can’t tell you how many daydreams I’ve had about walking into the Australian school system, ripping the guts out and tinkering with new ways to make it work. (Er. I mean that in a non psychopathic-sounding way.) But who knows? Maybe one day we’ll figure it out.


  3. Suze says:

    Hi there,
    you’ve poked at the dying fire here … and sparked lots of topics I’ve been thinking about for a while, but hadn’t put them together so eloquently or cohesively.

    Like Sherryl, I work in TAFE. I encourage our young graduating students to go on and do 2 more years study to get a degree, even if it’s a struggle, because I think it opens the door wider to the more interesting jobs … Yep, I’m one of them who gets them to think about the piece of paper. What I hope I do in the classroom is fire them up about all kinds of world issues ad possibilities, show them how to look for potential and opportunity. Apply the practical knowledge they have to the wider world.

    The ultimately depressing thing about TAFE is that it is job-tied and considered to be a success if your students walk straight into full-time jobs in that industry. Students come in expecting to be able to get a job after your course, but in reality, there may be very few real jobs. The TAFE teacher needs to educate them to cope with the wider world than their industry.

    I have a son who is one of the anarchists you describe. Going on 16. Smart kid, but school has never really fitted him. He contains himself, and gets through it – Mr 65% he calls himself, because he reckons that’s the mark he can get with a little bit of work.

    The IT dynamo I see at home, the social networker, the negotiator, the innovator, the self-learner I see must shrivel as he enters the school gate. I want him to finish school, and I’d LIKE him to do some tertiary study (again, because I think it opens the doors, blah blah) but sometimes I wonder about it all. Did Crazy John or Dick Smith go to uni??

    On the other hand, at school he does coast. I reckon if he put in effort and got success from that, he might actually find SOME of the work more interesting and find the whole shebang more satisfying. Develop a spiralling process of effort begat success begat satisfaction begat interest begat effort.

    I keep trying different incentives to get him on the bottom curve of this spiral.

    What I really want is for him to have teachers who recognise his spark, and his willingness to learn and engage … sometimes this happens, but I don’t count on it. We do what we can at home to keep his fires burning AND try to get more than 65% out of him.

  4. fozmeadows says:

    Hi Suze,

    At school, I was a bit like your son. I was bright, I fiercely resented the way I was taught English, which by rights should’ve been my best and favourite subject, and felt generally coralled at every oportunity. I was extremely fortunate to have the guidance and confidence of several amazing teachers, without whom, it seems likely in retrospect, I never would’ve maintained enough enthusiasm for the idea of pushing through school at a level above coasting to get the marks I did. Coasting is what I did in other people’s classes, because I could afford to, and because I was driven by my own projects in my own time, which meant that school, in giving me no scope to investigate these projects, was a direct imposition on my time and a barrier to my own enthusiasm.

    These great teachers circumvented that. They made me passionate, not about the curriculum, which they often criticised themselves, but about ideas. The fact that they were willing to agree with me about the problems in the system – and, indeed, describe aspects of it that imposed on or curbed their own ideals, things I otherwise wouldn’t have considered or even heard about – served to bolster my cynicism, but it also took away some of my hopelessness, and made me trust their judgement. Once I realised that a most of getting through the objectionable schooling was all about pragmatism, it gave me the mental leeway to deal with it appropriately, to stop ramming my head against a brick wall and start being just a teensy bit subversive. If particular subjects were weighted more heavily than others, I could afford to slack off without damaging my marks, because the curve would pull me up. Similarly, I knew to put in work elsewhere. I’d stopped caring about the system: and that meant, even though I was working it, that my mind was elsewhere, drafting stories in my head as I sneakily edited a manuscript or read a novel in class.

    Sidenote: had Cory Doctorow’s book Little Brother been written back then, and had I read it, it would’ve revolutionised me. If your son hasn’t already read it, I strongly recommend you nudge it in his direction.

    My parents, like you, would sigh at some of my marks. Even when I did extremely well, my mother would smile and say, ‘And imagine what you could’ve got if only you’d put in some effort!’ To which I’d silently think, ‘Why bother?’

    When you said: “Students come in expecting to be able to get a job after your course, but in reality, there may be very few real jobs. The TAFE teacher needs to educate them to cope with the wider world than their industry”,

    – that, for me, pretty much sums up the problems with schooling everywhere, while simultaneously suggesting a way to fix it. We need more vocational options, yes, because more students would benefit from them than not, but the bigger job of schools should be to help students think, to show them how to learn, to have confidence in themselves and to teach them how to love ideas. I remember almost nothing from my highschool geography lessons, but I do remember the time the geography teacher gave me the benefit of the doubt, subsequently admitted fault, and in so doing, treated me briefly like a peer. That’s what stays with us from school: not raw data, but emotional, social memories, and to base our futures and curricula on entirely the opposite seems deeply anachronistic.

  5. […] ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator: I […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s