In a hair under three years from this date, I will graduate with a college degree. Now, of course, many, many factors go into play for this all to go according to plan, including, but not limited to: continuing to finance the $25,000 per year price tag- cheap by higher ed standards- juggling the trials and tribulations of newfound adult freedom, and, of course, passing my classes (Yes, Mom, I promise to not slack off too hard…). But, for simplicity’s sake, let us assume that in May of 2021 I graduate from the University of Minnesota, clutching in triumphantly held fist a small maroon-and-gold diploma certifying the completion of my undergraduate higher education.
On that day, in the not-too-distant future, I will probably feel pretty good about myself. All of my hard work will have paid off, so to speak, on that day of commencement. I may hold myself higher than all those poor, unfortunate chaps lacking the great rubber stamp of approval that is adhered to achieving a college degree. It may seem, as Dr. Seuss would say, that, “Today is your day. You’re off to new places! You’re off and away!” Perhaps, even, I will feel something like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory did that fateful moment in which he found the “golden ticket,” excitedly unwrapping an automatic fast track to candy-coated wealth and success. Ruefully, though, in reflecting on the sum of all of my experiences and observations in and of American education up to now, I find that this golden ticket metaphor is perhaps not too extreme an exaggeration.
What is your very first memory of school? For some, it might be spelling bees, or elementary school playdates; for others, perhaps learning the alphabet song, or running and regaling on the playground, or fond remembrances of first crushes. However, the single memory that I most clearly hold from my earliest days in school is a simple one; sitting on the brightly-colored, easy-clean rug of my preschool, toying with, and being slightly confounded by, a pegboard filled with many different shapes to match up. Now, whether my geometrically-challenged self at the time did in fact correctly match all of the pegs to their respective homes will forever be unknown. But what I do find interesting in so reflecting is that, somehow, this memory now seems a very apt analogy for my fifteen-plus years of school to follow.
When speaking of education, and the purpose it serves to the current, as well as future development and well-being of both youth and young adults such as myself, I believe that there are two main definitions at play within our society today; what education is believed to be for, and what it should be for. With over a decade-and-a-half of American schooling under my belt, I feel that I can assert with absolute certainty that there are some fundamental flaws in how we have chosen to structure education. From the simpler nature of early education onwards, the entire system, it seems, has fallen under the exact economically-driven, growth-inducing, productivity-focused spell as our wider society as a whole. These flaws start around middle school, and exacerbate in high school, where, no matter if a kid goes to the wealthiest charter or the most budget-cut, floundering public, the current mantra remains similar across the board: Study hard, Get tested, Repeat. Do better than everyone else, Go to the “best” college. Land a lucrative career and be considered successful. Optional: Be happy, healthy, sane, low-stressed, and enjoy life along the way. Simple, straightforward, productive. Keep society progressing, GDP growin’ and strain on our precious planet’s health a-goin’.
We can see the secondary educational system displaying this mantra in many forms today; including oft instances of teaching-to-the-test, memorization-based learning, the ever-widening influence of standardized assessments and courses, and the stressful, dog-eat-dog rat race that is the college application process, as just several examples. With all of these things shoved down our throats and preached to us as the best, newfangled ways forward, how can one not feel like just another bubble on a Scantron, letter grade scribbled in red ink, or product on the factory line? Simply enough, as long as anyone studies hard, passes the tests, and jumps through the numerous hoops during secondary education, they can fulfill their academic duty and be made ready to march on as a well-greased cog in the consumptive wheel of human society. We are teaching young people that being really good at succeeding on academic tests is a first-class ticket to personal success, while glossing over many other, far more important aspects of education.
Why give kids the encouragement and opportunity during middle and high school to read, write, and explore their interests for fun when they could be prepping for the ACT, or dredging through mountains of busy work, or cramming for fact-based assessments? Why encourage stress-free, creative, interpersonal environments for learning when students can instead be graded endlessly, ranked among their peers, and scored up for college readiness like pigs at a market? Why judge ability by the strengths of the individual student, when it can instead be markered against other students by test-taking ability (ACT, SAT, etc.) and class ranking? Why give young people about to enter a turbulent world practical skills, life perspective, belief in their intrinsic self-worth, and resilience to difficulties when they could rather feel that their success during a miniscule time period of their lives will determine that of the rest of it? And, why teach the youth of our future what that exact future will most call for, literacy in sustainability, environmental science, big picture synthesis, systems thinking, and ecological respect, when what we are teaching, both directly and indirectly… I guess… is so much more pressing?
As my preschool peg game taught me, square pegs do not fit in round holes, no matter how hard your chubby fingers try. Yet, by focusing so hard on such things as standardizing testing, pushing college prep programs, and inundating students with busy work- all thereby playing a hand in stressing adolescents to ballooning levels of mental illness- we are doing exactly that on a large scale, structuring our education system as a giant, one-size-fits-all hole, despite each student being their own unique peg to be fit. The world, and all of the socio-ecological issues plaguing it today, cannot be righted by standardized, inside-the-box methods. Even my own AP Environmental Science course in high school, one that should, rightly, be concerned first and foremost with showing students radical, innovative ways of approaching all too commonplace social-environmental discordances, fell prey to this; through no fault of the teacher, or school, but the wider American educational environment. Rather than be allowed to give the practical field experience, time to collaborate on problem-solving, and opportunity to deeply reflect on the state of the world so needed and beneficial for young minds to connect book-smarts with world-smarts, we were relegated, as a result of the stringent requirements of the College Board program, to hammering out classroom-based, fact-heavy units at breakneck speed in order to adequately cram our brains for the year-ending AP exam. (And a growing number of educators themselves are echoing this frustration: see here and here.)
What I am saying, therefore, is not that our present K-12 system is entirely failing at the ultimate goal, of, well… educating. Rather, I believe that our current means of reaching proper, needed levels of education for young people are not well-lent to the ends. Where is simply the love of learning, the stress-free, deadline-free, grade-free, dog-eat-dog-competition-free desire to understand who, where, and why we are? Teaching our children that complex, interconnected problems require creative, outside-the-box solutions is what education should be for.
I am still currently right in the thicket of this systemic problem, as it only furthers in post-secondary education.
Dissonance, as it is usually thought of, is the lack of harmony between musical elements. However, a lesser known iteration exists in the mental realm, known as cognitive dissonance. Rather than a sparring of tones, cognitive dissonance relates to a clash of two or more values, beliefs, and ideas simultaneously held within a person. For a businessman, this might be valuing dedicated, hard work but feeling unable to do so under a terrible boss. For a mother, it might manifest as a fundamental desire to keep her children safely close-at-hand, while also recognizing the necessity of promoting their gradual independence. For a college student like myself, though, the greatest of these may very well be recognizing and appreciating the wonderful opportunity to be in school, while also believing that more meaningful channels of energy could instead be directed towards change-making in the wider world.
Though I would be loath to admit that my beloved Gophers are not in fact all that different from, say, the despised Iowa Hawkeyes, when it comes down to it administratively, all American colleges are essentially one and the same. As with any money-making, bureaucratic institution with a bottom line to meet, universities like mine are incredibly hampered by the utmost of process, restricting their ability to be forward-thinking beyond their yearly agendas and quotas. Such a reality is tough to reconcile for action-oriented students, who recognize the urgency by which our society must act on the many socio-ecological issues we face, but feel absolutely disheartened by the crawling pace of change at colleges. I have first-hand experience with this. This past school year, I headed a student government committee at the University of Minnesota which pushed for greatly expanded organics recycling across campus. Although our year-long campaign to school officials did yield a successful pilot program in three university-owned residence halls, I do not believe it naïve to say that much, much more could have been achieved during that span were there not seemingly endless consideration periods, lapses in communication, deferrals and referrals, and deviations from agreements, all by administrative figures. All, literally, to put in place and procedure a few bins with compost bags in them.
This is just one facet of great frustration that I, and others I know of around me, express with post-secondary institutions in general. But even beyond the bureaucratic processes that hamper forward-thinking change, it is quite possible that the core nature of university education itself is flawed. For the many aforementioned reasons, I believe American higher ed to be somewhat analogous to a giant factory line for degree-producing, which, as a result, cannot adequately adapt to, address, or rectify our present problems as a global society. However, I am not the only one to hold this view. Two of my very own professors this year, both teaching environmental sustainability-type classes, echoed almost the exact same sentiment; that education, or at least our current form of education, cannot do enough to be a catch-all answer. This does not mean that we should not educate, nor have universities; however, 21st-century problems cannot be solved by either centuries-old academic institutions or their equally out-of-date methodologies. As a paraphrase of both of their words, “Education, in general, is a long-term solution to short-term, pressing problems.” Pressing problems, which, the question remains, our current university system is even a solution to at all. When all anyone is ever pressed to figure out, decide, and act upon is their specialized path, their plan for college, and their future plans, how can acting in service to everyone’s future really be part of the equation?
Person 1: “What’s your major?”
Person 2: “[Insert major here].”
Person 1: “Okay, cool. So what do you want to do with that?”
This conversation could be taking place on any college campus, to anyone, at any time. It is positively unavoidable. And it goes right along with this expectation of immediate specialization.
“Well,” I would respond, “I’m majoring in Global Studies with minors in Sustainability Studies and Environmental Sciences… and, uhh, I have no idea what I want to do with that yet…” I mean… should I?
Should we be predicating to my, and future, generations that climbing the wealth, status, and career ladder by immediately laser-focusing on a lucrative field, living out that rich dream, and then kicking the bucket is really the definition of success in this life? Is it in their best interests? How about that of our planet?
We are churning out hordes upon hordes of über-specialized young adults, when what we, and our planetary future, most desperately need are skilled generalists to connect the dots and remind us that there is in fact a bigger, wiser, and more beautiful picture than personal success. It is all too easy to live through this brief, precious existence we have with such blinders on; nose bent down to the grindstone, naïvely slaving through early education, high school, college, careers, and the rest of our post-grad lives. Working, and working, and striving, and striving for what our consumptive human enterprise at large believes should be strove for… a Manifest Destiny of manifesting destruction. As evolved, social creatures, it may be our innate tendency to amass status, security, and riches among our tribes in this way; however, today we inhabit a fossil fuel-driven age of compounding ecological distress and collapse in which such a psychological nature is entirely unsustainable. The very fact that we can spend our hours debating Socrates, doing obscure lab research, and learning the arts all across our plush, tree-lined campuses is a function of the energy-plenty, privileged times we live in. Though none of these aims are wrong, academia does not even consider this; that the existence of universities is not a law of the universe, but a flash-in-the-pan result of an opportune blip of climate stability, resource plenty, and the invisible hand of progress giving us rise today. Yet, likely sooner than we know, there will come a day when we would be apt not to waste this miniscule window of opportunity for academic pursuits on those “progress-driven” aims which drive our impending doom. Therefore, education must do its absolute to expose, shift away from, and wisen our coming generations to this reality.
So, in three years, my maroon-robed self will likely stride forth to receive my college diploma. That symbolic token that I clutch may reveal nothing much more than my name, but magnitudes greater will be ingrained in that parchment than simply the ink on paper. There are, and forever will be, many fantastic things about this American education I am experiencing, as well as many… not. Taking all into account, being a modern college student is no cakewalk, no. It is certainly flawed, and there are certainly fallacies. However, perhaps the most fundamental origin of this dissonance I describe originates from so badly not wanting higher education to be wasted. Being part of the approximately seven percent of the world’s population fortunate enough to be receiving any form of college education, we should be inspired, stretched, challenged, broadened rather than über-focused, and be preparing, in doing so, to lead a future in which we spread the wealth and fruits of our opportunity, not keep it for our personal “betterment.” I do not devalue, depreciate, or disrespect any of the schooling that I have received up to today. On the contrary, I hope that I, and all of my peers in the same place as me, afforded this incredible gift of furthered education, will appreciate it to its fullest extent. Then, and only then, can it be used and improved upon not for personal gain, and thereby self-alienation, but for lasting ecological, social, and cognitive systemic change, which all of our futures so desperately call for.
Teaser photo credit: By ChristianSchd – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24564856