Education: Where Do We Stand?

Some time ago we, as a society, abandoned the idea of learning simply for the sake of learning. The days where great minds like Socrates could sit down and spread their knowledge to eager groups of students are far behind us. In this modern age our culture tends to value overachievers and academic excellence more than it does personal enrichment. It will be a sad day when a student who is passionate about music or philosophy is told that he or she is not as “intelligent” as the straight-A valedictorian.

My fear is that if our education system continues to be based on quantitative evaluations of knowledge, we will eventually become a society in which the creative thinkers with less than spectacular academic performance, the Peter Jackson or Jimi Hendrix of the future, will decrease to such a rarity that creativity will be a thing of the past. Great developments in human thinking occurred during time periods where there were no class ranks, or even traditional schools. John Locke, Plato, a vast number of great minds in the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and even earlier, developed their ideas through self interested study. According to our present school system, in order to become valedictorian, one must achieve above and beyond the level of their peers, grasping hold of that nearly unattainable “academic perfection”. Valedictorians will inevitably go off to attend the nation’s top universities where they will sit in classes with other students who climbed their way to the top of the high school ladder. What benefit do these individuals get from being the quintessential high school student? When we consider the vast number of students who are members of the top 1% of their class, the prestige of such a title diminishes.

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This begs the question when did we, as a society, get to the point where education focuses less about knowledge and more about competition? If you were to ask the average high school student if they would rather focus their education on more specialized subjects, odds are that they will agree. As a student myself, I feel that education should not be forced down the throats of individuals with mouths clenched shut. We are often asked to show our understanding of subjects by regurgitating the information back to teachers, that becomes an easy task when the subject is so vile and tasteless that holding it down is a near impossibility. In a truly perfect world the education philosophy discussed in Emerson’s “Education” essay, would be the best way of encouraging personal fulfillment. Unfortunately the large volume of students compared to teachers in public schools makes such an individualized method highly impractical. I often dream of what education would be like if I was given the opportunity to take only the classes in which I had the most passion for, to be able to whole-heartedly pursue as subject of interest seems like the perfect way to go about learning.

In a world where students are free to pursue their passions, individuals will be able to groom their natural ability without the worry of competing with their peers for some high academic position. Being “good” at school in our current school system is less about learning information, and more about understanding what it takes to get the best grades. To say that a number is indicative of how well a student understands a subject is as ridiculous as saying a person’s height indicates how well they play basketball. And although there can be a relationship between numerical grades and students’ understanding of a subject, to base our futures on such an assumption is completely irresponsible. These problems are, and have been a pressing issue for much longer than I’ve been in school, and based on their current state, they show no signs of improving.

If we continue to inaccurately evaluate “intelligence” and overshadow the talents of those individuals who do not achieve at the highest academic level, we could potentially become a society in which the next “Hey Jude” or “Thriller” is regarded as useless noise, and there are no people willing to encourage the future H.G. Wells to write his “scientific romances” simply because he was not the top student in his class. This is the future that I fear not only as a student, but as a passionate musician, and developing writer. I pray that this day does not come, but as a society we must decide once and for all what is most important, academic achievement, or personal enrichment?