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Enough with the complaining about education
by Jay Gutman
2014-06-26 10:31:49
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Education policies were never designed by informed policy makers. Students were never bright or disciplined. Teachers never did what they wanted in the classroom. Professors were always hired based on the research credentials, not their teaching ability. Higher education was always corporatized. Degrees have always been worthless to a certain extent.

I’m also the kind of person who tends to look at the past with rose-colored glasses. I remember buying a week’s worth of groceries for 20 Euros in Paris. I remember the nice apartment I used to rent for 400 Euros a month in the chic suburb of La Defense. I also remember when travelling was worth something, when people looked at me with awe when they found out I speak 9 languages, when being born in New York City was an accomplishment in itself. I remember fondly when I applied for a job at a local radio station and was told I was the only applicant, and asked to recommend people I knew for the job. That past is long gone.

I complain about the present with other people, but the line not to cross is when I hear the words “mental illness” or “depression”. Yet today, even serious newspapers like the Guardian run entire sections on depression and mental illness in academia and education. That’s crossing the line.  

Teachers are complaining they have no power to decide what to teach in class. They never did. In the past, textbooks were scarce and dictated what the teacher should lecture. Today, in the age of information when teachers have a plethora of teaching ideas that they would like to experiment in the classroom, governments are stopping them from doing so.

Teachers are also complaining about the increasing tendency to standardize tests, to ask students to evaluate teachers and think it is the root cause of lack of student motivation or creativity. Why am I the only one who seems to remember that I used to dread going to school, that most lectures put me to sleep and that I saw no point in being tested? Since when were students taught to be creative? Teaching creativity is an oxymoron itself.

Times have changed and we live in times where every student can secretly record what is going on inside a classroom. Student evaluations are a friendly reminder for teachers that what is going on in class is no longer a well-kept secret. Standardized tests and common core requirements prevent teachers from teaching what they find on Wikipedia, or from going by teaching things that are off-topic. Their effectiveness is subject to debate, but so was the effectiveness of everything else in education.

As for academia, indeed it has become expensive because of supply and demand. In my time, those who had a general inclination for intellect went to college and those who hated books did not. Those who studied the humanities usually ended up teaching or work for large companies, those with science degrees fixed machines or worked in labs. Those who didn’t go to college worked in the service sector, for smaller companies or worked in factories. But I’m not saying there was no unemployment. 

Today every parent has been convinced that every student needs college education to get “a decent job” but no parent has been told what the “decent job” was. People started going to college regardless of whether they’ve ever opened a book. Universities, which had limited seats, bumped up tuition prices to prevent a tsunami of students they could not accommodate. Students found cheap loans, more students wanted to get college education, and tuition fees kept skyrocketing. Yet, students still don’t know what “decent job” will help them pay back their student loans.

Ph.D. students were always cheap labor. But their work was a lot more tedious. Back then they involved typing the professor’s barely legible handwriting on a typewriter, spending 5 hours in the library scanning 50 books to find that small quote you think you remembered reading, or spending hours looking at library catalogues to find what you think were the books you had to reference. Google saved us time, but I must admit dissertation are getting longer, but not always better in terms of quality.  

As for academic jobs, the rule was always no publications and you’re out. Those who did not publish got adjunct jobs or bribed their way up to tenure. Those who published were almost guaranteed tenure-track jobs, although such jobs were by no means a guarantee. Things have not changed, except perhaps that more students are getting Ph.D.s, and universities are hiring fewer tenure-track professors despite the higher number of students. It never mattered whether there were 100 or 1,000 students in the lecture hall, so what universities have been doing is increase the size of lecture halls, as better technology enables the professor’s voice to be heard.

Education has always been in crisis and we all think we know the solutions. We don’t. I don’t mind complaining about it. Yes, I wish I taught my own content. I also wish I did not have to bother with publishing to get tenure. And that the students paid attention in class. And that a Ph.D. was no cheap labor. And that tuition was not so expensive. But to say that all this will drive me insane is crossing the line. I hope other industries will not start complaining the way people in education do, and that newspapers will not run stories exclusively on mental illness.  

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Mirella Ionta2014-06-28 04:42:20
I totally agree that our elementary and secondary education systems lack some vital, clear objectives and helpful subjects. Most of the skills I was able to develop I did so outside of the classroom. In honesty, I did not find what I learned in class very relevant for life, daily living especially. I think they should start teaching psychology in high school, morality, spiritual counselling, etc. to help the pupils find answers. The important answers to a human's enduring questions will not be satisfied by a Leo Tolstoy book or by a mathematical formula.

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