Millions of Americans have been persuaded that the purpose of education is to prepare our children to score well on standardized tests so that we can have more well-trained workers. As the standards movement gets stronger, we convince ourselves that being a useful employee is the key to a happy and successful life. Rather than nurturing a sense of wonder and a passion for learning, our schools are increasingly devoted to standardizing knowledge into lists of data, telling students what is appropriate for them to know and think, and then ‘scientifically’ measuring how well they regurgitate this data on assessment tests. What is truly important in human life consists precisely of those things that cannot be measured: love, decency, joy, all the great virtues and passions. This is what the education of a human being should be about. But America no longer seeks to educate thinking, feeling, human beings. We seek to educate servants.
The new rallying cries are “Raising Standards” and “No Child Left Behind”, which we all know are just euphemisms for job training. All of this is just a prescription for an efficient human ant hill. And it is worth remembering that in the ant hill an individual life does not count for much. There are always plenty of replacements who can do the same job. The corporate world gets involved in education, worried that their businesses will not be able to compete in the future global economy if the workers being produced by our schools are inferior. They then insist that schools should be run like any other enterprise in a competitive marketplace, and the rules of quality control, managerial efficiency, and good marketing technique, should be applied in exactly the same way.
Thus, we need (1) a common set of standards for the end-product, (2) a scientific test for measuring how well the students and schools are meeting these standards, and (3) an advertising campaign to convince the public that a meaningful education of their children means getting them to score well on these tests. This latter is easily achieved by appealing to parents’ worries about the financial future, and then ceaselessly sending them the message that our schools are in a “crisis”. But the economic system is not floundering because of badly performing schools. The American economy rises and falls in response to numerous and profound market and social forces that bear no relation at all to the day-to-day functioning of our school system.
Meanwhile, the insistence on greater “accountability” of schools does not lead to greater achievement by our students. It leads to greater stress, fear, and alienation, it leads to a dumbing-down of curricula, it leads to pain and stigmatization for many children who do not do well on standardized tests regardless of their intelligence or their classroom grades, and it helps to deepen the rifts between diverse and antagonistic elements of society. This certainly does not mean that there is no room for improvement in the school system. But narrowing our vision and stultifying our minds is not a very admirable reform, and it is merely degrading and destructive to base our educational system on the corporate model, treating our children as nothing more than future workers and consumers who are to be counted, measured, and evaluated. For that matter, these tests have little ability to predict either academic or worldly success: rather, the scores tend to be highly correlated with socio-economic status, and they reward the superficial learning of meaningless rote data rather than critical thinking, creativity, or depth of understanding. There is ample evidence that these costly examinations tell us little about intelligence or competency.
They simply measure one’s ability to do well on the test, a worthless skill in the long run. Our complacent acceptance of cultural directives that tell us what to think and feel has opened the way for the mass degradation of our children by subjecting them to ‘scientific measurements’, as if they were soulless mechanical devices that needed to be repaired and upgraded. And thus our schools have been forced into the business of cloning mediocrity, churning out obedient servants for the economic system. But our schools are not in a ‘crisis’: it is our souls that are in peril. Of course, there are ways that schools can succeed in raising test scores, and many have done so. Deprive our children of recess and sports, eliminate art and music, forego time for interesting discussions, offer less time to read books for pleasure, cut back on field trips and interesting projects, offer fewer electives, and waste a lot of valuable time teaching test-taking tricks, and it is fairly easy to raise scores. But the results are meaningless at best. At worst, they numb our children’s minds, narrow their vision, and kill their spirit, by turning education into a boring, frightening, drudgery.
Recently there have even been calls for the elimination of childhood summer vacations, since ten weeks of fun and fresh air get in the way of preparing for the tests, and threaten our position in the global marketplace. Meanwhile, we find ourselves falling into a hellish world in which more and more high school students respond to the pressures of college admission by committing suicide, elementary school children become ill and obese from lack of recess and play, and kindergartners require therapy to recover from stress disorders. To reform our schools in a meaningful way would mean to restore the notion that education is rooted in wonder, not economics. Wonder is not merely curiosity. It is a blending of enchantment, mystery, love and respect, with thoughtfulness, willingness, and intuition. It reveals to us the intimate relationship between our inner self and the outer world. Knowledge, intelligence and ideas are not scientifically reducible ‘things’. And neither are our children. Children are not meant to be assessed like commercial products on an assembly line. Schools should not be in the business of manufacturing ‘things’.
All of this is just a prescription for an efficient human ant hill. And it is worth remembering that in the ant hill an individual life does not count for much. There are always plenty of replacements who can do the same job.