"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge. Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty. Never regard study as a duty, but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs."
- -- Albert Einstein
"As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble."
- -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education--and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries."
- -- Ivan Illich
I hope that it's obvious to everybody that the educational system in North America is in really bad shape. If not, then we're in way bigger trouble than I thought.
The Emerson quote (above) summarizes nicely what I think is wrong with our educational system. The system is designed so that every student can pass it, as long as they do the work -- they just have to know the methods. It doesn't matter if they don't understand the priciples behind what they're doing, and in fact, it's gotten so bad that students are encouraged not to think about what they're doing -- just learn the methods so you can pass the course and get it done with! It's not important to understand it now, because you're not going to need these skills for 10 years, and you're going to forget it anyways.
Why teach people what they don't need to know? (Scroll to the bottom for more information about schools that teach kids how to learn and be self-directed, instead of little automatons.)
Implicitly, we're taught that we shouldn't think for ourselves, that the teachers are the holders of knowledge, and that we're supposed to shut up and listen. And, that they are the only ones qualified to judge us. In reality, people have to judge themselves; if you depend solely on other people's judgement, then you're going to be a screwed up person.
Teaching people not to think for themselvse also has a secondary advantage: it teaches us to obey authority figures (like teachers, experts on TV, journalists, politicians, and basically anybody who acts like they know more than they really do) without thinking. This makes people quite pliable and controllable. I think the ruling-class has a vested interest in keeping education crappy, to maintain their empires.
Nowadays, we spend far too much time being entertainment sponges. We get used to having things fed to us, which makes us far more succeptible to being programmed.
Because the Internet is so new we still don't really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that's what we're used to. So people complain that there's a lot of rubbish online, or that it's dominated by Americans, or that you can't necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can't 'trust' what people tell you on the web anymore than you can 'trust' what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can't easily answer back -- like newspapers, television or granite. Hence 'carved in stone.' What should concern us is not that we can't take what we read on the internet on trust -- of course you can't, it's just people talking -- but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV -- a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no 'them' out there. It's just an awful lot of 'us'.
Since a democracy is predicated upon the assumption that its citizens will stay knowledgable of happenings, state their opinions, and fix things when they start to go awry, being mis-educated and easily programmable is possibly the biggest problem facing our society today; an easily programmable populace would not only allow but actively support the commission of horrible atrocities against others or even (unknowingly) against themselves. As Mark Twain says,
In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may.
If you're not aware of the extent to which people are losing their abilities to think independently, read this article:
One of the fundamental problems with the educational system is that it was created originally to produce factory workers who are good at doing what they're told (which is why it's sometimes referred to as the "Factory System"). This system was specifically designed not to produce independent learners.
Here's an excellent essay which explores the entire situation in our modern educational institutions:
Why nerds are unpopular (by Paul Graham)
One of the major problems I see with schools is that they don't encourage students to play. Real learning comes through experimentation, not memorization. In fact, memories are get lost easily unless they're connected to many different things in your brain. When you learn something by experiencing it first hand, you create many neural connections to it. You have images, sounds, smells, movement, emotions, and more! Pure memorization with no context is like trying to memorize strings of numbers -- they just don't make any sense, so they're stored very tenuously, and disappear after a short period of time. (We're all familiar with the exam cram and then sudden brain dump afterwards.) Being involved movitates you as well. A great philosopher once said, "Tell me something, and I will know. Involve me, and I will understand."
Creativity is also important. Read The 6 Myths Of Creativity (Fast Company) for more info on that.
Education should be more practical. The domain within which I was educated (computer science) tended to be way too abstract. We'd learn ideas in a vacuum without having any kind of real situations to apply the ideas to. Without those real situations, it's really impossible to judge the usefulness of the ideas, or what the point of learning them is. I think that a lot of the things we're taught are just trivia that's taught for the sole purpose of evaluating us.
There is hope, however. There are excellent schools out there that are changing the way people are taught, and the results are amazing. The Sudbury Valley School has been in operation since 1968, and they've developed a great system. The Beach School in Toronto just opened in 2003 and is using the same model as Sudbury Valley. Read these essays from Sudbury Valley to learn more about their teaching methods and philosophy.
Remember, kids are going to replace us. If we don't wise them up, then what'll happen to the next generation?