What’s Wrong with Schools & Education in America?

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Today’s reading has been edited and adapted from the essay “What’s the Matter with Education” by William George Jordan, published in 1923.

SOMETIME in the years of the future, we shall look back on the education system of the 20th and early 21st century with the same feeling of revulsion as we now regard the superstitions of the Middle Ages. These are hard words, but they are calmly and deliberately chosen. Such words would be insanely foolish and wantonly unjust if not substantiated by proof. They would be incendiary, useless and dangerously unsettling were no better way provided. But there is a better way, there is a new model.

The failure of education is not limited to America; it extends over the whole civilized world. The most vital problem before humanity today is a true system of education, for it is only as we train individuals and peoples to think, to use their minds and all their other powers to their highest efficiency that we shall find any adequate solutions to our other problems: be they mental, moral, social, political, economic, or industrial. We are failing miserably to solve them today because we have not been able to bring the trained minds of a trained people to bear upon them. We have been relying on the trained minds of a few leaders to carry and control the masses.

This is a deeply personal question to every individual. It determines the character of the world in which you live, and that of your children and all those dear to you. We are all going through life on but a small percentage of the mental powers that should be ours. Even our senses, through which all the raw material of thought enters the mind, are actually weak, dull, drugged, and deadened.

How can we think, remember, judge, reason, and imagine with clearness and force when the very impressions upon which the mind works are blurred, confused, and imperfect? How can we expect to have clear expression unless we begin with clear impressions? There is not one single power, faculty, process, or quality of the mind that is trained and developed by our present system of education. Our powers are not merely untrained—they are positively mistrained.

The one fundamental weakness of our educational system is that it is erected on the rotten foundation of a false theory—one which can be summarized in a single sentence: Education believes that by forcing a certain amount of knowledge, principally by means of textbooks, into the minds of children, that somehow in the divine mystery of mental processes this knowledge will not only be retained, but the mind of the individual will be exercised, trained, and developed.

Our education system makes the acquiring of knowledge the main effort, and training the mind a by-product. She does not prepare the mind for learning, nor directly attempt to train mental powers. The true method is diametrically opposed to this. It makes the training and exercising of every process, faculty, or quality of mind the first and supreme aim, and the acquiring of knowledge secondary. The trained mind absorbs knowledge, acquires and retains it, but mere knowledge does not give a trained mind.

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