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.

If we were to begin training the mind first and making knowledge secondary, it would transform education. It would substitute a natural method for one that is arbitrary and artificial. It would change the ideals, the attitude, the atmosphere, the spirit and method of teaching. Education would be a joy to the child and to the older student, instead of a long, dreary, painful process.

What was learned would at once become part of one’s thinking and would be a constant inspiration throughout the whole later life of the individual. We would carry into business and all of the other phases and activities of our life the principles and powers in which we had been trained.

From our earliest school years we have had constantly dinned into our ears the (quote) “value” of what we were learning. Under the hypnotic spell of constant reiteration we somehow believed that in some occult way it must be true, but we could not know it was true. At our college graduation we heard something like this: “Ladies and Gentlemen, you are now leaving these classic halls of learning, hallowed with memories and associations that will be forever dear to you. You have acquired knowledge that will be of great value to you in the battle of life. Full panoplied with wisdom, with high ideals and clear vision, with trained minds and conscious power, you are now prepared to enter on your life-work.”

This is complete BS that would be humorous if it were not so tragic. There is not one of these statements that is not absolutely false to the fact. We have been fooled and duped as certainly and thoroughly as if it were all done with direct conscious intent. Hardly has a student completed any textbook or any study (hardly has two weeks elapsed), before they have to cram on it anew to get a superficial, temporary veneer of knowledge to carry them through an examination. This vaunted knowledge which was to be “of great value in the battle of life” cannot stand the strain of a two weeks evaporation. A year or two later the student could not get a ten percent grade if re-examined.

Education knows this to be true. Every teacher and professor knows it to be true. Every student vaguely realizes it, and yet the same ghastly farce goes on, year after year, with millions of children in countless thousands of schools. We have sold the birthright of our golden years of possibility for a mess of undigested facts, unassimilated shreds of information, distorted perceptions, confused and unrelated ideas, and vague memories that education irreverently calls “knowledge.”

The one great proof of the indestructibility of the human mind is that it somehow survives its education. When we go out into the world, we manage to get along somehow; we turn as best we can to the natural use of the powers of the mind, but we are sadly handicapped because we have never been taught how to train them or develop them. What we are does not measure up to what we are capable of being, or what we should be. If we succeed in life, it is in spite of our education, not because of it.

As to the boast of Education that she trains the mind, this is as empty and false as her claim to give lasting knowledge. We have blindly trusted her promises; we have paid her price in years of effort, but she has not delivered the goods. She not only does not do this, but it would be impossible for her to do it by her present methods.

Does she train the senses? Does she train consciously and directly the student’s perception, so that it is easy, rapid, comprehensive, certain, efficient? Does she train your observation so that you may think properly of what you see and hear and make your own instant deductions? Does she train your reasoning so that you may think out clearly and soundly the problems of your life and the manifold impressions that come to you?

Does she train your memory for faces, for names, for dates, for locations, for events? Does she train your judgment, your will, your self-control? Does she directly exercise your imagination, train it and show you how you may train it still further and keep it under the control of will and guided by reason?

Does she give you an appreciation of the good, the beautiful and the true and develop in you a taste for the finest, a love for the best? Does she give you a strong virile vocabulary in your native tongue, ever at your control, with knowledge of how to increase and strengthen it?

Does she thrill the individual with the vision of her possibility, start your mind tingling and aglow with the joy of your having a mind whose weakness you can transform and whose strength you can increase because you know “how,” because you have had every mental muscle massaged by exercises that have made them supple, instantly and instinctively responsive to need?

Does she exercise you in thoroughness, accuracy, and rapidity in mental processes and in the performance of every task that your hand touches? Does she train you in clear consecutive thinking? Does she train your mind, along the line of principle, so that you can apply it in concentration to any subject at will, so that you are a better worker, a better business person, a better scientist, a better citizen, better in any line and most important of all—better as a whole individual?

The answer to every one of these questions is “No.”

When we ask Education why she forces young boys and girls through algebra, geometry, trigonometry and higher mathematics, which most of them detest and which 95 percent will never use and which the five percent or so could get better as part of a professional course, she smiles in a superior, patronizing way and says: “I give them these to develop their powers of reasoning.” If Education really believes this (and the fallacy of this claim can be exploded in a dozen ways) why, when students have completed their course in mathematics, do we not examine them in reasoning?

Imagine a physician having administered medicine to allay a fever being perfectly satisfied with the fact that the patient had taken the dose and later making no temperature test to see if the fever has been allayed. Education is so obsessed with her fetish worship of the power of mere knowledge that she makes no test for effects. She is satisfied if an examination reveals that a certain percentage of her mathematics medicine still remains in the system.

We decry forced feeding in our prisons, why do we tolerate it in our schools? What would we think of setting a child at a table and forcing them under fear of punishment to “eat everything on their plate” for four or five hours of continuous feeding a day, day after day for years? It would seem inhuman cruelty. Nature would revolt. Society and the law would suppress it. It would in reality however be no worse than the enforced mental feeding of our schools.

Children are today over-fed and under-nourished. They may grow mentally fat but not mentally strong. Physical food is of value to the body only as it is digested. What remains unassimilated, acts as a poison on the body–enervating, dulling and deadening physical processes. Mental food is of value only as it is digested. The vast mass of what the mind cannot digest acts as a mental poison–clogging, dulling, drugging and deadening thinking and all other mental processes.

In education, the child, it is true, is often told to use their reasoning, their observation, their concentration, their imagination, or some other power, but the student is never exercised in using them, nor trained in “how” to use them. The child does not even comprehend the meaning of the terms. They are but mere words that he or she cannot translate into any clear idea.

The failure of Education is not due to the teachers; it is the fault of the system. Even if we had in the schools of any great city, the best teachers on earth, they could do little or nothing to better conditions. The system would force them to get a textbook into a child’s mind in so many weeks, with every moment of the time divided, assigned, scheduled like a factory to produce a certain amount in a given time–no teacher thus has time for real training, and would probably be called down or fired if they tried.

The high schools complain of the poor material passed on to them by the elementary schools; the college protests against the poor brand of brains it receives. Both elementary and high schools complain of the pressure forced on them by the demands of entrance examinations and so the vicious circle continues. The failure of education is due not to any single one of these but to all three; they are alike in that they are based on the same false theory.

With drastic cuts in our present curriculum, we can conform the present system to accord with a new ideal, a new method, a new inspiration, and a new model. Great reforms are rarely started within any body or institution; they are forced on it by pressure from without. The American public and the press need first to be aroused and kindled into protest against the failure of our present education. This situation demands not mere talk, but action.


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All transcripts from our educational podcasts are edited adaptations of the original work and copyrighted by LivingHour.org.