Education Commentary

Why American Education Is Failing

By Joseph W. Gauld — April 23, 1997 7 min read
A plea for intrisic, rather than extrinsic, forms of motivation.

Two new, crucial, and interrelated skills will control the fate of American education: (1) How to more deeply motivate growing youngsters; and (2) How to systemically address parental growth and family issues.

Last year, the president of IBM called all U.S. governors together and got them to agree that establishing national standards is the way to solve America’s educational woes. Clearly, they believe the problem is underachieving American teachers, students, and parents, who simply need to be held to a higher standard.

But the late W. Edwards Deming, who is credited with transforming Japan’s industry into world leadership, brilliantly taught business leaders how to distinguish between problems caused by an underachieving system, as opposed to those caused by underachieving workers. When asked what he thought of America’s educational system, he replied, “It is horrible.”

In 1962, as a dedicated teacher, I suffered a crisis of conscience when I realized I was part of an educational system that was failing kids everywhere. This led to my founding a private school in Bath, Maine, to explore more deeply the process of how youngsters are effectively prepared to live meaningful lives. Here is what I believe the 30-year experiment at my school has uncovered:

Motivation holds the key to educational success. Horace Mann noted that, given a year to teach spelling, he would spend the first nine months just on motivation. The Hyde School experiment rediscovered that the deepest human motivation is self-discovery. We learned to appreciate why the ancient Greeks stressed the dictums “Know thyself” and “Become what you are.”

Hyde found that at about age 13, our deeper intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual capacities begin to empower us to fulfill a unique and larger vision of ourselves; and further, that adolescence is to serve as its foundation. Just as we will not grasp algebra without first mastering the fundamentals of arithmetic, so we will not fulfill our larger selves without first discovering and developing our deeper intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual resources during this critical period.

This comprehensive human-growth process is well beyond the scope of our present educational system, which essentially expects to motivate student achievement through the vision of better jobs and more money. As powerful as these ego motivations might seem, they fail to reach the deeper and more spiritual motivations and resources in students. In fact, this system distracts students from their deeper self-discovery motivation by unwittingly encouraging their more instant-gratification ego motivations--often expressed in drugs and alcohol, sex, cigarettes, aggression, image, cliques, vandalism, shoplifting, cheating, and other negative outlets.

Moreover, this system’s narrow and shortsighted focus on academic achievement unfortunately favors certain inborn abilities and learning styles, which often results in widespread resistance, apathy, and even hostility in students. If we study the varied human learning styles based on the individuation theory of psychiatrist Carl Jung, we will realize that the learning styles of only 12.5 percent of us really fit well in traditional classrooms. If the rest of us hope to succeed in schoolwork, we must scurry around adjusting our more innate approaches to thinking and learning. This may help explain why years of schooling play such a limited role in how most of us actually conduct our lives.

But the American business-university complex has sold the public--and therefore our politicians--on the idea that “world-class academic standards” hold the key to America’s future. Therefore, test-score “achievement” will increasingly dominate our schools, thus further exacerbating America’s continuing conflict between what it rigidly defines as “academic excellence” and the reality of America’s wide diversity of individual potential.

The losers? Many of those who fail to adjust their diverse learning styles to fit the system. Some who get stuck in family dysfunctions that nobody addresses. Others that lack the kind of family support that is almost essential to success in our system. And all of this is producing growing hordes of kids who get seduced into what our wrongheaded system has helped create: today’s overpowering and hedonistic youth culture. Kids are born with a deeper spirit that will seek to express itself; if we don’t give it a right path, it will usually take whatever it can get.

If we were to examine the educations of all those who actually achieve excellence and fulfillment in life, we probably would be shocked by how many had rebelled against our narrow system, and instead listened to their own inner calling. Do we know the number of Thomas Edisons, Orville Wrights, Albert Einsteins, and Eleanor Roosevelts who made it in spite of us, and who ended up leading most of those who trusted our system?

A recent poll indicates that students also overwhelmingly want higher academic standards. Why? Just for the sake of “getting a college degree.” The study sadly reports: “The vast majority of youngsters showed little curiosity or sense of wonder.” Do we really believe our system will somehow magically transform such kids into dynamic individuals in life?

If our system is in fact failing to help American students discover and develop their deeper potentials, then when they become parents, they will likely support the same faulty indoctrination of their children.

Is this happening today? Our experiment in Maine found that effective child rearing depends on parental growth. A child cannot raise a child; effective parents need to learn: (1) how to “let go” of their own unproductive childhood experiences and attitudes; (2) how to let go of their own parents; (3) how to grow emotionally and spiritually, as well as intellectually and physically, en route to (4) pursuing the discovery of their own deeper selves and larger purpose in life. Few American parents today have experienced this deeper growth. So how can “national standards” address this deeper systemic problem?

Kids are born with a deeper spirit that will seek to express itself; if we don’t give it a right path, it will usually take whatever it can get.

The Hyde concept, which has now been successfully tested in public schools, first and foremost seeks to draw upon the powerful self-discovery motivation in students. Its “Character First” process builds on the premise that each of us is gifted with a unique potential that defines a destiny.

This premise gains further strength by renewing America’s commitment to the dignity and worth of each individual. It radically restores character development as a school’s primary task. (As Heraclitus noted, “Character is destiny.”) This in turn firmly centers the entire educational process on the family; because in character development, parents are the primary teachers, and the home the primary classroom.

Our work has proven that this simple intrinsic rather than extrinsic focus can dramatically transform education as it is practiced in America today:

  • It creates a strong student-teacher-parent bond; character and unique potential are primarily developed by example, so parents, teachers, and students alike individually participate in the overall process.
  • It leads students to realize that their many ego responses to the present achievement system are counter to their deeper desire to fulfill their true selves.
  • Students dramatically come to expect the best in each other; they help each other maintain high academic and ethical standards.
  • Character excellence inevitably leads to academic excellence; while we do not prescreen students academically, 97 percent of our graduates have matriculated to four-year colleges.
  • Teachers can be trained to fully oversee the Character First process in just three years; in fact, we have observed teachers leading students and colleagues after only a six-day workshop.

But this is hard stuff. It requires both parents and teachers to realize that they themselves grew up in the wrong system, and that now they must lead by the example of their own changes and growth. We find that students, in time, gratefully and enthusiastically respond to this leadership. And in every case so far, when the parent “gets” the concept, so does the kid, although not always by graduation time.

The choice is ours. We can buy the national-standards solution, blame the school “workers,” and hold them responsible through test scores. Or we can finally begin to act like Americans, roll up our sleeves, and inspire growing kids by our own example of growth. I guarantee they will follow.

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 1997 edition of Education Week