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Teaching Opinion

Education as Ritual

By Christian M. Bednar — April 06, 2009 6 min read
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So many students in our public schools regard their learning as a painful necessity—something that must be done simply because they are at the point in their lives when they “should” do whatever task it is we assign them. Students are administered a schedule, given a syllabus, and, ultimately, awarded a grade.

And here’s the scary thing: We—and by “we” I mean we as a society—really don’t care. Sure, it would be great if our children enjoyed a teacher or two throughout their 12 years of schooling, and yes, we certainly wouldn’t mind seeing them excited by one of their subjects, but for the most part, as long as they make “adequate yearly progress” (whatever it is we mean by that), and, God forbid, never fall below grade level (an equally elusive phrase that seems to vanish miraculously once they graduate from high school), we are content, as the director of my former high school English department once put it, to have them participate in the same “ritual” experience we underwent as students. It may hurt for a short time, son, but hang in there, and before you bat an eye you will be out in the real world like Daddy, who, incidentally, found reading To Kill a Mockingbird just as insipid as you do.

So goes the tenor, or at least the subtext, of many of our conversations when school is up for debate.

The general malaise seems to have infected us so much that it takes little Johnny bringing home a D on his report card to shock us, at least momentarily, out of our stupor. Then, as if from nowhere, our ire is irked and we know, almost instantaneously, that one of two things is certain: Either Johnny is a lazy, good-for-nothing you-know-what, or his teacher is incompetent. Whatever the case, learning is clearly not occurring in his classroom.

But here we must pause to examine our current application of the word “learning.” I would wager that its intended meaning is quite contrary to its original sense. Perhaps it is more appropriate (but, of course, less polished) to use “regurgitate and spit back.” Yes, Johnny received a D in class because he was not able to regurgitate and spit back with the same efficacy as Sally, who received an A-plus this quarter—not as nice a ring to it, I admit, but surely much more accurate.

This, I suppose, is what we are truly aiming for as a society. We want quantifiable academic institutions, complete with uniform examinations, standardized learning, and teacher-proof lessons. Let’s once and for all dismiss the ridiculous notion that our schools are designed to train thinkers. We have curricula to align, bubble sheets to order, and worksheets to distribute. We’ll pump our kids with more facts than any generation in history; watch out, world, our educational steamroller is primed and ready to go.

And, for the most part, we have done a damn good job of accomplishing this feat. Math and science are falling nicely into form, history is not far behind, and we are working furiously to establish rubrics for English and art—it’s harder than you may think to make the subjective purely and entirely objective.

We’re on a mission. And whether or not the student is a failing Johnny or an A-plus Sally, he or she is suffering infinitely at the hands of an educational environment armed with more research than ever promoting the importance of critical thinking, yet ignorantly content to wallow in a basal-reader mentality. Introspection is impossible to measure; rote memorization—now there’s something nice and familiar we can really sink our academic teeth into.

If what we seek is to have our children stamped with approval at the end of each marking period, then, I trust, we have already satisfied our ambitions and can tread happily along in our lascivious affair with the first few letters of the alphabet; for not only do most students receive a letter grade, but the vast majority are also privileged to get two, or even three, preprogrammed comments. And, rest assured, when the grade is not to our immediate liking, there will be other teachers in the near future ready and willing to satiate our inordinate desire.

If such is the hope for education, then so be it. But, let’s at least be conscious of what we are saying. To become unduly alarmed at a child’s academic performance (as we now define it), to lose even a minute’s rest over a mere letter, borders on the absurd. A grade is not a surefire indicator of future success, nor is it, by any stretch of the imagination, an assessment of authentic learning. It provides a marginal amount of motivation for a special few, pacifies the masses, and rejects the rest.

We have made education, as has no doubt been noted before, mercenary in nature. Students buy their success by performing specific tasks. Accordingly, learning has effectively been stripped of both its beauty and its intrinsic value. Standardized testing, high-stakes examinations, and quarterly grades all detract from what we should be pursuing in schools. They train students (and their parents) to believe that education is nothing more than a purchasable reward. Thus, the teacher, who rightly recoils when asked if such-and-such an assignment is worthy of credit, has no line of defense. Even the most well-intentioned and high-minded appeal to the intellect is reduced to utter pontification. The villainy taught has been executed, and they, the students, have indeed bettered the instruction.

Eliminating our present evaluative system would do much to reverse the suffocating climate in many of our schools. This change requires neither an exceptional degree of innovative thinking nor a supplementary allocation of funding. What it does demand, however, is the recognition that the process of learning is intangible and immeasurable. When we attempt to quantify that which is unquantifiable, we destroy.

We can, of course, continue pouring billions of dollars into the all-consuming leviathan we parade as school reform, but I doubt anything significant will ever be accomplished. Bored students will still fail or succeed; depending on how much they have bought into our game, concerned parents will forever despair or rejoice, in direct proportion to their child’s malleability; and the teacher who no longer has the energy or inclination to teach will content him- or herself by filing yet another probationary or commendation form. The cycle is self-perpetuating and antithetical to the essence of an educated public.

The true travesty is not so much that many of our schools are failing by some objective standard, but rather that we are so set in our ways that we scoff at what seems to be an essential ingredient of those “alternative” schools, where students are encouraged to focus on learning, not evaluation, and (gasp!) even seem to be engaged. If the medical field treated experimentation with the type of disdain we reserve for such institutions, trephination would be state-of-the-art, and the prognosis for patients, like our schools, would be exceptionally dim.

No, the school reform we content ourselves pursuing is that which is most comfortable, most marginal. It masquerades as meaningful change, yet shamefully conceals an intense apathy for learning as it might exist. Is it then such a wonder that the beneficiaries of our indifference dread each of the 180 days we have so recklessly required?

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A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2009 edition of Education Week as Education as Ritual


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