Last week, I raised the proposition that American society should begin redistributing its educational effort – putting more resources into adult education; easing back on the institutionalization of the young; and resisting the growing demands of the education establishment for eighteen years of free pre-K-to-BA schooling.
Now, I confess that part of my aversion to the expansion of schooling arises from a veteran teacher’s personal conviction that young Americans are already over-schooled. We herd our kids into massive educational institutions; surround them with others of their own age; force-feed them facts and “appropriate” perspectives; and do far too little to prepare them to think critically and independently.
The result: An unhealthy degree of uniformity in thought, behavior, and cultural orientation. Few of our kids learn to think as individuals.
Yet, ironically, our youth – lacking the intellectual discipline to think for themselves – tend to compensate by thinking far too much about themselves. For several generations, now, Americans have increasingly expressed their individuality in unthinking ways. As a result, we have become a culture of empty-headed narcissists.
Both trends – the decline of individual, critical thought and the rise of uncritical, narcissistic individualism – are disastrous for the maintenance of a democratic society.
Indeed, there’s a case to be made that the decline of American democracy owes as much to the poor quality of our schools as it does to the unrestricted influence of corporate money in our elections.
By failing to instill habits of critical thought, our schools have become fairly good at producing docile consumers, employees, and taxpayers – but utterly inept at producing active, thinking citizens.
One possible corrective measure would be to postpone certain phases of the educational process, allowing young people to spend a few years in the “real world” – working, paying the bills, interacting with people of different ages and backgrounds, and learning to think, at least a bit, for themselves.
In the process – having gotten their hands dirty – they might demand more of their teachers and professors when they return to the classroom.
There are a hundred ways in which this could be done. Here is one small, practical example:
The present model of preparing public school teachers for their careers involves five years on campus – the time needed to earn a bachelor’s degree and an MAT – a master’s degree in teaching.
Curiously, the same period – five years – sees half of America’s new teachers leaving the profession. This problem, which has become chronic in recent decades, does enormous harm to our schools.
Obviously, constant turnover creates a recruiting problem for public school systems. But it also creates a shortage of veteran teachers – the sort of teachers who mentor new professionals and provide continuity within a school building.
Now, to be sure, new teachers leave their chosen profession for many reasons. The pay isn’t great. Working conditions are demanding. There are far too many bureaucrats – getting much better pay – telling classroom teachers what to do.
Moreover, today’s parents can be a terrific pain in the ass – demanding too much for their own children, while doing nothing to cooperate with the schools in the common enterprise of teaching everyone’s children.
But another explanation for the high rate of teacher defection might well be the frustration and disillusion of learning – as a new teacher – that the educational theory you learned in your master’s program has nothing to do with teaching real kids in an actual classroom.
All these frustrations – pay, working conditions, bureaucracy, helicopter parents, and excessively theoretical preparation – are bad enough. Add the daunting prospect of spending thirty years in the same, unbroken routine in order to earn a modest pension – and many young teachers seek greener pastures.
But what if we changed our teacher-training model? Suppose we eliminated the fifth year of college, the MAT, and got young teachers into the classroom a year earlier. And suppose we established a standard, sabbatical year for new teachers who have completed six years of service.
What might it do for a young, but experienced, teacher – facing the prospect of a three-decade slog – if that sabbatical year featured continued health benefits and an assured job, as well as a chance to take a break from the classroom?
My guess is that a sabbatical year could be of enormous benefit in keeping good teachers in our schools. A teacher might use that year to start a family. A teacher in a fast-changing field, such as science or technology, might take a job or do graduate work to get up-to-date. A language teacher might spend a year in a country where her subject is a living reality.
For many, a sabbatical year would be the ideal time to earn a Master’s degree in Education – with this difference. An Ed School seminar consisting of six-year veterans would be far less receptive to the latest, hifalutin educational theory – taught by some academic far removed from day-to-day reality.
Which might just make Ed School classes truly educational – for the professors, as well as their students.