School Survival

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Why Education is Broken

Author Isamu Fukui shares his thoughts on the educational system and why it doesn’t work.
by Isamu Fukui

Most everyone these days agrees that our existing school system is inadequate, or even broken entirely. I’ve seen a variety of reasons used to explain this condition, including improper funding, underpaid teachers, and a variety of other material issues which do absolutely nothing to explain why the institution itself is fundamentally flawed. As a student who attends one of the top public high schools in America, I can attest that there are problems even here, and that they have nothing to do with funding or facilities.

These days the only oft-repeated talking point that I would agree with is that our schools are far too dependent on standardized testing, to the point where it’s become the great national obsession of our students. This test fetish of ours stifles creativity, rewards uniformity, punishes independent thought, and does very little to cultivate fertile minds. While it may be convenient for schools to have one yardstick by which all students are to be measured, it is not at all an effective means of gauging actual intelligence or even knowledge.

On top of this there are a number of other issues that, while not addressing the most fundamental problem of all, are also worth a mention. Chief among these is an increasing fixation on authority and “security”. My school lies a quarter mile from ground zero, and many students there believe that its principal has openly exploited 9/11 as an excuse to ramp up security and restrict student freedoms. New York City in general recently banned iPods from public schools out of a vague concern for “student safety”. These are relatively mild cases of safety being used as an excuse to expand authority at the expense of a free environment…but there is also a much uglier side to the security fixation.

For example, New York City has a habit of sending its worst students to a special school near Boston where they are outfitted with electrical devices that shock them if they disobey. Recently a disabled 10-year-old girl was handcuffed by the NYPD on a school bus because she looked “unruly”; turns out she had ADD. Oops. Two days later, as if to break some sort of record, a 5-year-old was cuffed at his elementary school. While these cases represent the extremes and not the norm, they provide a dramatic (if not necessarily representative) example of how our society is slowly going mad over student safety and school authority.

But as mentioned earlier, these issues are not what lie at the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is something much more fundamental – that is, the roles of students and teachers. The common belief seems to be that schools should be like a factory. The teachers are the workers, and the students are the products. Ideally students are supposed to sit down, shut up, and absorb whatever the teacher pours into their heads. The idea is to produce as many contributing members of society as possible – a noble goal, but a horrendously misguided approach.

Students, particularly high school students, are by nature independent thinkers. When they attempt to assert this independence, they are written off as “troubled” or “defiant”. The most stubborn cases are denounced as “disruptive” or “uncooperative” – good for them. Instead of having a system which attempts to suppress natural independent thought, why not have a system which takes advantage of it?

Why not create a system where students are partners with teachers in their own education? Where they are not supervised at all times? Where they can have some measure of control over their own education, and the responsibility that comes along with it? Many students today correctly view education as something that is forced upon them, which is why so many react poorly to it. Were students truly given a stake in their own education, I believe that they would rise to the occasion.

I know firsthand that students are capable of so much more than school expects of us, yet many of us are not capable of what they do expect of us – unquestioning obedience, dependent thinking, and conformity. If we are ever to see any improvements in education, the bar must be set higher, for both student and teacher alike. Otherwise no amount of handcuffed five year olds will ever make us any smarter, or any safer.

Parents Defend School’s Use of Shock Therapy
Cuffed Schoolkid Feared For Her Life

Isamu Fukui is the author of Truancy, born on February 6, 1990. He first decided to become a writer at the age of twelve after being impressed by a collection of J.R.R. Tolkien's notes. The next year he won a National Gold Award in the Scholastic Art & Writing Competition. Two years after that, he decided to use his writing to channel his discontent as a student. The result was Truancy, a novel that cast the institution of school as the enemy. Today the author remains a firm supporter of student empowerment, and has continued to write about what he believes in.

Written by: Isamu Fukui
10 March 2008

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