Public Comment

The State of Education

By Jonathan Stephens
Friday November 23, 2007

Did any of you have a chance to watch one or more of the countless You Tube segments about the failures of the American education system recently? If you haven't had the chance, I highly recommend that you view at least one lengthy segment as an act of good citizenship on your part. No greater social disease exists today than the demise of our public education system. As a nation we have not seen such a glaring detriment to the collective spiritual growth of our Republic since the days when Jim Crow ruled the social landscape of America.  

So, whom do we blame for the diminishing intellectual returns of our youth over the last 25 years? What institutional failures can we identify in this time frame as the culprits? Why is it that our public education system has eroded from one of the best in the world, to one of the worst in little more than a quarter of a century? Have the jaded personalities that are so commonplace in modern America cultivated a socio-cultural norm that predisposes our public schools to failure? If so, then our public schools stand little chance of surviving this historical epoch in which individual success has taken on a god-like reverence, and collectivist ideals have become passé.  

I realize that we are all predisposed to expect nothing less than hyperbolic sensationalism from the media, yet I can assure you this is not the case with any of the reports I have seen, or read, during my years as a fledgling educator in a credential program. On some levels, I actually think that a bleaker picture could be drawn than the one promulgated by the media. For instance, the countless fights and racially charged violence that I witnessed nearly every day at a Richmond area middle school last year and Berkeley High School the year before that, are the types of events that I do not normally see covered by the media. Perhaps it is just too raw for us to look at these stark situations and admit to ourselves that, despite all of our talk about the virtues of plurality and social justice, the message is not clear to our young people. Their actions certainly bear witness to this fact.  

Sadly, circumstances like the ones I just described defined my time as a teacher. It is a sad fact that well meaning people such as myself, and other educators, become so overwhelmed by the multitude of problems in our schools that we run hard, and fast, away from this discord to seek employment in a more serene environment. The result of this phenomenon is the further alienation of our young people by the people they need the most between 8 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon.  

Many people suggest that the way to solve the problem of teachers fleeing the field is to pay them more money. That is flat out wrong in principle. Although more money is always appreciated in trades that are over worked and underpaid, people that propose money as the solution to our educational dilemma do not understand the complexities of our school system. To put it bluntly, very few people go into teaching for the money. There is a strong culture of idealism that defines most of the people who strive to become educators. The way to keep these individuals is to ensure a peaceful environment for them to practice their trade. The truth is that many of our young people increasingly lack respect for their teachers, and the ideals of solidarity and learning that are encouraged in the classroom. Until we create a classroom culture that can guarantee teachers will have the opportunity to practice their trade in peace and safety, the problems facing us will only get worse.  

I realize that this line of reasoning makes me sound like an undisputed fatalist with a cynical streak. However, I would more accurately describe myself as a realist from whom the youthful idealism that drove me to pursue teaching as a mechanism of social justice was squashed by the harsh reality of a heartless and uninspired social condition that our young people are all too willingly to oblige at the expense of their own intellectual growth.  

Ultimately, all of the words I have written are as meaningful as the diminishing return our tax dollars provide for our schools and the students therein. Learning is a state of being that is bequeathed upon us by the death of our own ignorance. It is not a commodity that can be quantified by a fiduciary bottom line in Washington or Sacramento. In this day and age we have become external manifestations of the internal metaphor we call stupidity. That is to say, we are witnessing the ascension of uselessness.  

As a final thought, I hope that our society reacquaints itself with the idea that teaching, and knowledge acquisition, is a mechanism of social Darwinism that serves the potential for self-actualization. Learning is as natural to our instincts as spinning in circles is to a toddler. We cannot turn off our inherent curiosity anymore than we can turn off our sexuality. In this respect I see hope for the future of the human race, for the drive to enhance the intellect can never truly be turned off, it can only be misdirected.  



Jonathan Stephens is an educator.