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Monday, August 19, 2013

The hidden side of why education matters

Based on my last post, you can see that I enjoy listening to podcasts. One of my other favorites is Freakonomics, where they claim to look at 'the hidden side of everything'. I hope to take that approach with a look at education. This post is based on my thoughts after reading Jenna Shaw's recent entry "Why I teach" in her blog.

First off, I think I need to give my own opinion on the purpose of education and then delve into the hidden side that I think is so important. The quick answer to why we have education is so that when we reach adulthood, roughly at eighteen, we graduate or leave school with a shared common knowledge that members of society should have. It has been determined that we all should have a certain level of mathematics, science, English, social studies, etc... The idea being that this knowledge, what is learned in school, is essential for life and that without it you are at a severe disadvantage and much less likely to be successful. This knowledge is what makes you American. There is very little that we as Americans share: ancestry, language, socio-economic status, etc... (with this becoming less and less by the day), but this knowledge links us in a way nothing else does. Theoretically, you should be able to take a graduating senior from anywhere in the country and they should have the same understanding as any other graduating senior. There are values instilled in education, such as hard work, that will definitely benefit any student for the rest of their life. Of course, there is a point to be made about keeping kids off the street and out of trouble and that education serves to curb such problems and give kids much better and more worthwhile pursuits. I am sure I have missed other reasons for education, but the main point is that an educated population is better for everyone in society.

Historically we can look at the formation of our country when the great debate between two of the most famous founders/presidents, Adams and Jefferson, argued over whether the entire population should be educated or if only those with means should be. Luckily, Jefferson won and that from that point education was to be provided for all. This is where the hidden side begins to take place because we all know that all did not mean all, or at least equally to all. Unfortunately, gender and race as well as other qualifications were denied this privilege.

What is interesting about this, from my perspective, is not that certain segments of the population were denied an equal education, it is that after they were finally and rightfully granted access to education, the effect that it would have on society. A disclaimer here: I get that it can be argued that still today not all are educated equally.

Taking the example of denying education to groups in the population, let's look at what happened when blacks were allowed, because this, I feel, is an excellent example of the hidden side. In the beginning, there was major resistance to integration. Some parts of the country received more resistance than others. This process was messy and fraught with many issues, yet in the end it proved to make the biggest difference. As students of different races interacted in class, sports, clubs, and school, barriers were broken down. Some walls took longer than others, but I believe that the biggest difference that integration made was beating intolerance.

Education shines the light of understanding in the darkness of intolerance; breaks down barriers; and it opens doors of opportunity where there were none previous. Sure gaining knowledge in school is important, but what about the social skills that are gained, the understanding about other people and cultures. The hidden side of education is that it is in the schools where prejudices can be broken easier and have a more lasting effect than in any other place. In many ways, intolerance is just a lack of knowledge. Prejudices are just pre-judging a person, a group, a race, etc... As people become more educated they become more tolerant. This is the hidden side of education. For decades it has been the work in schools that have helped to halt prejudices and intolerance. The very nature of learning is the biggest eye opener there is. We see others as people and this humanizing is more powerful than just about anything you learn in school. Sure there are lots of other sources that have helped with intolerance, but it is nature of education that makes it the ideal location for dealing with weighty topics.

I applaud the brave work of those unnamed teachers who made this happen. Their everyday acceptance of their pupils made it easier for classmates of different backgrounds, gender, and race to do the same. Their example was paramount in eradicating prejudice and intolerance. Of note: I realize that there is still work to be done and barriers that still need bringing down. The work is not finished and we shall continue to move forward.

Schools have been asked to do so much. In many cases, they provide meals for students who would not get them otherwise, they provide stability in an ever changing world, and they have been asked to be counselors, parents, police, and social advocates. They are asked to accommodate those with special needs, and teach each student regardless of ability or lack thereof. Schools have been asked to do all this and leave no one behind and prepare each student for life after school. More and more is being asked and demanded of teachers and schools. Test scores have become the benchmark of achievement as politicians suggest this is the way to measure the success or failure of a school. Little is spoken about the hidden side of education: how schools successfully work with diverse populations with varying ability levels every day, how society as a whole has benefited from having an educated population, and how the issues of intolerance and prejudices have had world changing results that have effected not just the US population, but the world population as well.

The hidden side of why education matters is that the very nature of educating a population not only outwardly prepares them for life, but inwardly makes them more tolerant and understanding of others. Education is the anti-venom for intolerance. Schools have and always will be one of the most powerful engines of change in the world. So while the press and politicians may judge teachers on test scores, they should be thanking them for their efforts to make the world a better place for all. It took far too long for this country to realize the supposedly self-evident truth "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Once education became more accessible to all, it helped the entire country better live up to the ideals of "all men". In the end, it was in the schools that it proved most powerful and lasting force against dealing with intolerance.

My last point comes from my teaching. As a geography teacher, I deal with stereotypes of all sorts, whether they be regional, ethnic, religious, etc... Regardless of where we are studying, there are prejudices that are squashed as students realize that people in another part of the world are not so different from themselves. As we humanize others, students are able to see different points of view, and while they may not agree with another's perspective, they understand why they act and think the way they do. To me, this is as valuable as any perceived knowledge they may gain.

Too many times we look at quiz or test data to see if a student has learned the material and act as if that is the end all be all. There are reasons why that probably isn't the best approach that I am not going to get into, suffice it to say that learning to accept others regardless of ethnicity and gender is just as valuable as learning what the capital of China is, yet we don't test on prejudices and intolerance. I am not necessarily saying we should, just that learning takes place in many forms and that all too often what we test isn't all that important. What students learn cannot be fully recognized through assessments. Gaining more compassion and acceptance for others is hard to quantify but may be more important than any knowledge we deem important enough to quiz or test students about.

There are many reasons why education matters. I am not going to delineate each reason I believe is important, that would take too much time and restate many obvious reasons. However, I think schools get shortchanged for their ability to handle tough social issues and help create a much more tolerant, understanding, and accepting society. The hidden side of education is just as important as the outward side of learning. By helping students understand the world and other cultures and people around them, we are teaching them to be more compassionate and caring. We could spend a lot of time teaching character lessons, which have their place and are fine to do, but if we are really doing our jobs, students will come to these conclusions naturally because they understand more fully the people and world that we share.

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