The Real Reason Behind the Modern Educational Crisis

Michael Moynihan


I happened to see a program on television in which several teachers were praised for various awards they had received.  They were particularly honored for “being great teachers.”  No data was cited showing the superiority of their students on standardized tests, although their students probably did, in fact, do somewhat better than their peers.  What was significant about the program was the characteristics it praised in these teachers.

Some of these characteristics I think we could all agree are necessary in a great teacher.  One gentleman greeted his students by name and with a cheerful smile as they entered his room.  All of the teachers had a positive and optimistic outlook and conveyed confidence in the educational process, their subject and the class before them.

Nonetheless, what struck me most of all was the approach to education that these teachers were being praised for perfecting and the corresponding comments of the students.  Comments like “What I like best in him is how he makes learning fun” were typical.  In fact, many of the comments praised these teachers for their ability to make the subject matter interesting, entertaining, even fun.  With their careful preparation, jokes and lively personalities these teachers put on an act that succeeded admirably in conveying information to their students.

First of all, I would like to make clear that I have the utmost respect for such teachers and their dedication and abilities.  My question is a much more systemic and fundamental one, one that I think must be asked.  To put it very bluntly:  is this model of teacher as entertainer and students as audience authentic education?

This approach certainly caters to the entertainment culture the young are brought up in today.  And it may be true that until this broader cultural issue is in some way addressed we cannot really hope for too much more.  What is meant by education in a particular age may in fact be, for all practical purposes, determined by the broader culture of that age.

Be that as it may, however, from any honest perspective, it is incorrect to equate informative entertainment with what has classically been meant by education.  It may be possible to take a teenage suburban boy, surrounded by almost every possible physical comfort, who has extremely poor powers of concentration because of overexposure to television, video games and other sources of entertainment or gratification, and by being funny and engaging and telling an excellent story convey some important information, some of which may be remembered for a time, and even inspire some critical thinking and longings for knowledge.  This, however, is only a pale shadow of what the western heritage has meant by true education.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, we do need some understanding of the historical context to the present crisis in education.  Let’s contrast, for example, our modern suburban teen who is unable to concentrate enough for serious study with his counterpart of 150 years ago in England, although we could pick several times in western history and find similarly educated youths.  The 12-year-old schoolboy in England in 1850 was proficient in Latin, Greek and French.  In addition to reading classical literature in their original languages he was able to write in other languages.  His writing in English was on a level easily equal to average graduates from modern American undergraduate universities.  Granted, this boy was probably from the upper or middle classes of society.  Likewise, he lived in a time when education was not valued primarily for its utility.  There was a general understanding of education as something that assisted in living a full human life and not merely as a path for a career.  These two factors certainly distinguish this time from our own.

In contrast, our times have their own unique challenges:  the advent of a more comfortable lifestyle and the modern entertainment industry assisted by technology, to name a few.  The rapid nature of the stimuli present in video games and some television programs and movies works directly against a person’s ability to concentrate, focus and use his or her imagination appropriately.  Nonetheless, these are not the only factors at work here.  Part of the modern crisis in education comes from within the field of education itself, namely the side effects of the egalitarian thrust of the modern educational system.  In the noble attempt to equate progress in education with improving literacy and bringing up the educational level of the underprivileged, society focused on helping all people achieve certain minimal standards.  At first, these standards were not too far off from what was traditionally considered excellent.  But as the years went on and the focus came to be more and more inclusive, the standards gradually lowered.

What is often overlooked is the part that the changing roles of teacher and student played in this process.  In 1850, as in other “more classical times”, a teacher acted more in the capacity of a coach.  In modern times, he or she has increasingly become the one responsible to move this or that class from point A to point B, not only in the course of an academic year but continually throughout the year in small incremental steps during each class period.  This shift is closely connected with the way the structure of the school day has shifted.  In 1850, the school day was structured around different activities that assisted the students in studying the material.  Take one subject – Lain, for example.  A typical school did not even necessarily assign a particular student to a specific Latin class or teacher.  Rather, the entire Latin faculty was responsible for helping the entire student body master Latin.  There were scheduled times for Latin drills that could be led by any member of the Latin faculty, quiet study, group study or play practice for putting on a Latin play.  Each student was working on a certain form, somewhat analogous to the modern concept of grade level, the key difference being that forms were achievement levels and grade levels are primarily based on age.  One of the key roles of the Latin department was to make sure each student understood what was expected of him to pass into the next Latin form.  When the time came for a student to move on to the next form he would have to pass a comprehensive examination often given by several faculty members.  There was considerable social pressure not to take too long to move on to the next form, as you would be left behind your peers.

It seems to me that the key advantage of this more classical approach is that the student is treated as one who comes to school to study, to master clearly defined material and advance toward a certain appropriate amount of intellectual independence.  Under this system the student progressively grows in his ability to think and learn independently and is prepared for a life of continued intellectual growth.  The teacher’s role is to encourage the students along the way and coach them in the tasks that are appropriate for their level of intellectual development.  This coaching would be much different for the young student who builds up his powers of memorization and concentration than for the more mature student who works harder on his analytical thinking.  Fundamentally, this set-up treats the teacher as the mentor and coach of the student who is actively engaged in the educational process.

Today this key dynamic has been turned upside down:  the teacher is the real active one in the modern classroom, the actor who must educate through entertaining, moving a group of students through a series of finite goals day after day, during the same class period.  The modern student is passive.  Even the best students are rarely led to pursue the intellectual life as its own reward.  They learn dependence on the teacher to impart knowledge to them.  The better students become satisfied by the comfort of continuing to receive good grades by doing exactly what the teacher asks for each individual step of the way.  The tragic result is the degrading of true education from a liberating activity that has value in and of itself to a process that encourages the student to be the passive recipient of what the teacher delivers.

So where does this leave us?  If we have a more noble view of education than that of merely the acquisition of information, whether by being entertained or otherwise, then we must conclude that we truly do live in a time of crisis in education.  This crisis is much deeper than standardized test scores can show.  Rather, education as a disciplined training of the mind and spirit that ennobles the person and helps him or her to live a more complete human life is rapidly becoming ancient history.  In practice, this type of education can only take place when the students freely engage in the exacting and disciplined task of real studying.  Our educational system barely encourages this anymore and has sunk to the level of rewarding the talented and clever – teachers who are good entertainers and students who follow along as contributing members of the audience.

The challenge before us is how to move forward from our current position.  We need to reclaim an authentic vision of education, and we need to do so for our culture and from where we currently stand in our culture.  One solution is to turn to home schooling.  This is an important option that has worked well for many.  Beyond this, however, I am optimistic that much good can be done on the level of schools as well.  What is essential is that schools become less process-oriented.  It may not be possible to abandon grade levels in our current educational context, but we can structure courses to mirror the dynamic that was at work in the older system of achievement levels or forms.  Math is a subject that lends itself well to this type of approach.  In fact, the increasingly popular Saxon Math textbook series allows students to develop by completing progressively more challenging problem sets.  The students learn the subject not only by listening to the teacher but also by doing problems.  The data supports that this method works extremely well, often resulting in marked improvements in standardized test scores where the approach is adopted.  The Saxon publishing company is branching out into other areas with this methodology.  At The Heights School, where I work, adopting the Saxon system for math has generated some interesting albeit chaotic situations.  Some students discover that they can progress much faster than the rest of the class and we have had to offer up to three levels of Calculus in our Upper School.  We have even had eighth graders take Calculus.  In order for a subject to be taught in this way, it is necessary for those who design the program to carefully plan exactly what needs to be taught and to know how to present it according to the way that students who are engaged in the educational process will master it.  This clarity is obviously a challenge for those whose approach to education is overly politicized.

Work also needs to be done on the level of scheduling the day.  Imagine that you are not familiar with any particular method for structuring a school day.  Keeping in mind that a school should be a community that truly fosters the intellectual development of the students, how should you structure the average day?  Is it prudent to divide the day into approximately seven discrete periods and assign each student to go from class to class during this time and work with the same teachers day after day in this manner?  This seems to be more like a factory than a school.  Going through school is like going through the assembly line, first some English is added, then art, then science, then math, now a break for lunch, then history and so on.  Is this the best way to foster true education?  Again, this model comes from the modern push to make education an egalitarian process by which we promote literacy for all members of society and help them to become productive.  The traditional model of education that promotes students as persons who truly study and are at the beginning of an intellectual adventure that will continue for a lifetime fits a more flexible and carefully planned schedule, one that makes the students the primary actors in the educational process rather than the dutiful audience of the teachers.