The Industrial Hangover in Education

I could also title this column, Middle School: The Everlasting Black Hole of Education. I’m not an education expert, only a parent, but the trouble with middle school is easily enough perceived.

My son’s a very good student, but I sometimes think that his intellectual and creative apogee to date came when he was three, in preschool, and first exposed to the educational “system.” At this age his mind was wide open, he had no experience by which to decide that education bored him, and he was, like all children and humans, an innate learner.  He had never been in daycare or school before, but bounded in his first day at preschool, declaring that he was “so excited” about it. There was something natural and ingenuous about intellectual adventure and enterprise that seems, for most children, to get increasingly dulled or deadeningly formalized as school progresses.

We parents didn’t get that enthusiasm from our children this September, when 6th grade rolled around. Some of that is just the age, of course. Some of it, however, is the charmless quality of education, especially in middle school.

Middle school education might be hampered by a misperception that the age is a hopeless, futile hell of hormones and social torments. By this logic of futility, maybe we should just ship middle school students off to an island, where they can look in the mirror, text each other, giggle at sexual innuendos, and play video games for a few years until they pull themselves together.

By middle school, there’s a pervasive sense among students in my son’s class that “sitting in chairs” all day long is tedious—and who can blame the kids who feel this way (how often do we park ourselves in chairs for eight hours straight, without breaks of our own choosing, or the liberty to cruise Facebook for a diversion?).

I wouldn’t say that students at this school are mindlessly fed material to regurgitate on tests—it’s much more interactive than that—but much of their performance still hinges on their recall of concepts for tests, and their memorization capacities.

The intellectually passive “prepping for the test” phenomenon in the literal form of practicing and remembering items for the test is worse in the assessment-fixated public school system, where reputations and viability depend on their students’ performance, narrowly constituted.

There isn’t nearly enough writing in middle school curricula—and the dearth of meaningful writing is a problem across the spectrum of the American educational system. There are too many moments when conversations that begin with a good “why” question elicit an “I don’t know” response, rather than an attempt to figure it out, or form a hypothesis.

Much of the educational difficulty comes down to an industrial era hangover. The industrial hangover means that we’re teaching in the 21st century in preparation for an early 20th century economy. Students learn punctuality, the performance of often rote tasks, and the value of being well-mannered and pliant at their desks. In an industrial economy, ingenuity and creativity doesn’t pay off on the assembly line or in corporate middle management, so those qualities and traits aren’t emphasized. Homogeneity prevails over individuality.

The industrial hangover is complemented at my son’s school with a strong dose of pop psychology about self-esteem and an emphasis on “study skills,” which include learning how to take notes, plan for assignments, and organize your material in a logical way. I’m undecided as to the value of these study skills. It seems to me that when kids are inspired to learn something they figure out easily enough how to manage their research and material, simply as a collateral benefit of their curiosity.

On the other hand, some parents have told me that they wish their kids could have learned study skills in middle school, as they were struggling even to prepare basic papers and sets of notes in college.

The emphasis on social and study skills is one approach to middle school. Although it has elements of the industrial hangover pedagogy, it’s also dedicated to building esteem and soft skills. It’s the Middle School as Summer Camp approach.

Another approach, evident in some of the competitive public school magnet programs, is to nerd the kids out on a diet of massive homework assignments, and to focus them intensively on mathematics at 6th grade.

If the “study skills” approach is Middle School as Summer Camp, then this approach is Middle School as Boot Camp. While middle school as summer camp lacks competition—indeed, shirks from it—the boot camp approach ratchets it up. These programs are seized by the notion, perhaps, that homework certifies that a program is rigorous, or they believe the school of education research which holds that homework is beneficial (as with most themes in education, you can read peer-reviewed research that makes opposite points convincingly—either that homework matters or that it matters not at all). The program intends to kick children’s butts with work, perhaps emulating a hazy perception of Southeast Asian educational philosophies.

Neither approach seems attuned to the times.

The question, and problem, is ultimately a big, existential one. What do we intend to teach our children to do, and what lives do we want them to have? Predictions about the trajectory of the economy and culture are highly fallible, but it’s a safe bet that since we don’t know what the economy 20 or 30 years from now will reward, it’s best to teach children the skills to be independent learners who are self-directed, creative, innovative, persistent, and curious, as opposed to functionaries of a defunct industrial status quo.

So many private and public schools say that they do this, in glossy publications and tours, but I just don’t see it happening, and I am not sure why that is so.

It leaves me with a sad, wistful feeling of connections missed--of knowing that we could be doing better, and that we’re leaving talent and genius on the table, but that we don’t seem to have the stamina or the insight to change. 

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