Controlling the Pace of Your Own EducationJuly 1st, 2012 at 16:46
We need to rethink the conventional wisdom in our society that after age four, kids need to be in school, continuously (except for perhaps summertime) from kindergarten for at least seventeen years until they graduate from college. I think it is leaving too many of our young adults dazed and confused coming out the other end rather than feeling prepared and inspired to join the greater adult community. They’ve spent too much time endlessly preparing and practicing to lead a “real life”, with little chance to experience living a “real life” where things they do have meaning beyond themselves. They’ve been too long under other people’s direction to have a sense of confidence in their own ability to chart their own course.
One of the biggest problems with our standardized OSFA (one size fits all) education system is that a group of people (state educational policy makers) who have never met you control and dictate to you your learning process, including what you learn, who you learn it from, where you learn it, how you learn it, and when you learn it. Your education, and more broadly your development as a human being, tends to become something that other people are trying to do to you, rather than something you own yourself.
In this piece I want to focus on the pace of formal education, the “when” you learn it aspect of this high-stakes standardization and the toll I believe it continues to take on our youth and young adults, as it did on me growing up.
Rushing from High School to College
In so many ways we run roughshod over the pace of a person’s individual developmental timetable. Nowhere is this more evident to me than in the conventional assumption is that a young person, after thirteen straight years of full-time K-12 education, should transition immediately into college. From my own experience, and witnessing or hearing about the experience of others (including among my kids’ circle of friends), I think this is mostly very bad, and possibly disastrous, advice. There are exceptions of course, but I think most young people would be better served if they took one or more years of living in the real world between these two major schooling efforts.
So what are the components of conventional wisdom behind this assumption. I can think of the following reasons…
1. School and learning in general is a “chore”, and the sooner you can complete and dispense with it the sooner you can have a real life.
2. Not wanting to go to college immediately is an indication that you are not up to doing your learning “chores” and are fundamentally lazy.
3. Going to college functions as the end of childhood and may finally give you the opportunity to separate from your parents and escape their control and their issues.
4. If you don’t enroll in college immediately after high school you are in significant danger of getting “stuck” in real life (marriage and family) obligations that will prevent you from having the time to “finish” your education. This will doom you to not fulfilling your potential, having low-paying jobs and therefore an unfulfilled life.
5. Since getting you through school and enrolled in college is such a stressful milestone for your parents, and how their parenting is likely to be judged by society, they want to get it accomplished as soon as possible. Any delay signals failure.
6. To the extent that our education system is based on the factory model and turning you into a college graduate is the intended “product”, it makes sense to continue the process of building that product uninterrupted until completion.
7. Its just the way things are done and what all your peers are doing.
I don’t think these are good reasons for an immediate transition from high school into college, except perhaps for item 3 for kids trying to escape dysfunctional families and item 4 for kids who live in at risk communities where the only alternative to college are the “mean streets” or the military.
Negative Consequences of the Rush to College
We generally frame K-12 education as a thirteen-year exercise where you the student don’t really have any profound decisions to make other than perhaps how hard you are willing to work. Since the collective of taxpayers are paying your tab, most people generally accept that you can’t expect to call your own shots.
But where to go to college, what to study, and paying for it is the choice of you and your family. It is increasingly a high-stakes choice due to the escalating costs. Completing a four-year course of study before realizing that you are not able or not interested in pursuing a career in that area can be a debilitating experience both financially and psychically. Student loans these days can take a decade or more to pay off, and may restrict your ability to pursue other developmental opportunities that don’t generate the additional income you need to pay off those loans.
There are some among us that know from their youth what they want to be when they grow up. But for the rest of us, I believe our societal rush to college for mostly the wrong reasons pushes many of us into making the wrong developmental choices, due to insufficient experience and time to ponder how we want to live our lives in the adult world. Perhaps even worse, those bad decisions have a ripple effect that negatively impacts societal development generally. Not only does it limit individuals from understanding, developing and contributing their real talents, but it diminishes the general sense of what human beings and therefore human society is capable of.
We would be better served if our conventional expectations (and the structure of society to facilitate those expectations) involved taking a year or more to go out and participate in the real world – whether working and/or doing some sort of community service. Allowing us to transition from being a dependent “child” to being a contributor to something beyond ourselves before rather than after making the now high-stakes investment in a course of college study.
I know that when I went to college out of high school I had very little sense of how I wanted to live my life in the adult world. And after four and a half years of college classes I had learned a lot of stuff, but not so much about living life in that adult world. It was only after graduating, leaving my hometown and moving to Los Angeles, that I began to get a sense of what it was all about. Beginning to learn how it feels, as Bob Dylan sung in his iconic song “Like a Rolling Stone”…
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
I lived my first few years in Los Angeles on my own. Financed by low-paying jobs, and doing volunteer and eventually paid work as a community organizer, I began to get a sense of who I wanted to be, what I could do, and how I might make a living and lead my life. It was only then that I did a “do over” of college and got a degree which facilitated my ability to get good-paying work as a professional, having at least some sense already of what that work would be like day to day. Lucky for me, my original degree had been paid for mostly by financial need grants from my home state. I paid for my second degree myself, but in the early 1980s a college education was much more affordable than it is today.
Towards Broader Control of the Pace of Your Own Development
I believe that controlling the timing of our transition from high school to college is really only the most obvious “tip of the iceberg” regarding the issues of control of the pace of one’s own development. It is perhaps where we potentially have the most control of that pace. But the same logic I’m suggesting here of “look before you leap” and “measure twice cut once” is also applicable to the formal education we undertake as a youth.
What adult would take thirteen years of training before having the opportunity to apply that training in the real world? It would not make any sense! We recognize this when adults decide to train for various professions, mixing instruction with real-world practice. To demonstrate acquisition of a set of professional skills, a person has to demonstrate mastery in both venues, the class room and the real world.
Yet we routinely force kids to do thirteen straight years of formal classroom education before we give them anything beyond a cursory opportunity to participate in and contribute to the real world. I think this has the impact of keeping most of our schooled young people in an uncomfortable and artificial state of dependency and “childishness”. Is the assumption that the complexity of our society is such, and the profound inability (if not disability) of “children” is such, that we view them fundamentally incapable of contributing to anything of importance (beyond their own personal knowledge acquisition) until they have completed that full thirteen years?
I believe it is time to take back our public education system from the business-focused leadership and industrial paradigm that has controlled it since the early 20th century. That industrial paradigm is reflected both in the “micro” of rigid daily bell-driven school schedules and the “macro” of a rigid inculcation in a standard curriculum over a thirteen consecutive year school schedule.
Most of us recognize that everyone is different and develops naturally at their own pace. Some of us are precocious and others of us are late bloomers. But our public school system runs roughshod over that humanistic principle, based as it is on a business/industrial assembly-line paradigm from the early 20th century (where Henry Ford was said to quip, “You can have your car in any color as long as it is black”). Even now in the 21st century, where the industrial age has given way to the information age, the bureaucratic inertia and path of least resistance keeps the system chugging away in that outmoded paradigm.
To the extent that a standard academic instruction is still an educational approach favored by many, we could at least reframe it in terms of achieving mastery of the subject matter at one’s own pace, rather than on a rigidly standardized timetable. A young person could say earn a certificate in “practical” mathematics at whatever point in their childhood or youth that they can demonstrate mastery of arithmetic, set theory and basic pre-algebra concepts around budgeting and basic business math. A separate certificate could be achieved in “abstract” mathematics that would cover the algebra, geometry, number theory, etc that was preparatory to further study in many areas of science and technology. Other academic subject areas could by similarly segmented. In a de-industrialized (no longer one size fits all) public school system, young people and their families could control their choices from an array of finite and focused areas of study, pursuing each chosen area at their own pace until demonstrated mastery is achieved and acknowledged.
Reframing schooling as achieving mastery in specific subject areas on one’s own timetable, families could construct an educational program for their kids that involved periods of instruction followed by perhaps a year or more of real-world activities outside of school. Volunteering in the community, diving into art or music, or moving around the world and traveling with parents involved in military service. I can only begin to imagine how transformative this could be. As a precocious math geek, a ten-year-old could take pride in sharing their certification in “practical” math, and then have the real-world satisfaction of helping in their family’s business.
All this to expand on the principle of taking time to thoughtfully and proactively choose to launch into a course of instruction, while taking time after to let that learning be incorporated into one’s continuing real-world experience. Acknowledging that both can be part of a more holistic approach to human development, development at one’s own pace and within the parameters of one’s own circumstances.