On Education and Utopias

I’m a self-confessed nerd, as unspectacular a confession as that is. That doesn’t mean I always loved going to school because I downright detested it at some points, but that was always due to other issues rather than a hatred of education, which I love whole-heartedly. That’s partially because I’m good at it, and partially because I simply can’t imagine going through life without wanting to absorb all the knowledge I can from everything I encounter. But this isn’t about converting anyone to the wonders of learning – it’s just an attempt to prove that this is more than just the stereotypical embittered teen complaining about the stress of formal education and how ridiculous the system is.

With that kind of upbringing, and since I’m finished with it (though yet to receive my results), it’s easy to look back and argue that it wasn’t that bad after all. Even while I was in the midst of it, trying desperately to memorise 3000 words of literature analysis for an exam the next day, although I felt desperately unable to cope, I still knew somewhere in the back of my mind that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. That’s what I find so horribly fascinating and terrible about the whole experience, because I instinctively want to join the chorus of students decrying the unfair standards, the ridiculous nature of the whole system…and yet I can’t help but want to defend it, in part, as well.

I do think there are major issues in the way some things are assessed. The importance placed on the final exams brings a sense of urgency and absolutism that can ruin any learning environment, and most teachers share a hatred of ‘teaching to the test’, because they want their students to learn for the sake of knowledge, for their interest in the subject, or to acquire proficiency in the area, not to pass an exam. It’s an anti-climactic, drab kind of way to sum up the entirety of anything as broad as biology, or history, or literature.

And yet, what on earth is the alternative?

Students love to talk about this supposed ‘better’ systems, the way they do it in this country, in this state, in primary school, in this utopian daydream. But it’s damned difficult to implement their half-expressed ideas, and we do, it seems, need some way of separating those who know things, and those who don’t. That’s essentially what assessment is about – much like championships in a sport, the aim is to find the people who are the best at what they do, which in this case, is learning. And that’s why I feel our current system fails, because it separates out two different products: those who are naturally intelligent, and those who work and work, not to become more intelligent, or more knowledgeable, or better at what they do, but to arbitrarily ‘prove’ that they are intelligent, through a few hours in an exam hall and a lot of memorised answers and rote-learned responses and stoic acceptance of the flawed system that results in a decision to go along with it if it gets them what they need.

Education systems are flawed when they value rote answers over understanding, and when they praise students for intelligence that’s actually hard work, or vice versa, and we need to do our best to ensure our systems work as smoothly as they can by considering every aspect and all possible biases and outside factors. That said, no one will ever like exams, or assessments, or assignments that make them have to think and work hard. It’s documented across the decades, even centuries – de Balzac’s description of lazy students, bright but resentful of having to give evidence of the fact, remains startlingly close to any modern description, as does de Maupaussant’s, these 19th century French intellectuals echoing the complaints of any average 21st century high school student.

But really, most education systems aren’t so awful, because whatever is good about them is likely taken for granted. Any assessment will be biased, obtaining a thorough education without at least a little effort is perhaps impossible and certainly extremely difficult, and we do need some method of figuring out who’s good at what and how good they are. Your marks shouldn’t determine self-worth, and the education system should strive to make them as accurate a reflection as possible of your ability and achievement, but there is no perfect system that suits every single individual and makes school absolutely easy for everyone.

If people want to complain about their education system, I completely understand and will likely join them, as long as they complain about the right things – the way things are assessed, the accuracy of the assessment system, the ultimate goals of the assessment, the value of that assessment in wider society. Whining about how boring essays are and how damn much there is to know about kidneys is understandable, but it won’t achieve anything because humans will always complain about having to do any kind of work and the people who do have the power to change things won’t listen, because they know it won’t matter if we have to write one essay or ten, we’ll whinge just as much. If you want things to change, accept that life will never be perfect, and remember that that applies to school and assessments just as much as anything else.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s