Relay: We Don’t Need No Education

Education in the United States has become a mishmash of well-meaning intentions and competing objectives

In 1867, something called the Department of Education was formed in the United States, establishing the notion that providing children with an education is a universally good idea. But in the century and a half since then, it seems we’ve managed to take the 15 years of children’s lives that should be the most fun, carefree, inquisitive, and experimental and turn them into a period filled with stress and a neurotic sense of failure.

The New York Times ran a devastating story this weekend about a sophomore at Hamilton College who hanged himself because he was flunking three out of four classes and “felt like a failure.” Suicide is the second-leading cause of death, after accidents, among college students in the U.S. Nearly one in three teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression. And that their single biggest source of stress was school. The Washington Post reported on Monday that doctors increasingly see children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers, which many psychologists see as a clear connection to performance pressure.

Even so, parents and schoolteachers continue to feed their kids byzantine notions like “hard work pays off.” And what is the big payoff? Acceptance to an elite institution of higher education — the one achievement upon which a young person’s entire worth seems to hinge. 

Education in the United States has become a mishmash of well-meaning intentions and competing objectives. Add to the mix some ruthless competition, snobbery, fickle judgments, crushed confidence, government meddling, bureaucracy, and social engineering.

Globally, the U.S. ranks fifth in spending per student, but most recently in a math analysis, it placed 26th out of the 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, alongside the Slovak Republic, Lithuania, and Hungary. Additionally, only 29 percent of Americans say they believe our education system is above average. 

If you want to see the absolute proof that we’ve got it all wrong, then have a look at how Finland does education. 

In a country of about five million that doesn’t introduce its children to formal schooling until the age of 7, its education system has become a byword for excellence. Students don’t see a standardized test until they’re 16. Finnish teachers are given a great deal of responsibility and are allowed unfettered flexibility in what and how they teach. Performance isn’t observed and graded. Instead, annual development discussions with school leaders provide feedback, and teachers make their own assessments of their strengths and weaknesses. 

Above all, you get a sense of a mature education system, where problems can be anticipated, not merely reacted to. Recently, Finland’s math standards slipped to 12th in the world and educators sent out a directive to schools to “put more joy back in the classroom.” Education in Finland is not seen as a government issue but as a societal one. And none of it is exactly based on rocket science.

But here in America, our multibillion-dollar education business says that it’s acting in the children’s best interests. That all the tweaking they do to standards and testing and college entrance exams will make children happier. 

Forget it. Happiness went out the window in second grade. After that, it’s just one long, grisly “Hunger Games”-like competition where the weak and the kind, the quixotic, the dreamers, the passionately weird, and the late bloomers get left behind at the end of each round. Only the blinkered overachievers, the wunderkinds, and the driven will prevail at the bitter end.

Hillary Clinton once said that it took a village to raise a child. Oh my God. If only. If only all it took was some happy, higgledy-piggledy, picturesque village with smock-wearing aunties to lend a hand. But no sleepy, chicken potpie-baking hamlet is going to help your kid through the angst of high school, the mania of college admissions, and ultimately to that one university that will lead to a life worth living.

Oh no, we need far more than a village. We need au pairs who speak Mandarin and Latin, concert pianist nannies, tutors, counselors, and professional athletes with torn A.C.L.s to teach hand-eye coordination. We must have voice coaches and fencing instructors, essay consultants, and psychiatrists to write a chit for extra time on exams. There have to be summer camps for creative writing, test prepping, and mock interviews. We need vacations, not to sunbathe and unwind, but to build a school in a third world country.

Ezra Pound was on to all of this 80 years ago when he said, “Real education must be limited to [those] who insist on knowing. The rest is mere sheepherding.”

And the worst part is, no one out there is smart enough to figure out how to fix it.

Judy D’Mello is The Star’s education reporter.