Goal of Public Education Needs To Be Overhauled

The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal finally brings to light what I saw coming years ago. I predicted that the whole concept of standardized testing would lead inevitably to cheating, not only on the part of the victimized student but on the part of teachers, principals and even administrations. The temptation proved to be too great. An investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released in July 2011 found that 44 out of 56 schools cheated on state-administered standardized tests. More than 150 teachers and principals confessed to have fixed incorrect answers on test papers. Their excuse was that the pressure to “meet targets” set by administrations with the threat of negative evaluation or termination if they did not was simply too great. And it’s not just Atlanta. We now find ourselves reading newspaper headlines like:

Massive Cheating Scandals Rock Schools Nationwide.

Is it any wonder then that, of the top 50 countries rated by the Economist Intelligence Unit, American education ranks a dismal 17th? But, the sorry truth is that scandals like these are just symptoms of a greater and more devastating disease. We are faced with a failed system not only in its function, but more importantly in its purpose.

With three of 10 high school and four of 10 college freshmen failing to graduate, our educational system is obviously failing. The question to be asked is not why the drop-outs have failed in our educational system, but why the educational system has failed in its obligation to the drop-outs.

To answer this question we must first arrive at a revised understanding of the purpose of education. In reviewing popular remedies for the alarming drop-out rate, the question of why we educate must be addressed before we can consider any rational question of how.

Rarely, if ever, is the question of why addressed or even mentioned. It is simply assumed that the purpose is, first and foremost, that it will lead to a higher income. Then there is the societal advantage of an orderly and stable status quo. This whole approach ignores what should be the true purpose of an education.

Education should be designed to provide opportunities for individual self-fulfillment. Indeed, the current system leans more to indoctrination than to education. It is a system designed to meet the needs of the society as opposed to one that meets the personal needs of the individual student. It becomes a system designed to equip the corporate world and its bottom-line mentality with an adequate work force and to provide society, with its questionable objectives, a sufficient number of sycophants to maintain social stability. What its purpose should be is to equip the student with an adequate means of gratifying his potential for personal achievement and fulfillment in concert with what innate talents he may possess, This is the only source of true happiness.

A truly just society should be one that addresses the needs of its individual citizens, as opposed to the needs of a society that in turn ignores those individual needs. The creation of a society that allows for each individual the maximum possibility for fulfillment and happiness, should, therefore, be the broader aim and purpose of education.

Another significant danger of the present system is that it seems to have forsaken Socrates. For Socrates, the mere passing on and acceptance of traditional thought and practice, which is what most of the current curricula consists of, is not education. Not only does such a practice tend to suppress the innate curiosity the first grader brings to class, but it discourages the critical thinking that Socrates insisted must lie at the very foundation of education.

Add to this the fact that in our modern world, the inability to think critically will ultimately cause humanitarian advancement to lag dangerously behind technological advancement, ignoring the need for adequate ethical checks and balances necessary to insure a safe and intelligent progression. Unfortunately with the current system, critical thinking on the part of the student is actually suppressed because it represents a threat to the teacher’s commandment from above to simply impart knowledge in compliance with standard objectives to be measured by the accursed standardized testing. One amazing thought is that, ironically, this could lead us to recognize the necessity of asking why before we consider asking how.

So, where do we begin? The first step may be to identify and hold accountable those responsible for the failure. Unfortunately, the decisions for education in the present system are made by two professional practitioners, educators and politicians. The system works this way: The educators, who are nothing more than graduates of the failed system, are pressured and threatened by the politicians who know nothing about education, but who provide the necessary funding. This is a prescription for continued failure.

To even begin a complete overhaul, which the situation demands, our public school system, one of America’s great promises, must be reclaimed by the public.

This will prove most difficult because this same public is, unfortunately, also a product of the system. It must realize, for the sake of their deprived children, that the true purpose of education is to provide them with the opportunity to fulfill their intrinsic desires rather than to indoctrinate them into a neurotic society. There can be no other source for their true happiness.

Harold G. “Hal” O’Leary of Wheeling has been prominent in the arts community for many years. He was the founder of Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre. In 2008 he was inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame.