Everyone knows that one has to go to school to receive a formal education and formal credentials. But schools are also social institutions. As institutions, schools often stand in the way of education. A competitive education driven by credentials is often responsible for lowering the self-esteem of both students and teachers as a consequence of grading and various other evaluation processes.
Consider that high school and college students have a suicide rate—what sociologists call egoistic suicide—that is significantly higher than the general population. There are many factors to be considered here, of course. But a contributing factor is often educational institutions that subject mediocre and poor students, or students who lack the self-discipline required to succeed, to brutal ego lashings through punitive grades, academic probation, and expulsion. Such assaults on self-esteem (in the name of enforcing standards) are exacerbated when schools lavishly reward prize students and their teachers/professors with medals, trophies, plaques, and similar totems of honor and excellence.
Those of us who teach on the college level are all too familiar with students who must achieve a high grade in our courses, an A or a B, to avoid expulsion from the institution or rejection from a competitive program within the institution. Many of these students are driven to do precisely that: earn a high grade, whatever it takes, never mind what is learned.
Then there are students, much less prepared for college, who are weeded out in a quasi-Darwinian process. We as faculty are not encouraged to show mercy to “unfit” students. Sink or swim, and if you sink, too bad.
Recently, I gave a disadvantaged student who had grown up in a Brooklyn ghetto an “Incomplete” in my course. This means withholding his grade, hence his credits, until he can satisfactorily complete the requirements of my course. I threw him a life preserver, in other words.
The college’s administration was reluctant to allow this, favoring instead a four-year suspension from the college for unsatisfactory work in this and other courses. I prevailed. But not until I was told I had made an unwise decision to continue working with the student.
I made a judgment call. Hampered by a disadvantaged background and inadequate preparation, the student was nevertheless fiercely determined to remain in college, to succeed in his classes. In my view, he deserved another chance, especially since this could be his last chance to acquire the credentials needed to survive in today’s hyper-competitive world.
Bureaucracies set rules because that’s what they do. In this case, the student, already on probation for two semesters, faced compulsory expulsion for his poor academic performance in my class. But it was the rigidity of the system that was the real problem: the insistence that one-size-fits-all rules should apply equally to all students, irrespective of their backgrounds and the obstacles they had to surmount on their way to and in college.
If we want true student-centered education, my suggestion is to remove the institutional rules, processes, policies, and competitiveness as driven by grades and GPAs. Then you’re simply left with students who say they want to learn or who certainly don’t want to be separated from the institution. Rather than a letter grade, offer a less competitive mark of achievement for all students. Maybe a pass/fail with comments from the teacher on the student’s work. An evaluation, yes, but one that can’t be measured or rewarded as a marker in a competitive rat race. The same for the teachers. No more “divide and conquer” system of rewards. True education—which literally means to draw out of the darkness— must come before institutionalized punishment and rewards.
Why can’t schools focus on turning students on to learning, to becoming more curious about the world? The nature of reality, of truth? Instead, we expose them very quickly to the perils of not succeeding in a marketplace-like setting. The winners become the capitalists, the professionals, the despoilers. The losers, who are always in the minority, become the despoiled: the anomic homeless, the chronically depressed, the prison population, the DOA suicides, the drug addicts, maybe even the psychopaths.
Surely we can figure out ways to run schools that aren’t driven by strict competition and stricter rules. Perhaps a community-based school, what the economist Richard Wolff calls WSDEs (worker self-directed enterprises) where students and teachers would participate democratically in their own evaluations and progress.
Presently, society entrusts education to the managerial class, the appointees of the CEOs of educational institutions, who are generally concerned with compulsively applying rules and procedures, who seem reluctant to think outside the box when it comes to career- or life-altering decisions about students and teachers.
As much as possible, let’s return education to a state of nature, to that idyllic picture of student and teacher sitting on one end of a log where learning—and teaching—is rewarded by learning itself.
The author teaches at the collegiate level and prefers to remain anonymous.