4 Ways Your Education Was a Conspiracy to Make You Bored
Most people who know me know that, in my spare time, I volunteer at a non-profit fight club for 8- to 15-year-old children from low-income families. I don't think that makes me a "hero" (although I humbly accept that as the nickname the children have given me). Last week, one of the 10-year-olds (who would honestly be the best in her age group if she didn't keep dropping her hands) informed me that she wouldn't be able to fight because she had homework to do. When I learned what her assignment was, I was shocked: They are still teaching cursive in schools.
Some schools have dropped cursive, but it's still a part of the curriculum in over 50 percent of American public schools. Why? I learned it when I was a kid but have never once used it in my life (my signature is a drawing of a middle finger wearing cool-guy sunglasses). This realization made me wonder what other shockingly outdated practices are still persisting in education, so I did some digging ...
The Coolest Stuff Is Getting Left Out of Textbooks
In high school, if you wanted me to get an A in chemistry, you would show me a list of steps an experiment required and I'd follow them to the letter and proceed to not give a shit, because I wasn't trying to see what happened when I mixed magnesium with frog butts. The only formula I was learning was "A on test = teacher gets off my back." If you wanted me to understand the message in Crime and Punishment, I'd sit in your class and wait patiently until you told me what the thesis was and then I'd write an essay that regurgitated your points, but the real thesis of most of those essays was "Here are five paragraphs that will shut you up for a second." If you wanted me to memorize a date, I'd store it in my head until I wrote it down on the test, after which I'd forget it forever, regardless of what handy mnemonic or catchy rhyme you tried to get me to use.
"In 1492, Columbus please excused my dear aunt circumference."
Those were the methods teachers used to get good grades out of me, but as far as teaching me anything? I was really good at being a student in high school, but I wouldn't necessarily call myself smart, which I think I made pretty clear with the whole "magnesium + frog butts" hypothesis. When doing well in a class is separate from being smart, there's a problem. Here is the thing: The best teachers I've ever had were the ones who made me say "bullshit."
There are so many amazing and interesting stories throughout history -- something I've demonstrated via a bunch of arbitrarily chosen facts I've included throughout this article -- and it's crazy how many of those facts aren't even included in modern textbooks.
Why do we need to waste our time hearing about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln being born in a log cabin when there are true stories that are WILDLY more exciting?
The teachers who made me care about learning didn't throw a ton of dates at me, and they didn't want me to know how to build a tiny log cabin out of modeling clay and matchsticks -- they wanted me to get excited and interested.
My favorite teachers were the ones who knew that every single lesson they taught me was competing for attention in my head with video games, television, girls, and my friends. Whatever came out of their mouths had to be so interesting or insane that I'd be excited enough to listen, read, and want to find out more.
The most important men and women in history are as or (more often than not) more interesting than the protagonist in every Hollywood blockbuster. As far as getting children inspired to learn and excited about knowing stuff, the single biggest misstep in the American public school system was convincing children that exciting action heroes and historical figures couldn't be talked about in the same conversation.
The Stuff They Leave IN Textbooks Isn't Preparing Us for Anything
We already know that our textbooks are ignoring the exciting action-movie stuff in favor of the boring ... boring-movie stuff, but let's dig into how that boring stuff actually works for us. When I graduated high school, I was really only good at two things:
2) Being a high school student.
I can't really give high school too much credit for the first one, because those were lessons that I mostly learned on the street, by which I mean in my house in the brief window between when I got home from school at 2:58 and when my dad got home from work at 3:14.
So let's focus on that second one. When I started college, I assumed I'd be fine because I'd gotten good grades in school, and what were those grades a measure of if not my ability to function in society? If the lessons being taught in school weren't designed to prepare me for my post-high school life, then what the hell WERE they for?
More than a decade has gone by. And I still have no idea.
Great life lesson that WASN'T taught in school.
I certainly didn't use anything I'd learned in high school to survive academically in college, and if I tried, I'd get penalized. In high school, you did well on an essay if you wrote five paragraphs with five sentences each and presented something that was mostly in line with what your teacher believed to be true. The first time I handed in a paper like that to a college professor was the last time, because college professors hate shitty high school robots. College forced me to re-learn how to read, write, and think because the skills you use to figure out stuff in college are wildly different from the ones you use in high school.
It wasn't just the academic stuff, either. There were so many lessons about just being a functioning human being that high school refused to teach. Like I'd been pooping wrong my entire life.
I mean, bad example, obviously, because it shouldn't be the responsibility of high school teachers to explain to kids how to poop, but still, someone should be teaching that lesson. And not just that one, but plenty of other very valuable life lessons that everyone should know, including the, again, completely arbitrarily chosen life lessons that I've gracefully inserted into this article.
Teachers Are Underpaid, Unsupported, and Stressed Out
Teaching is a difficult and dangerous job. That article I linked tells a story about a woman who taught fourth grade for over 20 years, right up until the year she was involuntarily transferred to teach high school freshmen. The superintendent didn't inform her of the change until four days before the school year had started. Four days is nowhere near enough time to build a curriculum for any grade, let alone a grade that is far out of your wheelhouse. For anyone who doesn't know, fourth graders are young, scared, occasionally rambunctious, but mostly adorable children, and high school freshmen are the worst fucking people on the planet.
That teacher, unsurprisingly, burned out, became depressed, and started suffering from a number of other stress-related health issues, something that is common among almost all teachers (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, it's the 20th most dangerous job in America, and some jobs in America are jobs where people shoot guns at you). Seventy-five percent of all teacher health problems are stress-related and a result of "dwindling school resources, low pay, high expectations for test scores, changing assessments of student performance, lack of parental involvement, and pressure from administration." Teachers who aren't burning out are still becoming cynical and demoralized; they got into teaching to change lives and help children, and instead they have to deal with administrative mandates and pressures to "teach to a test," where they're encouraged to do whatever it takes to raise their class' test scores, even if that doesn't necessarily correlate to an increased understanding of the material for the students.
Pretend you're a teacher: You got into this job because you wanted to connect with children, but if you do so in a way that doesn't yield higher test scores for your whole class, your boss will be on your case. Plus the pay is shitty and funding to your school drops every single year.
Who wouldn't be cynical?
We Need an Education Revolution
The public school system is a giant, ancient ship that has already gone too far in the wrong direction to ever be turned around. Everyone keeps trying to brainstorm ways to steer the ship, but they're missing the most obvious solution:
Fuck the ship.
Fuck that ship and build a new ship. Or you know what? Why make it a ship at all? Why not build an unstoppable education machine that consumes every wrong lesson you've ever been taught and spits out the angry, beautiful, and amazing truth? Put rockets on that son of a bitch. We want a machine that will seek out everything wrong about you and BLEED it out of you and leave you a smarter and more efficient person.
Honestly, education needs a helping hand. If we want our children to get educated, and if teachers are too handcuffed by bureaucracy to do it, then we need a new kind of textbook designed to challenge and inspire kids (and also anyone in that coveted 18-35 demographic) to get excited about learning. Not just another textbook, but something that fixes what textbooks got wrong. A DE-Textbook, if you will. A machine like this just might be the only thing that can make the world smarter, stronger, and faster. The only thing that can save us from our own stupidity.
Here I should be clear that I've been speaking metaphorically when I've talked about ships and machines; a "machine" in this instance can be anything, from a book to even an e-book.
I just pray that the people of the world are bold enough to rise up to this challenge and courageous enough to buy such a book. Because, as the great George Washington once said, "Cracked.com's new book, The De-Textbook, is available wherever books are sold, pre-order your copy today!"
Daniel O'Brien is the head writer for The De-Textbook, a book that you have perhaps heard of.