An Educational Existential Crisis

Friday, April 18, 2014

There's this quote that I like, and one that I try to keep at the back of my mind all the time, and I'm really feeling it lately.

"I never let my schooling interfere with my education." - Mark Twain

Luckily, when I was in elementary school my parents were great at enhancing the education I received in the classroom with other experiences outside of school. I visited Denver museums countless times, went to gallery openings, ballets, and theater productions at the DCPA in Denver. They indulged my never-ending questions and encouraged my curiosity. I went to art camps over the summer at the Art Students League of Denver, and spent much of my childhood at my dad's very creative gallery. When I was old enough (maybe even before then), I started helping my dad with Arts for All, which is a mobile art studio that can be done by anyone, or by people with all abilities. Literally, it's painting on the ground. But my dad works with people with various disabilities, so this mobile art studio was able to be used with wheelchairs, by blind people, etc. Not only was it a way to work out my creative bone, but it was a way to learn from people who were so different from myself, and who had many experiences that I would never have. When they travelled for work, I would go with them and have a cultural education while they worked (which is how I came to fall in love with Washington D.C.).

I think they realized this long before I did: Formal education can be stifling. It can certainly stifle your creativity, passion, and ability to forge relationships and see things from different angles. As I went through junior high and high school, I felt more and more frustrated that there was always a "right" answer, and a "wrong" answer, because my parents never thought that way.

Back story: As part of PLP, I am working on a group project where we are doing an after school program at a local middle school to teach various "soft skills" including creative problem solving, team work, empathy, communication, among other things. We feel that these particular skills are not represented enough in the classroom. Today, I finally got a real world experience that proved it to me.

We were talking to the kids about creativity, and what they thought it is. I mean, they nailed it (these kids are really smart). Then we asked how they could use creativity in their classes, and the answers really surprised me. I was expecting something like, looking at a math problem in a different way, or reading a book from a different perspective, etc. But this is what they said:

"We can't use creativity in the classroom, because we have to do everything the right way."

"My teacher doesn't let us use partners, she doesn't trust us."

"We have no way to use creativity."

"It's all about, be quiet! Do your work! By yourself!"

"Getting right answers."

This goes beyond students. It goes beyond teachers. Because, let's be honest, there are some awesome teachers out there, and I have had the greatest privilege of having them in my life.

This is an institutional problem. This is a problem that arises from an educational culture, propagated from the most upper echelons, that dictate to schools, to teachers, students, parents, etc. that the only way to effectively and accurately gauge and monitor a students' success is by testing.

Education goes from learning to learn, to be enriched, to gain knowledge, to be a functioning human being, to being  robot that can regurgitate an answer to get a good score on a test. I cannot tell you how many times I have crammed for a test, taken it, and then walked out of the classroom not remembering a single thing, or not being able to explain it in depth.

And I cannot tell you how many times my parents and I fought when I was in high school, and even at times now, in college.

Me: I HAVE to get a good score! I have to get a good grade! My GPA HAS to be above a 3.80!

My parents: Why? You are worth more than that! The numbers don't dictate your worth!

Education is about life. Life is constant education. Learning perpetually is the only way to get through life, the only way to really be able to survive the permanent white water that permeates every aspect of life (shoutout to PLP!).

Don't get me wrong, I L-O-V-E school. When I am really into a class, it's the best high I can think of. I love to read, I love to write, and the idea of figuring out the complex relationships and webs of historical events and figures makes me tingle. But lately, I've felt stuck. Maybe it's Spring Quarter, and I just want to be outside instead of in Sturm, but I haven't felt invigorated leaving a classroom in a while. I've felt relieved, but not invigorated. And that makes me sad.

I am not going to use the formulas I memorized, or the grades I got on a paper when I was a sophomore in college to deal with my first career failure, or my first relationship failure. I'm not going  to look back and say, "The Smithsonian Institution hired me because of the A I got on a paper about Mesopotamia when I was at DU." (fingers crossed that they do hire me), or "I didn't get this job because I got a B on my French test in 2013."

As the title may suggest, I've been having an educational existential crisis. I feel like a hamster, in a hamster ball, doing the same thing day after day, week after week. I wake up, and it's week 5 of spring quarter of my sophomore year at DU. I'm almost halfway done with college.


How have I been sucked into doing the same thing, by going through this educational rotational schedule? I am not happy, and I haven't been happy for a while. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I am expecting myself to be happy. I am expecting myself to be thrilled! I am in a dream, or at least that's how it should feel. I have 120 beautiful sisters, a cult of amazing PLPers, two adoring parents, and a campus full of people to learn from! I have had countless brilliant professors, my classes are very interesting, and I am going to FRANCE! France, people!

So why do I feel so... empty?

Because I'm too hung up on the numbers, on the statistics, on the scores. Life cannot be quantified. My knowledge cannot be typed into a spreadsheet and filed away into a folder on my computer. It cannot be contained in spreadsheets and APRs. My worth cannot be measured in my GPA. I need to stop acting like it does. My schooling, my GPA, my numbers, cannot and will not get in the way of my education.

My education does not end at DU. It does not end at the Université de Caen, or at any grad school I will go to. My schooling might, but my education will not. I cannot, and will not, let it.

This goes further than me, and DU. It goes beyond my classes and my experiences. Because there are kids, sitting in classrooms, here in Denver and all over the United States who are having their creativity crushed. Their critical thinking skills killed. Their ability to wonder and imagined sufficiently destroyed. This is what will kill our future. Not global warming, not nuclear bombs. But not having people, not having a generation of human beings who can think creatively to solve the problems that we will all inevitably face. Because these problems are not textbook. They are not something you can test on a TCAP. They are real, and hard, and rapidly changing and growing, and we - me, my generation, the generation of being tested - are not being adequately prepared in our schooling to do deal with them. This makes me scared, it makes me want to scream at whoever will listen.

It's time for us to demand a change, and to demand for proper schooling. Stop teaching me useless crap, and teach me how to relate to people I have nothing in common with! Teach me how to be creative! Teach me to be a leader!

Maybe these things come outside the classroom. These things come from those people in your life, the ones who you love the most and can always count on. The people who have challenged the system, and maybe lost. The ones who will help you on your way, and teach you the things that you really need to know.

It's time to learn how to be a human again, not a machine that regurgitates answers, nor a hamster that rolls through life the same way every day, without stopping to take it in once in a while.

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