The cover image of this post is the Moultrie Flag, a banner used during the American Revolution.
It’s like the title says. I had a terrible experience in secondary school, I’ve gone into it in detail already. But it wasn’t just mean kids that made my education a lot more difficult than it had to be. The system, partly the fault of politicians, partly school administrators and in some cases even teachers had a heavy hand in the issue. I’m not claiming to offer a comprehensive summary of the flaws in the entire US school system here. Other sources have already done so in more detail and with more definitive research than I ever could. (On that note, watch the brilliant documentaries The War on Kids as well as Race to Nowhere.) In this essay I will offer my own personal experience with the soul-sucking void that is the US education system. I’m aware not all of the problems I faced will be applicable to every school district in America, but it’s a likely bet that most if not all past and present students can relate to at least some of them. In a later post I will suggest some of my very rough ideas for reforms. It’s clear we need serious canges, not just in what teachers are paid and repealing No Child Left Behind but in our attitude and curriculum.
The most pervasive problem is the over-emphasis on homework and busywork which gives kids no real free time and too much stress. There’s actually been studies done which show homework doesn’t help the learning process and can actually entrench faulty understanding of the lesson due to that repetition.
Just as one example, I remember Senior year, having to do (no exaggeration) 20-40 Calculus problems every night where we had to repetitively write out every step on every individual problem. My teacher didn’t like me because I wasn’t good at the class, and sometimes when she was checking she would say “looks like you missed a few steps, half-credit.” I would spend literally 3~4 hours on that homework every day, for her to knock off half-credit at a glance out of spite. And that would never be my only homework–I’d have 15~30 problems of Physics (which I also wasn’t good at and would take me hours to complete) plus a whole book to read for English two to three weeks, plus an after school job working a 3-4 hour shift and my other classes plus extra-curriculars.
Is it any wonder why, come Senior year, myself and a lot of kids just gave up? It’s ridiculous, and many nights I wouldn’t get to sleep until long past midnight. Some nights I’d be lucky to get 4 hours of sleep. What made it worse is, I’d come home from school the next day exhausted and pass out, as anybody would. But my mom in her infinite wisdom decided this was just me being lazy and irresponsible, so she’d make a point to yell at me to wake up when she got home from work and then endlessly berate me for it. Teachers too, would obnoxiously punish students for falling asleep in class, though if their schedule is anything like mine it was not meant on our part to be disrespectful. No adults gave a damn what we would go through every day to get all this busywork done: we were just stupid kids which meant we had to shut up and stop complaining.
Ignoring Critical Thinking Skills
There’s the insanity of teaching to the test, instead of actually creating inquisitive, intellectually-curious people. We don’t teach kids the tools to be deep, critical thinkers but instead we bombard them with data for 45 minutes at a time. There needs to be more of an emphasis on creating intellectually curious students rather than suppressing that in young minds. It’s too short to be able to work out some complex math concept, or get invested in a really in-depth discussion on literature. It’s too chaotic of a schedule to be fully immersed in each individual subject and after the school year is over you lose most of that information anyway with summer vacation. I think moving towards Year Round Schooling would help kids retain the information they’re taught longer. I think the reason we repeat the same lessons over and over through the years are because of the assumption you’d forget it all over the summer anyway. And I believe every core subject should have a year long, or possibly semester long unit that each student can work through on their own time, rather than equal time everyday in a fractured schedule. That would have the added benefit of teaching time-management skills.
Over-Emphasis on College
Assuming you’re a millennial, every adult in your life pressures you to go to college without telling you of the options outside of that or the very real and astronomical debts. I didn’t dislike my college experience per se, but I didn’t know what I wanted to get out of it, so I didn’t pursue all the opportunities I could have. Now I’m buried in a mountain of debt for a degree I don’t want with no way to get out of it. I hold a lot of resentment towards the adults in my life who pushed four year college straight outta high school as the only way. Yes, technically I was an adult at 18 and responsible for my own choices. But, at the end of the day, the human mind doesn’t stop developing until the mid-twenties and it’s not like teens have much real world experience to guide them either. I was incapable of grasping the true cost of what I was signing up for and trusted the adults in my life to guide me. Maybe that’s my mistake but it’s understandable why many young people fall into that bad decision.
I floated the idea of trade school once and my parents said flat out that they wouldn’t let me consider it. My dad talked down on Community Colleges so much growing up I never even thought of it as a viable option. In hindsight I really could’ve used those two years to knock out the gen eds in CC, save up some money, lose weight, deal with the scars from High School and really think about what I wanted to do with my life. (I wasn’t allowed to take a year or two off either, I was told I had to go directly to college after graduation. The cherry on the shit sundae came when my parents refused to take me seriously when I said I needed to see a therapist, even though they allowed my younger sister to see one. I was grappling with years of bullying and two sexual assaults and it really messed up my social skills going into what were supposed to be the most socially fulfilling years of my life.) I’m positive I’m not the only one with a similar experience.
Misplaced Preference Towards Sports
Schools are always cutting funding for the arts and humanities while the Football team consumes literally half the school budget (or at least a solid plurality of it, but for my school it was literally half.) We were forced multiple times every year in High School to sit through ridiculous, unnecessary pep rallies that last for an hour or so to basically worship the football team. Besides wasting valuable lesson time, it understandably gave the jocks the idea that they owned the school and could do whatever they wanted. (Coincidentally or not, all my worst, most persistent and vicious bullies in school were jocks of some kind.) In general, athletic prowess was more highly revered by the school administration than actual academics, and they made no effort to even hide that fact. Even putting my personal bias aside, I think it’s wrong to commoditize young athletes and force them to play what we now know to be a dangerous game so often.
My dad, anytime I talked about this, would just berate me for not having enough “school spirit.” But why should one have school spirit–what’s a school but the building you happen to be taught at? Of course I loved my friends and some of my better teachers or clubs, but why does anyone need to love a building and brand? Love the individuals, don’t blindly praise some arbitrary plot of land you happened to be assigned to learn in. I mean, my school was a nasty place overall, where I was bullied harshly almost every day. Telling me to have pride in it was a slap in the face.
US History was retaught literally 4 times over the course of our grade school career. Up until 5th grade, we mostly learned Geography/Social Studies and if we ever delved into History it was the usual white-washed bullshit (“Columbus discovered America!! He also learned the Earth isn’t flat!”/“George Washington chopped down a Cherry Tree and never lied!!”/”After the first Thanksgiving the Pilgrims and Indians lived in peace!”) Fifth Grade was the first time we ever delved into actual, real, substantive history: from the Age of Exploration through Jamestown and the Colonies, to the Revolution. I might be misremembering but I believe that’s where we left off with it. Sixth Grade we went back into Geography and Social Studies (learning the definition of Capitalism and the wrong definition of Communism, etc.) Then we relearned the same units on US history 7-8 grade, and once again in 11-12 grade. It’s all a complete waste, just reiterating the same information for no discernible reason.
The way we never discuss modern History is a travesty–we don’t talk at all about the 20th Century despite its great importance. There’s nothing about Eugene Debs, Huey Long or how Goldwater and McGovern redefined their respective parties. There’s nothing about the Business Plot, the Great American Streetcar Scandal, McCarthyism/Red Scare, the New Left in the 60s, the destruction of Unions, the Third Way in the 90’s…nothing. Those are EXTREMELY important topics in order to understand our modern political climate and be an informed participant in our political system, but we ignore them entirely. I had to teach myself about all that in my spare time at college, and when I talk about them to friends they assume I’m spouting conspiracy theory nonsense. It’s infuriating. The way school taught it, you’d think nothing after WWI, and no place on Earth except the Western World, mattered.
With regards to Social Studies, we didn’t even talk about most socio-political ideologies. There was nothing about Decentralized Planning, Workplace Democracy, Mutualism….it was all just “Capitalism good! Socialism bad!” But we didn’t even teach the real definition of Socialism–according to my teacher it meant the government controls everything. However, that’s only one type of Socialism (Centralized Planned / Authoritarian Socialism) when there are many variations emphasizing decentralized planning, worker self-management at individual firms, and libertarian values. Socialism just means workers, in some manner, control the means of production. It’s complete and total fear-mongering and disingenuous propaganda the way school equated it to an Orwellian nightmare by default. We didn’t go into a the differences between a Parliamentary vs Presidential republic, or learn about other countries’ constitutions and institutions either. It was just blind praise for our own system, with no outside perspective or talk of how it might be improved.
We never learned about Native American, African or Asian histories on their own terms, only how they relate to the almighty West. Even in AP Euro, we never touched on how close Europe nearly came to being decimated by the Mongols had it not been for Ogedei Khan’s untimely death. In Ninth Grade we took “African Asian Studies” where we learned the most basic, bare-bones, bullet point highlights of African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese and Japanese history. Nothing substantive, just: “Africa was fucked over by Europe,” “Islam is a thing,” “China was an Empire but now it’s Communist!” “India has the Caste System,” “Japan used to have Samurai but then the Mejii restoration happened.” After that one year we never even touched the rest of the globe again. There was no Pre-Columbian American or Aboriginal Australian studies.
Our entire career in math (in my school district at least) was set in stone by a single test we took at the beginning of Third Grade. After that test, you were set on a course through to the end of High School which you could not change. I happened to get a B, so I was in the Second Tier, if you got a C you were in the Third Tier, then a D or below got you in the Last Tier. Most of my friends in school were in the First Tier because they had gotten A’s, so I never got to have math with them again. Because I wasn’t in the best tier, I had to take Calculus 2 in college instead of High School. I never knew what had happened until a few years later when I put it together. I was pissed. I mean, maybe I had just suffered an off day or it was a bad test? Why should my entire life be set on a certain path because of ONE test in the THIRD GRADE?
The way we teach math in general is pretty fucked up too, with an over-reliance on repetition via homework. This instills a distaste and aversion to the subject in people who might otherwise be good at it.
We wasted time learning cursive which is irrelevant and learned next to nothing about Office, programming or computers in general. To be fair, I believe cursive has since been removed from the curriculum but after the mid-90’s or so it never should have been there in the first place. We kept hearing over and over again how in Middle, High School and College it was gonna be all-cursive and anything else would get a zero. But actually, nobody in Middle School cared, and come High School and especially college everything had to be typed. If you sent a High School teacher, much less a college professor, a hand-written cursive essay they’d have laughed in your face and not accepted it. I’m sure glad my Fifth Grade teacher forced us to write all our science papers that way to “prepare us.”
Even with English/literature…they literally just threw books at us a lot of the time and expected us to read like 3 every two weeks in my Eleventh Grade Honors English Class. (Which was considered one of the hardest courses in the school and basically AP in all but name.) Combined with the rest of my school-work and my after school job, that was literally impossible to keep up with, even though I genuinely love reading.
My main problem is how we read and examined the books. I think kids should have more of a choice what they read (maybe pick from a pre-approved list or bring a book to the teacher instead of everyone following a strict order). I think instead of a test, we should have had group discussions where participation is the basis for the grade. I think instead of the inane focus on symbols alone, we should have talked more about how each book makes us feel, and what images/memories/allusions it evoked in us, what we as individual readers took away from it. The way we talked about To Kill A Mockingbird for example was so shallow–“the muddy snowman on page 234 is clearly a symbol of racial harmony!”–rather than analyze prejudice and who are the Mockingbirds/victims of the story. I loved TKAM when I read it by myself in Seventh Grade, but when I had to read it for school in Ninth Grade I hated it because they sucked all the joy and heart out of the experience. It was very much an atmosphere of “you have to interpret it this specific way because I, the teacher, have deemed that to be the correct understanding. And if you don’t, you’re wrong and just don’t ‘get’ it!”
Teaching foreign languages in late-Middle School to High School is pointless. It’s far easier and more beneficial to learn them earlier in life and we do a great disservice to children by not taking better advantage of that.
The big complaint for me was in Eleventh Grade Chemistry, our teacher was an honest to god simpleton who didn’t know what she was teaching. From what I was told, she was new to the subject herself and basically just parroting the book which she didn’t understand. I loved Biology as a student, but struggled with Chemistry and later Physics so I required a lot of extra help. If I ever came to this particular teacher she would just blankly repeat the lesson in the same manner rather than rephrase it, go further in depth or anything else that teachers usually do with a pupil who’s struggling. It really did me a disservice.
Bullying & Zero Tolerance
Zero Tolerance policies with bullying punish the victim when they stand up for themselves while nothing is ever done to the bully for making someone’s life a living hell. Teachers don’t do anything helpful about it at all. Speaking from experience, there were plenty of teachers who saw or must have overheard the hell I went through almost every single day and did jack shit to stop it from happening, or even just pull me aside and tell me to stand up for myself and they’d let it slide. There was just an attitude of “not my problem”/”I don’t get paid to deal with that” and those of us who were victimized were on our own.
This is to say nothing of the kids that get suspended for making gun point hand signs or plastic utensils into school. I know once in Eighth Grade we had to do a presentation where we brought in 5 props. I did my report on The Killer Angels and brought in an obviously fake gun–made of wood with an orange tip. This was before shit really went nuts with ZT and shooting-panic so I didn’t think much of it until my teacher freaked out. Luckily she was a nice lady and, though bound to report me to the principal, also went to bat for me so I wasn’t suspended. Not everyone is so lucky.
Harsh Treatment of Students
It all traces back to a culture of disrespect. You have to ask to go to the bathroom–and more times than one would believe, you are refused “permission” to do even that. This started for me during my very first year of Preschool when a teacher yelled at me for singing the Barney cleanup song. I was three, that kind of treatment from her wasn’t a one-off incident and I truly believe it had a profound impact on the development of my personality growing up.
The other most traumatic incident occurred when my Eighth Grade German teacher accused me of stealing or failing to return my textbook even though I turned it in just like everyone else. I had made the mistake of confiding to my parents earlier in the year that I disliked my teacher, so when this happened they refused to believe me over her. They were convinced I had stolen or otherwise hid the book on purpose to be a troublemaker even though that was and is far outside my character. I got a handful of angry lectures for that, but what hurt the most is that my own parents believed some random old bat over me. I know it wasn’t a misunderstanding either because one of my friends had the same teacher the next year, didn’t like her either, and she pulled the same stunt. That woman was a shameless liar and honest to god criminal who ought to have been arrested for framing children of theft.
I remember in High School, my Spanish teacher refusing to let me go to the bathroom at the end of class because “we’re going to lunch in a minute.” I had to explain to this 60 year old woman that no, not all of us are on the same schedule. Maybe you and some of the other kids have lunch now but I have a huge test in AP US History that starts the moment we walk in the door and I didn’t want to waste any time. She told me to just wait. I swear, if I ever have kids and they go to the public school system I’m telling them that if they need to go, they should just walk out the door. Any teacher that gives them a hard time can deal with me.
Speaking of my AP US Class, my teacher had the gall to pull me aside one day after class and tell me I shouldn’t bother taking the AP exam and he thought I wouldn’t get any higher than a 2. I took the test and got a perfect 5, and went on to know more about US History in my twenties than I imagine he does himself. That was such an out of line comment; a teacher should never undermine their students.
Another time, we had a substitute in Middle School Earth Science class and a quiz the same day. I forget what, but there was some kinda bonus or reward offered to the class if everyone got an A. Of course, I didn’t measure up and the teacher actually announced it to the class the same day. (It was a short quiz, like five questions.) I was humiliated and ostracized by my peers as a result. It was intentional public humiliation and that awful bitch had no right to inflict that on me or anyone else.
These last two were less hurtful but I still remember them. In Third Grade, I got yelled at in front of the entire class for suppressing a quiet chuckle–nothing obnoxiously loud and not a rude one, like at someone else’s expense. That obviously made it hard for me to ever feel like I could ever be comfortable, much less have fun in that class again. In Fifth Grade, I got yelled at in front of everyone because my handwriting wasn’t considered neat enough by the teacher. I wrote as well as I could and it was still perfectly legible.
Teachers sometimes talk down to you. For example, in that same Calculus class mentioned above, I once genuinely tried to ask what was on an upcoming test but the teacher (who hated me) assumed I was being sarcastic or something so she yelled at me “I don’t know what’s on the test!” Later on, she did tell everyone what was on it–so she just said that to be a jerk to me. I said aloud “oh I thought you didn’t know what was going to be on the test” and she snapped at me to stop being a wise guy. At a certain point, if you’re a teenager in America and an adult authority figure decides they don’t like you, you might as well become what they assume you are anyway. You’re gonna get shit on either way. I doubt that’s how all “bad kids” get started, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it egged a few along in a preventable course of action. I was definitely starting to tend that way myself towards the end of High School; I’d just about had my fill of the system and stopped caring.
The funny thing is, I was a goody-goody growing up, polite almost to a fault and a follower of the rules. So it was rare but it did happen a few times where a teacher decided they didn’t like me. And once that happens you’re screwed; they WILL bully you, knock off points out of spite, put you on the spot, and punish you for things the favorite or charismatic class clown gets away with on a daily basis. As another example, I forgot my homework in my locker once, that was literally right outside the room I was in and needed it for. My teacher for that class allowed me to retrieve the assignment and the instructor across the hall actually stopped his own lecture to come outside and scream at me. He called me disrespectful and dumb, and forced me to return to the room without my homework. My own teacher did not clarify she’d given me permission, nor defend me, and I wasn’t credited for the homework because of a stupid mistake and a complete jackass. These are just a few examples out of many I could give. If I had to redo school today I’d be a lot more willing to give it back to teachers like that–being an authority figure doesn’t mean you can bully people, especially children.
Anytime I would tell my parents or other adults about this kind of thing, they’d brush me off, say “that’s just how it is” and/or dick-measure about how much worse it was in “their” day as if it was a competition. The point is we all have bad experiences like that, so let’s agree to fix it together. My Uncle told me about a teacher who wouldn’t let him use the bathroom so he crapped his pants. My mom told me about a teacher who threw trash at students. But in a way, the parents perpetuate the insanity too; my mom would constantly scream at and punish me for “being lazy” when I’d fall asleep as I got home. Well, I would fall asleep because I got maybe 4 hours of sleep if I was lucky–sometimes just 3 or less–and I was genuinely exhausted. But nope, “in my day, we didn’t sleep until bedtime!” So that was that, regardless of how much crazier college expectations are, or the fact she wouldn’t let me quit my job even as I was struggling in some classes and she knew it. It’s always the child in the wrong, never the school system that’s flawed.
A Coordinated Sabotage
This is going to be one of the only conspiracy theories you’ll hear from me in this blog but I don’t care. I truly believe the public schooling system is deliberate sabotage of our youth. By design it ingrains an authoritarian structure and discipline system into their psyches. It teaches them to be silent, submissive and malleable to the whims of frustrated or outright cruel teachers and administrators. It teaches them that their well-being (in the case of bullying at least), logic (via zero-tolerance) and justice (unfair treatment by teachers) are useless lip-service and they have to deal with it because fuck you for being a “rowdy” kid. It disincentives kids to learn or enjoy the process of learning as athletics are prioritized, homework makes it tedious and students can’t choose their own studies or methods of learning. The powers that be want monkey-automatons who are just smart enough to work the machines in the factories but not too smart to start asking questions about they way things are, demand answers from our leaders or raise a ruckus about societal and economic injustice in the world.
And if it’s somehow not a deliberate plot, which I doubt, and this really is the best education system they could devise…then that just shows the adults of this world are too incompetent to presume to teach children anything.
As someone with over 20 years experience working in the American Education system, I am impressed by your insight into some of the big problems with the current system. My experience is with teaching Art, history and Social Studies and you seem right on in you remarks about history and Social studies. I know nothing about teaching Science or math but assume that since you were right on target with the subjects I know something about your insights are valid about the others also. As usual I am impressed by the logic and clarity of your thinking. I believe you will eventually find a career in writing. I am very impressed and proud of you Cassandra.