Is Easy “Learning” Harming Our Kids?

Many students hate reading Shakespeare.  A lot of students also find European History boring beyond measure.  Don’t even ask about Calculus; it is, for too many students, as uncool as a pair of Mom Jeans.

However, just because a student does not like a subject or specific material, does that mean we should not teach it in all its detail and complexity?

It is, of course, the obligation of a teacher to find a way to connect students with challenging material.  However, does this mean that we should watch a video of “10 Things I Hate About You” instead of reading The Taming of The Shrew?  Should a romance novel set during World War Two be considered an adequate substitute for a thorough study of the causes and history of the most important armed conflict of modern times?  Can we properly appreciate the pathos and power of Frankenstein by drawing a paper mask of “a monster” after reading a comic book synopsis of the novel?

This has been a pressing question in our public schools for many years, and perhaps the desire to make Shakespeare more “accessible” to students helps to explain the inexplicable popularity of a series such as “No Fear Shakespeare”, which ingests the poetic language and human insights of The Bard and squeezes out a sitcom.  I’ve impatiently listened to educators discuss removing novels such as The Kite Runner and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings from reading lists because some matters might be “upsetting” to students.  I bang my head on the table every time I hear about an elementary school class spending weeks cutting out colored construction paper to learn about fractions while the rest of the world zooms ahead of us in math skills.

One of the truisms of education is the more you know, the easier it is to learn even more.  A large sum total of knowledge is the necessary precursor to the acquisition of additional knowledge and, with time and effort, the subject area mastery that allows truly independent and innovative thinking.   If, however, we teach only what is comfortable and packaged so as to be easily accessible to our students, we shortchange them by allowing massive gaps in their educations to impede further learning for the remainder of their lives.

I might have found Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground to be terribly intimidating when we read it right at the start of my 10th grade English class (does anyone even teach this novel in a public school anymore?), but it allowed me to build on that knowledge to read A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man at the end of that year and even more challenging works in my junior and senior years, which helped to give me the intellectual breadth to move onto a highly competitive college to receive the finest undergraduate education available.

Would my life have moved in a completely different direction if our sophomore English curriculum had not pushed my goggle-eyed classmates and me completely out of our adolescent comfort zone?  Possibly not.  Perhaps my life would have been just as fulfilling, regardless.  I cannot be sure.

However, I am quite certain that being asked to stretch my brain around work that was at first bewildering forced me to be a better thinker and gave me a great deal of confidence in my ability to approach challenging academic material and be its master.  Struggle is a necessary component of all of life’s endeavors, and education is no different.  It is only through testing ourselves, finding our weaknesses, and remedying them through intensive and difficult work that we truly understand our ability to grab hold of all that life has to offer.  Every time we turn away from a task because it is “too hard”, we cheat ourselves out of an option for our future and close a door that might have opened our souls to a more satisfying life.

When I taught in our public schools, I put a sign on the wall right above my desk for all my students to see: “Before you speak, listen.  Before you write, think.  Before you quit, try.”  Although I certainly lived by the first two, I knew the last bit of pithy wisdom was perhaps the most important for my students: Before you quit, try.  How much of a child’s future is determined by whether that lesson is learned?

Our public schools have a significant duty to explain to our students that learning is, as much as we might try to make it seem otherwise with graphic organizers and songs, at times going to be an uphill slog.  In this, it is not dissimilar to a good deal of adult life; if any of us does not learn to persevere in the face of difficulties, we will be tossed about like a feather in a strong wind.  As much as we all may love our children and wish only chocolate and soft pillows for their futures, they still need to learn the value of sustained effort in school when it would be easier to simply surrender to stupidity.

If our students learn to try, they will learn how to succeed.  There is no guarantee they will always win, but it is inevitable they will lose if they are trained by our schools to believe that all of life’s tasks will be made easier for them if they simply whine loudly and refuse resolutely. Instead, schools have to recommit to teaching challenging material and ask students to step up to the plate; parents have to stop badgering schools to reward their children for the least of their efforts; politicians have to stop insisting that public schools pass every student.  It is often said that success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan; in this case, failure has plenty of “parents” to blame.

Although our first, very human, reaction to what we don’t understand is to reject it, an educated mind is the best defense against the ignorance that stems from fear.  Whether we are speaking of our democratic institutions or their economic futures, filling a child’s mind with the hope and confidence that springs from immersion in a demanding course of study is the most critical function of our public schools.  If we continue to insist on boring, shortchanging, and demeaning our children with educations that offer minimal challenges, we should not be surprised by the negative impacts on our children and our nation.

And who knows?  In time perhaps that hardworking student, once they put in the time and effort to conquer the challenges of the language, will come to realize that Shakespeare is actually pretty fascinating stuff.  Ditto for European History and Calculus.  A child is, after all, capable of wonders when given the tools for success in school.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( May 22, 2011

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