Public and private schools contributed to my formal education. My conservative brothers and sisters may insist that the public school experiences contaminated me and resulted in my liberalism on some subjects, especially social issues. On the other hand, my liberal brothers and sisters could insist that my time spent in private schools led to my conservatism, most often exemplified through economic issues.
Formal Education as the Beginning
I used the descriptor, “formal education,” in the opening paragraph to indicate education should be a lifelong process. Accordingly, I continue to seek information leading to knowledge about a variety of subjects and through many sources, e.g., books, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, PBS, and NPR. Sometimes this information is of value to my continuing education. I seldom look at TV newscasts or listen to radio broadcasts from either liberal or conservative sources other than from PBS and NPR,—especially the BBC programs on KUT, our local NPR station.
From my perspective, formal education should primarily lay the foundation for a lifelong commitment to education. For instance, after I received my Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and finished my post-doctoral work at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, NY, success in my professional careers markedly depended upon my keeping abreast of my fields through journal articles, seminars, and face-to-face conversations.
A Personal Educational Odyssey
I began my formal education in the first grade in Chickasaw, AL, where my father worked building Liberty Ships during World War II. The war ended and we moved back to our hometown, LaGrange, GA, where I attended public schools through high school. Bela Lancaster was the school superintendent and many people at the time credited him with bringing our school system, for whites, to equivalence with Atlanta public schools. I don’t know about the validity of this contention. While in the LaGrange system, I enjoyed many good teachers and suffered through a number of bad teachers. I probably gained as much educational experience through the many novels I read as I did in most of the classrooms. By the time I entered LaGrange College, I felt reasonably prepared for a college education except in mathematics. Nevertheless, had I taken Differential Equations in my senior college year, rather than Introduction to Philosophy, I would have had a third major—in mathematics—to go with my majors in Biology and Chemistry. This initial exposure to philosophy was the single most valuable course I took as an undergraduate. The textbook left a lot to be desired but Prof. Kovar was outstanding in stimulating conversation in the classroom.
Again, in college, I was exposed to good and bad teachers, including one perfectly awful Physics instructor. I came to wonder how LaGrange High School actually compared with the supposedly equivalent Atlanta schools. Many of the students from Atlanta seemed to have been better prepared academically than I was. Despite gaps in my education, one idea drove me to academic success: I early in my life realized that a good education was a major factor that would allow me to rise above the circumstances into which I had been born. My parents, neither of whom graduated from high school, saw little need for my higher education but that’s a subject for another blog post.
In graduate school, I soon learned that my peers who had attended elite private schools in the northeast were much better prepared than I was. And, about half of the faculty were good teachers, a quarter were mediocre, and another quarter were abysmal. So, I buckled down and worked hard, the desire for an advance degree motivating me. A strong curiosity about how the world works and the joy of discovering the secrets of creation propelled me onward.
From the Specific to the General?
I hesitate to draw general conclusions about education from my personal experiences; however, some conclusions might be appropriate. First and foremost, the desire for an education seems of paramount importance. Second, if sufficiently motivated, students can overcome poor teachers by seeking information in textbooks and other sources. Great teachers make the process easier but the information is available in textbooks. Third, inadequate preparation due to poor schools also can be overcome, if students are sufficiently motivated and interested.
How To Improve the System?
The tile of this post is, “What’s Wrong With Our Educational System?” I won’t go into a discussion of the problems with our educational system. Most of these difficulties are well known. I see no reason for criticizing the system simply for the sake of criticizing. I prefer rational critiques that may lead to a better educational system.
I think we might devote much of our energies in the following, but not exclusive, areas:
1. Improve the across-the-board quality of our teachers by making entry qualifications more rigorous and establishing effective criteria for teachers to remain in the system. That is, increase the professionalism of all teachers and pay them commensurate with that status. No, high stakes testing and teaching to the test do not qualify as effective teacher, or student, assessments. No one should assume that I believe all of our teachers are substandard. I know a number of excellent and dedicated teachers at all levels of our school systems.
2. Improve the quality of our students by instilling in them a love of education and a realization of what benefits can come from a good education. Yes, we also need to improve the quality of our students’ families so they will support rather than hinder the education of their children.
3. Realize that one model does not fit all students. Because “we’ve always done it that way” doesn’t cut the mustard in today’s world. In this respect, distance learning from highly qualified faculty intrigues me.
In searching for solutions, I’m pre-disposed to maintaining, while massively improving, our public schools. I firmly believe that not everything should be for sale, especially the education of our children. That perspective leads me to oppose “for profit” schools and charter schools. Educated students must be the profit from our schools.
How would readers of this blog propose improving our educational system? Please comment directly on this blog. I look forward to the comments.