On Education: “The American Dream Is Dangerously Close To False Advertising”

As someone who’s been on both sides of the classroom, I like to think that I’m disillusioned when it comes to college and education.

I was taught from a very young age that college was it, it was the thing I had to do or my life would be an absolute and utter failure. If I didn’t go to college, I may as well resign myself to flipping burgers for the next 60 years (as if it’s the worst thing in the world). That kind of thinking is, of course, grossly exaggerated. Not going to college isn’t the end of the world and, honestly, between you, me, and the rest of the Internet, not everyone should go to college. You know, in Germany, you have to test high enough to qualify for higher education. I mean, the government pays for it, but they’re not paying for everyone. If your test scores indicate that you’d be better off as a waitress, well, there you go. Of course, waitressing is an actual profession in Germany, so it’s not like it has the same stigma being a waitress in the U.S. has.

The American Dream is dangerously close to false advertising. I know I’m not alone in having parents who pushed them to go to college. Parents make certain promises, enforcing the beliefs of society on their children: do well in school, go to a good college, do well there, get a good job. It’s almost like an equation. Good grades + good college = good job. Good job becomes equivalent with a good life. However, as any recent graduate can tell you, it’s not quite that simple. The transition from elementary to middle school to high school is so streamlined, I barely noticed it. It involved almost no effort on my part. The transition from high school to college, while stressful, was manageable. As long as you do certain things within a certain time frame, you should be alright. The transition from college to the working world is turbulent, unpredictable, and just plain difficult. It’s stark, really, how much everyone cares about your education when you’re young but no one gives a shit once you have to find a job. I’m dangerously close to a rant.

Once upon a time, people pursued higher education because they wanted to learn things. Humanities are part of most curricula because, for many schools, the humanities were all that were taught (this excludes, obviously, things like medicine and law—though you’d think something that dealt directly with the body would be considered a humanity). These people were thinkers and high achievers. There’s a correlation between four-year degrees and higher paychecks, but I think this correlation is misleading. Employers like to hire people with BAs, because these people have proven that they’re more committed and dedicated to completing something and, oh, maybe they learned something along the way. The problem is that there’s a misleading link between what universities give students and the way students are. Employers are more likely to hire people with degrees, therefore, people want degrees so they can get hired. Do you see the problem? College doesn’t make people thinkers and high achievers—the people who went to college were probably already like that. Hopefully, everyone gains something meaningful from their college experiences, but if you’re only looking at college as a way to make more money ten years from now, you might want to re-evaluate your life. But it’s not really your fault, either. When employers say they only want people with four-year degrees, then that’s what you go get.

But then you end up with a lot of idiots who don’t belong in college. Sorry, there’s not a nice way to say that. Actually, there probably is, but why?

If you’ve never been in a classroom with someone who clearly didn’t care about being there, please comment and tell me what that was like because I’ve always wondered how the other half lives. I use English/Composition classes as a gauge of college worthiness. You think learning how to write clear, comprehensible prose is a waste of time? I don’t think I trust you. Liking the subject has nothing to do with this. I’ve never liked math, but I’ve never questioned its value. The value of learning goes beyond mere utility.

As a former instructor of English, I can say that not all of my students have been well-prepared for college. This doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to go.

The problem is that we’re so obsessed with treating everyone the same. I once took an intro to theater class at UT. The professor was a slim woman with blond hair and horn-rimmed glasses. She asked us one day, “How many of you think women are better than men?” Some ultra-hardcore feminists raised their hands. “How many of you think men are better than women?” Some douche-bros raised their hands. “How many of you think men and women are equal?” Everyone else raised their hand.

She nodded, pursed her lips. “That’s fine. I don’t think men and women are equal. I don’t think one individual person is equal to another person.”

You see, treating everyone equally is fine—in most contexts. You want to a home loan? Great. you want a bus pass? Great. You want to get married? Great. I also understand, however, that people learn at different rates. You can’t set a pace for a class and expect every single person to be able to keep up. When I taught classes, I always made my syllabi flexible and I was upfront with students about the work and their ability to do it. If they thought they needed more time on an assignment, all they needed to do was tell me or ask for more time. It was a never a problem. Well, it was a problem if it was the last week of classes. That only happened once, though.

Equality is a problem when you confuse treating everyone equally with everyone actually being equal in all contexts. I hate basketball. I couldn’t play it to save my life. No one would ever think that I was an equal player to Tim Duncan. Don’t like that example? Let’s try an extended metaphor.

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woman wearing blue jacket sitting on chair near table reading books

Let’s try it with mattresses. X prefers soft mattresses. Y likes firmer mattresses. They require different kinds of things in order to do the same action: sleep. These differences are equal because there’s nothing inherently better about soft or firm mattresses. And sleeping doesn’t require any skill. That is, it’s outside influences that affect sleep, nothing innate (except, I guess, for insomniacs). However, our current definition of equality in education would mean replacing all mattresses with firm ones and pretending we’re doing X a favor. We scratch our heads and wonder why X isn’t sleeping correctly. We’ll conduct tests and studies, give X some pills, spend millions on pillows and blankets, build better buildings. And we’ll ignore the notion that the core of the problem lies in X’s need for something different. The mattress can represent whatever you want: socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, gender, sex, home life, personality. It can be the various pathways to a successful life: college, military, regular job promotion.

There’s no denying that standard classroom instruction works well for most people or that most people can adapt to that style of learning. Certainly, most of us began classroom-style learning from the very beginning of our education. I remember this one time, in 6th grade, we took a test to see what our learning style was. It turns out that I’m a visual learner. I do well when I see things, so reading is essential to my ability to learn. However, if I was a tactile (kinesthetic) learner, school probably would’ve been much more difficult for me. But learning styles are mattresses. Our school system is geared to help learners like me (though this method is much most ideal for auditory learners, I imagine) and to force kinesthetic learners to adapt to my kind of learning.

Something similar happens when children are told that education is the key to success or that it’s the only way to achieve dreams. This might be true for some people or a lot of people. But it restricts people’s options and instead of exploring all the roads to success, people will trudge through the way they’ve been told to go.

It’s not fair. It’s not equal. I’m tired of pretending that it is.

I don’t have a solution, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the first one to raise this problem. If I am, someone should just hand me a PhD right now.

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