OP-ED: A Reimagined Educational Landscape
Peace and Security Research and Policy Intern
November 2016- June 2017
A third-year student at Tulane University in New Orleans, the city that has her heart, Hanan is studying Neuroscience and Public Health with career goals either in international law or palliative care. To keep well-adjusted, Hanan balances her mostly science-leaning course load with well-developed outside interests, ranging from elderly care to refugee relief, writing, and travel. Hanan is passionate about finding creative ways to uplift traditionally silenced voices, and is super excited for the opportunity of mentorship from Dr. Murabit!
On my first day in college, I was left wide-eyed surprised when a Neuroscience professor said––with the security and privilege conferred on him by a tenured position at a relatively well-regarded University––that he was transitioning his teaching style to better reflect today’s world. His eventual goal was to allow students to take their exams free to use their lecture notes, textbook, and even the almost-omniscient Google. Because when in our adult lives would we have to sit at a desk, shoulders stooped and nervous energy feverishly flowing, and scrawl down answers as we worked against a ticking clock? But he would take baby steps in this shift, lest he offend some of his more orthodox colleagues.
Questions that had once surfaced but which I knew better than to ask aloud now felt more real and less lonesome. Here was someone with the experiential authority who put into words what I had been feeling for years as I ascended the educational staircase and excelled at what I eventually came to see as a narrow view of learning.
As I left high school and reflected on my time there, one thing felt inescapably true for me: I had learned far more in my liberal arts type classes than in my science and math ones. In these latter classes, I enmeshed myself in abstruse equations and tried to commit to memory long and complicated steps of biochemical processes, like the citric acid cycle. I tried maddeningly hard to make connections between my life outside of the STEM classroom and inside of it to make the learning feel more authentic and worthwhile, and to avoid the memory dumps that often followed exams.
But my efforts seemed hopelessly vain. It felt as if I were balancing information on my head in a precariously wobbly fashion until the test came around, after which my staggered steps almost invariably gave way to a face-first fall where the information bits all came tumbling down. My long-term memory seemed impermeable to this stuff, and my characteristic optimism sometimes wore thin as feelings of frustration grew.
In my other courses, it was different. In literature, I learned to transcribe complicated thoughts. I read pieces such as the transcript of the late David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College that even today I revisit occasionally when I need a good cosmic rightsizing. In Socratic-like discussions, I became comfortable anatomizing difficult topics, forming opinions that I could support with well-reasoned arguments, and listening––really listening––to others whose positions on philosophical, ethical, and often contested questions were very different from my own.
Lessons on the atomic bomb, segregation, and other dark periods in our history equipped me with examples to invoke when I ventured to talk about the institutional racism and other structural inequities that rear their ugly heads still today. Finally, learning Spanish opened up the doors to meaningful relationships, allowing me to start conversations with neighbors that before I could only smile at and wave to from afar.
The uniting thread of the courses I enjoyed is that the free exchange of ideas took place in them. I learned how to be comfortable with ambiguity, to participate in discussions with peers with whom I fundamentally disagreed sometimes, and to articulate myself both out loud and on the page. I learned not to stay silent as a mere onlooker in the face of inequity, and to speak up for myself and others. I also learned to navigate the unsteady first steps of learning a language and to appreciate the beauty of knowing more than one: forming relationships with new people. To put it another way, these courses molded me to be a more critical thinker and a better person.
My worry is that it is only a matter of time before this kind of fluid learning gets chased out of all classrooms in our standardized test and rank-obsessed culture. We need to embrace learning for its own sake and not see it predominantly as a means for ivy-league degrees and financially lucrative careers.
What I regretted about many of my STEM-leaning courses is that my peers and I were to passively imbibe the material that our teachers lectured and then spit it right back out on test day. If our educational institutions continue to narrow their focus on the standardized tests that determine a sizable factor of school rankings and college admissions, they’ll become saturated with this kind of learning that, in my book, is not really learning after all. Let us protect the arts, humanities, and social sciences and continue to lift them up despite the fact that they’re not adequately represented in the standardized tests on which so much today in the world of school rankings and college admissions hinges.
We need to embrace a new kind of education that equips students with the tools they need to think creatively, flexibly, and compassionately; that cultivates in them a tolerance and appreciation for all the various ways of being; that is not entrenched in a neoliberal mindset where employment and material success are the end goals; that roots them in an international perspective; that affirms the inherent dignity of all people, and calls for protest in the face of human rights abuses; that makes collaboration, not competition, key; that prioritizes communicating effectively and listening closely; that stresses the importance of not fouling our only nest that is planet Earth; and ultimately that makes growth and improvement the touchstones of learning.
My now-former professor’s baby steps make me hopeful for a future with a reimagined educational landscape. Let us get moving––if in baby steps, then big baby steps.
Sources of Inspiration
Robinson, K. [TED]. (2007, January 6). Do schools kill creativity? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY
Robinson, K. [TED]. (2013, May 10). How to escape education’s death valley [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX78iKhInsc
Rosling, O. [TED]. (2014, September 11). How not to be ignorant about the world [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sm5xF-UYgdg
Heffernan, M. [TED]. (2015, June 16). Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vyn_xLrtZaY
Bornstein, D. (2017, February 8). Preparing Young Americans for a Complex World. Retrieved from New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/opinion/preparing-young-americans-for-a-complex-world.html
Gray, P. (2008, August 20). A brief history of education. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/200808/brief-history-education