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Terminal Education and the Death of Culture

11 May

Terminal EducationYouth is being wasted on education. More and more young people are becoming victims of what can be called ‘terminal education’, which is not about lifelong learning and opening minds to the world – not anymore. Increasingly the education process is a conveyor-belt affair, where naive and optimistic youth are moved through a series of stations along the way to a long life of work.

Many of them don’t make it, and it’s not entirely their fault.

Feeling the pressure of limited resources and a fluctuating job market, college administrators are remodeling the process of education into a production-line for making graduates who are expected in turn to fill jobs and strengthen the economy. A stronger economy should mean more resources eventually coming back to the college, right? It might work that way if our colleges weren’t turning out such dismal figures when it comes to academic achievement, graduation rates, and job placement for their graduates.

There are really two systemic problems with our current education system, one of which is the terminal orientation of the process (the main focus of this blog post). Underlying this problem, however, with a history equally as deep, is the way our system over-accommodates students in their struggle to succeed in school. Rather than working to empower in students the determination, best effort, perseverance, and resilience that lead to meaningful achievement, schools already from the elementary level have been lowering the bar, so as to reduce the risk of failure.

Are they doing this because they feel badly for the struggling students? No, these accommodations are being provided so that students will produce the academic outcomes (grades, grade point averages, and standardized test scores) that increase institutional eligibility for external funding, updated technology, and higher quality teachers.

Generally the rule is that accommodations cost more the later such interventions are needed, so by putting accommodations in place early this threat can be averted. Unfortunately what happens is that students are pushed up a grade without the intellectual skills and emotional resources to succeed there.

When it’s time for college, they’re not ready – not by a long shot. But colleges need to show robust enrollments, so they end up falling in line with the accommodation train. Remedial classes, academic interventions, prerequisites for credit classes, and even special accommodation for students who can produce a diagnosis from a growing list of learning disorders – all of it necessary if the year-end report is to show an institution’s market value.

Maybe the underpreparedness of students is part of the reason that education has become terminal. If all your time and resources are tied up in simply getting them to graduation, what’s left for the work of opening minds, igniting passion, nurturing creativity, and developing human potential? Not much. And frankly, the students themselves don’t seem to want it. Never mind that they have no inkling of what ‘it’ even is, having rarely been empowered in the love of learning.

A depleted system produces deficient members, whose deficiency further depletes the health reserve of the system: this is the kind of reinforcing feedback loop that inevitably ends with extinction.

I suppose that’s one meaning of the word ‘terminal’.

But another meaning, and the one I want to focus on here, describes how education today is aimed at very specific and measurable outcomes, and ultimately on the need of students to find gainful employment.

Why are you planning to go to college? Because I need to find a job. And of course, before I can find a job I need to earn a degree. For the degree, I have to get decent grades. In order to get a grade I have to take a class. And before I can take a class, it’s necessary to choose a college and be accepted.

Why are you doing this again? To find a job. When I get a job, it will all be worth it and my education will finally be over. Done. Finis.

It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that many students don’t make it. In my diagram above, the likelihood of success at each step diminishes the farther along students get, as indicated by the thinning arrow. With each step the definition of success also becomes less clear, as illustrated in the fading shade of text. Additionally, the consequence of failure grows more severe as students move through the stations: withdrawing from a class is not as serious as dropping out of school, and the disillusionment that comes when your degree fails to unlock a career can be personally devastating.

‘Plan B’ is another way of saying that things didn’t work out as you hoped they would.

If all this focus is placed on the terminal outcome of finding a job, there is little inherent value acknowledged in the process of education itself. It’s not really about learning how to think and solve problems, developing talent and unleashing creativity, or opening minds to the mysteries of life and promoting the self-actualization of human beings. And yet it is these things which have been the seedbed of human culture for millenniums, not ‘getting a job’.

Terminal education is both a symptom and a warning that our culture is losing its spirit.

Thankfully it’s not too late to turn things around.

College is more than a pipeline of graduates into the workforce, and the deepest value of education is probably something that can’t even be measured. For at least four years (in the conventional scheme of things) young people are growing into their adult selves, learning how to get along in the world, pushing open boundaries, tapping the inner springs of their native intelligence, discovering passions and exploring their dreams.

A higher education – but really, at every grade along the way – needs to have one eye on the economic landscape and changing demands of the job market, with the other on its sacred stewardship of the human spirit.

 

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