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Terminal Education and the Death of Culture

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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Human Progress and the Four Forces

Four ForcesI write this on New Year’s Day, a traditional time when people around the world make resolutions to be more responsible, love each other more deeply, and finally do something about the dreams they’ve been procrastinating on. In 30-days time, which is about how long it takes for real change to get established or abandoned, we’ll check in again.

It doesn’t always or even typically go the way we had hoped it would.

I reflected on hope in a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-AF) where I defended its importance against a trend in popular psychology which regards it essentially as yet another way human beings divert attention away from the present moment into things that aren’t real. As the expectancy of something to come, hope pulls us out of the here-and-now and thereby undermines our one genuine touchpoint in reality.

Of course, the hopeful person is still very much in the present moment, for there is nowhere else one can be, but the investment of awareness is being channeled away from what is to a future prospect of only what might be.

What this argument fails to take into consideration is the fact that our brains, particularly the most recent and uniquely human part called the prefrontal cortex, have evolved (quite literally) with the future in mind. Generally speaking, animals with more evolved brains and nervous systems are able to anticipate, predict, and plan their actions in view of future (i.e., hoped for) outcomes. Not only does this give them an advantage over animals lacking the talent, but such a future orientation allows for creative options denied to lesser brains.

Naturally the challenge is to live in touch with the present as we plan for the future. Each of us is familiar with the way that obsessing over tomorrow can cause us to overlook the priceless gift (present) of today.

As I see it, hope is one of those undeniable forces that shape human progress. As we prepare ourselves for another year, our anticipation of what it might bring and our plans for what we hope to accomplish exercise a powerful influence on what actually comes about.

But another force works in opposition to hope. I’m referring to the deep grooves of habit that hold us in well-established patterns of behavior and belief. Just like hope, habit is sometimes denigrated as a negative influence that prevents us from fully engaging in present experience. We do something long enough, or it was set in place early enough, that now we don’t even have to give it a second thought. Whether we learned it through repeated practice and discipline like a skill, or picked it up more or less spontaneously in reaction to trauma or chronic stress, habituated behavior and its associated beliefs constitute a good deal of what is meant by character.

Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” He was referring not to some magical power in belief itself, but to the power of habit in shaping our judgments regarding our own creative authority. If we routinely (i.e., habitually) dismiss or deny our capacity to change current reality and bring about something new, that deep and familiar groove will eventually deliver us to our grave.

The real danger in habit has to do with the way it locks us inside behavioral patterns and mental boxes that stifle our creativity. We become hostages of our own convictions, spellbound by the mystique of certainty, and dead to the creative intelligence that got us thinking in the first place.

Each of us has an ego, a separate center of personal identity that strives both to fit in and stand out at the same time. From birth our tribe began prodding and luring our behavior in the direction of communal aims, all the while giving support to the emergence of personal ambitions regarding our future goals. Some of those goals never crystallized out of the fantasy state, where they functioned more as a therapy of mental escape from the fixed conditions of everyday life than as motivators of actual progress. As we know, a habit of insecurity, entitlement, self-doubt, and procrastination can keep us perpetually stuck in the daydream of what we wish our lives could be.

In that daydream we tend to live out of touch with our body (since it is where our trauma and shame are stored) and equally alienated from our soul (which is where intuition and unity-awareness are found). If we could only pay attention, symptomatic messages in the body would reveal where our creative energy and higher human progress is currently blocked – in hang-ups around security and power (gut), attachment and love (heart), or meaning and truth (head).

The body itself is informed by a deep instinctual intelligence with roots reaching back into our evolutionary prehistory. Those urges, drives, and reflexes were formed over millenniums of symbiotic adaptation to the limits and opportunities of the environment. Even though the innovations of culture have liberated us somewhat from the force of instinct, we are foolish not to include our animal nature and its visceral intelligence in our New Year’s resolutions. No diet, whether endorsed by medical doctors or Hollywood movie stars, will produce a healthy body if we have lost attunement with the body’s own primal knowing of what is truly wholesome and beneficial to health.

Opposite the dark urgencies of instinct are the bright revelations of wisdom, guarded (or ignored) under the stewardship of our diverse cultures. The soul’s insight into the truth of things is like a transcendent light shining through the stained glass icons of meaning that our cultures honor and protect. Oftentimes this light illumines the genuine beauty and grace of those icons. But sometimes, particularly when they have become dogmatic, inflexible, and absolute in their claims on truth, it may inspire the birth of new images and metaphors in pursuit of a higher meaning.

Wisdom should not be confused with knowledge or “being smart.” Throughout its history, the evolving stream of human wisdom has been contemplated as carrying the ethical insights and mystical realizations that can help us live more authentically, more compassionately, and more peacefully together in community. Wisdom will always challenge us to sink deeper and open wider to the present mystery of reality, always beyond the moral judgments and doctrinal orthodoxies that currently divide us.

Our progress, both individually and collectively, will be short-lived so long as we continue to believe and behave as if we’re separate from (and superior to) the rest. Wellbeing – truly being well (a cognate of the term ‘whole’) – is about living with the Big Picture in mind and promoting wholeness in all we do.

In my diagram the double arrow between instinct and wisdom is bigger yet less distinct than the single-direction arrows from habit to hope, while the latter are more pronounced. This is to make the point that as long as we stay in the grooves defining who we are and what’s in it for me, access to the deeper force of instinct and the higher force of wisdom will be largely unavailable to us. And as long as that’s the case, our human progress, both in this coming year and in the decades still to come, will be questionable indeed.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2016 in The Creative Life

 

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