Education … or What?

by Russ Hirai

Drawings by Shirley Anderson and Liz Holm
  • Students are generally dissatisfied with their education at Roosevelt, blaming the educational system as a whole for educational alienation.
  • Teachers, as part of that system and the main link to the student, come under heavy student criticism. While both students and teachers consider RHS faculty members to be dedicated to teaching and knowledgeable in their subjects, both groups agree that classes are not stimulating or challenging.
  • Both teachers and students, while often acknowledging the difficult position of the administration, do not see the RHS administration as a leadership force in the school.

These are some of the conclusions of a survey of education and apathy conducted by the Review. The results were drawn from a questionnaire answered by faculty members and students, and from personal interviews with students and teachers. The questionnaire was given to all faculty members and a sampling of students taken from English classes.

Ironically, although the questionnaire was designed in part to determine student apathy, less than 1/4 of the faculty members returned the completed forms.

The “percent” findings do not tell the entire picture. Many of those questioned objected to being “pigeon-holed” to two or three answers and instead responded by a short paragraph. Also, with such a small percentage of the teachers responding, it is impossible to obtain a clear view of faculty opinion.

As a group, the seniors were the most negative, often dramatically so in comparison with the underclassmen. Sophomores were the most puzzling group, following no consistent trend and often being poles apart from both their older and younger classmates. The reason for this may be as one teacher suggested: “The sophomores are a mixed-up bunch, They’re right in the middle of growing u. They’re disenchanted but they don’t know why. All they know is they don’t like something.”

General interest of the students toward education was a point of controversy. Although the majority of students and teachers considered interest to be less than moderate, many teachers wrote, “students are more aware of their rights and so they are more militant.” Similarly, in response to “Has general interest in learning been decreasing?” one teacher responded, “Yes, because of a rise in student awareness or at least vague discontent with the structure of the system and society.”

The state cause of student “uninterest” proved to be interesting. The freshmen (whose interest levels were highest) cited teachers almost 3 to 1 for their interest in school. Yet, as dissatisfaction increased through grade levels, teachers were mentioned less and less often. In contrast with the freshmen, the seniors cited the educational system as a whole for their dissatisfaction.

Although interest may be wanting, at first glance the students seem very satisfied with the quality of their education at Roosevelt. Through the first three years, students assessed the quality of their education as at least “fair” while over 1/3 consider it “good” or “excellent.” However, in almost all cases a “fair” verdict was accompanied by a negative comment such as the junior who wrote, ” I know a lot more now than when I started but I still think that most of my classes were a complete waste of time.”

Or, as one senior sardonically remarked, “Actually, I have gotten an excellent education from what is probably the administration’s point of view. I’ve learned you should shut up, keep your ideas to yourself, not be an individual, have a pass when going through the halls, etc… But as far as an education developing individuality and openness, it has been outrageous.”

This idea of individuality and conformity came out later in the questionnaire when a majority of students in every year and 46% of the teachers agreed with the statement, “Teachers prefer docility and conformity in students as it is easier to teach.”

Many students were particularly critical of rote learning As a senior wrote, ” Many of my courses have been memorization and nothing but. When students are spoon-fed answers, it isn’t really learning.”

However, when asked “What do you expect out of high school and do you think you are achieving this at Roosevelt?” students answers grew extremely vague. Most responses were similar to the sophomore who wrote ” a chance to learn about life and relevant things.” Many students simply wrote “No.”

When grading Roosevelt’s faculty, both students and teachers agree that their classes lack enough stimulus and challenge to hold students’ interest. A majority of students in all years and over 1/2 of the teachers graded “D” (needs improvement) and “F” (unsatisfactory) on “creation of a stimulating and challenging classroom.” Similarly, on “communication with students,” both students and faculty members indicated that adequate classroom communication was lacking.

The effect of this feeling of “non-communication” was brought out in the question, “Do you agree that teachers ‘don’t really care or aren’t really interested’ in their students?” Half of the freshman and a majority of students in other years agreed.

Discrepancies arose on “open-mindedness” on which 57% of the faculty gave grades of “C” (satisfactory) or “B” (good) compared to students “D” and “F.” In the category of “knowledge of the subject,” students graded higher than the faculty, the majority citing “A” or “B.”

Conspicuously absent on either questionnaire were an abundance of excellent grades (“A”). Neither students nor teachers were willing to award “A” with any frequency. By contrast, the concentration of “F” was high, accounting for as much as 1/3 of the responses on some questions.

Responses to the effectiveness of Roosevelt’s administration ranged from lukewarm praise to outright denunciation. In most cases, as with their education in general, students were vague in their expectations of the administration. To one senior, this was due to lack of contact: The administration is a vague ‘something up there’ to most kids – students have little direct contact with them. Hence (they) expect little from them.”

Many students acknowledged the difficult position that the administration is in. “The administration has a rough job because they have to try to please everyone at the same time,” was the comment of one sophomore. Many said, “They try.”

While many students criticized the administration for being overly conservative and wishy-washy, many teachers criticized it for being too liberal and wishy-washy. Although some agreed with a teacher who stated that the administration is “weak and ultra permissive,” many teachers cited the system as preventing a capable job. One teacher wrote, “I think the administration is doing a fine job within the framework of traditional education, but not a fine job for true learning. They are inhibited by the system.”

Both teachers and students thought sense of priorities was lacking. More than a few agreed with the teacher who wrote that “priorities often seem out of whack,” and the senior who said, “The administration is really fouled up.” It gets stuck with a whole bunch of things to do that doesn’t allow for contact with the students. And contact is important when they’re supposed to be guiding us. They don’t know what’s going on. And if they do, they don’t do anything about it because of the district office, etc. They can’t get rid of incompetence because it starts at the top and comes all the way down. They can’t be bothered with real problems; they’d rather worry about how many kids are on the campus when it is closed.”

Significantly, neither group saw the administration as an effective leadership force within the school.

Because Roosevelt’s student body is a conglomeration of all different types and groups of people, it shares many of the same attitudes, strengths and weaknesses of the “outside world.” This may explain why, though different, the student body shared one common feeling, a sense of overwhelming frustration. Many students agreed with the sophomore who wrote, ” I know too many students who say they’re sick of school. Something must be wrong.

What is wrong? A 3 to 1 majority of teachers said that general interest toward learning has been decreasing at Roosevelt. There are probably few people associated with our school who would deny that.

Part of the problem does stem from the “new awareness” that teachers spoke about. One teacher remarked, “Yes, there is apathy towards traditional roles and attitudes, but there is a proportional interest in new directions.”

For most students this awareness has not been specified. They only know that their education is not really theirs. Student have learned that it is not their place to think or that their ideas count. It is the teacher’s job to educate the student. Consequently when the students are not challenged intellectually in the classroom, they become apathetic. When communication is so poor that students believe (as a majority of those questioned do) that teachers don’t really care or aren’t interested in them, the students’ interest toward the teacher likewise diminishes. The alarming growth of vandalism at Roosevelt is a direct effect of these attitudes. The student does not feel that the school is his. He cannot strike out directly at the system which, at the back of his mind is disturbing him, so he strikes out at the figureheads of the system – chairs, books, desks and — teachers.

In such as situation, education becomes a game of survival. Most students learn to adjust and do “very well.” Others do not. All harbor resentment.

Another part of the problem is the teachers. Themselves educated in the system, they are, as Peter Marin says, “committed to ideas that they have never clearly understood.”

A third part is the administrators. From American Education April, 1970: “There appears to be an avoidance of a theory of administrative roles, a theory that could serve as a guide for the …. principal. Is the principal a manager or an educator? Is he a change agent or a maintainer of the status quo? Is he expected to identify new needs and directions for the committee or is he supposed to keep the school entirely in accordance with the committee’s expectations?” Under the Chicago public school system, the answers are obvious.

Students, teachers and administrators, however, are just the victims of the real problem in the failure of education system — its goals.

Educators seem to have either forgotten, never known, or ignored Alfred North Whitehead’s definition of education as ” the art of utilizing knowledge. Indeed a merely well-informed man is the most useless boor on God’s earth.” Instead, conformity and subjugation of interests are stressed, turning out students like little robots, each from the same mold.

However, students know, and teachers know, and administrators know that students are not little robots. Yet this is the idea that they are supposed to perpetuate. The result in administrators is a reduction from an educator and teacher of teachers to a manager and operator. He is a train engineer unsuccessfully trying to steer a course on an almost nonexistently thin track.

For teachers, the result is, as Willard Waller says, “that peculiar blight which affects the teacher’s mind, which creeps over it gradually and, possessing it bit by bit, devours its creative resources.”

Contributing to this “blight” are many factors: Society does not have a high regard for the teaching profession. School is a factory, and teachers are merely workers — sign in, sign out. And there is the fantastic amount of trivia that teachers must contend with. When a person spends a good part of his working day taking attendance, writing forms, patrolling corridors, and controlling study halls, it is a wonder that he has either the energy or the disposition for teaching.

Yet teachers try. Most are well-intentioned people trying to make the best of very difficult circumstances. And for all their bickering, students realize that teachers try. At Roosevelt, students’ grades on teachers’ “dedication” were higher than those on “effectiveness.” As Charles Silberman says, “(teachers), no less than their students are victimized by the way which schools are presently organized and run.”

At the end of this very dirty chain is the student. He is the biggest victim of all.

So, what can be done?

Externally, nothing. Smaller classes, revisions in curricula, teaching machines are “stopgaps.” They will not change the existing structure. For better education there needs to be massive changes in attitudes.

Education must dispel what Paul Goodman calls the idea of “natural depravity” of students: the view that students are sinners or savages whose human impulses and desires are not to be trusted and must be constrained or trained.

Secondly, teachers must recognize that students think. When challenged by a set of objectives and materials that make sense to them, most students will respond to the challenge.

Most important of all, teachers, students, and administrators must place themselves in a constant state of self-evaluation for a diagnostic purpose — “to indicate where teachers and students have gone wrong, and how they might improve their performance” (Silberman). Educators and students must continually ask the question “Why?”

For Roosevelt’s educators now, inhibited by the system, these are the only means to betterment.

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