Schools Lag Because Focus Not on Capacity to Reason
American schools have been many things over the centuries: the world's first true universal public education system, a decentralized municipal forum for sincere ambition and hopeful good efforts, indoctrination channels, oases of political correctness, the envy of the world in science and math, edge-leaders in social progress, the root-structure of the most vibrant university culture in the world, and now, largely insufficient, as competing with the world's best.
The reason for this decline, is that the focus in education policy has moved away from the original guiding principle: that a democratic society must have in all of its citizens, a reserve of reason and common sense, a perspective about society's shared values, and an ability to help guide the innovation that with time helps to steer a nation toward a better, more just future.
As education policy has come to focus more on "accountability", reducing costs and test scores, there is ever less room for the goal of promoting the ability to reason, independently, to base one's judgments on a general knowledge and learning about the world, to discern between competing philosophies and among them to locate the best way forward. We have sacrificed that laudable goal for the idea that students can be programmed to "test well".
Losing sight of the goal of independent reasoning as the desired outcome of education means that a now more standardized system of public education is tainted by the assumption that testing is not about reasoning, but about concrete preparation for testing. Instead of elevating teachers, funding and elevating the profession, so that those who most contribute to a brighter civic future, we have downplayed the import of the teacher and elevated the role of blind tests.
Standardized testing has a role to play, but it is blind because it ignores, necessarily, the human element. Its role is to do that. But if we make it the centerpiece of our education policy, then we strip from our educational system the very thing most valuable about it: the goal of making for each student an optimal future, in which she can shape her own destiny.
There has to be a person-to-person experience, in which the content of an educational process is humanized, impassioned, made to come alive, in which one mind engages with another, and the student learns not just about the question-and-answer process, but also about what makes that intangible quality that is the intellect, what empowers the individual to apply what is learned and to interpret the abstract terrain of thought and consequence.
Our educational system cannot be about programming students for testing. Aside from the fact that this is nothing more than building a system designed to cheat itself —the tests are supposed to examine cognitive ability, not test-taking preparation—, it undermines the most necessary aspect of a successful educational system: that of cultivating intellectual curiosity and the willingness to test the world's claims against one's own judgment and comprehension.
This may be one of the most fundmental areas in which we need to reform our common culture: we are not educating test-takers, we are educating human beings. And a free citizen, capable of accessing all the benefits of a free society, must have at the core of his self-awareness, an intellect that knows it can be applied, that it can assess, relearn, inquire, challenge and distinguish between ideas, the less good and the better.