Monday, May 28, 2012

Education Manifesto

We place too much value in education.  That's right, I'm a teacher.  Here is why:

I overheard one student asking another: "Why aren't you going?"  "I am, I'm just starting at community college," said the other.  "But why not start out wherever you want to end up?"  "I can't pay, I don't qualify for FAFSA" (federal financial aid).  This is the case for so many of my students.  This one in particular is an excellent student: trustworthy, hardworking, willing and excited to learn.  But he isn't a U.S. citizen, so is therefore left out of the educational loop.

I on the other hand qualified and took advantage of tens of thousands of federal dollars in loans and grants.  Serenity and I together still owe over $20,000.  I've heard it and said it hundreds of times: teaching pays the least of any profession that requires a masters degree.  With a family of 6, I qualify for both food stamps and Oregon Health Plan.  I have a masters degree and found a good job in my chosen field and I still qualify for public assistance!  Something is wrong with the economic system we live in.  I am not someone who complains about my pay, I didn't get into teaching to become rich, and I enjoy what I do.

The internal conflict begins however, when I talk college with my students.  A report just came out that tells us that for the first time in history "the number of jobless workers age 25 and up who have attended some college now exceeds the ranks of those who settled for a high school diploma or less."

True learning can and does occur at university, however, as someone who attended 5.5 years of college can attest, much of it is jumping through hoops to attain a degree.  Learning is a choice, I don't need some certificate to tell me what or how to think.  Our world is becoming increasingly egalitarian, the free flow of information is helping many people become (even though it is a teaching cliche) "life-long learners".  I also fully understand that an education can be the tool that allows for those who are on the margins of society to become plugged into the world around them both socially and economically.  However, too many times, someone's level of education attained is how we define them.  We seem to place more worth (or at least I have / do) on someone who has attained a high school diploma over someone who has dropped out.  A doctor is somehow considered better than a migrant worker.  Herein lies the central question: Should our education define our worth?

It would be a central and fundamental shift in our thinking, especially as a teacher.  At WAAST (Woodburn Academy of Art, Science and Technology) where I teach, we tend to highlight our graduates who have attended prestigious colleges or who have went on to become successful in their chosen higher-level fields (after attaining some sort of higher-level degree).  I once had a principal who told us that every single one of our students should attend college.  What exactly should I say to a student who cannot attend college because of economic or citizenship obstacles?  Typically we all might intentionally or unintentionally consider that student as inferior and consequently treat her differently.  How should I lift up my students who either can't or choose not to attend college and treat them with dignity, respect and a sense of worth?  I believe our view of economics directly reflects how we view others.  If we have become conformist to the consumeristic and materialistic world around us, then becoming a doctor or lawyer or some other high paying profession is the ultimate goal and achievement.  If this is the view we have, then yes, college degrees and educational achievement should define our worth.  But if we reject this broken economic system or even question it, then educational achievement should not and does not define our individual worth.

Telling a generation of young people that their worth is tied up in where or if they attend college is a fallacy.  Educational attainment is no longer the measuring stick for success.  As an educator, I need to do a better job of making it clear to my students that their own individual worth is not connected to their chosen profession, or even a profession at all.  Ultimately, in God's eyes, someone who dropped out of school in 3rd grade and picks strawberries is as worthy of love and acceptance as someone who dropped $200,000 on a doctorate degree.