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Saturday, October 6, 2012

WHY WE FAIL (The American Eduction System)

As a high school failure and a college drop-out, I proclaim myself qualified to comment on the society and its educational system that failed me. I propose to point out the failings of a system designed not to educate, but to indoctrinate. I had to spend thirteen years instead of the requisite twelve to finally escape Warwood High School, in a most provincial suburb of a most provincial city, Wheeling, WV. Then came the WWII draft and three years of active duty in the army, half of which was spent in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) in combat. Initially, we were with the First Army under General Hodges and then with the Third Army under the infamous General Patton. I recall having seen Patton once in Nuremburg with his riding boots, pearl-handled revolvers and lacquered helmet, He had once slapped a wounded hospitalized soldier accusing him of cowardice, and this one incident set me to questioning the surrender of one’s self to the unreasoned discipline and authority imposed not only by an army with force, but also by a society with coercion. I had been persuaded by that society, primarily through its disciplined system of education, that not only was it permissible to kill, it was necessary and even admirable. Having by attrition attained the rank of Sergeant, I learned that true respect came not from enforced discipline but by example. Because of this, it was obvious that for the military as it was constituted, I was a misfit. However, it was a learning experience and what is more, it provided me access to higher education through which I might discover why I seemed so out of step with life around me. The generous GI Bill of Rights made it possible for me to apply for admission to West Liberty State College. Dean Jessie Pugh took one look at my high school transcripts and said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I said, “No, the Army says you have to take me.” The Dean’s response, “Yes, but we don’t have to keep you.” And they didn’t.

At the end of my sophomore year, I concluded that college was nothing more than an extension of the high school and the society that had failed me. They failed me with their insistence that I should become not what my intuition indicated, not what I could or should be, but that my first obligation was to meet the needs of their society. With a curriculum established by professional educators under the control of politicians, under the control of a corporate cabal, is it any wonder that three in ten high school and four in ten college freshmen fail to graduate, either through abject boredom or as an act of resistance, as it was in my case. The questions to be asked, however, is not how or why we drop-outs have failed our system, but how and why our system has failed us; has failed to meet our individual needs. To answer these questions we must first arrive at a revised understanding of the purpose of education. In reviewing popular remedies for the alarming drop-out rate, the question of why we educate must be addressed before we can consider any rational question of how. Rarely, if ever, is the question of why addressed or even mentioned. It is simply assumed that the purpose is, first and foremost, to prepare the student for success in our questionable society, which unfortunately has defined success as nothing more than the ability to “make a good living”. This is achieved by tailoring our own needs to the corporate needs of industry. Any thought of self-fulfillment runs a poor second. This whole approach defeats what should be the true purpose of an education, which should be individual self-fulfillment, or self-actualization as Abraham Maslow termed it. Indeed, the current system leans more toward indoctrination than education.

It is a system designed to meet the sometimes questionable needs of the society as opposed to one that meets the essentially personal needs of the student. It becomes a system designed to equip the society with an adequate work force and a sufficient number of sycophants to maintain social stability, rather than to equip the student with an adequate means of gratifying his potential for personal achievement and fulfillment in concert with what innate talents he may possess, which is the only source of true happiness. How we do this is to address the emotional needs of the student as opposed to his intellectual needs. This is accomplished through an increased attention to the arts and social studies, which are the first to be cut or abolished in times of financial stress, for they do not address the needs of the corporate world, or so their need for immediate return on investment might indicate.


As I said, my college experience was an extension of high school in that after I had exhausted all courses in the arts and social studies that addressed the questions that had arisen as to the meaning of my life; I could see no reason to stay. I left immediately for New York for what proved to be a less than glaring success. On my return to Wheeling, I became a political hack, like my father, and a toll-taker on a state owned bridge. I married and within a couple of months the toll was discontinued and I was without an income. With Community Theater as my only salvation, I began a decade of misery with my failure as a salesman. As a fairly accomplished actor, I was approached by the owner of a local furniture store, who suggested that anyone who acted as well as I did, should make an excellent salesman. Well, I didn’t, partially because of his practice of bait-advertising and the fact that my empathy for others got the best of me and I could not force myself to act in what I felt was not in the best interest of the customer. This led to a series of attempts at selling, Insurance, twice, for the reasons stated; then retail sales, fired for objecting to the theft by management of twenty-five cents from my pay envelope to pay for flowers for the grand opening of a new store without my permission, which I demanded to be returned; Awnings, for which one of my designs had taken third place in national competition, the only time Wagner Awning and Manufacturing Co., the largest manufacturer of canvas awnings in the country, had ever received a mention. When I asked the manager what he thought, he grumpily told me that while I had spent so much time on that one little job; their top salesman in Cleveland had sold six larger ones. Then finally long-life light bulbs. I was told by my manager that if I made the calls, I would make the sales. I couldn’t even bring myself to make the calls. The problem is that, in our overly competitive and thus neurotic society, empathy is considered a weakness. thus a hindrance. The great loss in all this is that the wonderful uniqueness of the individual and the contributions he can make, are sacrificed to the crass needs of that society. The great irony is that a society that champions “the rugged individualist”, in most subtle and devious fashion forces him to conform.

A truly just society should be one that addresses the needs of its citizens, as opposed to the needs of a society that in turn ignores their individual needs. The creation of a society that allows for each individual the maximum possibility for fulfillment and happiness, should, therefore, be the broader aim and purpose of education. Probably the most significant danger of the present system is that it seems to have forsaken Socrates. For Socrates, the mere passing on and acceptance of traditional thought and practice, which is what most of the current curricula consists of, is not education. Not only does such a practice tend to suppress the innate curiosity the first grader brings to class, but it discourages the critical thinking that Socrates insisted must lie at the very foundation of education. Unfortunately with the current system, critical thinking on the part of the student, all too often, represents an actual threat to the teacher’s conditioned need to simply impart knowledge and is met by the teacher with dismissal if not hostility. Critical thinking is actually suppressed in the need to meet the requirements of the accursed “standardized testing,” which has become the only criterion in assessing the merit of teachers, students and indeed the system itself. This practice, of course, carries with it the temptation for the teacher to “teach to the test” and for both teacher and student to adopt the most direct and sometimes questionable measures to achieve the academic goals, measures that they will carry with them into the big world of corrupt competition.


My personal problem was that, there was simply little call or reward for the unique and specific talents I had to offer. I speak generally of the arts. While most all the focus in the present system Is on the intellectual needs of the student and, precious little attention is given to the equally important emotional needs, the student loses an opportunity to, by learning to control and use his emotions, discover and then develop his unique human potential. Unless the student can learn to deal with his emotions rather than live in fear of them, he is unlikely to ever experience the true happiness of fulfillment, an emotion that all too many never experience. He is likely doomed to a life that is mediocre at best, and one that cannot truly be called his own.

After all the failure, however, there came finally success. My life did indeed begin at forty. In 1965, after a decade of volunteering my artistic services to Oglebay Institute, a rather unique arts organization in Wheeling, the director of Performing Arts finally persuaded the Executive Director to hire me. In my interview, he asked if I knew anything about Creative Dramatics. I told him, of course, I did. Then agreeing to develop such a program for the local elementary schools, I left his office to go immediately to the public library to find out what Creative Dramatics was. For the next six years I alone conducted the program with great success.

It wasn’t until I was offered a full-time teaching position in the communications department at Bethany College, which I readily accepted over the objections of my Director, that I dropped the Creative Dramatics program but remained with the Institute concentrating on the development of a theatre program which they sadly lacked. So, here I was, a college drop-out doing two full-time, degree demanding jobs and enjoying it like I had never enjoyed life before. The teaching job lasted until I came up for tenure and a new President and Dean, both PHDs and ministers, did not appreciate my lacking a degree and being an infidel in a Disciples of Christ College. Although two-thirds of the faculty voted for my retention in an adjunct capacity, it was not binding and I was let go. It was probably for the best for I turned my full attention to the Towngate Theatre which I founded, and I remained its Artistic Director until I finally retired at age eighty-four. In my retirement, I have turned to writing and to date my poetry and essays have been published by more than eighty journals, magazines and anthologies. I might also mention that I have been inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame for my contributions to the arts, and irony of ironies, I have been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. I became the very first to be so honored by the now and new West Liberty University. The lesson of my story, if there is one, is that there are more ways to live your life than the one society dishes out to you, And there is always a way to do what you were meant to do, even if it takes much blood, sweat and tears.
Note:  This essay is published with the permission of the author, Hal O'Leary

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