Academic Dread When Civilization is on the Brink

Lately my son has taken to dreading Mondays. He likes grade school, mostly, but prefers the freedom and fun he gets out of being at home. I can relate, but still wax poetic about the magic of learning, the merits of homework, and how lucky he is to have a school to attend at all.

I encourage him to make connections between the things that motivate him and what he learns at school, so that he can combine them in interesting ways that make learning more fun. I explain patiently and repeatedly that there is an essential importance to arithmetic and literacy that he will grow to appreciate, and besides, he gets to see his friends and play basketball there.

My son is sympathetic to my lectures, and he even tends to agree with the reasoning behind my arguments, but he still doesn’t look forward to Mondays. He still feels a pressure to perform well in school, despite having little internal motivation to take his studies seriously. He just doesn’t really seem to care all that much. And honestly, I can’t blame the kid.

Going on ten years, my son is too young to give much attention to existential threats, but I’m not. When I was his age, I had an intuition that there was something devastatingly wrong with the way this world was ordered. That intuition developed primarily because my education felt entirely meaningless in the face of global conflicts and environmental exploitation. I suspect that my son is picking up on that same intuition now.

After all, he is old enough to pay lots of attention to his old man, and he must see in me a possible future for his own life, but I don’t get the impression that he is particularly excited about that prospect. As a university student, I am often too exhausted or too busy to play with him at the end of his school day. He notices that I don’t have recess, that I have an incredible amount of homework, and I don’t seem to have time to go out and play with my friends. It’s not an example I’m proud of, and he regularly laments that growing up and becoming an adult sounds… lame.

He’s not wrong. I would far rather be at home with my child, engaged in the task of educating the both of us, and working towards a better world together, than pressuring him to enjoy a one-size-fits-all curriculum that he finds uninspiring and often meaningless. Because his education is all training and no context. All practice, no theory.

At the same time, there is nothing that my liberal arts university education offers me that I can’t acquire in other ways. All it really involves is reading, writing, thinking, and talking – but what’s missing, what grates away at my conscience every day, is the ability to make some meaningful contribution to the world. My education is all theory, no practice. What if we could combine the two?

One day, with spring and the promise of summer vacation on the horizon, while struggling once again to inspire my son to get a move on with his homework, I paused everything and asked him: “Why do you think you go to school?” He looked at me with an accusation in his eyes, a look that said: what kind of stupid question is that? You know the answer, because you taught me the answer.

Wearily my son replied, “To learn stuff so that I’ll have a good job and make enough money so I don’t fail at life later on.”
“No,” I said. “Stop. Oh god – I told you that didn’t I?”

I hadn’t told him that’s why he went to school. But when I had to explain why I spent so many of our nights together glued to my desk while he watched cartoons, why he had so many sleepovers at his grandparents’ house while I was at school writing essays or attending night lectures, I had told him that’s why I went to school. I had shown my son by example what all of my advice would amount to: desperately trying to graduate at the top of my class and embark on the road to a middle-class academic existence, which would mercifully give me enough time and expendable income to afford my son, my family, my life, the attention that they deserve.

Then I asked my son to imagine a Monday he didn’t dread, and a school he was actually excited to go back to every week. What would that school look like? He told me he would still want to learn about math and French, but he also wants to learn new things like how cars and houses are made, and how to help the environment. He expressed disappointment that he only learned about climate change at school for one week, and a desire to know more than his fill-in-the-blank exercises had taught him.

He also made this rather brilliant suggestion: Student-directed learning periods. What if students were to design their own units of curriculum, work on the projects they devise, and then organize a kind of conference to share with each other what they learned? Kind of like something between a science fair and an academic conference, but with fewer restrictions. He thought this would be a good way to learn how to teach, which was important, he said, because “they don’t teach you how to teach, you just observe it. But if you can learn how to teach, later in life if you ever need to help someone learn, you can.”

These are the moments I take the most inspiration and pride out of having the good fortune to be this kid’s dad. Not when he brings home an A+ but when he comes up with a great new and creative idea. In a way, my kid’s rant about his ideal school day is a good description of what a fusion of theory and practice in education might look like. What if my son could learn arithmetic by studying construction and automotive engineering? He is interested, motivated, and just waiting for the opportunity.

Similarly, what if I could learn theory by putting it into practice in the real world? I could study the effect of interdisciplinary learning on mental health symptoms by taking at-risk youth out of the classroom and into the world for their lessons. These seem like uncontroversially useful things to at least try out in our modern education system.

Instead, the world is burning, my son is conjugating verbs in silence at the kitchen table, and I am planning to start a Master’s degree in a self-important attempt to better understand the global disaster I am trying to help avert – and, let’s be honest, to make myself more employable.

The city is flooding, students are striking outside their schools, wildlife is going extinct and resources are being extracted at such an alarming rate that my child may have to worry about global food and energy shortages in his lifetime, as pollinator populations collapse and extreme weather cripples our already crumbling infrastructure.

Yet here I am, extolling the virtues of practicing his verbs so that he can do well on this week’s quiz. Preparing him for a world that is on the brink, steadily marching toward global suicide, as if his grades will really matter when grocery prices begin to multiply. What is the point?

How am I, how is any student, supposed to sleep at night knowing that we are participating in the same song and dance that brought us these existential threats in the first place? These are the questions we should be asking our students, teachers – everyone – so that we can get back to the ordinary and universal questions of innocent curiosity and inspiration.

“I also want to learn more about how things get their colours,” my son adds, as an afterthought to his diatribe. “Like why is an apple red or yellow? Why are trees green or red or yellow? Most things are red or yellow actually now that I think of it…” I laugh, but he ignores me.

“And there would also be more time for lunch,” he says. “Recess should be thirty minutes long. Twenty five is not really a lot.” An extra five minutes for lunch? A modest proposal if I ever heard one. I am left wondering why children do not have more authority over their own education. Some, at least, appear capable enough.

The best I can hope for is to game the education system in order to get what I need out of it, so that I can then turn around and change it in a meaningful way. And I’m teaching my son to do the same. I’m teaching him that some things he does in school will be pointless, that he will often have to find meaning by learning something other than what he is being taught. Like when he has to study his verbs, but also gets to learn about the gap between education policy and our lived reality as students.

Someday we’ll look back at our modern education system and scratch our heads in wonder that we ever thought it could work. We will laugh at how primitive it was, to treat human beings like little blank slates that could be moulded into efficient workers through proper indoctrination and training. We will sigh with relief and gratitude that we no longer have to send our children into these boot camps of civilized insanity and economic slavery. We will ask our children, “Why do you think you go to school?” and they will reply, “Why wouldn’t I go to school?” without hesitation.

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