The Meaning of School

Janet Farrell Leontiou, Ph.D.

    I have been teaching at a community college for the past twenty-two years. I always start the semester by teaching on the first day.  The first day is an opportunity to show the students how I run the class and it is an opportunity to introduce some course content. It is also an opportunity to draw out  the students’ perceptions school. I start the class with a quote from P.D. Ouspensky: “Schools exist for those who need them and know that they need them.” I ask that the students write a reflection about the quote and then we have a conversation. Many of my students see school as essentially meaningless.  I do not know how I can teach if I first do not establish that school has something to offer.

    How did we arrive at such a place as this? It cannot be explained away with superficial answers and we cannot blame the students.  The truth is that we, as a culture, have been wearing away at the meaning of school for some time now. Some say the path to hell is paved with good intentions.  We, the adults, have destroyed the meaning of school and we cannot attempt to change what we do not understand. Here are some ideas on how we have arrived at this impasse.  

  1. Neglecting process in favor of product.

We have transformed school into a means to an end and rendered school meaningless.

We push the students to focus exclusively on the end and have obliterated the understanding that school is a process. We direct the students’ attention to the grade, the test, the next level, or even “getting it over with.”  I sat in a high school auditorium and listened to the principle tell the students that the summer break was a good time to get the required community volunteer hours “over with.” This message is not atypical. It is a message that the students’ frequently hear.  The focus of current grade level is get to next level. The focus of the class is on the test. The purpose of advanced placement classes is to get college credit. The purpose of high school is to get into a good college. The purpose of getting into a good college is to get a good job.  I am, of course, not the first to observe that we are racing kids to cross a finish line and crossing that line is considered a success. I wish, instead, that we taught that success was a byproduct instead of destination point. Success is the byproduct of having dedicated and committed oneself to something or someone other than oneself.  Most students will tell you that their aim is to make lots of money. They do not hear how absurd this aim sounds. It is absurd because people usually make money doing something they love and if they love to do something, they tend to do it well. The students who say that their goal is to make money rarely make it because they are looking at money at a product instead of as a byproduct. This week, I had a lovely young man attend my class for the first time.  On his desk was a book he was reading and I managed to read the title on the book’s spine: Billionaire: Secrets of Success.  This same student did not bring a notebook or a pen to the first class.  I had to provide him with some paper to take notes during the three hour class.   He was not prepared, in the most basic way, for class or maybe he did not expect to hear anything worthy of being written down.

2) Moving away from education and toward job training.

As part of the teaching, I offer etymologies of words because knowing the roots of words helps us to anchor ourselves.   Education, comes from the Latin and it has two meanings. Educere means to lead out from darkness and the word educare means to train and to mold.  Let’s look at the first meaning. Education’s purpose is to enlighten. Without education, our worlds are very narrow and constricted. Without education, we only have our way of seeing and we are, by definition, idiots.  The word idiot is Greek and it refers to one’s own. The person who only has his or her own way of seeing is by definition an idiot. If we are to live bigger lives, we need education.

The second meaning of the word refers to training or molding but it important to consider that the purpose of education was molding the citizen.  We now think that education’s job is to mold the employee. I have always felt that this is not the purpose of school. School’s purpose is to teach the student how to think and how to learn.  If the student has received an education, the student should be able to earn a living. Teaching job skills seems to me like an endeavour doomed to failure. There are many problems with schools training a workforce.  One of the main problems is the protean nature of the workplace. If you educate people, the person should be able to learn and adapt to changes within the workplace as contrasted to a person that was trained for a particular job and may lack the ability to change with the times.   If people are educated, they may have an opportunity to discover their work.

3).  Misunderstanding the difference between work and job.

We often speak to students about jobs but we infrequently talk to them about work.  Work comes from the Latin opus and it has something to do with our purpose. Job, contrastingly, refers to a small part contributed to a larger effort.  School should be an opportunity for students to discover their purpose. The successful business people who are most revered and respected within this culture are frequently people who have discovered their work.  School has a role to play in helping students to discover their work.

4). Allowing technology to replace human connection.

Providing that the school has the budget, classrooms have been transformed into high tech labs.  We tend to see technology as a categorical good and think that the more technology, the better the learning experience.  At the very least, most classrooms are outfitted with smartboards. Yet when I speak with students, they tell me that that their perception is that school is obsolete.  Technology, no doubt, has lots to offer but we have let the technology take over the classroom as much as we have let the technology take over other aspects of our lives.  Our students, I think, are starving for human connection through conversation and storytelling. Before the holiday break, my son’s teacher took one class to tell the annual tale of how life was for her growing up and how her family celebrated Christmas.  My son reported that the students were transfixed by this gifted storyteller. I suspect that this teacher and her story will be remembered many years from now after the class content is long forgotten. The students who were present will have the shared collective memory of the day Mrs. Dempsey told the Christmas story.  The students intuitively understand that this kind of story is only shared with those listeners that the speaker cares about. Students are desperate to receive this kind of care.

5).  Disparaging school by speaking about “the real world.”  

We frequently speak about school in a negative way.  When the students do not conform to our expectations, we tell them that their behavior will be unacceptable within the “real world” of the workplace.  This language suggests that school is not the real world. It saddens me to see how we have stripped teachers and school of authority and how, at times, we have not asked students to be responsible.  One student told us in class that his high school teacher told him to “wait until he got into the real world” as he made fun of her in class. Neither the student nor teacher is served by reacting to the student with veiled threats in the future instead of offering consequences in the here and now.  One of the ways this is permitted is the creation of a “fake” world of school where there are no consequences for disrespect.

We tell students that what they learn in school is theory and it is sometimes meant as a way to disparage school. The word theory is Greek and it means to see.  When we learn theories, we learn different ways of seeing. When we learn different ways of seeing, we become less idiotic. We start to see ourselves as connected to something larger.  We learn theories in school and learning theories can allow us to create the life we imagine for ourselves instead of the one we currently inhabit.