A Thorough Education in Mediocrity

Success can pertain to personal satisfaction, an intangible, or outside validation (whether via spoken word, wealth, or popularity). Personal satisfaction may spring from accomplishing a task at a pre-set standard, thus prompting outside validation and so qualifying it as a success.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo can drive success, when tasks are accomplished only through the motivation to change a current reality. Even if the only goal is attaining wealth, the drive stems from dissatisfaction with one’s current fiscal situation. Yet turning dissatisfaction with the status quo into real world action requires a clear worldview and engagement with one’s surroundings.

Education serves to prime youth for such engagement—or at least, it should. The public education system often disillusions students, indirectly encouraging them to tune out a world that is presented as uninteresting, static, or irrelevant to them. Why engage cookie cutter curricula when you’re likely to gain more from skipping school to read Pynchon/eat fruit/smoke cigarettes/stare blankly at a computer screen/do virtually anything besides run on the hamster wheel that is public education?

I attended a private elementary school and a public high school, with two years of self-directed homeschooling in between. The private school (though oppressively small and even more oppressively religious) provided me with a stellar humanities background, due mainly to passionate teachers and a fluid curriculum. A wave of intellectual excitement and a love of reading—the most important gift of a good education—carried me through middle school, when I had to stay independently motivated to complete the self-directed curriculum.

Entering public high school in ninth grade, I immediately sensed a stale intellectual atmosphere. The teachers, despite earning significantly more than my elementary school teachers, grumbled about being overworked and underpaid. For remedial classes, the focus was discipline. For advanced classes, presentations ridden with typos and dry reading material were standard. This from the top ranked public high school in Minnesota!

How does a student not get weighed down from the exhaustive drivel? America’s current system of public education deafens the exciting roar of a world that applauds intellectual pursuits and innovation and counteracts a drive to succeed. So what is to be done?

Unfortunately, a complete overhaul of the nation’s public education system would sacrifice a generation of students caught in the lag period. But much can still be done.

In too many school districts, teacher evaluation and classroom accountability are essentially moot, because the evaluation process gives unskilled or apathetic teachers dozens of opportunities to redeem themselves. In the long process before an incompetent teacher finally gets fired, students continue to suffer from poor classroom leadership. Until a total overhaul of the education system becomes a reality, parents and elected officials would do well to work together to tighten this evaluation process to become truly stringent, not simply a drawn-out job protection charade.