During the months of May and June, thousands of high schools will hold graduation ceremonies for the class of 2014, at which an estimated 3.1 million students will accept their diplomas. That’s roughly 3,100,000 cap and gown sets, 4,811,200 parents and guardians filing into the ceremony, 6,200,000 feet walking in succession to shake hands with the principal, and 21,204,000 roses given to female graduates.
On a simplistic level, graduating high school implies that students have completed the courses necessary to succeed in the “real world.” With increasing standardization regarding the credentials needed to graduate, a majority of students finish high school only after completing a set number of math, science, language arts, and humanities classes. However, knowing the basic laws of physics and a rough timeline of American history does not provide students with the knowledge of how to interview for jobs, navigate social situations, or dress for success.
Many suggest that it’s the nature of school that prohibits institutions from teaching students some of the most basic life lessons such as “life isn’t fair” or “you can’t always question authority.” The modern school system centers on a fair grading system, the ability to question teachers, equal recognition for accomplishments, and, in many cases, a participation grade. In the “real world,” however, individuals are not always going to be able to question one’s boss or be given a fair shot, even though that is what students are being taught in school. Concurrently, many school administrations have adopted the motto: “Every minute of school should lead to some quantifiable gain,” explains Brian Gresko in his October 1, 2013 article for Disney’s family magazine, Babble.
Gresko explained that when he taught in an East Harlem private school, the administration attempted to teach character building by creating a “character rubric” that was used to assess students’ values and interaction skills. Teachers were then required to fill out the rubric and discuss it with students. Fundamentally, though, this system was flawed because the rubrics were victim to subjectivity and selective observation. Furthermore, the teachers were left stuck, wondering how they would instruct kids to improve their character skills because, as Gresko highlighted, “It’s not the same way that you instruct [students] that 1 + 1 = 2.”
By the same token, as much as schools might attempt to incorporate life lessons into the curriculum, many students push these aspects to the side and instead replace them with concerns of grades, test scores, and overwhelming hours of extracurricular activities. “Sleep, self-reflection, and character building gets put to the bottom of the list in an attempt to cope with stress. Even though we know it’s bad for us, school hasn’t taught us anything else, and besides, it’s the only way to get everything done,” clarifies high school junior Nidhi Mahagaokar.
Like many others, Nidhi has fallen victim to the pressures of high performing students who, in order to compete with other students, sleep around four hours per night due to the volume of their homework and the sheer magnitude of their extracurricular activities. It seems that there are ruts on both sides (students and schools) making it increasingly harder to find pathways through which to teach such skills in school.
Famous playwright Oscar Wilde, known both for his outsider status and unparalleled writing skills, remarked, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” So, in tying this with the idea that attempting to quantify character skills is next to impossible, what do current high school students value as the knowledge “worth knowing,” and why do they think it cannot be taught?
For one, many students express concern over a school’s ability to teach overall life strategies. Although students whom I interviewed did say that school has taught them time management, timeliness, and other forms of discipline, each one expressed at least one personality trait or life skill that was both of value and of an unquantifiable nature.
For example, “There isn’t a class in school that teaches [students] how to deal with difficult situations.” High school senior Caroline Summers explained: “When my grandma died there wasn’t a class that gave me specific steps on how to deal with it – like step one, cry.”
Moreover, “High school doesn’t always teach a person how to struggle. Obstacles present themselves during high school, but we never receive formal education on how to handle adversity with healthy measures,” explains Chris Fielder, a sophomore at Seton Hall University.
Understandably so, grieving and struggling are both topics that could only awkwardly fit into the set boundaries of a class curriculum because of the vast number of strategies and ideologies involved. Additionally, in accordance with the multitude of grades, report cards, and awards, students grow up thinking that everything they do in life is going to be recognized formally.
“Where school really centers on students learning for the sake of some kind of accomplishment (grades, recognition, etc.), my job doesn’t – I don’t get a ‘good job’ at the end of every shift,” explains high school senior Julie Chen. “However, because transcripts and test scores are so important, I’m not sure how they could teach me that I won’t always get a grade for my work.”
The uncertainty surrounding how to teach such lessons in school coupled with a competitive drive creates a lethal cocktail that further confuses teachers, parents, students, and administrators. They know that these skills need to be taught, but at the same time they realize that because of the educational structure, such skills cannot be taught in school, leaving them exactly in the same position they started – nowhere.
“The most important life knowledge is impossible to teach,” explains Gresko. “We develop our personalities over years, and even as adults we change and shift. Some situations profoundly affect us, but more often our values set slow[ly], over time. We tell our kids to ‘be nice’ or ‘have good manners,’ but it takes years of repetition. At some point, something clicks. We just have to believe that [children will] get it one day. ” Our job as adults, parents, and teachers is to “continue delivering the message [to children] in the sweetest, gentlest, and least annoying way possible.”
Therefore, aren’t older generations a testament to the fact that these skills can be taught or learned somehow? And if so, maybe we need to stop worrying about finding a way to teach them in schools and instead focus on cultivating the best possible ways to pass said skills down through mentorship and family. Instead of trying to force such topics into school, society should expand the cultural definition of teacher. As Ken Keyes said, “Everyone and everything around you is your teacher.”
Similarly, when asked how Mr. Gresko would ensure that his son learns such life lessons he replied, “By example, I guess. And I can only hope that he pays attention.”
So, why not teach kids this fact: while school can teach you a lot, it can’t teach you everything, and as a result you have to view ‘everyone and everything’ as your teacher. That way, by the time those 4,811,200 parents and guardians file into the ceremony and 3,100,000 hands grasp their diplomas, those students will have learned to view their professors, guardians, parents, family, friends, and role models as teachers.