The cry against conformity. The plea for inspiration.

An interesting article was e-mailed in to the New York Times this week reviewing Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach? In the Defense of a Real Education. I cannot pretend to have read the work nor can I say that reading the review has made me want to read it, but the brief introduction to Edmundson’s point of view triggered a few thoughts. Roth says in his article: “Mr. Edmundson reminds us of the power strong teachers have to make students rethink who they are and whom they might become. This is what a real education is all about.”

Indeed, true love-their-job teachers are hard to come by, but they are the ones who care about you and your future before you yourself have even started. So to what extent do teachers shape our future and is it their role to inspire us? And do we concentrate so much on getting a degree for a degree’s sake that we skip part of the essential learning process en route?

We’ve all watched movies like Dead Poets’ Society and thought how amazing it would be to have O’Captain my Captain heading our classes and instructing us to “Carpe Diem” and “suck the marrow out of life”, and what a utopian world it would be if we could have more of these Professor Keatings or Bob Sweeneys (American History X)…

Why? Simply because these are the type of people who provide what Roth calls a real education, pushing students to rethink who they are and whom they might become, and I would personally add to that, rethink how they relate to other people and the world. That we need to first understand that understanding is an endless process, that icebergs are not only metaphors for cultures, but also for individuals.

But how realistic is it really, to hope that academics be all bursting with energy and motivation, dying to pass on knowledge, ready to illuminate the minds of the next flock of aimless souls? Though I’m sure most teachers set out with the ambition of making a difference, changing a few perceptions, propagating and birthing ideas, it would be too hefty a burden on their shoulders to expect them to successfully carry this task out on a regular basis. But they try. The problem is that inspiring people involves opening new doors, new ideas, and teachers are sometimes only given so much room to do so.

The truth is, there are already many factors causing professors’ gradual demotivation, reasons for the slow demise of that original enthusiasm and optimism such as repetition and a disinterested public. Teachers already have to deal with the knowledge that what they are teaching is probably only catching the attention of a tenth of their audience if they are lucky. But now it seems a ball and chain is being added to the professorial profession.

The Degree has always been a reward for achievement, but it is increasingly becoming only hard evidence you went to University and proof you are employable rather than a real reflection of your capacities. School is becoming more of a bureaucratic process to obtain that damned official paper, and like all bureaucratic processes, people try to figure out shortcuts and ways around the system, resulting in an increasing number of people getting degrees without earning them but rather, by any means possible.

Learning isn’t our main objective anymore, we don’t head to school excited about what we are going to do or listen to, but thinking instead about how best to get that 1.1 or 2.1 we need in the end. The paper degree being the ultimate objective, it has become an obsession that has replaced the natural thirst for knowledge students should be experiencing during this time, to the point where the role of the teacher is undergoing some change.

Teachers are increasingly seen by students and parents alike as score-givers, plagiarism detectors, phone confiscators, as obstacles to the future rather than facilitators of knowledge, and the consequence is that the space for a true exchange of knowledge, experience and understanding is slowly being squeezed out of the classroom.

Far from expecting or seeking inspiration, we spend our time devising how best to insure our future, by any means. Blame it on the rise of competitiveness, and the increasing pressure to achieve better scores and better degrees and get into better schools, but we see a fiercer academic corruption taking place. Schools are charging more and more money to fake belief that spending more will get you further by making bigger and bigger promises, and teachers and students are the ultimate victims of this system.

A weird situation is arising out of all of this where the DEGREE has become a commodity that hides behind the notion of achievement and education. Teachers now find themselves in that awkward position where they owe it to themselves to reward intellect and stimulate thought yet at the same time have to dish out undeserved high test-scores in return for high performance reviews and speak to degree-gazers whose minds have sometimes even stopped receiving new information.

The real problem is not that our teachers do not inspire us anymore, but that from having to deal with so many more whines and complaints than pertinent questions, they have evolved to a point of near-indifference, forgotten what once inspired them, because that’s what happens when we try to commercialize exchange and experience, when we forget the true point of our endeavours and their meaningfulness.

But the fact is we are being raised into competitiveness, individuality and selfishness. Edmundson explains how “inspiration is in short supply these days on campus” and how there has been a “growth since the mid-1990s of a more commercial, profit-oriented university culture. Like many other contemporary commentators, he sees a confluence of forces in higher education leading to greater conformity and consumerism at the expense of inquiry, inspiration and challenge.”

And I have to say that, having come all the way to China to open doors to new thinking, ambition, ways of seeing and inspiration, I agree. Education somewhat convinced me my options were limited by my degree actually, I was what I was on paper, whereas over here I find I am who I sell myself to be.

To say that there was no point in my education would be a lie, but we must rethink how best to flesh out people’s true interests and help them span out, because the best teachers are those who help you find your own strengths and right direction. If we could find a way to get teachers and students close enough for this kind of bond and guidance to exist, we would I believe, see more people working jobs where they could in turn inspire others.

If you haven’t watched this TED Talk by Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity, you should.

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