Saturday, August 29, 2009
Social Engineering for the Better
I have spent the past week tirelessly advising, entertaining, and sharing classroom space with the latest group of university freshmen, born roughly a year or two before the dawn of the world wide web and subsequent promulgation of little soap boxes like this one. As I see these kids shuffle from one administrative or recreational event to another, I can't help but notice how level-headed, pleasant, and decent everyone seems. I could be wrong, but I'm starting to wonder if the elementary and high schools are getting it right.
When I was a kid, the education system seemed to be struggling to change an ancient curriculum that focused on rote memorization, biased history, uninspired science, and bullying. Attempts were made to focus on encouraging creativity, but it was hard for our twenty and thirtysomething teachers-most of whom with the same negative experiences in school-to do much more than keep order in the class without screaming like drill sargents and resorting to insulting us to make sure we didn't express our ideas out of turn. No wonder we hit the playground with venom, teasing and bullying one another and chiding those who didn't fit it. As the playwrite David Fennario once said, we learned how to show up on time, take orders, and shut up. It was as if we were being prepared for the next war that never came. A dozen or so years of this turned us quite cynical and contemptuous of authority. By the time I was of Freshman age, professors seemed less like mentors and more like objects to avoid on a road leading nowhere.
Things have changed. There are still numerous problems with the education system, especially for those who lack the opportunity to pass through the gates of the institution where I work. Yet for those who shared the same university dreams I had, more effort has been made to make the journey a pleasant and enjoyable one. Children are treated more as people and less as objects, and group projects encourage teamwork and creativity with less competition and more collaboration. In the wake of Columbine, bullying is less tolerated, and teachers have learned to maintain order without resorting to humiliation. They have changed too. Gone are the militaristic men and pious bachelorettes of decades gone by. With a greater sense of mutual respect, it's not surprising that new college students enter their classroom and dorms with more enthusiasm about changing the world and less negativity towards those who will help them get there. Now if only their parents could just relax a little....(more later).