Our education system in North America is obviously not working well. At best, it barely prepares young people for present and future challenging times. At worst, it is expensive baby-sitting or worse still, a meeting place for bad influences. Trends in society see a reduction in effect of family and community. There is a corresponding rise in the influence of manipulative commercial enterprise that strives to divide the populace, especially the young, into market targets dedicated to self-indulgence. This is compounded by the 20th century North American intellectual infatuation with self-expression and newness for its own sake. As a result we are seeing a disintegration of society and a sense of rootlessness and hopelessness in the most pampered and educated part of the world and period of history.
Our current schooling system is not addressing these problems and may be promoting the unfortunate trends and spending a vast amount of money doing it. I would like to suggest something completely different for our high schools. The elementary schools should continue to do more or less what they are doing - training in basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic plus, of course, societal skills of co-operation and co-ordination.
Our high schools take human beings from approximately the age of 12 to 18 and coop them up in rigid structure. Adolescence is the most vital, volatile period for any of the higher animals. We should not be surprised at the stresses and strains that occur when we treat our young humans as we do.
I would totally change the structure and get rid of the four walls concept both physically and psychologically. I would have the students spend at least half of their time out in the world. A large portion of this would be outdoor education activity - back-packing, canoe-tripping and having adventures in nature in the "Outward Bound" direction, but not normally as risky. However, one cannot develop resourcefulness without taking risks. This, and all other outdoor activities would be done in small groups of 10 to 20, preferably no more than 15, led by one or two good adult role models. This would fulfill our need as a higher social animal to relate to a pack or troop. I have participated as a teacher in student canoe trips and have seen the transformation of a troublesome, anti-social youth into a co-operative, self-confident one within one week. In outdoor education you not only learn about nature, you learn about yourself, your limits and your relationship with others. Sports would fit into this area as well but it is too structured and adult-supervised to be as useful.
The remainder of the "out in the world" time would be spent in community work helping and volunteering along the lines of the "Peace Corps" and CUSO (Canadian University Students Overseas). In addition, students would be placed as helpers or apprentices in every possible activity of the adult world. They might learn some skills and they would certainly get a feel for the real world of work in its various forms. At present, many teenagers' sense of the adult world comes from watching such role models as Rambo and Madonna. In all other cultures and periods of history, young people mingle with adults and have a chance to experience the real working world. Our society has compartmentalized people for convenience. This is not healthy, and even dangerous but it would be hard to change and would need plenty of flexibility from business and labour unions, including teachers' unions.
The other half of students' time would be academic and divided into two parts. The first part would be based on a "guru" system. Students with an inclination toward biochemistry or computer graphics or poetry or French or astronomy or carpentry or whatever else would gather around an expert and work together on projects and the acquisition of skills. This learning experience could take place in storefronts or living rooms or corners of any variety of existing buildings and the gurus would not necessarily need a teaching certificate. They could be paid by vouchers and the teaching would likely be only a part of their lives. There could be testing to assure standards.
The remaining portion of students' time would be devoted to their cultural and environmental heritage. For tens of thousands of years this has been a natural evolution, information passed on from generation to generation so that individuals felt they had a place in the world and in society. Ordinary members of hunting and gathering tribes can name almost all of the plants and animals around them. In tropical rain forests the list runs into the thousands. The indigenous peoples understand the relationships between living things. In fact, these people are more sophisticated ecologists than professors of ecology. Shakespeare knew almost 50 birds and over 300 trees and other plants. How many species of local plants and animals can our North American citizens name? How can we preserve and protect our natural heritage if we do not even notice it? Knowledge in this area would be worthwhile even on the basis of enjoyment and the enrichment of peoples' lives. The teaching of it would be easy as I have shown in my own classroom. Entertaining slide lectures are given on identification of species. Rapid reviews and tests complete the process and reinforcement continues from year to year. This can be done with very little investment of time and in relatively large groups and if the teacher is lively enough, the students find it fun and very satisfying.
I would apply the same technique to our cultural heritage of art, music, prose, poetry (even memorization) as well as pivotal points in history and geography. In regions with multi-cultural groups, the heritage of all the cultures would be addressed by all. This heritage learning would be compulsory for every student. At the present time our civilization is in danger of collapse due to the dedication of self-expression and the influence of commercial television. A continuous chain stretching back for centuries is being broken in our generation. I believe it is worth saving and it could be done with little time and trouble.
My proposals are admittedly radical but I feel that something drastic needs to be done with the present mess. It gets worse each year in spite of all the ideas and experiments of the educational research priesthood. Huge amounts of money are spent and wasted on a top-heavy administrative system that seems to take an industrial approach to students. Just like industrial chickens and cattle we have tried for economy of scale and have found it very expensive not only for plant and equipment but in psychological terms. The human spirit is at risk. The very least we could do is to break up into small groups - small schools and small class sizes.
I submit my ideas as a beginning that could lead to a richer, more successful life for this generation and generations to come. An impossible plan? Perhaps, but surely an improvement on what we have.