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People are a Lot Smarter Than They’re Allowed to Be

People are a Lot Smarter Than They’re Allowed to Be

By Dennis Loo (2/20/14)

Because I’m an educator and spend a lot of my working life in classrooms and in my office interacting with students, I have the frequent opportunity and responsibility to see firsthand what students know, don’t know, and how they handle new information.

The young, as the saying goes, are our future.

They are also, to a considerable degree, our present.

In any of the great movements in history – revolutions, the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the anti-war movement, the Occupy movement, and so on – young people have been at the forefront, in many cases making up not only a plurality of the participants but constituting much of those movements’ leadership. Young people are additionally responsible for most of the new musical and art forms. Finally, they make up the bulk of those who serve as soldiers in wars.

Yet despite this – or perhaps because of this – our educational system treats young people as much dumber than they really are. As one of my students, Edith Flores, wrote in a recent paper:

When [the US prison camp at] Guantanamo opened [in 2002] I was still in High School, which might explain why I was unaware and unknowledgeable about the details. Many schools do not teach their students real life politics. It seems as though they do not like to discuss true events. The denial of knowledge brings with it ignorance, especially when it is about important issues that need to be dealt with. Teachers cannot expect students to fight for a good cause if the students are not given the right tools for it. The educational system here in the United States is just simply ridiculous. They focus on having students memorize information for a short period of time rather than truly understanding it and learning it long term.

We can especially blame No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top for this focus on memorization and for the mania of constant standardized tests. NCLB and RTTP are both products of neoliberal philosophy that treats education as if knowledge were assembly line products or “deliverables.” Overlooked in this approach is the fact that critical and holistic thinking are not commodities that can just be handed to people the way McDonald’s gives you a Big Mac. The self-esteem movement is also culpable in this regard for treating young people as too fragile to be corrected when they’re wrong. (The idiocy of “inventive spelling” being an example of this, infantilizing juvenile errors as “creativity” and not pointing out to children how words are supposed to be spelled, condemning many of them to never being sure how certain words should be spelled.)[1] Some educators from disadvantaged groups, in the name of helping their people advance, eschew rigor in the mistaken belief that these groups cannot meet those standards – a truly condescending approach - depriving them of the opportunity to fulfill their real potential as truly sophisticated thinkers. Finally, the business model for education’s view that students are customers and teachers are service providers – again, a product of neoliberal thinking – has also harmed education substantially, making getting high scores on student evaluations of faculty forms more important than giving students a rigorous and challenging education.

If you give students a chance to rise to their considerable potential, however, you find out some really heartening things. Here is another excerpt from Edith’s paper:

As part of our SOC 305 class syllabus we all received instructions on the two basic stages to cognitive development as described by Benjamin Bloom; after reading it carefully I knew I would really learn from this class, and I knew that the professor … must really care about his students, education, and the future enough to have that be a part of his curriculum. I honestly wish I would have been made aware of Guantanamo sooner, but at this point I cannot keep blaming others, from now on I have to take the responsibility to inform myself and to take the appropriate steps towards achieving a solution.

Many of the questions raised at the event, such as the number of minors in these prisons and the drones, were other issues I was unaware of. It was shocking information. For many years I have chosen to stay out of political issues, sometimes it just seems better not to know, but that needs to stop, because there are people in need who are suffering and waiting for someone, anyone, to take a stand and fight for equality and truly make this country a better place.

Standing on the sidelines and expecting others to do all the work will not eliminate the problem, instead it adds to the problem. Once a person is knowledgeable about an issue such as Guantanamo, they become an accomplice by allowing it to persist. It is frightening that while the United States government might think they have everything under control, there may be groups of people brainstorming ideas on how to counterattack. It would be foolish to think that our actions will not bring consequences. People are very likely to seek revenge. We cannot expect the victims to simply sit back and accept everything the United States is doing and not want to do anything about it. It becomes a never-ending cycle of violence. It is imperative to understand that it is completely unacceptable for the United States to abduct people and torture them solely because they “might” be dangerous to us. The government tells us that they are protecting us and that they are keeping our country safe from terrorists, and we are expected to believe them without any questions. [Editor's note: The links in this are not in Edith's paper but have been added for the readers' convenience as additional material.]

Under the guise of improving our “failing schools,” free market fundamentalists are imposing “solutions” that make it impossible for teachers in K-12 to teach anymore and force most of them into teaching students to the test. I have been teaching at the college level for over three decades in one form or another at institutions in four states, ranging from the most elite private schools to large public universities to small open admissions colleges. In the last few years I have noticed a noticeable decline in incoming students’ ability to think holistically and to cope with a large mass of information. They have become accustomed to “study guides” (which didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate) which at their worst amount to sheets telling students precisely what they have to memorize for the tests and at their best amount to telling students what they can afford to ignore about what the professor has been trying to teach them. The net result is that students have not been trained in how to make a mass of information coherent and useful for themselves (or for others) and do not largely know how to draw inferential conclusions since they have been trained in the banking method of teaching: here’s what you need to know, now memorize it. I have even had a student or two tell me when I asked them a question on a test that explicitly required them to find the right answer through inference because neither I nor the readings directly told them the answer, that I was asking an “unfair question.” When I responded that life does not come with an answer key and that drawing inferential conclusions is what we need to learn how to do in life or else we’re going to be forced to accept other people’s conclusions as our own, the objections stopped and a light bulb went on. 

I do not blame students for this. This is how the educational system has been training them.

People are a lot smarter than they’re allowed to be. If we want a better world we need to give them the chance to become sophisticated thinkers, not only our students but people of all ages. You cannot raise and train rigorous thinkers in a hot house. They have to be immersed in the rough and tumble of real contradictions and clashes between varying perspectives. Truth, as we say here, emerges through contention. I’m going to close with this excerpt from a major white paper that I initiated and wrote with a terrific team of California university faculty in 2011 entitled “Cooking the Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs: California’s Public Higher Education System in Peril.” The American Association of University Professionals (AAUP)’s Journal of Academic Freedom published it in 2012.

Life does not come with an answer key. The correct and best answers to all questions are not always definitively known in life at any given point before the fact, and incomplete and indirect information is the norm rather than the exception. Primarily due to the influence of the privateers, the educational system is increasingly becoming one in which the main emphasis is memorization and giving back to the teacher what the teacher has dispensed as the answers in order to pass the tests. Students are not being properly and adequately taught how to analyze, weigh information, think holistically, decide between competing claims, and make wise choices based on frequently incomplete information. This grows all the more significant when there is a growing storm of false or misleading information emanating from people and organizations trying to seduce people into buying their wares, whether those wares are commodities or ideas. Should this trend persist it will mean that our society will become increasingly intellectually impoverished, because its citizenry has become vulnerable to being manipulated by hucksters, opportunists, and those who have more ready access to mass media by virtue of their owning media, possessing a lot of money, and/or having friends in high places.


0 # KG7 2014-02-20 18:01
Recently, my daughter (8th grade) and her classmates had an assign...write a letter to Obama (which were to be mailed). The assign. was to pick 2 topics that they wanted to address. I noticed that the topics were "safe" topics which of course got me fired up. I suggested that she write about GTMO and the challenging of our 2nd amendment right(which weren't on the list of topics..shockin g). Her response, "I'm scared I will get in trouble." My response, "Tell your teacher to call your mom if she has a problem." (I have yet to receive a phone call). In my opinion, if she were to get in was/is worth getting in trouble for.
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0 # AP158 2014-02-20 19:13
This article was a great way to summarize how our generation is today. We have grown up memorizing terms and having constant standardized test in order to show on paper that we memorized these facts. I strongly believe that our educational system has in a way “screwed us up.” I have seen this pattern from my high school AP courses where we were given a list of about 250 vocabulary words to memorize over the summer. Although I did very well in my test at that time I don’t remember every single one 5 years later. Loo made a great point regarding how we as students expect a study guide for every exam we take. Cont...
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0 # AP158 2014-02-20 19:14
cont...This defeats the purpose of studying the full material and only focusing on the main terms that the professor includes. This makes the student think that certain events or terms are more important than other, when in reality everything is important to learn and understand. Instead of becoming intellectual individuals that are educated at a full potential, we still remain very ignorant to many things in the world. Edith used a word that I liked “accomplice” it is true now that we are educated it means that we have the power to make a stand and advocate for Guantanamo. If we do not speak up about it then we are just keeping our silence and in a way supporting the imprisonment of innocent individuals.
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0 # bobzz_b 2014-02-20 23:54
Unfortunately a lot of people in our society do not even take the time to realize this about our education system. Every aspect of education is limited and structured, thus making our youth narrow minded. There is always a strict schedule to adhere by, and it leads to the youth in our society to stray away from critical thinking, and thinking outside the box, as mentioned in the article above.
I feel as though it is important for parents to teach kids ways to think critical, so that they may develop their own understanding of situations they may face in life. I feel like the lack of education, as well as the lack of USEFUL and BENEFICIAL education is a major cause of why many people are incarcerated today. If our youth were given more means of useful education, and taught critical thinking skills, I believe that there would be less youths getting in trouble with the law at such an early age.
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0 # GA23 2014-02-20 23:58
This article really gives insight to not only the way the younger generation is treated but also society as a whole. There are certain groups that are excluded from information and resources just like young people are kept out of important issues our society is dealing with. They are misinformed and distracted from the issues at hand. Groups like minorities are also misinformed and kept out of important issues even though they make most of the population. If people were to really take a stand and try to stay informed that would cause a lot of worry for the government. The younger generation is made to believe that memorizing and tests are important when in reality that doesn't measure the intelligence of someone. Another way minorities are being kept out are by the mass incarceration which is talked about extensively in the Alexander book especially during the Civil Rights Movement. During the Civil Right Movement people were becoming educated on issues that the government felt..
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0 # GA23 2014-02-20 23:59
Cont...threaten ed and they began to use cover ups to justify their actions.
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0 # Beks113 2014-02-21 00:07
I believe that the current education system has become a matter of quantity over quality. The idea is getting as many students through the system as possible, regardless of the quality of education they are receiving. In order to accommodate a growing number of people they have found that the best solution is to diminish the quality of education, which can be directly paralleled to the criminal justice system. Due to overcrowding in the prison population the administrators become more focused on satisfying basic needs (quantity), over helping to rehabilitate prisoners or have programs that allow for humane and decent treatment of these prisoners (quality). Higher up authorities dictate a large part of the quality of education we are receiving, by dictating the type of education people receive they are able to keep the types of people they favor in power. The CJS also utilizes this through the War on Drugs to keep the people they want in power and oppress those they don't.
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0 # Ch 2782 2014-02-21 00:33
Before coming to Cal Poly Pomona, I had no prior knowledge on the war on drugs nor did I know anything about the mass incarceration and over population prisoners face in jail. I agree with what Edith's paper was trying to advocate about not knowing the politics and the social problems our institutions are dealing today.
Talking to my fellow peers about The New Jim Crow, war on terror, and the war on drugs,being a new comer to the major(sociology ), I have not gain much background information about this topic. Many might see it as an act of dumbness, but I see it as an act of not knowing and the lack of informing about society issues. Like Edith stated in her essay,I wish I would have known more about the war on drugs,and the war on terror before going into my major. War on drugs and the war on terror is a global issue that everyone should know about rather than learning about this subject at an older age.
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0 # AEK 2014-02-21 21:24
Many classes fill our minds with an overload of information, requiring mindless memorization. Students are not given the chance to think holistically, when all we are required to do is memorize facts that will exit our memory after the test. However, i do not believe this is entirely at the fault of teachers. If we know that as students we are not being challenged nor using our full potential, we are accepting the notion that we are not smart enough to think critically. Like Edith said, If we do not do something about an unfair situation, we "become an accomplice by allowing it to persist". We are truly smarter than we are allowed to be; this is why we need to show it. We need to learn how to analyze information, think holistically, and form our own opinions and ideas even when the information is simply handed to us to memorize.
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0 # Wolfian 2014-02-21 23:22
To be fair, the educational system was created to teach the skills that you need to move on from point A to point B. You can’t possibly bring subjects of this magnitude (GITMO) to elementary schools or even junior highs. Today’s youth is not very interested in politics or global issues with the exception of Political scientist and Sociologist. Being the parent of a teen girl, it is my goal and responsibility to fill in the gaps that her school can’t fill. I took my daughter to the GITMO talk, I also watch Al-Jazeera news with her every day. I always present her w/info that I believe is useful. I share as much as I can with her so she can see that society, life, etc. extends beyond of what is taught in high school.
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-22 00:20
Why can't the truth about things like GTMO or mass incarceration or wars be brought to the jr highs? K-12 is supposed to teach people how to think, or do you see skills as different from that? Today's youth isn't interested in politics because they aren't told the truth. If you tell people the truth then they will become interested. What you're doing with your daughter's commendable. Why wouldn't you want the schools to be doing similarly?
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+1 # KG7 2014-02-22 00:52
That is exactly why I encouraged my daughter to address GTMO in her letter to Obama. In all honestly, I was hoping her teacher/school had an issue w/it. I would have fired up my broom stick and flown in there, welcoming the challenge. When it comes to my daughter's school assignments I always encourage her to think outside of the box (come up w/your own topic). The topics are safe/non controversial which in my opinion doesn't teach young minds much. Most often than not I'm saying to her, "Do u really want to know why x,y,z happened". The school curriculum barely scratches the surface. What's taught is surface information. This is where I agree w/Wolfian in regards to filling in the blanks and/or teaching my daughter the truth as to why certain things happen/happened .
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-22 00:54
By the way, the military has its recruiters at the high schools, esp. the ones with the more oppressed students, promising them all kinds of things and lying to them about what they're be called on to do.
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0 # Wolfian 2014-02-22 04:35
Schools aren’t really good at presenting the truth, because they are subsidized by gov. So as you mention bfore for them the truth is an accessory that they wear only on occasion. I read that the skills that public funded schools are responsible for teaching students are to read, write and have some “knowledge of government” but that is it. Then we can say that education encourages skills to move you from one grade to another; but never to show “the big picture” about government. And even as we get to college and Universities only a few professors present the truth about gov. You are one in a million.
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0 # PDennis Loo 2014-02-22 19:02
Thank you. :-)
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0 # mv46 2014-02-22 01:35
I agree with this article on how our educational system does their best to filter the knowledge that we as student can obtain. If we want to know reality we have to do our own research outside of school, and not many teens are willing to do that. Teachers in elementary, middle, or high school are required to teach to the standards of the test the kids have to take. As well as these standards set, schools in different areas whether poor or rich are subject to their own resources. The better resources a student has the better they will do. As well as resources teachers in different social class areas are subject to guiding student in different directions whether they guide them to reach for the stars and apply at only 4 year universities or some teachers bring down students by telling them they need a plan b so their hopes set on a community college or less. I recommend everyone seeing the youtube video "Tale of Two schools"
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0 # mv46 2014-02-22 01:38
This short film depicts the point I'm trying to make on how people are smart, but the school they attend can shape them to go so far. Some students are brought down by the educational system, and their full potential is not encouraged from them. Many tend to never reach their full potential because of the way teachers, parents, or others guide them.
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0 # Katgrl15 2014-02-22 03:09
The education system especially in high school molds students to taught habitual tatics to merely pass but not further their education. I think people adapt to their surroundings and if the teachers are providing minimal efforts for education, students will adapt and learn to do just the minimum. When I was in high I was never challenged to expand my knowledge. When I entered college, I struggled to adjust and meet up to the minimal standards and educational level for college. I think educators don't f fully understand that not going above and beyond for their students will hinder their future generations growth. You can even relate back to chapter 9 Hassine and how people adjust and become accustom to the environment and surroundings around them. That prison teaches prisoners to survive and like Hassine would say "play the opposites". Just like Hassine, the youth is taught to not push themselves and to be as effortless as possible.
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0 # Katgrl15 2014-02-22 03:19
As for others commenting I agree with everything being said. I can name a list of things that were never addressed while in high school. Guantanamo Bay prison was newfound knowledge when I first took my SW 318 course. I honestly never knew that a prison could exist with all the conditions and actions it takes out on its prisoners. I remember when I was nine I went to school as if a normal day and knew nothing of September 11th until I came home. I think the youth in elementary school is exposed to the education system not providing enough knowledge events and facts but the high school educational system is in way worse condition. As we get older we should be learning what's currently is happening because we can comprehend and form our own opinions effectively. The sad truth is educators in high school tend to teach as little as possible. As we get older we should be the ones to teach our future generations to learn and educate themselves on important events school as the war on drugs.
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0 # sas13 2014-02-22 07:22
This article reminds me of the lies our freshman high school history class/textbook provided. For example our history books described the civil war as an act to free the slaves and end racism but in reality it was a war based on expansion of industrializati on against cultivation. After the war, white supremacy was still prevalent and this ideology governed laws that would incarcerate people of color in the interest of business owners. All people were not created equal because blacks were not considered people according to Thomas Jefferson in the Constitution of Independence. However, we are not told this in our history books. Rather we are told the contrary.
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0 # AEK 2014-02-22 15:59
I agree that in high school the information that was given to us was very limited and highly biased. I think it is sad that for a lot of students, we do not get the full picture (for example, about America's history) until later in life. We were not pushed to look for alternative views and make our own judgments. I said earlier that we, as students, are also responsible for looking elsewhere for information and broadening our minds, but, I agree, it is difficult to do so when the environment that we grow up in is telling us not to.
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0 # GA23 2014-02-22 22:55
I feel like everything we are taught is one big aversion to what is really going on out in our society. We are molded to think in a certain way and they say to think for yourself but once you start to question things it is seen as being troublesome. People should be allowed to question and challenge things, teachers in high school can even get in trouble for giving opinions on certain issues. Once I got to college that is when I really began to see that people are more opinionated and more is said in classrooms about what is going on in the world especially in my sociology classes. SW 318 has opened my eyes a lot more to some very serious issues that I can see in my everyday life. High learning is definitely needed but not everyone is given the chance to advance themselves which is truly sad. Many people in low income communities do not graduate high school which means it is very likely they will not further their education. They find other ways to make a living like the selling of..
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0 # GA23 2014-02-22 22:58
drugs which then becomes a vicious cycle with the War on Drugs that is mentioned in the Michelle Alexander book. Also many people in low income communities are minorities that have little resources.
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0 # OLI 2014-02-23 01:35
Well from my experience in school I don't remember much about trying to make a change in society but to just learn what I am being taught. I was taught taught basic stuff and moved on grade after grade, but if it wasn't for my father and his job field I wouldn't know a lot. He taught me to question views in a respectful manner, to understand that persons point of view. Even if I agree with the person, he taught me to ask them why they think that way to become more knowledgable and how to defend my point of view. So, if I ask a lot of questions it is only because I am trying to learn more, and a lot of these classes at Cal Poly have opened my eyes more to these policies, but what I enjoy about Soc 305 is it teaches me how to speak out instead of just learning.
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0 # lcdisney37 2014-02-23 01:58
I don't think many people are taught the important things when it comes to education. I can remember how many times I was told not to forget to "memorize" that part for the exam. I think most schools just want to get students to graduate and feel they just need to tell them what is going to be exactly on an exam so they can pass the class and not have to repeat the course. Regardless, we are not being taught any important issues like GTMO. I never learned anything about it until my senior year and even then it was very brief and only spoke about one section of the prison. I think most teachers just intent to teach students the part that is instructed to teach on the guidelines instead of teaching us the proper way and things that should be known.
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0 # Cal2009 2014-02-23 02:58
All of this is completely true. Going through high school I went primarily to a private school, however I spent two semesters at a public school during my sophomore year. While at the private school that I attended, there were very vague, if any, study guides given. All of the material that the course had covered up to the point of the test was fair game to be included. My classmates and myself had to truly study and understand the material in order to achieve a good grade. However, when I went to the public school, every single class gave study guides that essentially gave us every single question that was asked on the test. There was nothing that pushed for innovative thought or critical thinking, everything was handed to us. I was completely taken aback, this was not something I was used to. When I attended a community college, all but one of my classes was the same way. Innovative and creative thought is being pushed out of the educational system.
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-23 05:09
One of the ways that the system perpetuates the divide between social classes is through this form of unofficial tracking, as you've described in your personal experience.
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0 # Bland 2014-02-23 05:04
It is unfortunate that our educators have become so focused on test scores that many of the teachers, K-6 especially, teach to score high on a test rather than teach children how to learn, and how to decipher through the information provided.. I believe that children in Jr. High and High school should be introduced to the issues of today, Guantanamo, The Kill List and such at an age appropriate level, this will spark a desire to further investigate and greater knowledge in the years to come Even in my early college years I was rarely challenged and often taught to memorize the material provided, the was until Dr. Loo's class. Although, this course requires a great deal of thinking, investigating, additional reading... My knowledge has grown.
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0 # TiffyWiffy 2014-02-23 06:28
I feel that the points made in this article are very true. But I feel like it rings especially true for inmates. As a society we usually see inmates and petty criminals as unintelligent and crass. When in actuality many of them are very intelligent and have the potential to do amazing things. When I was working through the Prison Education Program, many of my students had earned their high school diplomas and associates while incarcerated. And one of the older and more experienced volunteers told us that these men don't have anything else to do, so many of them follow current events very closely and try to further their education, so we shouldn't discount their intelligence.
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0 # LexTalionis 2014-02-25 22:25
There is, I would assume a general stigma surrounding those imprisoned for various reasons. However we often neglect to delve into why they are incarcerated and how can they then be rehabilitated. Obtaining an education in prison I believe assists in the rehabilitation/ re-socializatio n process, which creates a halt in the progressive cycle of re-entering the system. I give credit to those who are unjustly incarcerated and possess skills and intelligence that even outside the bars, many lack possession of. Thanks for including that aspect of education and the imprisoned individual.
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0 # jorigby 2014-02-25 05:33
Having materialistic things and befriending "elite" people are two attributes that the majority of society consider valuable. Gaining knowledge for oneself is no longer a desire. The way we were taught in K-12 schools, which the teaching technique is still in use, does not motivate people to extend their knowledge at a young age. We are more worried about passing the exams given to us because we feel it is the most important thing about school. And after the exams, we focus more about the materials that will make us look valuable to society due to the mainstream media. The ownership of these “valuable” materials later buys friendship with people who do not care about education or knowledge but how they look when they befriend someone with "valuable" materials.
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0 # LexTalionis 2014-02-25 21:14
According to Edith Flores’ observation of the educational system K-12,a notable mention Edith expresses, is the issue of the lacking “real life politics” not being addressed. I find this an essential point as politics are the catalyst to understanding what essentially is occurring within the community, and by that may include global perspectives as well. Attaining a high school education in terms of history and politics, are subjected to embracing and learning the past occurrences in America and neglecting the present aspect of history and politics to a degree.The fear of educating the masses is inherent, we can just let that soak through for just a minute.
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0 # LeslieB 2014-03-02 08:32
When I was young my dad always told me how poor of an education I was getting & how his in Mexico was so much better, I always thought it was just b/c he didn't getting it” but eventually I realized that my dad was right. The education I got for the most part was one of aim to score high on the test because the school needs the money. I can count on 1 hand the number of teachers I had in K-12 that actually taught me something. It has been those teachers that have made the biggest impact in my life & to who I owe a part of making it this far in education with success. Its obvious why education has become a memorization game & that is because the less someone knows, the less intelligent you allow them to be the least likely they are to question “the man.” If you build a population full of people with no ability to draw conclusions based on indirect and minimal information then those who posses such abilities are able to do as they please b/c the masses are no longer a threat.
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0 # Crystal 2014-03-02 09:53
I totally agree with this article 100%! It is absolutely true that the way the education system is set up is not good. Being a third year in college I have always had professors that give out study guides for midterms. When they do so, I memorize material for the test and the only information I can recall is if it was really significant information that made me think or made an impact on my life. Other than that I don't remember every little thing I learned in certain classes. More professors should move away from the standard book questions and test answers and start focusing on real life issues that society is encountering today. It will not only benefit the students to prepare them once they graduate from college and what to expect but possibly have someone have a solution to one of the many problems society has today.
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Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12