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Now Comes the Field Trip Crisis

The squeeze continues. Since the financial crisis hit, spending cuts have forced officials and planners at all levels of government to trim their budgets, often carving off whole swathes of worthless lean meat in order to conserve and protect that vital bureaucratic fat. One of the latest casualties in Texas may be school field trips, which are diminishing in quality and quantity, as the NY Times reports.

Field trips do serve a good purpose, and Via Meadia thinks that on the whole American children need more hands-on learning and life experience outside the classroom. But this story points to a broader, more pernicious misallocation of resources. The “big box” school and the bureaucratic school district are artifacts from a more primitive and less developed social era. The idea that the way to prepare children for the future is to immobilize them in classrooms that follow a rigid and usually half-baked curriculum is a product of the vanishing industrial age. The professionalization of education—in which parents cede responsibility for and authority over their children’s education to teachers and bureaucrats—is also outdated and unaffordable.

America doesn’t need a few more fiscal bandages for an outdated school system so students can go on a few more (if memory serves, often dull) field trips. We need a deep rethink of the relationship between education and work and we need a system that encourages rather than stifles creative approaches to serious education.  Being confined to the classroom until age 22 or even 30 is profoundly unnatural, not to mention a poor way to learn. Information technology and a more entrepreneurial and vibrant society must remake the schools top to bottom.

The current model produces mostly very mediocre results at unacceptable and rising costs.  This can’t go on forever, and it won’t.

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  • Richard F. Miller

    What’s odd about this is that for centuries, the actual practice–as opposed to aspiration–worked quite differently, and far outside the classroom.

    While most Northern states had what we think of as “public schools” at least since the 1830s and 40s (earlier in New England) such things as truancy laws came later. My point is that classroom attendance was understood to be fluid, subject to seasonal demands (farming), economic necessities (the frequent need for younger children to help around the farm or take formal employment, the latter often necessitated by the untimely death of the breadwinner.)

    In short, the “line” between “work” and “school” was not very bright. I use scare quotes here because in reviewing hundreds of biographical sketches for a current project (day job) I’ve noticed that in later years, what people tended to attribute their successes to revolved around what and from whom they learned, almost always in the workplace and rarely in the classroom.

    It didn’t seem to differ even for those characters who, in their privilege (at the time) followed the track most of us take for granted now–school through eighteen, followed by college, and occasionally, graduate school. And if anyone doubts that, read Henry Adams and the rest of his peers about the worthlessness of a Harvard education pre Charles Eliot.

    There may be some virtue to reviving the an apprentice-journeyman theory of getting a life, updated for today. After all, few lawyers of the period c. 1860 went to law schools–they “read law” sometimes with a college education more often, without. This isn’t the place for examples, but you’d be amazed at who managed to alter constitutional doctrine, write good law, and decide wisely without ever once having stepped foot in a law school.

  • Chase Crucil

    Well Professor, what you say sounds good, but I wonder about implementation. If a new method works, I say go for it. But as one who has taught students for two and a half years, I can tell you that teaching is not as easy as it looks to an outsider, and I would like to see some good studies on alternative schooling systems before I get on the bandwagon.

    Those two and half years were spent teaching English in Korea, a country that President Obama praised for the quality of it’s educational system. In Korea, education is even more traditional than our system, by a long shot, and the superior performance of Koreans and other Asians is often the reason given for why we need to change our system by making it less traditional. It seems to me that the educational reform movement is saying that we should be even less like the Koreans so our students can get the kind of scores that Koreans get. How do you resolve this contradiction?

    I think that the most important thing we can change about American education would be to help students develop a passion for learning. This goal is so easy to articulate that it is has become a cliché, but it is very difficult to implement. I didn’t grow up in the most academic environment, but at a young age I developed a very strong interest in history, politics and law (i.e., when I was in high school, I was reading Henry Kissinger and books about the Supreme Court in my spare time.) And it was this interest that kept me going when things weren’t going well in my life; without this passion, I can’t even imagine where I would be now.

  • Chase Crucil

    At the same time, I really did not like math when I was in high school. Part of the reason was that I am not naturally talented in this area, but the other, and I think more significant reason, is that Math in my High School was often sold to the students as the means of obtaining an engineering job; my frustration was compounded by the fact that I was told by many people that engineering was the only good career and that anyone who was intelligent went to engineering school (even medical doctors didn’t measure up). I know that American needs more engineers, so I can’t complain too much, but I have no mechanical aptitude, and I hate moving parts, so a career in engineering was never in the cards for me. As a result, I regrettably developed a negative attitude about Math. Yet, if the teachers and the community pointed out to me that math knowledge can do lots of good things that have nothing to do with engineering careers, such as serving as an essential tool for understanding things like macro economics, banking, currency trading, and advanced political science, maybe I would have really applied myself in this area. I feel that with some creativity, we can convince kids (and adults for that matter) that learning is the most enjoyable activity that humans can partake in.

    I know the inclusion of so much personal information is probably in poor taste, but I feel that that personal information was essential to make my point.

  • Andrew Allison

    “Since the financial crisis hit, spending cuts have forced officials and planners at all levels of government to trim their budgets, often carving off whole swathes of worthless lean meat in order to conserve and protect that vital bureaucratic fat.” says it all! The question is: what are we going to do about it?

  • Luke Lea

    Are there any small towns or rural districts in America which have instituted a thorough-going reform of their local public schools on their own? You would think there would be less bureaucratic opposition.

  • peter38a

    Lets please differentiate between education and training. As I mentioned before, Carse in his book “Finite and Infinite Games” poses the question” What is the difference between training and education?” and then answer it by say the former prepares you against surprise and the latter prepares you for surprise (Alexander Fleming).

    John Steward Mill said the purpose of education was to make you an instrument of happiness both for your self and for others. I always like this thought.

    If you don’t address the difference between training and education you hardly know how well your schools are doing or what improvement to make. When I lived and taught in Italy I noted that Italian children at all levels seemed to be do work more advanced than my American children, yet their country is a shambles in so many ways.

    But the real question, and I will pose it to you a second time Dr. Mead, is, “What is worth knowing?” I would so like to see some responses to that.

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