Standardized testing has been heavily debated in academia since the early 1900s. In the modern era, teachers are pressured to teach for standardized tests. They are compared to each other on uneven playing fields. Their performance is marked by growth margins literally correlated to the growth of a plant.
People who enter education to change the lives of their students are spending more time stressing about satisfying an arbitrary algorithm than creating lessons that enlighten their students.
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On the other side, students are treating their education as a game of amassing GPA points and collecting Advanced Placement classes like shiny rocks to give to a college. This system is largely transactional — inputting numbers and resume padding toward a goal of a high income down the road. It has transformed education from a source of knowledge for the betterment of the self into a prerequisite for a satisfying job.
These issues come with the glorification of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). To many, STEM is a positive modernization to a system that has long focused on the liberal arts. But this change has instead crushed creativity, stunted growth in demonstrated critical thinking and left teachers frustrated.
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Liberal arts fields require conceptual understanding and nuanced application. STEM classes by contrast are often much more content-based and are therefore more easily tested. In these classes, you simply know it or you don’t — which means students are often able to cram, make flash cards and build incredible short-term memory for content they will likely never again utilize.
With this type of process comes mechanical, academic validation, leading students to gravitate toward these subjects despite their passions lying elsewhere. Constantly studying, earning scores and repeating the process leads to swift burnout. In the past few years, this has been enhanced by the disconnected environment of online classes.
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This mass academic burnout is shared by teachers. Both they and their students experienced a fall in motivation paired with an overwhelming feeling of failure as their scores dropped. This perfect storm has many teachers fearing the death of public education in its entirety.
It is unlikely that everyone reading this is aware that the most prestigious universities in the world are liberal arts schools. Schools like Harvard University have molded world leaders and famous scientists, but their primary focus is on humanities and liberal arts. The Ivy League embraces the liberal arts philosophy of education, emphasizing critical thinking, nuance, creativity and a well-rounded repertoire of arts and philosophy.
This is not for no reason; these key skills are what allow CEOs to manage major projects, communicate and work with thousands of others and avoid the mistakes of the past!
This does not, however, mean that liberal arts students are destined to work in fields of arts or communications. Famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson studied at Harvard, earning a Bachelor of Arts. The focus on critical thinking, nuance and interdisciplinary study allowed him to become one of the most world-renowned scientists of the modern age.
The shift toward STEM education is taking over public schools at younger and younger ages, even becoming a prevalent elective course in middle schools. Pressure to study largely career-oriented subjects is making students feel trapped in jobs they don’t like and which make them feel creatively boxed in.
The simple fact is that education is more than a factory, creating workforce-ready individuals. It is instead an opportunity for young minds to develop and explore the disciplines. Students and educators must refuse to give up the arts and embrace learning with an interdisciplinary approach.
Primary and undergraduate education is more than a line in the resume of the beholder but a passport to realms of thought previously undiscovered. Liberal arts education embraces critical thinking and nuance, which are invaluable to STEM workers and educators.
It is time students and teachers fight back against the attack on public education and hold tightly to what it was that made it truly great.
Caden Ketchman is an early college student at Cumberland Polytechnic High School. He lives in Fayetteville and enjoys working with his team in a non-profit organization called #ICanHelp.