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Monday, March 11, 2013

On Progressivism and Successful Undergrads

(This paper I submitted to the Philosophy of Education class.)        

I have always been fascinated by stories of successful people who make it big in their field and make it on their own without the benefit of higher education. Some of them went to school only for a few years. In the field of science and technology we can name Steve Jobs, the man who gave us Apple computers, smartphones, Ipad, Iphones, and other technologies that changed the world, particularly people’s lives; Bill Gates, the man who changed the way businesses are run all over the world with his Microsoft company; Albert Einstein, the Man of the 20th Century who immortalized the theory of relativity that has become highly applicable in today’s technology-driven world by way of the Global Positioning System (GPS) used in airplane navigation, oil exploration, bridge construction, and so more; Thomas Alba Edison; Henry Ford; the Wright Brothers; Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook that connects one billion people in the planet; and Larry Page, founder of Google,  the largest library in the world accessible to everyone with a device connected to the internet. 

In medicine, there is Vivien Thomas, a black American who helped develop the medical procedures used to treat the blue baby syndrome which has led to the development of heart surgery as we know now. Vivien Thomas was a carpenter who finished high school and was hired by a surgeon as a laboratory assistant to take care of dogs used during medical experiments. The doctor-researcher Alfred Blalock discovered Thomas’ extraordinary abilities and love for the science of medicine that the former took him under his wing and taught him not book-theories but real-life situations. Without any degree in college but pure brilliance and determination, Thomas ended up teaching doctors in Johns Hopkins Hospital.
In the field of the arts, we can name more successful people who did not complete their education but became famous because of their contributions: Nobel Prize for Literature awardees John Steinbeck, Jose Saramago, and George Bernard Shaw; renowned painter Claude Monet; Academy Awards winning director Quentin Tarantino; and American film producer and innovator in animation and theme park design, Walt Disney.  In politics, we can name Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. In business, John Rockefeller, Jr., the self-made billionaire American businessman-philanthropist, is always remembered alongside George Eastman, the founder of the Kodak Camera Company; Harlan Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken; and Frederick Henry Royce, co-founder-designer of the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Company.
The above are notable people who did not complete their education but accomplished great things. It can be argued that they may be simply exceptions to the rule. However, these individuals as documented in their biographies and what the world knows of them, had the intense passion for learning but in an environment not bound by specific structures of the academe. Instead of handing their future over to the hands of professional teachers, they found themselves curious about the world around them. Their test results could be failed experiments, non-performing formula, one-dimensional characters, stories that did not make sense or unfriendly-user applications. Yet, the more they fail, the more they strive to be better, knowing that tests have no equivalent GPA, and results are so much more than outputs reduced to mere numerical digits. They saw problems as opportunities for success and liberation.

Let us then review what some of these people think of education. George Bernard Shaw said: “Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent disturbing and chaperoning their parent.” Shaw’s main complaint about the school is the standardization of the curriculum, which he believed deadened the spirit and stifled the intellect. 

Steve Jobs, founder and innovator of Apple Company, said of America’s education system: “was hopelessly antiquated and crippled by union workers... Teachers should be treated as professionals, not as industrial assembly-line workers. Principals should be able to hire and fire them based on how good they were. It was absurd that American classrooms were still based on teachers standing at a board and using books. All books, leaning materials, and assessments should be digital, and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.”

John Steinbeck had once said when a friend of his, upon reading a just completed chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, told John that his punctuation was terrible and his spelling was worse. Steinbeck smiled and nodded and said he didn't worry very much about either of those skills. He knew his publisher had a roomful of college kids who got paid forty dollars a week to correct spelling and punctuation but he doubted if any of them could have written Of Mice and Men.

Jose Saramago, the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature awardee said, “The wisest man I ever knew in my whole life could not read or write."  In his Nobel lecture, Saramago talked about his grandparents, both illiterate farmers, who during winter nights when the cold grew to freezing point, would go out into the sty and fetch the weakling among the piglets to take them into their bed. "Under the coarse blankets, the warmth from the humans saved the little animals from freezing and rescued them from certain death."

These brilliant minds never got to march to "Pomp and Circumstance" to get their degree diplomas. Instead, these people took education in their hands and invited the best teachers in the world: hardship, opportunities, failure and everyday people. Surely classroom teachers need to learn from them. What was it that these people did outside the school that teachers can bring into their classrooms?

Having studied the different philosophies of education, the closest one can get to mirror this kind of phenomenon is what the educational progressivism offers. Looking back as a student, this philosophy ought to have been what my school offered me. I was not interested in high school because I was not interested in most of what my teachers talked about in class. I hated our textbooks so I read the bulky anthology books I borrowed from our next-door neighbor. I hated memorization but my teacher kept on asking us to memorize whole chapters of terminologies. I wanted to do things with my hands. I loved to cook, to sew, to crochet, to write stories. But my school thought otherwise.

Based on that, I decided to become a teacher “that the child I was would like to have learned from” as Bliss Cua Lim laments in her poem “Chalk Dust on My Fingers.” Like the progressivists’ view, I believe that the goal of education is “to enhance individual effectiveness in society and give learners practical knowledge and problem-solving skills.” Students need a strong foundation where they can stand on to survive regardless where they end up in. They are supposed to be taught skills which can help them to metamorphose into something they need to be given our society’s shifting situations.

I believe in a non-authoritarian student-centered approach to education where a teacher is one with the students in their individual objectives, skills and beliefs.

In school, I hardly use the prescribed textbooks and outlines. The bases of my being a teacher are my students. Still, the challenge is to know what makes the individual student tick. However, if the teacher always thinks of the end in mind, she will know exactly what to look for and how to draw out the interest of the individual child.

Progressivism as an educational philosophy may seem impractical, but the world tells us that the best and the brightest thrive on impracticality defying the norms and those that are easy. As one teacher once told me, the student does not remember what you taught him in class, but he will always remember what he did in your class.