Discover more from The Evening Post and Mail
Do we have to go "back"?
The mentality of "back to school" and grade-level promotion: It imprints on us a mindset that education is a set of boxes to be checked and milestones to be reached, rather than a life-cycle continuum.
Social media feeds in late August overflow with photos of children going through the ritual of "back to school" photos. Some pose with glee. Some are sullen about it. And parents and grandparents invariably gush about how those kids are growing up so fast. The ritual of it makes the unusual aspects stand out: The first day of kindergarten, the first year with a driver's license, and now, the years of pandemic accommodations.
■ What gets overlooked in the rituals is how strange it is that we break school apart into discrete chunks at all. It's strange not only because the idea of a long summer break separating school years is an artifact of compromises forged long ago, but also because individual students are on different curriculum tracks as early as the first years of elementary school. Differentiated instruction in core skills like reading can start as soon as kindergarten. By the time a grade cohort has entered the senior year of high school, some students may be spending virtually all of their time in Advanced Placement classes and concurrent enrollment at a nearby college, while other students are using alternative high schools and co-ops to customize their pathways to graduation.
■ School, of course, is often as much about social skills as about the kind of learning that shows up on standardized tests. Thus, there is no rational reason to expect grade levels to go the way of the dodo. There is evidence that some skills are even learned best in groups of mixed ability.
■ But we should be alert to an unintended consequence of the mentality of "back to school" and grade-level promotion: It imprints on us a mindset that education is a set of boxes to be checked and milestones to be reached, rather than a life-cycle continuum.
■ It doesn't take much effort to find educators who talk with sincerity and enthusiasm about "life-long learners". Increased access to lifelong learning is listed as a strategic objective of the US Department of Education. It is a concept praised by respected outlets like the Harvard Business Review and The Economist. A Pew survey found that 73% of American adults consider themselves lifelong learners.
■ Yet, culturally, we don't fundamentally treat learning as an aspect of life that occurs along a continuum. It's rather more likely to be seen as a punchline in our TV shows and movies (Pierce Hawthorne at community college, Alexis Rose belatedly completing high school, under-educated Penny struggling to earn the respect of her graduate-educated "Big Bang" neighbors) than as a routine part of mainstream life. Senator Chuck Grassley's feud with the History Channel is practically performance art by now, and let's not even begin to think of what now occupies what used to be known as The Learning Channel.
■ So while it's good and timely and natural that we celebrate kids going "back to school" every fall, in the long run, it would serve us well if it became harder to tell when education "begins" and "ends". We should practice as though we really do believe that every child (and every adult) can learn, that learning really is a life-long choice, and that education shouldn't strictly be about vocation. The back-to-school pictures are often delightful, but it would be much better for us all if it never really felt like anyone truly left.