November 16th, 2011 10:30 EST
Education and America's Forgotten Instrument
Have you given much thought to the pencil lately? With everyone clicking away at the keyboard, we seldom use pencils anymore. Besides a computer, I have more pencils on my desk than pens. Over the past few years, I have been using pencils to write the early drafts of my poems and novels. When I worked in academics, one of my colleagues suggested that I stop using red pencils when grading papers. "Red makes the students feel bad," I was told. He suggested I use a blue pencil. It dawned on me that only one or two others that I knew used a red pen at the time.
I had a professor in college by the name of Tom Goss. Tom used a red pen. One day he called me into his office. "I spill a lot of ink on your work," he groused. The paper was covered with his red ink scribble. I couldn`t help but notice the two red pens in the garbage as I was leaving. I almost turned to tell him that grading with pencils is less expensive. I thought better of it. Tom had given me an A-. Why jeopardize a good grade?
The pencil is really a remarkable tool. Derived from the stylus, a thin metal stick, used by the Romans, the word for pencil has its origins in the Latin word "penicillus" that translates as "little tail." The Latin formed the root for the old French word "pincel," which was a small paintbrush.
I usually give little thoughts to pencils, other than the fact that they are comfortable in my hand, or if they need sharpening. I found myself thinking about pencils during a recent conversation with friends; our attention turned to the question of how well we are educating students to be critical and independent thinkers.
There are a lot of gadgets in education today. The major gadget is the computer. The wired class room is the priority of every school district. We have the Clinton Administration to thank for that. Bill Gates pushed the idea of a computer in every classroom. This soon evolved into the idea of every student having a computer. It was a good idea at the time. I suppose it still is (or did I just say that to avoid being called a Luddite?). Yet the educators I know are increasingly disenchanted with their computer and test focused curriculums.
What is the advantage of the internet in comparison to books and other published resources? You and I will agree there is a lot of junk on the internet. There is so much misinformation. Another problem is the organization of this voluminous flow of information. When combined with conventional methods of teaching, I think computers in the classroom can be effective. However, what is essential is teaching our students to develop a critical eye, a critical mind.
There has been a lot written and said about education. I doubt it is the hot button issue for the majority of Americans. It should be. Education is really about more than jobs. It goes to the heart of our democracy. Where education falters and fails, tyranny arises. Isn`t that why we`re building schools in Afghanistan?
The Jewish philosopher and professor of theology Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that education shouldn`t be about "how much a person knows, but how much he learns" (Jewish Education, Vol.XXIV, No. 2, Fall, 1953). In a television interview, when asked what he would say to young people, Heschel replied, " "(the) meaning of life is to live life as if it were a work of art. You`re not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence" (The Eternal Life Interview, found on YouTube).
Do children in grades K-6 need computers in the class room to learn reading, language, mathematics, fundamental science, and art skills, as well as mind and body coordination? During the summer months, I used to take my children for walks to collect leaves, and insects, then we would look them up in books so they could learn about the natural world. They learned multiplication and division by rote, and practiced their writing in a composition book. We were always reading. The poet Robert Frost would wake his children in the night to take them outdoors to gaze into the night sky. When we lived in Tennessee, I would take my son to the roof of one of the buildings on campus to star gaze with students in an astronomy class.
We talk about the necessity of computers to prepare students for the modern world. Computer skills are relatively easy to learn. What about having educators who know the subject they are teaching, have a passion for it, and know how to effectively engage their students? Many of our younger teachers are simply instructing with no knowledge of the subjects they are called on to teach. In a classroom of 25 to 30 students, how much engagement do students really have with their teacher? How much contact does a student really have with her or his peers when everyone is glued to a monitor? Is there a link between bullying and the lack of engagement between peers and adults in both the school and home environments?
Ask yourself how engaged your children are with their cousins and others the next time you are visiting your relatives or at the home of friends? How long does it take before a computer is turned on? What do they do once a computer game or a video begins?
I`m not saying there isn`t a place for computers in the classroom. Computers can and should be integrated into every child`s education. What I am saying is let this be done at an older age. There should be no rush to plop kids down in front of the computer
Additionally, it is essential for the classroom to be radically transformed. There is plenty of blame to go around for what is wrong with education. We aren`t fixing the problems. We have been avoiding them. We need to get back to basics and to rethink our Teacher Education Programs. Corporations and small businesses need to realize that it is to their benefit to contribute more to education, to provide apprentice programs and internships with salaries. Educators on all levels, as well as local, state, and federal politicians need to acknowledge that many students currently enrolled in college don`t belong there; including many from the families who can afford to pay the tuition, while poor and middle class students who should be there are locked out by prohibitive costs. Parents need to be more supportive of teachers, including on the issues of salaries and benefits. School Administrations, not the number of teachers need to be reduced.
So where do we begin? If you want your child to be a great work of art rather than a machine, take some of the gadgets out of the classroom. Then give your child an education with a pencil.
Note: The author of this article is no longer affiliated with theSOP.