A few years ago a friend-shaped human and I had the opportunity to peruse the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canadia-land. While we were there, we came across an exhibit of archaeological artifacts from ancient Egypt. Being a bit of an Archaeology geek, (ok… a LOT of an Archaeology geek) and having never seen anything like this before, I was understandably ecstatic to explore the exhibit. One of the most significant pieces of the collection was a mummy, on loan from the Cairo Museum. According to the hieroglyphics found on the sarcophagus, the mummy had been a wealthy merchant named “Antjou.”
My carbon-based companion eyed me carefully and then asked, “When I look at this, I just see a mummy. Essentially a corpse, albeit a very old one. What do you see?”
Her query was far from rhetorical, and revealed just how well she knew me. I grinned with excitement and took a moment to gather my thoughts before responding. “This man… this man is a time traveler. He has stepped two thousand years into his future to tell us his story. I think we should listen to what he has to say!”
My companion grinned knowingly and shook her head, but didn’t respond. No doubt she was flummoxed into silence by my masterful and urbane grasp of logic. Or perhaps not.
Later we found ourselves in the space exhibit, where one piece in particular caught my eye, and my imagination. A large meteorite, about the size of a microwave oven, sat on a pedestal with no glass case surrounding it. It was available to touch, to feel its rough, cratered surface. Once again, my companion gazed at me carefully. “Ok… it’s a meteorite. But you don’t see that do you?”
I eyed her carefully. “At least you didn’t call it a ‘space rock.’ You’re right, it is a meteorite, but it’s much more than that. It’s a space traveler, quite literally… an alien. This object did not originate on this planet! Imagine the implications! Where did it come from? Was it part of someone else’s planet eons ago?”
My friend simply laughed and said, “You should be leading tours of this place. Your excitement and enthusiasm are pretty contagious.”
I relate this story to you dear reader not to impress, but to illustrate something that I believe is missing from our modern educational system. Before I continue let me clarify a couple of points. By “modern educational system” I am referring of course to the North American educational system, sometimes known by it’s more accurate moniker, “The Memorization and Regurgitation System.” I cannot speak to the quality of systems in Europe or elsewhere, due simply to a lack of experience. You will also note that I refer to the “educational system,” and not necessarily teachers or instructors within that system. The fact is, there are countless numbers of people within the system who do everything possible to inspire and excite their students, but are usually hamstrung by draconian bureaucracies and outdated lesson plans. They struggle to provide meaningful learning within a broken system, and for that reason I admire them.
So what is it that’s missing from our educational system? Quite frankly, education.
That’s not just a play on words dear reader. I firmly believe that the purpose of our education system is not to educate young people, nor is it to inspire or excite them at the concept of learning and discovery. The education system has become a factory, a system for mass producing standardized, cookie-cutter cogs that can fit into the machine of society, not thinkers and dreamers.
The current educational model puts far more emphasis on rote memorization than it does on thinking, discussing and challenging ideas. Standardized examinations are recipes for regurgitation, not understanding. While some students will be inspired on their own by the subjects they study, many are left to simply plod through the system, inhaling boring facts and figures, throwing them up on an exam, and then forgetting about them.
I think my difficulties with education can be summed up by this brief anecdote. Back in the 1990s here on the windswept island of Newfoundland, the then-President of Memorial University, Art May (who passed away in 2014) was quoted on local news that people doing Arts degrees at the University needed to quote, “get out of the way of people doing real degrees like math, science and engineering.” Subjects we now refer to as STEM. As you can imagine, the statement garnered backlash and, as I remember, was followed by a hasty apology. However, the attitude was clear – the STEM subjects are given far more credibility than the Arts or the Humanities. It certainly explains funding decisions.
On a certain level, this makes some sense. Obviously STEM subjects are quite practical, and contribute to many of the modern conveniences that we enjoy in the 21st century. However, all the technical or scientific prowess in the world is meaningless if you lack the ability to share it coherently. Subjects such as psychology, political science, anthropology and social studies provide the context in which the advances of science and technology can be used for the betterment of humanity. Even the creative arts provide much needed inspiration and social connection, providing students with a well-rounded, less compartmentalized (or is that segregated?) education.
One of the reasons STEM is so highly prized is that it fits so well into the current education system. While the sciences can certainly inspire, they are also grounded in relatively standardized rules and principles that adapt well to our current system. The arts present more of a challenge. How does one “grade” a student’s interpretation of a novel or poem? The reason subjects like history are so boring and end up teaching nothing (which can be seen simply by looking at a newspaper – how many times have we made the same mistakes?) is because they are not suited to a system of memorization.
For example: Telling a student that the Battle of Trafalgar happened on October 21st, 1805 is simply a fact – easily memorized and just as easily forgotten. However describing in detail the events of October 21st 1805 and bringing it to life – explaining the area of the deck where Nelson stood in his full Admiral’s regalia when he was struck down by a French sniper in the rigging of a nearby vessel – suddenly the event comes alive, and may very well inspire a student to look more deeply into the subject.
Education is not just about memorizing facts and figures, it’s about seeing the world in its full complexity, madness and beauty. It’s about inspiration. It’s about understanding.
A rock, or an alien visitor. An ancient corpse, or a time traveler. It’s all a matter of perspective.