An Optimist’s Take on Wisconsin’s Education Cuts

As a Wisconsinite, I have had the privilege of growing up in one of the very best educational systems the United States has to offer. Now a recent college graduate, I have had the gradual realization that despite the benefits I was afforded, education has some serious troubles. Highly structured, authoritative training can dim the passion and wonder of the brightest students. Technology has never made students more capable yet unwilling to participate in their schooling. Crippling debt awaits those that do make it to college. Scott Walker may have put the nail in the coffin, but education was already dead.

Instead of looking at all of the ways education was ‘ruined’ by this decision, a better question to ask might have been what is it we are trying to save?

The true goal of education is to teach people how to learn and think critically. When you have a culture that consistently puts songs like Let me take a selfie’ on its top charts, many would argue that this is no longer the case. Using the same ‘open for business’, industrialized logic that is implemented in Scott Walker’s decisions, education has taken a turn for the worse.

Educations devolution has been a prime example of money over morals, competition instead of collaboration, and structure before innovation; the shame is it’s the kids in our world who bear the brunt of it.

Our punitive, regimented system isn’t making students happy. Happiness needs to be a fixture in education. Sometimes, it’s the most well-educated people in the world that grow up to be the meanest and most destructive. Despite being taught the very best in economics, sciences, business; all the tools we praise, but also the necessary tools to perpetuate a disciplinary mindset. Had these people been taught an education centered on empathy, collaboration, and equality, I truly doubt they would have ended up impoverishing others for a living.

When an elementary school student can’t focus, rather than adjusting our teaching methods or perhaps recognizing that rote memorization might not be the best way for an 8-year-old to learn, we diagnose them with a disorder and put them on extremely powerful stimulant medications. While it’s true that doctors mean well for their patients, I encourage anyone that thinks these are necessary for young children to take a moderate adult dosage of Adderall and see for yourself. Adderall isn’t age specific, either; it is one of the most heavily abused drugs in colleges across the nation. Pharmaceutical companies have their hands dirty with a number of issues, but what happens in our school systems goes largely under the radar.

We are seeing students treated as prisoners. There’s some truth to the jokes that kids have been making for years. Many schools are installing metal detectors, increasing their surveillance, and even adding padded rooms for misbehaving students. Unsurprisingly, when you treat patients as if they are criminals and mental patients, you get criminals and mental patients. These impressionable, compassionate young minds are turned on at a young age to a well-intentioned system that has not lived up to its benevolent promise.

In addition to the increased stressed of school, with its looming mandatory-yet-not-mandatory choice to attend college and get a Bachelor’s degree and ever increasing state-defined tests to pass, students also are in the midst of a neurotic social media culture. Excessive Facebook use has been linked to anxiety and depression, and this lack of dopamine in the system makes the stress of school all the more hard to deal with. It’s often been said that depression is caused by living in the past, and anxiety by living in the future. We have been deprived of the present moment and are addicted to things that keep us from attaining it.

Carl Hart, a groundbreaking neuroscientist, has a novel idea for addiction, which you can check out here. Rats placed in a cage with the choice between water and heroine became addicted to heroin at an alarming rate. Mr. Hart didn’t like this explanation: mammals shouldn’t be inherently prone to addictive behavior, he thought. To test his hypothesis, he performed the same test, only the rats were placed in what was essentially a rat utopia. They had plenty of food, space, and social interaction. As it turns out, almost none of the rats became addicted despite the heroin being just as accessible as in the first set of experimental conditions.

It’s not, at least in my mind, much of a stretch to think that a less than engaging school atmosphere is resulting in students turning to their phones. The fact is this does not address the entire problem, since school at most takes up half of these kids days before homework. The parents of this world are in a tough spot. Homeschooling their children to try to help alleviate these pains is risking they and their child’s future, but so is letting the cycle continue.

Mental health problems are quickly becoming an absolute pandemic, and while some is due to the increased awareness and over labeling, the synergistic actions of school stress and cultural deprivation should not be left out of the picture. Rather than address the causes to these problems, we once again have turned to quick fix solutions with consciousness altering drugs. Manipulating our biological realities to match the demands of increasingly sick surroundings is not “scientific”, and it’s definitely not beneficial to education.

Because the former argument is at risk of being too sinister or cynical of a view, instead, it’s useful to look at schools in terms of efficiency. We spend nearly 39% more per student, yet consistently we are placed in the 20’s for worldwide literacy rate comparisons. In colleges, this spending is even more heinous. An overwhelming amount of money goes to school athletic programs, which benefit a select minority of students at the expense of all. If education were ‘democratic’, wouldn’t students who have no interest in going to sporting events be able to opt out of that portion of the tuition?

Administrative salaries have also skyrocketed in recent years: the median salary of a president/CEO of campus within a system was $275,000. Additionally, the Deans of colleges within those same campuses were making similar figures (closer to $200,000) and assistants for a majority of them are being paid as well.

This is a good time to point out a crucial understanding- not everyone needs a job. Or at least not what you think of when you think of a job. The point of better technology and communication was to make life easier, but all it has done is create more work. This is not coming from a place of love for his couch from a half-baked hippy in his mom’s basement; this is a legitimate sustainability concern with our obsession to the idea that everyone needs money and a job to live. There has been an immense amount of thought on this subject, including some from Henry Thoreau and Alan Watts, but in terms of education it is used to preemptively stifle the “jobs” argument.

education 2

It takes very little creative effort to pick apart the problems of the current school system. Doing so was to give my best effort at a realistic interpretation of what I see in schools and have recently experienced. I truly love education and the best teachers have always found a way to make a sincere impact, but that does not put the educational model itself above criticism.

Speaking from personal experience, my most useful education has been in classes were I was fully engaged and encouraged to take learning into my own hands, doing research outside of the classroom. This independence is vital to our development as a person, and there’s no shortage of wonderful stories of children who were schooled with alternative methods that have gone on to do great things. They didn’t all suffer the innocuous ‘social abnormality’ fears that so often accompany people’s criticisms of these choices either.

Education is engaging when it’s tailored to a student’s passions, and individualizing the learning process is not something a top-down approach is prepared to handle. You can’t rewrite the coloring book by drawing within the lines, and while it was unfortunate that education spending had to be the first to go, I believe there is a silver lining. Teachers have an incredible gift, why should they be relegated to brick boxes, teaching classes they don’t want to teach to students who don’t want to be there?

When I envision what this might look like, I see student centered learning being a key feature. Just as important, a new model will incorporate a moral-based, heart-centered education that teaches how to live- not just the skills to work. Brilliant minds with far superior scholastic imaginations to my own are the designers of such a system, and many have already laid the foundation for what this might look like.

So you can put up both middle fingers to the Gov if you’d like, and stomp around his yard and raise some hell, but at the end of the day when the anger is gone, you are still going to want to teach. Compete for lower and worse paying jobs in a system that puts you further and further into debt to join, or recognize that your skills and passions are every bit as valuable as they were before Mr. Walker signed that bill, and put your energy into a teaching style that is 100% your own.

-Harley Fredriksen

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