Tracer Rounds: Let’s Talk Education

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How smart is too smart? ~

Brant, 28 March 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot about education lately, perhaps a little too much.  It’s no real secret that wargamers tend to be over educated, but let’s face it, for many of us school was more of a formality than anything. Most of us weren’t the most studious of pupils, and a lot of our classes were merely checking the box on something we could breeze through in our sleep.

Scribe_1But we’re not the key consumers in the American education system either. And that’s the struggle that I’m wrestling with right now as I have two kids in public schools and I am teaching at several very different colleges.  What this adds up to is that my thoughts on this are rather disjointed, but I don’t feel like writing a book to fully explore every one of them, so this is going to be a bit of a brain dump of several different concepts all related to education. Please bear with me and I hope it comes out to a coherent whole by the time I’m done (but let’s face it, the odds of that are pretty slim).

First off, I’m really wrestling with the issue of what we expect education to accomplish. There is certainly an underlying shared experiential component to our education system, as if it’s a massive continental-wide team building exercise for 12-year-olds. To that end, the shared pain and sacrifice somewhat makes sense.  Ostensibly, the public education system in the US is designed to turn out citizens with a minimal set of survival skills for the rest of their lives. That said, it’s hard to make the case that it’s succeeding in that regard.   There are so many minimally-necessary skills that are not taught, or even touched on (balancing a checkbook, typing, managing a credit score, how to be fucking polite in public!), that it’s not insane to wonder if we should completely jettison the current model and rebuild from the ground up.  However, if it’s all just skill building for future societal needs, then we are doing our students a serious service by failing to intellectually engage them. Subjects such as history and literature serve vital functions in providing context in today’s society, as well as important emotional engagement points for many students, even if they do not have an immediate tie into any future career endeavor.

My bigger concern is the idea of minimum standards being an appropriate goal.  When offered the limited time that teachers have, and their evaluation criteria of children meeting minimum educational standards, is it any wonder that the students who suck up most of the attention from the instructors are those that have the greatest difficulty in the classes? Unfortunately this leaves the best and brightest to compete for scraps of attention from those best positioned to engage them.  And that engagement frequently comes in the form of useless or inane busywork designed primarily to occupy time rather than provide an intellectual challenge. What the best students quickly learn is that being good at something is rewarded with additional time-wasting exercises rather than challenging them to excel above the standard.  Those students who quickly outpaced their peers particularly in quantitative subjects end up bored and in trouble. They might be the smartest students in the school, but they come to resent school as a place that stifles rather than nurtures their intelligence.

I’ve experienced this several times in my K-12 life (many, many moons ago).  In second grade, we got lucky and the three of us who completed our third grade reading requirements by Christmas break were given the opportunity to create our own project to keep us busy the rest of the year.  We made a puppet show for the class about the history of the military base we lived on, complete with the stage, puppets, script, scenery, and everything.  Later, in 10th grade algebra, I was so bored that I did my homework in Roman numerals.  Yep.  Turned it in and got a C on it, too.  (wait for it…)

There was a recent article on homeschooling children who did not comfortably fit into the mold of a traditional public school student. The author lays out a fantastic case as to why they chose to homeschool one of their children. As I read it, all I could envision were the smart kids like my son being shunted into mindless busy work simply because they outpaced their less-competent peers. This is not an indictment of children who learn at a slower rate. It is an acknowledgment of the frustration that students who excel are not given comparable attention to those who do not.  I completely understand why not. We have built our system around minimal standards and rigorously enforced those with repeated mind-numbing tests.  As an educator or administrator, if my job were dependent on the number of students meeting a minimal standard, I would focus my attention there also. I guess I keep coming back to questioning why that is the appropriate standard.

The second part of this equation is a recent debate that we used in my public speaking classes.  I use it as an example of persuasion, and as the students to evaluate which argument they found more compelling, and explain why.  The debate centers around whether or not all kids should go to college, which is one of the key headaches at the middle- and high-school level in this country: we’re setting up everyone for college success when (1) there’s no way they’re all going to be successful in college, because (2) quite frankly, there’s a lot more kids in college that have no business being there.

GHLogoTextBut the underlying question that’s never answered, and that becomes a half-hour discussion in my college classes is this: “what is college for?”  Is it merely high-level job training?  Or is it supposed to be more in the mold of the classical well-rounded scholar capable of intellectual achievement in a variety of fields?  The argument for/against military history sucked up several pages of discussion over at BoardGameGeek, and in the end, while everyone agreed that it might be a noble pursuit, it was quickly apparent that the argument was headed the same way as so many others I’ve had with my higher education colleagues: it’s getting harder and harder to justify academic pursuits that don’t have a straight-line connector to a P&L statement somewhere.

If college is just a giant job-training center, then why the general education requirements that serve to create well-rounded scholars?  Why not just a crash-course ‘certificate’ program for accountants and engineers like we have for welders and plumbers?  Given how many successful software coders and testers are either (1) not college graduates, or (2) not computer science scholars (one of the best software testers I know has a sociology degree with a criminal science focus) why is there such a push for a degree to even start in the field?

But we know that universities should be about greater intellectual pursuits and academic curiosity.  They should be about more well-rounded scholars capable of synthesizing information from a variety of fields to not only draw conclusions, but explain how and why they came to them. Part of our discussion in class inevitably turns on “if college is just a giant job training center then what do you do when new jobs are invented?”  Ten years ago, there was no job-training for a “Social Media Coordinator.” If we are supposed to be treating colleges as job-training, are we going to send newly minted Social Media Cordinators back to school? Or are we trusting a more well-rounded and broad-based education to give them the basic tools they need to adapt to new ideas and positions as they develop?

How many of today’s software testers and code writers never studied computer software development in school because the coding languages they’re using didn’t exist 20 years ago? How many sales people were shifted out of engineering and into sales not because they were brilliant scholars of business practices, but because they were the ones with the technical knowledge who were best able to explain it to civilians?  How many graphic designers have an academic background in graphic design and how many learned what to do along the way, because they happened to be the best ones at playing with the computers in their high-school yearbook classes?  Treating college as a glorified trade school cheapens the value of what a degree should be by trying to shoehorn it into what bean-counters and education ‘reformers’ think it is.

My undergraduate degree is in English and my Master’s in Journalism.  I’ve been an Army officer, a customer service manager, a teacher at five different schools, software analyst, defense analyst, wargame designer, a freelance journalist, a graphic designer, and an occasional volunteer Cub Scout leader. Aside from that time when I was a freelance journalist, I’m not really sure where my English degree or my Journalism degree was ever relevant or of direct use in any of those jobs.  What my degree did give me though was a broad knowledge base of a wide number of concepts that I’ve been able to use across many different areas. It gave me the ability to make long-term plans and construct the method by which I would get to them. The research processes that I learned in grad school have helped me develop appropriate lines of inquiry for developing user focused tools in the software and gaming world. Most importantly, college taught me how to think, which is something that I see as sorely lacking among the undergrads I teach now, and it’s gotten worse over the past 15 years.

Really, there’s a lot of things broken in our education system, mainly because we as a society seem to have an overly-egalitarian sense of ‘equality.’  We want everyone to have an equal education, but we do it by dragging everyone down to a level we hope to minimally reach, rather than trying to raise the standards that everyone should reach.  We know that the best predictors of educational success are the parental/home situations of the students, and yet hold teachers accountable for students who don’t meet the standard and refuse to send students who don’t meet the standard back through the system until they do.  Sorry you’re 19 and a sophomore in high school.  Maybe you should’ve done your homework in 5th grade.  We cycle our kids through an endless litany of ‘tests’ because we train the shit out of our teachers but still won’t rely on their honest assessments of whether or not their kids know their material at each age level, and then yell at the teachers when the students kick ever-loving ass at filling out bubble sheets but suck as inquisitive people with no basic sense of social grace because that wasn’t on the test.

And let me just leave you with this final thought to ponder:  exactly who are all those tests really for?


This week’s soundtrack:

I was looking up Johann Cruyff highlights after he passed last week, and one of them was set to ’74-75′ by The Connells, who were big stuff in town back when I was an undergrad.  This earlier album had just been released, and the first single, ‘Stone Cold Yesterday’ was all over local radio.  It’s a shame they never grabbed more of the alt-rock spotlight from the REMs and Dave Matthews’ of the world, because they were a good band with excellent melodies and some solid production and musicianship.


Game that caught my eye:

I got a care package the other day from Vento Nuovo games that included Germany At War, their WWI game.  As soon as I’m done with Liberty or Death, that’s next on the table.


What I’m doing this week when I should be playing games:

This is the door to my downstairs right now.



Wouldn’t it be cool if…

We could get a whole lot more wargamers to come to Origins and join us at the GrogHeads Central Command?  I mean really – guaranteed seats for games, prizes at every table, discounts from the exhibitors supporting the events, and the very cool GrogHeads Origins crew to hang out with!  What more could you want?!


This week’s poll:


Signing off…   Bayonet 06 – out!

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