Disengaged Students, Part 15: Careerism vs. Intellectualism in K-12 Education

In this 20-part series, I explore the root causes and effects of academic disengagement in K-12 learners and explore the factors driving American society ever closer to being a nation that lacks intellectualism, or the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

Parents want what is best for their kids and most will say that they just want them to be “happy.” Children’s education is important to parents, but so is the promise that they will get a job someday. Well-rounded approaches to education are not favored as strongly as focused learning programs that emphasize job skills and applications. Academic engagement, therefore, has been weakened by the belief that children should only go to school to learn marketable skills.

This is nothing new, particularly in American culture, as schools have long been viewed as vehicles for job-readiness. A student reading books from the traditional literary canon, whose authors are often referred to as “dead white guys,” is not truly preparing for a career or a way to make a living. The lessons gleaned from the words of Shakespeare or William Wordsworth do not have a marketable application – unless, of course, their reader ends up a scholar of either author. The importance of those lessons, therefore, is diminished by the general public (which includes some teachers and administrators) who believe that students should instead focus on what will be used in making a living. In other words, if it won’t help your lifetime earning potential, what good is it?

The Emphasis on Economics

The mission statement for the Common Core Standards, issued in 2013, includes this phrase: The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. There is also a sentence talking about the standards strengthening Americans’ place in the “global economy.” There is no mention of intellectualism or education for knowledge’s sake. The Common Core Standards target practical reasons for knowledge attained in K-12 learning, lending support to the idea that everything taught must have a marketable application.

This emphasis on career-driven learning furthers the stereotype that people who seek knowledge for the sake of simply knowing more are “eggheads” or “nerds.” Has the recitation of poetry ever landed a person a promotion? When was the last time that an understanding of the satirical works of Jonathan Swift earned a person that sought-after raise at an annual review? People who waste time with wisdom that they cannot sell are seen as un-American, elitist and abnormal.

This push toward teaching skills as opposed to content has certainly been a longstanding part of American culture, but today it is exacerbated by the Internet. Schools do not have to be the places where students find classic works of literature, or are introduced to scientific theories, because all of that information is readily available with the click of a mouse. Schools, therefore, should seek to present as much knowledge as possible but should focus more succinctly on skills not easily attained through a search engine – or so the common belief goes. While it is true that a student who is savvy when it comes to attaining and maximizing information will fare well in the current K-12 system, and the workforce beyond, the reduction of knowledge and understanding to the finding and repetition of facts is anti-intellectual in nature.

Gaining an Advantage through Delayed Education

At an alarming rate, parents are voluntarily “red shirting” their children old enough for Kindergarten, citing social concerns or even worse, the desire to have an athletic advantage in the years to come. A report from Stanford University and the University of Virginia found that as many as 5.5% of children begin Kindergarten late as a result of parent preference. Lack of academic skills at the same level as peer students has always been a valid reason parents or educators decide to hold children back in grade levels, but should factors beyond actual learning achievement also be considered?

Proponents of parental choice when it comes to Kindergarten redshirting say that while academic merit can be measured, emotional impacts cannot. The separation anxiety that accompanies a child who goes to Kindergarten “too early” can have a negative impact for the rest of the student’s K-12 career, and beyond. These are certainly strong points and in some cases, valid ones. But when redshirting tactics become popular and are packaged as a choice for all children, academic engagement takes a hit. Schools are seen as arenas of socialization first and foremost, and the idea that K-12 education should be just that – education – is forgotten.

Children are inherently social beings, and humans naturally learn to adapt to their individual situations to maximize practicality. So why should schools need to teach either thing? Academic disengagement happens when students do not value the learning which is offered to them. When adults tell children that knowledge is worthwhile only when it helps the learner to enter a higher income bracket or gain promotions, children begin to undervalue other key aspects of their education.

So which is the more responsible approach? Encouraging the pursuit of all knowledge – or building a brighter economic future for our kids and the nation as a whole?

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