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Losing our roots and ourselves: Structural flaws in contemporary education

One of the most pervasive, yet neglected, forms of poverty now instantiated in our culture through contemporary education is what I call the poverty of the home.

(us.fotolia.com / diego cervo)

One of the most frequent platitudes spoken and written about in the public form today concerns education. While particular instantiations vary, the principle idea runs as follows: “There is a crisis in education and it needs to be fixed.” We are often led to believe that such a crisis entails quick and tangible solutions, in ways that are “scientific”, demonstrable, and measurable. Thus, there are calls for more STEM programs, greater bureacratic oversight, increased availability of technology in classrooms, more attention on developing technological skill sets, and the push for all kids “going to college.”

But such solutions are not only grossly inadequate, they actually exacerbate and reconfirm the more universal and underlying causes of education’s dearth.

Much of the school reform discussion has sought to articulate a necessary link between education and a “healthy” society. What is most often meant or assumed is that people need education in order to escape some type of poverty, usually material in nature. While such a claim contains much truth, it fails to account for other kinds of poverty that young men and women will likely become exposed to, which are just as crippling, if not more so, than material poverty.

One of the most pervasive, yet neglected, forms of poverty now instantiated in our culture through contemporary education is what I call the poverty of the home. The following reflections and arguments are concerned with the structure of a typical school day as experienced in contemporary schools—public or private—that foster certain dispositions within students. The aim is to briefly observe and ponder the ways in which such dispositions effect the identity of students, particularly in regards to how they view their relationship to home, family, and culture.

A structure of listless boredom

A revealing way to look at contemporary school and education is to observe the structure of a typical school day; I am specifically looking here at elementary, middle, and high school levels. The average school day begins around 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning, which means that most parents must drive their children to school so that they can arrive at 7:00 or earlier. After the first class begins, children are sitting down and have little to no interaction with their peers (except in limited circumstances like “group work”) until lunch time. I have seen lunches be as short as 15 to 20 minutes, and as long as 45 minutes. It must also be noted that it is not uncommon for lunch to be a time of doing more work, and not necessarily eating and conversing in an atmosphere of leisure and humor. Lunch is followed by a few more hours in the classroom, and most teachers will tell you that the primary description of students after lunch is that they are “tired” and “checked out”. Once school ends around 3:00 or 3:30, most students have some type of extra curricular activity. Whether it be a sport, club, or some other type of activity, students often will not return home until 6:00 or 7:00 at night, perhaps even later. A former student of mine who did gymnastics would not get home until 9:30 or 10:00, and would eat, go to bed, then wake up at 2:00 am to finish homework.

The reason for mentioning this typical school day lay out is for the purpose of calling attention to two important observations. These two points are notable because they have an intimate connection to contemporary home and family life that is central for these reflections. First, notice that the general structure of the day is an analogue for an adult’s typical work day schedule. Our children are typically out of the house and at school from 7-3, followed by extra-curriculars, and parents are usually gone working this same time as well. The reason I mention this is because it is not accidental, but intentional. As former New York teacher of the year John Taylor Gatto has observed, the structure and organizing principle of a school day is, among other things, for the purpose of having young people get accustomed to their future work day.

This point not only applies to the lay out of the day, but also to the emotional, intellectual, and psychological state of the students themselves. Most students are bored and lethargic during school hours, even in classes and subjects that they have an interest in. I remember discussing this point last year with an administrator at the school I taught at, and wondered why the kids often seemed so bored. I feared that I was failing as a teacher, but she sought to reassure me by saying, “Look, school is boring most of the time.” But not only was this idea not reassuring, it caused me to feel perplexed and unsure of what I was doing in the classroom. I do not mean in regards to the curriculum, but in terms of the school system itself. 

As I began to reflect on it more, it became clearer that this boredom was not the product of a teaching style (although that can add to it), but the result of a structural set-up that helps such a disposition to set in. In addition, the work done in school has a tendency to rely very little on the body as an essential component, for it does not really engage students in any kind of kinesthetic way. (To have students move around the room to do board or group work is often classified as “kinesthetic.” A whole essay could be done on this, but I would briefly say that some movement in class is better than none, but the kinesthetic category of student learning and assessment is rather weak).  Analogously, I would say that this very thing is also what is going on in the contemporary work place as well. Philosopher-mechanic Matthew Crawford, in his book Shopclass as Soulcraft, has argued that the work we do on a daily basis is often the type that is not engaging, and does not lead us into a deeper state of attention. Rather, the work seems dull, mundane, and incapable of gripping us at an intellectual level.

Loss of home

The second point about the average school day is intimately connected to the first. Schools, like much contemporary work, foster within young men and women that the most important of human activities take place outside of the home. It does not seem to be a stretch to argue that most contemporary American homes suffer from what Joanna Roughton calls “empty home syndrome.” If you consider for a moment the above-mentioned time spent away from the home, then it would seem that contemporary homes serve a rather narrow purpose. Instead of being the locus and origin of communal living and human flourishing, the home has been reduced to something akin to a hotel. It is typically just a setting in which we eat, sleep, watch TV, and start it all over again. It is for this reason, among others, why American children are so deeply drawn to the cosmopolitan temptation, for they are raised at an early age to live most of their life away from home. Thus, it should not be surprising that we want to grow up and move away from home (both college and post-college life), since this is really what we have been doing all along.

There have certainly been a number of good initiatives seeking to bring about authentic education reform through a substantive content within school curriculum. Many have made convincing arguments about the truth and beauty of recovering a classically oriented liberal arts education, grounded in history, literature, philosophy, and theology. Such a view is essential for articulating and defining the true meaning of education and its connection with moral and intellectual virtue and, might I add, holiness. And yet, the other side of this coin must also be included in this conversation as well, namely, the consideration of what sorts of dispositions contemporary education fosters in relation to persons and their homes.

More specifically, does contemporary school and education, at any level, cultivate an understanding of the human person as embodied and only capable of flourishing in a particular place? How does the very organization of the school day itself help or negate an understanding of such a truth? A real education must, among other things, bring together this proper relationship between the home, families, and local institutions and communities. In this light, perhaps we can appreciate the wisdom of Simone Weil’s insight as a necessary ground for contemporary education reform:

“[T]o be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”


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About Brian Jones 19 Articles
Brian Jones is the Coordinator of Liturgy at St. Anthony of Padua in the Woodlands, Texas. He is also a philosophy PhD student in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have been published in New Blackfriars, Crisis, Catholic World Report, HPR, and Catholic Social Science Review.

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