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Seth Engel

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Graduation, or Biking on Thin Air

Posted: 12/30/11 10:35 AM ET

Having a bike in the Netherlands is as essential as having a car in Los Angeles, an iPhone in New York, or a lover in Paris. So you can imagine my dismay when my bike fell apart beneath me one rainy morning while I was living in The Hague.

I extracted my bike from its parking spot as I did every other morning. Yes, Clifford had been making some creaking sounds. Yes, Clifford was my big red bike that I had bought myself on sale, two sizes too big and a few gears too rusty. Yet I was still surprised when I pulled out of the bike parking lot to make a left turn, only to be looking down at thin air. I was still holding the handlebars, mind you, and probably even pedaled a few times while hanging there, suspended before gravity took its toll. But Clifford had quite simply crumbled beneath me, his gears and sprockets strewn about the Central Station entryway like so much dust. Then, like Wile E. Coyote sprinting off a cliff, I fell in a heap.

A few months after dusting myself off and repairing my broken watch, I have officially finished my graduating semester from Georgetown Law (if I pass all my exams -- knock on wood!). It feels good to be done with my schooling. It feels good to have achieved this high a level of education, and done so while volunteering my time to the less-fortunate, making lifelong friends and accomplishing as much as I could squeeze into the workweek (while still having time to saber a champagne bottle or two on weekends). I know that this is a tremendous accomplishment. But, then, why does it feel so...empty?

Teaching to the Test

I will never forget my high school physics teacher 's education method. Whenever one of us asked an insightful (read: time-killing) question, or wanted to know why we were learning a certain subject or how we would be using the skills procured in her classroom, her answer was always the same. We were preparing for the New York State Regents Exam. This is the New York standardized exam that all students took in certain subjects and needed to pass in order to obtain their high school diplomas.

Her answer in itself was not what bothered me. All teachers are burdened with strict regional and federal standardized tests that leave little wiggle room for creativity, dialogue, or critical thinking. But, come on -- do they have to admit it so resignedly?

To me, it was like this teacher was confessing the dismal fact that she was only teaching us for one reason -- helping us to pass the test. The answer is laden with so many implications, too. She wasn't teaching us because she loved the subject matter, or cared that we understood it, or cared about us at all. Implied in her answer was the following: finish high school, and then you can do all the creative thinking you want. The fact that professors continued this tradition into law school, and students maintained the test-first attitude far into adulthood, belies my physics teacher's assertion.

Schooling Versus Education?

I take issue with this method of teaching, and with this view of education as drudgery that one has to slog through to get to the next level. I went to public schools my whole life until college, and they provided me with many amazing opportunities. Nonetheless I distinctly remember the pressure of competing against other students even in the 2nd grade.

Academic competition isn't inherently bad, but the earlier the pressure to outdo one's classmates begins, the more damage it can potentially cause. The education rat race, which can begin as early as preschool, pushes kids to compete in elementary school so they'll be prepared for middle school. In middle school, they're spooked by stories of high school and how colleges might even look at their middle school record in making a decision. High school is when, of course, the pressure piles on, and college applications overbear even the most school-savvy. In college, there is limitless pressure on accomplishing enough to get into a good graduate school, be it law, medical, or any other higher education. At every step of the way, an annoying little voice in the back of the student's mind says that if she fails just one test or makes just one screw-up, her life is over.

In a way, students in our current education system bike on their Cliffords since childhood. With the lashes of teachers, parents and peers at our backs, we lose sight of our education in search of improving our schooling. Here I am, graduating from law school, and I fear that so many of my classmates are now pedaling on empty air, waiting for the jarring descent, grasping nothing but their handlebars. Their behavior in class might be despicable, ingratiating, or just plain annoying, and outside of class they might be unbearable. But they have a top-tier JD, right?

To me, this view of schooling is unacceptable. Especially today, in the age of ruthless budget cuts and disparity between socio-economic groups in the classroom, there is something wrong with the way students are shaped by the education system.

My high school philosophy teacher's constant refrain was the following Mark Twain quote: "Don't let your schooling get in the way of your education." I have repeated this to myself over the years, and on the eve of my law school graduation, I couldn't agree more. Getting your degrees opens the doors, but it's your personality and life experience that will get you in them.