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Tom Allon

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A True Education

Posted: 10/01/2012 2:50 pm

I've always believed that the sign of a truly educated person is exhibited by their ability to synthesize seemingly unrelated events and come up with a perceptive insight.

Allow me to try and add one based on recent events in New York's education system.

My alma mater, Stuyvesant High School, one of the most renowned public schools in America, has been in the news of late because of a widespread cheating scandal and most recently a complaint by the Legal Defense Fund (and other advocacy groups) about its appallingly low minority student population.

No one has tried to tie these news stories together until now. New York's mayor has even weighed in on the low minority enrollment by saying: "Life isn't always fair."

Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

We have increasingly become a culture that cares only about tests, grades, college admissions and clawing our way up the ladder. Learning for education's sake? Ha, that's for naive ideologues who are destined to be overeducated and unemployed, the cynics will argue.

Perhaps the smartest dropout of the last century (no, not Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) once famously said: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Who was this profound truth-sayer? Albert Einstein, thinker extraordinaire, who changed the way mankind thought about time and space.

Would he have been able to pass the NYC Specialized High School entrance exam? Not if he didn't start prepping with tutors by third or fourth grade as thousands of New Yorkers are doing today to get a head start to gain admission to Stuyvesant, the holy grail of public schools.

And once you've been inculcated at a very young age that a score of 560 on the SSAT is paramount to getting ahead in the world, is it any wonder that the Darwinian academic struggle continues at Stuy so that most students there cheat to attain high grades so they can get into an Ivy League school?

Have we so lost our way, that even the purported best and brightest among us care not for learning but for test prep, cutting corners and most of all, high scores at any cost?

Yes. The metrics craze in education which now determines not just student's futures but also their teacher's evaluations has overtaken the Greek ideal of a sound mind in a sound body. Did the Greeks really care about the relative merits of an A minus versus a B plus? Whether "Test Cram" schools are necessary to achieve the Socratic ideal?

We need to take a deep breath, a long step back and re-evaluate our priorities. Critical thinking, the ability to synthesize disparate information, writing persuasive essays and reading for pleasure and edification are becoming lost arts.

At this rate, pretty soon, we will become a nation of people defined by GPAs, SATs and other pernicious acronyms that really symbolize that testing has replaced learning.

So let's connect the dots and see that Stuyvesant's cheating brouhaha and its declining minority population are parts of the same whole. That we need to admit less dilligent test-takers and more diverse valedictorians, kids who are number one at their middle schools and have done it through hard work and a love of learning.

And maybe like some successful private schools like St. Ann's in Brooklyn, Stuyvesant should adopt a pass-fail system so learning will trump grade-obsession.

The status quo is unacceptable. We need to shift the paradigm in education in general. Even our top performers need to be taught that a love of learning will foster life-long learning, a necessity in this era of increasing disruptive innovation.

It's time for our education system to undergo some disruptive innovation of its own.

Tomorrow's critical thinkers and great synthesizers await this bold move.

Tom Allon, a former Stuyvesant High School English teacher, is a Liberal Party-backed candidate for mayor of New York City in 2013.

Visit: TomAllonForMayor.com

Follow Tom's campaign on Twitter: @TomAllon4Mayor and Facebook.

 

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