Thoughts on Education and Responsibility:

A National Malaise




Chuck Doswell


Created: 20 September 1998 Last update: 28 November 1998 - fixed some typos and made a number of minor revisions.

All the standard disclaimers apply. These are my personal opinions only and do not have any official status. Anyone wishing to comment on this essay can e-mail me at

1. Introduction

This essay grows out of a long-standing concern of mine. Recent conversations with undergraduate educators like Steve Silberberg, who care about education, have made it clear that many caring educators are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the process. I agree. Thus, this diatribe follows.


2. The Educational Process

I teach a course in meteorology at the graduate level and have done so for a number of years. My course is rather unconventional, in that it is focused on acquainting students with the processes that they will have to employ to be meteorologists after graduation. A lot of my thoughts on how students can maximize their chances for educational success can be found in my "books" on undergraduate and graduate education. It's quite clear to me that many incoming students at either the undergraduate or even the graduate level bring a rather substantial load of misconceptions and erroneous expectations to their education.

By the time I interact with students at the graduate level, most of them have developed a set of methods for coping with the educational experience. Graduate students are the survivors of a process that began many years before, in K-12 education and in their homes. That process is a relic of an earlier age, when education was designed to produce factory workers in an industrial age. The real message never was the math and science and history and economics and foreign language ... it was to show up for class, to sit in your assigned place, to turn in your work on time, to submit to authority. In short, K-12 education is about all the skills that a good factory worker should exhibit. School is about submission to authority, not about learning ... with the rare exception, when I was in the K-12 system, I could see that we were being forced to do pointless exercises and being judged by our adherence to the rules and our ability to regurgitate whatever we had been forced to read, rather than on what we actually produced. Did anyone really care about the content of the essays we were forced to write? What really mattered was the spelling, the punctuation, the organization, the fact that we turned it in on time or not, etc. What we actually thought was clearly irrelevant.

The few exceptions to this, the teachers who encouraged creativity and diversity of perspective, stood out in stark relief from the ignorant martinets, who seemed to enjoy the agony they inflicted on us. Teachers were authority figures whose authority was derived from their place in the system, rather than from their accomplishments and capabilities. The occasional exceptions to this among the teachers were patches of color in a gray landscape, and I treasure their memory today. Not coincidentally, at least one of my "mentors" was driven from the educational system in apparent disgrace when it was discovered what he was doing ... he was not conventional enough to satisfy the colorless bureaucrats who run the K-12 educational system. He challenged our pampered, middle-class, lily-white, suburban American assumptions and was eventually punished for it by dismissal.

Oh yes, I can empathize with students who find school stultifying. I was one myself. I could see that students whose viewpoints didn't match the mold, whose capabilities were in thinking that didn't fit in neat little boxes, whose attitudes were to question the arbitrary authority of those put into teaching and administrative positions ... they were destined to be flushed from the system. The rest of us could see who was pushed out, and why. The lesson was clear and intended to be clear: if you don't go along with the rules, you'll not survive and be forced to join the rest of the underclass, without education and no hope of membership in the respectable job market. I detested that system ... my plan was to submerge my true feelings until I got into a position where I could say what I thought without fear. I believe I've achieved that, but many intelligent and creative people were victims of the process and never made it to the graduate level and beyond. The survivors often were cowed into submissive roles.

Thus, by the time I see students, they tend to be frightened into passivity, or only interested in surviving, not in learning. They see their instructors as authority figures to be deceived into letting them pass. They are not interested in learning; what they want to know is "What is the minimum I need to know in order to pass this course?" Most students seem to end up losing whatever love of learning they might once have had ... to them, learning is memorization and regurgitation. What they have been taught, most effectively, I'm afraid, is fear of failure; the prospect of humiliation over being wrong freezes their thoughts and tongues. The teacher is always right, the student is always wrong. Standing out is to invite being hammered down. Being wrong is to invite humiliation. Cooperate and graduate. These "survivors" have developed their "learning" skills in a system that only rewards instant success, not learning by trial, error, and correction of error ... their skills are survival skills, not learning skills.

I'm reminded of Pink Floyd's very dark movie and album "The Wall". In that movie, children are brutalized by the educational system, brainwashed into thoughtless automatons, only to be ground up by the workplace. It is indeed a dark vision, and it contains more than a germ of truth. However, "We don't need no education!" is simply not an acceptable reaction in a world where technology is the dominant theme, where education is a key to most of the things people want.

In graduate school, however, they are confronted with a terrifying reality: the talents and techniques that have been successful in K-12 and even undergraduate school (sad to say!) turn out to be just what is not needed for success in graduate education. Graduate school is supposed to be a stepping stone to independent research and creative problem-solving in the workplace toward which they have aimed. It becomes a new "system" to learn but its rules are vastly different than the rules to which they have been accustomed: independent thought, creativity, innovation are now the cornerstones of success, not traits to be suppressed. Small wonder that many find themselves dazed and confused by the transition.


3. The Pendulum

The preceding is the process that I believe is responsible for the actions of most of the students I have been seeing in my course. Of course, graduate students are but a tiny remnant of the group who began the "education" process as 5-year olds. Turning students into passive followers of authority is out of date in an age where technological innovation is what makes our society successful. However, the pendulum now may have swung too far the other way. Perhaps in reaction to what we saw, my "baby boom" generation has tended to worry about what is now identified as a "liberal" agenda item: the self-esteem of students. Of late, it has become unacceptable for anyone to fail!

Today, we seem to be sending a different wrong message. Don't worry, success in school is virtually assured. Come what may, you'll be passed on from grade to grade, with little or no regard for what you might have accomplished. The "back to the basics" movement (identified with "conservative" views) has meant simply that teaching success is measured by an exam, one size fits all. The process now seems to focus on passing that exam, and having everyone pass is in the interest of the school as well as the students.

Apparently it has been decided that failure is damaging to a student's self-esteem, and that protection of that self-esteem is the sin qua non of the educational process. This "liberal" perspective also seems to say that everyone succeeding means literally everyone. Those who have difficulty in academic work now are given the convenient excuse that they have a "learning disability" or are "academically-challenged" ... and it has been dictated by the educational system that students with learning disabilities can't be treated any differently than other students. Thus, they get their piece of paper saying that they have completed the process, whether or not they actually managed to learn anything.

It's ironic that in our educational institutions, we feel quite free to employ rigorous standards to our non-academic activities. No undersized wimp is going to make the football team, no one who can't carry a tune will be part of the choir, no fat and ugly cheerleaders on the squad, no illiterates writing for the school newspaper! No one who's athletically-challenged gets to participate on the teams .. performance is the only criterion we accept for participation in athletics. If your genetics don't match what's necessary for performance, don't bother even to try out. No one who's musically-challenged is in the orchestra. When it comes to the main business of our educational institutions, however, we seem paralyzed to apply rigorous standards! Incredible as it may seem, our non-academic programs have become the standard-bearers of the reality that not everyone can succeed, at the same time that academics have adopted a caricature of egalitarianism, to the extent that the academic parts of education have virtually no standards anymore.

When I was in high school, I graduated with a senior class of about 400 students. In our class, our valedictorian had a 4.0 grade point average (all A's) and she was the only one with a 4.0 gpa. I had a 2.97 high school gpa and still I was in the top 10% of my senior class. A few years ago, my son graduated with a senior class roughly twice the size of mine ... however, there were more than 40 4.0 gpas! How do they choose a valedictorian when apparent perfection is the standard, not the exception? His overall gpa was well over 3.0, and he wasn't even in the top 25% of his senior class! What we have is rampant grade inflation, as part of this preoccupation with not damaging the self-esteem of our students.

We also have instilled a fear of litigation into our teachers and school administrations ... but more on that shortly.


4. It Begins in the Home

A common theme among educators is the frustration with the lack of reinforcement of academic values in the home. Oddly enough, it seems that parents no longer seem concerned about the education of their children ... rather, they often take the side of the student against the educators. I can understand why parents might want to be "on the side of" their children, but parents need to reinforce the notion of the importance of education. Are they really helping their offspring by teaching them that they should expect to get high grades even if their kids do nothing? If they teach their children that they can avoid with impunity the very process that will allow them to become contributing citizens in the future, what sort of message does that send? I'm afraid some parents feel that if their kids do badly in school, those parents are more worried about how this reflects on them than they are in the important process of getting an education.

If a student gets a bad grade, the plan is to attack the teacher and threaten them (and the school) with lawsuits if a bad grade isn't changed. Teachers are now afraid to give out bad grades, for fear of this sort of recrimination. School and even university administrations don't back up their teachers and professors who try to uphold educational standards, caving in to avoid the prospect of lawsuits. Believe me, I am not saying that educators are automatically blameless when students do badly. Far from it ... many teachers are lousy educators ... but I'll have more to say on this later. However, it also seems very wrong to say to our children that they are not responsible for the consequences of their actions (or lack of participation in the educational process).

Students also seem to find school boring and demand that their classes be entertaining. Apparently they expect a pace comparable to Sesame Street, or MTV. I wish it were all that easy to be entertaining at the same time that you pass on knowledge. Properly done, education is not a passive experience, like television ... it requires participation by the student as well as the educator. Today's students seem to expect their teachers and professors to teach like television teaches. Television can provide facts, perhaps in an entertaining way, but television does not teach!!

I've told many students, including my own children, that I understand that school is boring, and often stupid. However, it is still the process by which jobs are secured for many of us. Students need to understand that doing badly in school doesn't punish the school for its bad educational efforts ... it punishes the student after graduation. Having a terrible transcript can be an enormous handicap in today's job market, where technical skills are at a premium. Having a 4.0 gpa is no guarantee that you know anything (as I've already observed), but a 1.5 gpa virtually guarantees you're out of the technical job market, no matter how much you really know!

My advice to young people is to make the best effort they can to go along with the program, no matter how senseless it seems to be. Cooperate and graduate, indeed! You just can't expect to have any success after graduation if you protest the absurdities in the system. As long as you have to go, you might as well take advantage of the experience and try to learn. Enforcing the arbitrary rules is the one area where academic programs still adhere to something like standards. They often don't care if you actually learned anything at all, but if you don't turn in your work, or show up late for class, they can hammer you. The students who come out of this era with mediocre grades have only themselves to blame, but it seems that many parents choose to behave as if the students are not responsible for what happens in school.

It would be easy for me to get off on a rant about the lack of acceptance of responsibility for personal choices, nationwide. I'll resist going off in that direction, but it's quite obvious to me that parents of my generation have collectively done a piss-poor job of conveying a message of personal responsibility. It may be as simple as a lack of acceptance of responsibility on our part. "If my kid is irresponsible, doesn't that suggest that I'm to blame? Oops, I don't want the responsibility for that, so it can't be my problem. Therefore, my kid's actions can't be his/her fault ... it must be the school's fault!"

My perspective is that everyone is personally responsible for all of the outcomes within his or her control. Moreover, I believe that even when circumstances are not ideal, we still are responsible for those outcomes! If the educational system is not perfect, and it certainly isn't, we are still obligated to learn! Not to avoid some irrelevant issue like blame ... but because if we don't learn enough to have marketable job skills, then our lives are seriously affected. I don't care who is to blame ... blame is a waste of time ... everyone has to accept the responsibility for their own lives. Parents who fail to teach this to their children are going to have to accept the responsibility for the consequences, even if most of a whole generation of parents (like the baby-boomers) grew up in a world that seemed to encourage irresponsibility. If the world is less than ideal, that's not an excuse to fail ... failure is failure, no matter what the reasons.


5. Success, failure, and self-esteem

If it seems I'm suggesting that failure is inevitable, I want to offer the notion that neither success nor failure need to be permanent conditions. We seem to be sending the message that no student should fail because that would cause irreparable damage to his/her self-esteem. This is basically nonsense!!

If you "succeed" at something with no effort, how good about that success do you feel? You know that you didn't work very hard at it, so it's pretty hard to feel good about the outcome. In my opinion, if the prospect of failure isn't present, the success you achieve is pretty empty. You don't build self-esteem on the basis of guaranteed success ... self-esteem is built on overcoming challenges. Challenges are, by definition, opportunities to fail.

For each of us, the question of what to do after success and failure arises often. Success and failure are both imposters, or perhaps are simply irrelevant. In either case, you simply have to go on. If you quit after success, then your success was worthless and meaningless. You're simply "living on your laurels" and everyone knows that is really a path leading directly to failure. If you try something and fail, you can only be defeated if you allow yourself to be defeated. If nothing else, failure is a learning experience ... your later successes may have been driven by a failure at some critical point.

So far, this sounds like a lecture on positive thinking ... and it is, to some extent. However, it is also true that no matter how positive you feel about yourself, it's impossible for a blind person to be a jet fighter pilot. It's impossible for a quadriplegic to be an offensive lineman in the National Football League. It's impossible for someone with no musical talent to be first chair violin in the New York Philharmonic. It's impossible for someone with no mathematical talent to prove Fermat's Last Theorem. But the way you learn the limits on your capabilities is to push yourself to those limits. If you quit on something after the first try, you have only shown that you didn't want it very badly ... if you want something badly enough, failure is not an acceptable option.

At some point, you may have to accept that you just don't have what it takes ... there's no need for shame in that! It just means you will have to look elsewhere to find something you can do successfully. I know people with what others might call handicaps who have done more with what they were given than folks without such "handicaps" -- who have done nothing with their birthright. Nevertheless, there are limits to the power of positive thinking.

We're all born with a set of capabilities, but most of us never know the totality of our capabilities. We could follow many paths successfully, so it boils down to a matter of choice. We have to decide what we want to do. Often, it seems that what we would like to do is also something we are good at doing. Perhaps we're good at it because we like it ... or perhaps we like it because we're good at it. However, all of us have to come to the conclusion that some avenues simply are closed to us. It's not just a matter of the old "nature vs. nurture" argument. I believe that many of us put limits on ourselves that are not really there. If you believe them to be your limits, they are your limits!

Nevertheless, only a select few will ever be major league baseball players. You simply can't achieve the highest levels of something without some ability, no matter how much you work. This reality is acceptable to most of us ... we don't feel like suing major league baseball because we didn't even get a tryout with the team. In sports, we accept that not everyone is equal.

So why must we accept that everyone is equal in academics? It seems to me that academic disciplines of all sorts exist. Many of us probably could find an academic "niche" and it seems plausible that we probably should be allowed the opportunity to fit within that niche. However, there is no guarantee we all can find such a position and succeed within it. If we can accept boundaries to our athletic success, why not accept them academically, as well.

Academic failures in a course need not be the end of the story. I won't bore you with my own story's details, but I have had more than my share of academic failures, at least through most of my undergraduate days. Overcoming them has been one of the most satisfying aspects of my career. I've already said that the path to self-esteem is through overcoming obstacles, not though instant, effortless "success" that clearly means nothing. We do nothing to help the self-esteem of those who are "academically-challenged" to pass them on through school until they encounter the hard reality of the real job market, where performance matters. Then they can become a problem to society. Reality is tough, and we do our children no favors by not telling them the truth about their performance ... children aren't so dumb that they can't figure out for themselves how they're doing. But if our message says performance doesn't matter, then we're in for long-term trouble.