At the age of 42, I’ve become a pretty big critic of education, both, private and public, as well as, higher education. Much of education is artificial in nature — the length of the school year, the selected curriculum, the number of days spent covering the material, the importance placed on certain subjects over gym or the arts. All the assignments, homework, pop quizzes, papers, tests and exams and when they’re due is totally artificial. It’s assumed that learning is occurring at the same rate among students across the classroom. For all the test-taking in K-12 and while in college, it’s become irrelevant in today’s economy where newly-minted graduates can’t be adsorbed into the economy. Those with known skill-sets and talents can beat out test-takers in today’s marketplace.
How do you measure success of the Mobile County Public School System’s campaign — by grades, by graduation rates? Does any of that really matter? I’m a product of Catholic schools; the experience due to a learning disability about killed me, crushed my spirit and maybe cracked my ego. I walked away from high school and later college with a lot of fear that took me years to work through, which makes my life as a philosopher and writer so surprising. I finished McGill-Toolen and later Auburn with “C’s” and today I write to over 10,000 professors teaching at forty world-class universities, in twelve countries. How did that happen when I was one of those always holding up the rest of the class? I was one of the slow ones at reading, at reading comprehension, at spelling, at speaking in front of my class, at writing, at almost everything. Today, my name and my work are known all over the world, nobody else from my high school including the students in national honor society or our valedictorian can make that same claim.
Reading this article about the school system’s campaign is great, if the goal is correct. I question the measure for determining their success. It makes me think of Alabama football following the 1992 National Championship and how the program fell into decline and scandal. It went through several head coaches, experienced probation from the NCAA, twice. Many sports writers around the country wanted to write the Crimson Tide off, as a has been. The thinking in the Bama Nation for many years was that you could only hire a protégé of Coach Bear Bryant and so they did just that. Finally, in 2007, the university hired a winner, in Nick Saban. The only question that remained was could he replicate his success in Tuscaloosa and bring glory back to the school and to the state?
Well, we all know the answer to that question and we all understand his idea of success. In sports, in business winning and repeatedly winning usually comes down to having a process and holding yourself accountable at every step of the way — building character, integrity, honesty, a quest for the truth, doing the right thing. Passing tests and making A’s means little when you didn’t learn anything in the exercise. What value is building a school that lacks integrity, that’s hollow and even dangerous for teachers and students, alike, to occupy? The paint looks good on the walls, but termites are eating the wood frame and rain leaks through the roof.
It’s taken me a long time to understand what excellence is. It was never taught to me by my parents, by my teachers or priests. I learned it through a set of spiritual principles. Excellence is a repeated action that becomes a habit while perfection is simply an act. Some days you look and act perfect in public while other days you don’t, you’re off your game, you’re lazy. “A’s” can be a sign of perfection as it can be a sign of excellence, but the difference is excellence shines through when perfection doesn’t know to because it’s ego-based. Baking your favorite cake calls for a set of ingredients, the right quality of each, in order, the proper utensils and equipment and has to be baked at the right temperature and for the right amount of time. Change any of part of the process and the outcome will be known at first sight or with the first bite.
When you run a school — be it a public school system or Harvard University, how and when do you know that you got the process right? How do you know when you hit the bull’s eye? Is it an external observation (data) or internal (a feeling) or both? Is it a step-by-step process or simply teaching to the test? Slogans are fine, but a proven process is best! It works for Alabama. A school promoting talents will result in their students going to work today and in the future (for themselves or for others) regardless of the economy’s health. The test-takers will stand in line for a job or in the unemployment line collecting a check. Either way, that’s not good given today’s reality. It’s time to rethink education in Mobile County.