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Why do we need school?

Several weeks ago I sat in a local screening of a education activism documentary called Beyond Measure. The film’s narrative followed three primary threads: the emphasis on standardized testing in American schools is harmful to students and the principle of education; many children have extraordinary talents and curiosities which are systemstically repressed by the school system; there are many more ways for people to become educated than the traditional method of rote learning and testing, and one such method that is gaining popularity with parents, students and teachers is called Project-Based Learning.

At this point, the argument in the first thread no longer seems to be controversial. I can’t think of any prominent thinkers or activists who desire more standardized testing in American schools, and those who defend the current practice seem to do so more out of notions of traditionalism or authority rather than some kind of impassioned idealism about the educational benefits of standardized testing.

The idea in the second thread about the greatness inside individual students is still controversial. Looking at it cynically, it has a whiff of the “beautiful, unique snowflake” theory where everyone gets a trophy and everyone’s contribution is valuable simply because it exists. Being more charitable, even if we don’t go to the extreme of believing every individual is as good as every other, it’s still hard to accept the idea that every child has the potential to be a great writer, or a great artist, or a great engineer, if only they had the right conditions around the to support their growth. On an intuitive level, people realize that some are weak and some are strong, some are brilliant and some are dim. And on a more practical level, it defies explanation why we see uneven outcomes in student performance and post-education life when you control for the education they received as a common variable.

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