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The public education system in the United States is far from perfect. As a future teacher, I believe that our current priorities are misguided. There is a constant focus on learning the core subjects and teaching to standardized tests rather than the building of well-rounded learners with the ability to critically think about the world around them. Michel de Montaigne wrote "Of the Education of Children" in the late 16th century, but his modern thinking addresses the problems in education even today. Montaigne would agree that an educated student is a well-rounded one, who is given the opportunity to learn about challenging subjects such as foreign language early in their education, when it is most effective, as well as the ability to critically think about material presented to them, rather than simply reciting facts.
The public school system is always dealing with funding issues, forcing the powers that be to determine what the top priorities are and what can be cut. The collective priority is the absorption of core subjects, often to the detriment of other important areas of learning. Subjects such as art, music, and foreign language are seen as non-necessities, and are usually the first to go when these tough decisions must be made. This way of thinking underestimates both the importance of these subject areas and the ability of young students to learn them. In his essay,
Montaigne writes of philosophy, saying "it is very wrong to portray her as inaccessible to childrenâ€¦ (6)." He stresses that children are not only capable of learning the subject, but must learn it early because it is a foundation for future learning. In the United States public school system, it is normal practice to teach foreign language in high school, with the original reason being that we should not confuse students by having them struggle to acquire two languages at once. However, according to Laura-Ann Petitto, PhD, director of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory for language and child development at Dartmouth College, studies have shown that "the earlier a child [is] exposed to a second language, the better the child [does] (DeNoon)." In fact, the practice of switching attention between languages actually helps students to switch attention more effectively in other circumstances as well. In his essay, Montaigne says "since it is philosophy that teaches us to live, and since there is a lesson in it for childhood as well as for the other ages, why is it not imparted to children? ... They teach us to live when life is past (7)," Judging from the quote, I believe that Montaigne would agree that foreign language must be taught at an earlier age, while students are still capable of becoming fluent and so they can benefit from the skills that it strengthens.
Because so much importance is placed on standardized test scores, many teachers feel pressure to teach in a manner geared solely for success in tests. I don't believe that Montaigne would be supportive of using standardized tests for measuring the learning of students. In his essay, he stated "I would rather make of him an able man than a learned man. I would also urge that care be taken to choose a guide with a well-made rather than a well-filled headâ€¦ (3)." Montaigne would agree that, with standardized tests, what we are testing for and therefore, what many are teaching for, is just a well-filled head. In multiple-choice standardized tests, we are
looking for the amount of information that our students can memorize and repeat, not their ability to think about the subject matter. He says, "To know by heart is not to know; it is to retain what we have given our memory to keepâ€¦ (4)." By Montaigne's definition, a student who is educated in this way does not truly know about what they are being taught.
What is truly lacking in schools today is a focus on developing critical thinking skills. Students are asked to memorize state capitals, the periodic table, and the Gettysburg Address. However, it would be more beneficial to teach a child how to find that information and what to do with it. We are not creating lifelong learners by expecting them to do nothing more than memorize. Montaigne argued that "it is a sign of rawness and indigestion to disgorge food just as we swallowed it. The stomach has not done its work if it has not changed the condition and form of what has been its to cookâ€¦ (4)." I believe that if Montaigne were to see the state of today's schools, he would agree that we are not teaching children to process information and think for themselves, but we would rather they repeat back to us what we have deemed important subject matter.
Montaigne said in his essay, "let him be taught not so much the histories as how to judge themâ€¦ (5)." If a student can only spout off facts and dates about a historic war, what does he really know about it? Montaigne speaks of "so many victories and conquests" in history, implying that we should learn from history. As our education system is presently, I do not believe that we are teaching our students in a way that truly makes them learn from the mistakes and successes of our past. This type of mistake made in the education of the leaders of tomorrow
could have major societal consequences because they will not be prepared to apply lessons from history to the decisions of the present.
I believe that Montaigne would agree that if we want to be truly successful educators, we must revisit the priorities of our current public education system. We shouldn't refrain from teaching students multiple languages because an old, inaccurate belief that it is too tough for young students. We should shift our focus from our children's ability to absorb data to their ability to process it. We have a real chance to guide students to becoming lifelong learners who think independently and creatively, but we are stifling their learning by focusing on test scores as a measurement of learning.
DeNoon, Daniel J. "Never Too Early To Learn Second Tongue." WebMD. WebMD, 4 Nov. 2002. Web. 12 Sept. 2012. <http://www.webmd.com/baby/news/20021104/never-too-early-to-learn-second-tongue>.
Montaigne, Michel de. "Of the Education of Children." 1579-1580.