Friday, May 24, 2024

Average in America: From Inspired Enlightenment to Disposable Education


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It is a beautiful thing to be educated. In a world that prioritizes efficiency over efficacy, we often lose sight of how worthwhile it can be to invest additional time into the formation of something, and formation is the energy that lies behind education. Our willingness to proceed the learning process thoughtfully embodies the old ‘quality versus quantity’ dilemma, a broad philosophical debate about value that requires a personal answer based on principles. 

We encounter this quandary on the daily: Would you rather spend an hour and a half cooking a delicious meal, or swing through a drive-thru to pick up your supper? Would you rather take the time to read a fully detailed scientific report or simply skim the headlines? Would you rather take the time to put on a suit or just toss on a pair of sweatpants? These questions have no right or wrong answer, and they may change on a daily basis for a variety of circumstances. However, it is hard to deny that there is an understated appreciation that inherently arises from choosing the more time-consuming option, especially for a crucial process such as education. 

While we may often not have the luxury to do so, it is important to acknowledge that investing our time and patient care into these small aspects of life makes existence ever so slightly more wondrous. After all, there are no gifts so deeply treasured as those that are handmade. Our society is so highly saturated with items borne of mass production, that the things created with intention immediately stand out. This propensity towards modernization was born from the fruitful labors of well-educated, finely disciplined, and creative minds who took pride in their inventiveness. Presently, an abundance of simplicity coupled with an abstracted understanding of the value of material goods, has reversed any merit we found in mass production. Unfortunately, we are weighed down with widely available products. Further, the technology behind them have become so deeply divorced from human originality, that most products are sanitized versions of their visionary antecedents. 

A vast majority of the products we use on the daily, including our cell phones, vacuum cleaners, cars, and cups, are only meant to last us a handful of years. This is a very different approach to consumerism than the one prior generations partook in. The pride innovators took in mindfully producing something unique and beautiful has ceased to exist. Take, for example, my family’s washing machine. It has survived the wrath of thousands of laundry days over its thirty years of service to our household. Upon breaking down last summer, it required only a few, simple mechanical replacements in order to get it functioning with the same efficiency it did when it was first purchased. It’s hard to imagine a washing machine being beautiful, but the machine represents an American value that our culture neglects to recognize as of late: that which is done with care, will stand the test of time.

Why should education be any different?

Education is a naturally beautiful and wondrous thing. It is a process of growth, change, and discovery which unveils new layers of expression and understanding in all who partake in it. Education calls students to rise to their full potential; it does not happen without sacrifice, it can be extremely frustrating, and still, it yields an expanse of wealth whose value cannot be numerically quantified. Education is the superpower of the human condition. It allows us to shed uniformed versions of ourselves in favor of an informed version that levels itself with truth. It gives us the chance to indulge in and appreciate goodness. It pulls us ever higher up the ladder of reason, an ascent that actualizes the full extent of a person’s potential. Despite this, one of the great tragedies of our time, is that the process of education is no longer treated as such. Experts on art handle the beautiful portraits of Monet and Van Gogh cautiously, with gloves and temperature-controlled storage facilities and plexi-glass. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘experts on education’ that compose the administrative teams in our schools, do not seem to exercise the same vigilance. The attention to detail which we demand from artists, musicians, and dancers for the production of their beautiful creations, is not applied in our school systems. We are as willing to dispose of the finest elements of schooling as we are to throw out a plastic cup. 

Our culture relies on disposability. Nothing needs to be produced with much care, because that would require a time- and resource-consuming level of consciousness that many people are all too eager to abandon. We have been encouraged to buy the cheap, plastic products shipped en masse from overseas for decades. This has caused our society to become insensitive towards the merit of a product created with purpose and precision. When our sweaters get a hole in them, we are much more likely to just toss it out than take the time to sit down with a needle and thread and patch up the hole. This may be alright on a personal basis, after all, this is America. It is your right to decide how you consume products and how you wish to spend your time and money. However, when this wasteful attitude seeps from our culture into our education, we should exercise some caution. 

The simplest way to understand how our appreciation for education has changed throughout the years is to merely look towards the architecture of school campuses. When the first American universities were established in the 17th and 18thcenturies, they were built with immense grandiosity, and a reverence which visually communicated the worthiness of education. These institutions wanted their learning environment to stand the test of time. For example, Harvard University’s Massachusetts Hall is a small, Georgian-style dormitory that has served the college since 1720. The building survived the Revolutionary war and has presided over Cambridge without fail for over three hundred years. Massachusetts Hall even boasts the honor of housing several of our country’s founding fathers, including John Adams, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, to name a few. The building is small but sturdy and has endured a tumultuous history for the sake of education. 

Likewise, these colleges also wanted to reflect the beauty of education in the architecture. At Yale University, the Battell Chapel, constructed in 1876, stands as a testament to how the school sought to honor beauty in the midst of their learning environment. The chapel features several aesthetic attractions including a coffered ceiling, gold leaf detailing, and decorative sandstone throughout the structure. None of these artistic elements directly contribute to a more efficient learning environment, but that is not their function. They serve as a testament to the work being done on the campus; the tangible elegance of the building reflects the sublimity of education. 

Anyone who has been inside of a public high school built any time after the 1960s is blatantly aware that this is no longer the attitude. Architecture plays a non-existent role the environment a school attempts to create. Instead, gold leaf and oak ornamentation, or any kind of property with reverence, you will find concrete walls painted beige and square buildings that are reminiscent of a prison cell block. Students may be told that their education is of the highest importance, yet they are crammed into rooms that are barren and uninspired. Now, not every single classroom can be expected to have the ornamentation of Yale’s oldest chapel, and to expect such refinery in public education would admittedly be overzealous. However, treating our learning centers like they are expendable by subjecting them to the lifelessness of mass production shows our indifference to the academic experience. 

As the new year brings forth a new bought of obstacles for our country, I would encourage you to take your time: chew your food a bit slower, sip your coffee a little longer, and take the long way home every now and then. While you do so, consider how it is possible that we have allowed our culture to sacrifice not only the beauty of education, but how beauty fuels education, in favor of expedited dullness.  

Brooke Brandtjen
Brooke Brandtjen is a writer, artist, and passionate defender of liberty. She is currently an undergraduate student at Concordia University Wisconsin, where she is majoring in English

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