I’ve titled this as ‘problems’ in the plural, both because universal education’s issues are multiple and require different solutions to address them, and also because it doesn’t have the implication that the problems are inherent, but are specific to the way it has been implemented.
In terms of (non-universal) post-secondary education, the fallacy that having a post-secondary degree is ‘inherently’ better from the perspective of employment and lifestyle puts unnecessary pressure on those who are not academically inclined to attend university, which in turn is one of the reasons for the lowering of academic standards of those institutions.
Universal education in the proper sense, though, means the kindergarten to the end of secondary school education that is both paid for and required universally in most western countries. That there has been a lowering of standards since its inception is difficult to dispute, yet given that prior to universal education, aptitude was not usually the deciding factor but merely the financial and social status of a child’s parents, it seems unlikely that students were previously simply academically better and therefore the standards could be kept higher. Aptitude testing is notoriously fallacious in determining academic success in any case, so on the assumption that the average aptitude is not significantly different than it has been at other historical periods, we need to find more cogent reasons for the discrepancy in results.
Twelve plus years of education should result in an average graduate with far more knowledge, and more importantly far more practice in thinking, than is actually the case with average high school students today. Part of the pressure from business for employees to have graduated from post-secondary institutions arises from the low average ability to think, and therefore to learn, that secondary school students in fact display. Having a post-secondary degree does little, usually, to ensure that employees have a useful base of knowledge, at best it demonstrates an ability to learn. There is no apparent reason that this demonstration of an ability to learn, though, couldn’t have been sufficiently demonstrated by the attainment of a secondary school diploma. When things such as the historical fact that Hegel was for much of his career a secondary school teacher, and that his early works were high school textbooks, combined with the fact that Hegel is still considered one of the most difficult thinkers to follow, indicates that the expected level of thinking ability in secondary school at the time, at least in Germany, was significantly greater than it is today.
Part of the issue appears to be a disinclination to teach thinking based on a general assumption that children all already know how to think, that there is no learning involved, and learning simply means putting that innate ability to use on specific sets of facts. A related issue is that in many cases thinking, which always means thinking independently, is actively discouraged. This is in part due to the conflicting use of schooling to ‘train’ students for a very rigid social structure, structures that may have existed in 19th century Europe or 1950s America, but exists in neither place today. Another part of the issue appears to be the disinclination to challenge parents’ beliefs, which teaching independent thinking is inevitably going to do. The universality of universal education appears to be based, in many educators’ minds, not on a universal or nearly universal aptitude for thinking and questioning, but on a false equivalence between belief and thinking. Simply put, false knowledge based on mistaken belief is not knowledge, sets of facts that are not properly understood are not knowledge. Judgement of belief in light of questioning and thinking, and interpretation of data into understood knowledge, is almost avoided until post-secondary education, either on the notion that secondary school students are not yet capable of abstract thinking, or that allowing secondary school students to question beliefs commonly held in their families and social milieu is detrimental to parental and social authority, and that the latter should always take precedence.
Such topics as argument, deductive and inductive logic, dialectic, rhetoric (in the academic sense), and critical thinking and questioning in general are not simply badly taught, they are avoided as much as possible. Yet we are aware that the concrete theories taught as simple facts in its place are always provisional and likely to be outdated even as they are being taught, since the theories taught to students are those that were taught to their teachers, and in many cases have already been superseded. Being initiated into a social situation that includes outmoded interpretations of reality cannot have anything other than a negative effect on graduates’ capabilities, whether in their personal lives or careers, and is one of the biggest motivators in business to hire only post secondary graduates. Schools and their supervisory bureaucracies, though, rather than calling for more teaching in areas of independent thinking, are moving the other way into more standardized testing, which accomplishes nothing more than judging students’ ability to regurgitate outdated ideas in a test situation. IQ tests suffer from the fatal issue that all they really test is the student’s ability to take IQ tests; standardized testing only adds to testing the ability to take tests, the ability to take tests based on memorization of outdated or at least generally irrelevant facts.
As a specific example, in the United States there is an ongoing debate about teaching current evolutionary theory only, versus teaching evolutionary theory along with evolutionary creation, intelligent design, or strict creationism. While I don’t personally think that any of the latter three are ‘true’, there are significant enough problems with current evolutionary theory, and valid observations by the others that are not accounted for by current evolutionary theory, that teaching them not as ‘facts’ to be memorized, but as a question that has not been satisfactorily answered and needs to be thought further in a critical fashion could both defuse the vehemence of argument based on both sides on presumptive beliefs, and provide an opportunity to critically examine the strengths and weaknesses of each. Teaching how to question properly is more difficult than teaching ready answers, granted, and parents who believe any of the various ‘answers’ are liable to be loud in their criticism of teaching the answer they don’t personally agree with, but parents’ desires should never be the focus of education, or at least not until the world that those parents in large part determine is so free of problems that their opinion is justifiable. Children today will have to solve the multitude of problems their parents have created or maintained, but at any rate are leaving them with, and this because on a multitude of issues their parents’ answers have failed to even partially solve the problems.
Teaching beliefs is always a difficult issue, because belief as such should never be the end of a teaching process, but only a temporary tool. Students, as with anyone attempting to learn from another, have to initially suspend their disbelief in order to absorb sufficient information to gain a grasp on the topic as a whole. However the topic as a whole should not be a belief or set of beliefs, but knowledge. Once sufficient information is absorbed, the relations that make the topic inherently one topic should form through questioning and thinking through the topic, and at that point children, again like anyone learning from another, can come to a judgement as to whether the relations form knowledge, or are merely false beliefs. This questioning cannot simply remain on the level of the topic in the way things are customarily taught today, but have to include questioning the historical assumptions through which data, which by itself is always only noise, have been interpreted into ‘facts’ and the relations formed between them in the first place. This also requires better teacher education, and that can only be achieved if teaching is first made a more attractive career option. The satisfaction of teaching kids to think, rather than teaching an unquestioning adherence to a body of knowledge that the student cannot even judge as such, can itself be a primary motivator in terms of attracting better teachers, but realistically secondary motivators such as significant increases in teachers’ remuneration at least to the level that an equivalently educated person would make in the private sector, are also necessary. A significant decrease in class sizes allows teachers to assess in an ongoing way whether individual children are ‘getting’ what is being taught, since they have fewer students to concurrently assess. It simultaneously gives the children more individual time and input to the learning situation, so that individual problems learning a specific topic in a specific way can be adjusted for during an individual class or school week, and not simply assessed at the end of the semester or the end of the year. ‘Standardized’ testing is always a poor substitute (and usually one made in order to cut short term costs at the expense of long term results) for ongoing assessment specific to the student and the material they are engaged with, and the manner in which the teacher has engaged them with the material.
The notion that students, particularly at the secondary level, are incapable of abstract thought is both a common and ludicrous assumption. What is known as ‘abstract’ thought is better understood as subjective judgement, and does require a certain level of development, the development of subjectivity itself. However this development is a social development that is accelerated or delayed by the complexity of thinking the child has done up to any given point, which in turn is determined by the complexity of questions and ideas the child is exposed to. Since subjective judgement is the hallmark difference between the adult manner of experiencing the world and the childish manner, adolescence is precisely where subjective experience, having already been formed and therefore separating the adolescent from younger children, needs to be practiced extensively in order to make accurate, meaningful judgments as an adult. The difficulty young children have with the notion of the “I” (noticeable to anyone who has spent any time around young children) is precisely the lack of development of subjectivity. Anyone who has spent time around older children and adolescents, though, would find it obvious that the development of subjective experience takes place much earlier in most cases than we would even ascribe as adolescence, and certainly is complete by the time most children transition fully into adolescence. Not exercising this developing facility both slows its development and makes the subjective judgments of young adults far more questionable than they otherwise would be. Since the consequences for young adults of poor judgment are the same as for any other adult, it seems to be of significant importance that they learn the appropriate exercise of this facility prior to entering into legal adulthood.
Simultaneously, the lack of exercise of this facility and the a priori necessity to learn to question and think through a situation, is precisely what employers and others complain of in terms of the inadequacy of secondary school graduates, and a major contributor to the preference for post-secondary graduates, who have simply learned and practiced such judgment as young adults, when they should have already had the use of this facility down in order to take proper advantage of post-secondary education in the first place. Not only is this a significant contributor to the low standards in secondary school graduates, but thereby a significant contributor to the lowering of standards at post secondary institutions themselves. The poor judgment exhibited by many post-secondary students while still in university is directly related to the lack of its exercise during adolescence, when mistakes in judgment would in general have been far less costly personally and societally.