A Failed System. The School Drop-Out-To-Prison Pipeline

A Failed System. The School Drop-Out-To-Prison Pipeline

A FAILED SYSTEM. The School Drop-Out-To-Prison Pipeline. By Hal O’Leary. Important analysis on education.


Photo by Karen Arnold

A FAILED SYSTEM. The School Drop-out-to-Prison Pipeline.

While we understand the theme, The School-To-Prison Pipeline, it might better be written as, The School Drop-out-To-Prison Pipeline. With three in ten high school and four in ten college freshmen failing to graduate, our educational system is obviously failing. The question to be asked is not why the drop-outs have failed in our educational system, but why the educational system has failed the drop-outs. To answer this question we must first arrive at a revised understanding of the purpose of education.  In reviewing  popular remedies for the alarming drop-out rate, the question of why we educate must be addressed before we can consider any rational question of how.  Rarely, if ever, is the question of why addressed or even mentioned. It is simply assumed that the purpose is, first and foremost, the personal advantage of a higher income. Then there is the societal advantage of an orderly status quo. This whole approach defeats what should be the true purpose of an education, which should be individual self-fulfillment. Indeed, the current system leans more to  indoctrination  than education. It is a system designed to meet the needs of the society as opposed to one that meets the personal needs of the student.  It becomes a system designed to equip a society of questionable objectives with an adequate work force and a sufficient number of sycophants to maintain social stability, rather than to equip the student with an adequate means of gratifying his potential for personal achievement and fulfillment in concert with what innate talents he may possess, which is the only source of true happiness. A truly just society should be one that addresses the needs of its citizens, as opposed to the needs of a society that in turn ignores their individual needs. The creation of a society that allows for each individual the maximum possibility for fulfillment and happiness, should, therefore, be the broader  aim and purpose of education.  Is it any wonder then that an innately curious and creative student might have a tendency to resist any attempt to indoctrinate rather than educate?

Probably the most significant danger of the present system is that it seems to have forsaken Socrates. For Socrates, the mere passing on and acceptance of traditional thought and practice, which is what most of the current curricula consists of, is not education. Not only does such a practice tend to suppress the innate curiosity the first grader brings to class, but it discourages the critical thinking that Socrates insisted must lie at the very foundation of education. Unfortunately with the current system, critical thinking on the part of the student, all too often, represents a threat to the teacher’s felt need to simply impart knowledge and is met with dismissal if not hostility. Critical thinking is actually suppressed in the need to meet the requirements of the accursed “standardized testing,” which has become the only criterion in assessing the merit of teachers, students and indeed the system itself. This practice, of course, carries with it the temptation for the teacher to “teach to the test” and for both teacher and student to adopt the most direct and sometimes questionable measures to increase test scores, thus leading to a corruption of the entire system.

It’s not that the system cannot be beaten. History is replete with stories of drop-outs who have attained success in spite of the odds, which only attests to my contentions. My own experience might serve as an apt example.   Having had to spend thirteen years instead of the requisite twelve to escape high school, it was only by the grace of WWII and the GI bill that I found myself able to apply for admission to West Liberty State College. Dean Jessie Pugh took one look at my high school transcripts and said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I said, “No, you have to take me.”  The Dean’s response was, “Yes, but we don’t have to keep you.” And they didn’t. At the end of my sophomore year, I concluded that college was nothing more than an extension of the high school and the society that failed me. They failed me in their insistence that I should become, not what I could or should be, but what they would have me be, an unquestioning dutiful citizen who would adapt myself to the needs of their society and the educational system that supports it to the exclusion of my own intrinsic needs.

Unfortunately that system, to meet societal needs for productive citizens, tended to focus on my intellectual needs while ignoring the emotional needs that must be met if I were to maintain my innate curiosity and desire to learn.  Herein lies the answer to the original and most necessary question of why our system has failed the student. Students who drop-out simply can see no reason for staying, and it becomes impossible to teach a student who has no desire to learn. A student whose creativity and critical thinking has been suppressed with a demand for conformity and a suppression of curiosity, loses any possibility of becoming educated in the sense of realizing his self. Until we develop a system that encourages curiosity and critical thinking instead of suppressing it, a system which maintains and encourages a desire to learn, we will continue to fail our students. A student desiring an education cannot be prevented from obtaining it.

It may be interesting to note that in spite of the system and after failure after failure as a salesman, the success of which would have satisfied my obligation to society, my life did indeed begin at forty. Fortunate for an arts Institute who hired me and myself, I was finally given an opportunity, at a very minimum salary, to develop a theatre program which I did, and for the next forty-five years I remained as its Artistic Director. During that time I spent eight years teaching at Bethany College without even a bachelor’s degree. My most successful course was a freshman seminar designed by myself titled , Introduction To Yourself. This was in addition to my duties at the theater,  I was subsequently inducted into the Wheeling (WV) Hall of Fame for my contributions to the arts, and irony of ironies, I was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, my only one, by the same college (now University) from which I had dropped out.  I am one of extremely few, but what of the thousands if not millions of others whose fulfillment has been limited by a societal and insensitive misunderstanding of  what constitutes happiness.

To think that solutions to the problems of education should be left to politicians, and professional educators who look to them for grants, the very ones who represent the epitome of conformity to the needs of a neurotic society, is the most disparaging prospect,  because they are the product of  the very system that has led us into this sorry plight. Our last and only hope may be that the individual will come to recognize that his only hope for true happiness lies not in succumbing to the dictates of a sick society, but in meeting his intrinsic need for self-fulfillment in a society that recognizes that need. Amen.

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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