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Why our Education System is Failing Us

This was initially posted in October 2010, and remains just as relevant today.


How did you do in school? Top of the class?

Ooops… a sore point perhaps? Couldn’t spell to save your life? Just too bored by it all to listen? Well here’s a highly intelligent video to tell you why you shouldn’t be ashamed of how you measured up in the education system.

In point of fact, our education system is one of the primary contributing factors to the phenomenal lack of resilience so obvious among the last several generations of North Americans and Westerners in general, and it’s contributed in no small measure to the epidemics of shame, guilt and poor self-image in our culture.

So if you know someone whose kids would rather be doing just about anything than sitting still in the classroom being force fed facts that don’t interest them, then pass this wonderful clip on to them…

As you can pretty much guess by that fact that I have a doctoral degree, I did pretty well in school.. generally. Well, okay, I made a mess of grade 11 math, but I still like to blame that one on the teacher 😉 The fact is, though, I was every bit as bored and frustrated as the kids who weren’t doing so well.

For example, I loved science!! I was totally fascinated with astronomy, nuclear physics, and (being your average boy) anything that would go boom or vaporize material objects! But alas, the moment the science teachers got hold of us, it was learn this equation, solve this math problem, study this topic that really doesn’t interest you that much… They made the crucial educational mistake of failing to capture our imaginations, to get us hooked. And it’s no small testament to the idiocy of the system that even though we had arrived “pre-hooked” so to speak, they still managed to beat the fascination right out of us.

The assumption was that if you didn’t do so well in a particular subject, you just weren’t all that bright. Of course it’s only in the last couple of decades that the mainstream has begun to realize how wrong that assumption is – that there are many types of intelligence and the one the system foisted on us was a very narrow one.

Christopher would be a case in point. He was a guy I knew in elementary school, a guy who could just never seem to get better than a “C” on any assignment. He read below grade level, his math skills were poor and whenever our teachers indulged in the barbaric custom of “rearrange your desks in the classroom according to how well you did in the last test,” poor Christopher could always be found at the wrong end. And he took lots of abuse for it… and it didn’t help that he was taller than most other people and awkward too. But, truth be told, he was a really nice guy and had a great imagination. He was just born about three decades too soon for his own good. And hopefully, wherever he is now, he’s extracted wisdom from all those needlessly bitter experiences to help his own kids fare better.

I hope you enjoy the video – perhaps it will help you and yours navigate the mine-infested waters of the dysfunctional system with more success than most of us had. And please feel free to leave your comments and share your experiences of the education system and how we can contribute to changing it for the better.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Intellectual Resilience: Why Today’s Graduates are Less Educated, Literate and Sophisticated than their Great Grandparents

We often hear that educational standards are slipping, but news media coverage often gives the impression that the problem lies with inadequate testing requirements or sloppy teaching.  The unfortunate truth is that it isn’t anything so simple; rather, it is the symptom of a vast cultural shift in teaching, intended to produce a more standardized and homogenous citizen.  In other words, the education system is designed to stop us from learning, and thinking, on our own.

John Taylor Gatto, three-time New York State Teacher of the Year, has researched the history and development of illiteracy in America, and his findings are astonishing.  In the 19th Century, the United States was probably the most literate country in the world.  Works of literature sold like hotcakes, newspapers sprung up by the hundreds, and even in the absence of a public school system, literacy was seen as the way up in society.  Even those who hadn’t been educated would still make the effort to learn to read.  Education, in short, was based on wide reading, and discussion and interpretation of that reading, and so the level of cultural discourse even in popular media was quite high.

With public education came school textbooks, and textbooks, Gatto maintains, are not designed to make children think, but to make them think in the ways that the publisher and educational authorities approve of.  The texts are doctored and carefully selected, the questions at the end of the chapter all have set answers.  The same applies to standardized tests, and teaching students how to take these tests (usually involving injunctions to avoid critical thinking or any deviation from the norm) has come to take up an ever-larger proportion of classroom time.

“Old-fashioned” classical education was structured as an exercise in thinking.  Colleges required their students to learn philosophy and history to fill out their knowledge, and taught rhetoric so that the students could articulate their insights.  Learning was based on the reading of great books.

The “scientific” approaches that replaced classical education eliminated philosophy and history and rhetoric from the average curriculum, and later, the classical method of teaching English.  Students were the subjects of scientific study for the production of tractable citizens.  This philosophy of education was laid out by University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward A. Ross as far back as 1901 in his book called, not coincidentally, Social Control.

The reason, according to Gatto, is simple:

“If you think about it, schooled people, like schoolbooks, are much alike. Some folks find that desirable for economic reasons. The discipline organizing our economy and our politics derives from mathematical and interpretive exercises, the accuracy of which depends upon customers being much alike… People who read too many books get quirky. We can’t have too much eccentricity or it would bankrupt us. Market research depends on people behaving as if they were alike. It doesn’t really matter whether they are or not.”

As H.H. Goddard, architect of standardized testing, put it in 1920, the purpose of schooling is “the perfect organization of the hive.”  He advocated standardized tests explicitly as a means for the lower classes to confirm their own inferiority.

The United States Army tests its inductees for literacy.  A soldier must be able to read maps and signs and instruction manuals, at about a fourth grade reading level.  These tests, because of their practical focus, change less than standardized tests.  In World War II, 17.28 million of the 18 million men conscripted passed the test, a 96 percent literacy rate.  By the time of the Korean War, literacy in the draft pool had dropped to 81 percent.  By the end of the Vietnam War, it had dropped to 73 percent.  This is perhaps the clearest evidence that something was going terribly wrong.  Back in the 19th Century, data from numerous states suggests that functional literacy was usually above 90 percent.

The decline of sophistication in popular cultural production parallels the decline of reading: 19th Century “popular” literature is something only the literate elite of today dare to tackle.  As Gatto wrote about Last of the Mohicans (1826), such books were “a dense thicket of philosophy, history, culture, manners, politics, geography, analysis of human motives and actions, all conveyed in data-rich periodic sentences so formidable only a determined and well-educated reader can handle it nowadays.”

The decline in the level of popular culture has inevitably led to the decline in sophistication of political discourse.  When former French president Mitterand passed away, the incumbent President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, appeared on national television to announce the death of his predecessor.  Chirac’s ten minute discourse and tribute to his former political opponent was of such intellectual sophistication and nuance that no public figure in contemporary North America would dare to replicate it.  Sadly, almost none of our own politicians have anything like the education or cultural sophistication to do so even if they wanted to.  Most remarkable, though, is that the French public and the broader European public still expects their leaders to be people of demonstrable intelligence, whereas on this side of the pond, even an obvious village idiot can find himself in the White House.

The public acceptance of an educational system that dumbs people down leads inevitably to the public acceptance of mediocre and agenda-driven leaders of low personal integrity who make disastrous decisions and yet are barely even reprimanded for it.  In other words, the lower the educational level sinks – and with it, the levels of popular culture and political discourse – the more easily manipulated the society as a whole becomes.

As you think about your children’s education, or even your own, be conscious that this is not a system that is trying to make you smarter.  It is trying to make you tractable, measurable, sortable, and most of all, uncritical and ignorant – in other words, easily manipulated.  The good news is that the solution is available at your local library, and you won’t have to write a test afterward.

If you want your children to become genuinely resilient people or you wish to become such a person yourself, then start with your own level of education.  Start reading more, especially non-fiction.  Read widely in fields such as personal development, health and wellness, history, political affairs and current events, finance and economics, theology and spirituality, etc.  The more you know and the more you carefully analyze and think through what you’ve learned, the less easily manipulated you will be.

And when you DO tune in to the popular culture in 2013, whether it be television, radio, newspapers or online, be aware of the various corporate, political, religious and ideological agendas that are being systematically pushed on you.  Education, literacy, cultural sophistication and awareness are a KEY ELEMENT of your personal resilience, so make the decision now that you’ll use 2013 to cultivate yours.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Resilience Secrets from a War Zone: Casting Out Fear

There are basically two ways in which we can choose to live our lives: in courage or in fear.  We can either create our own lives or be victims trapped within them.  I’ve written previously about the importance of cultivating courage in a deliberate way.  Today we’ll look at one of the truly outstanding examples of courage in our time.  Malalai Joya has spent her life in the most apparently hopeless set of circumstances, yet through courage, she has managed to create a better reality not just for herself, but for hundreds of thousands of other people.

Malalai was born in a village in western Afghanistan in 1978.  Less than a year later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.  As a student, her father had been an activist arrested for participation in pro-democracy demonstrations, and would lose a leg fighting with the resistance against the Soviets.  After the Soviet withdrawal and ensuing civil war, the fundamentalist Taliban took control of the country, outlawing the education of women and preventing them from taking on any meaningful public role.  And then came 9/11 and the invasion by the United States, who turned for help to the criminal warlords whom the Taliban, if nothing else, had kept in check.  It may seem that there could be no more hopeless situation into which one could be born, particularly as a woman.  Most of us in that situation, if we were fortunate enough to be educated, would probably try to get out as fast as possible.

As a teenager living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, Malalai took a job instructing older refugee women in basic reading and writing.  Her father had always encouraged her to read and attend school, and thus she was more literate than many of her elders.  From this experience, she began to understand the power of education to change people’s lives.  Malalai also began reading biographies of resistance leaders, including Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.  They impressed her with their steadfast approach to dealing with injustice, and her reading list during this time suggests that she was deliberately cultivating the same quality of resilience.

When the Taliban took power, Malalai joined an organization dedicated to the advancement of women, and returned to Afghanistan, to Herat province, to teach in underground schools for women.  Despite the probability that she would be killed or imprisoned if she was found out, her family supported her decision and resolved to move back with her.  Teaching girls in basements, concealing forbidden books under her burqa and recruiting pupils by word-of-mouth, Malalai rose to become regional director of her organization just before the Taliban fled the American invasion.

With the Taliban gone, all the warlords came back to their fiefdoms and the weak central government not only did nothing about it, but allied with them.  At this time, Malalai became a public figure, spearheading clinics, orphanages and other important humanitarian measures in the region, getting things done despite the novelty of being a woman in such a position.  Seeing the direction her country was headed thanks to the fundamentalist warlords and the willful blindness of the Americans, Malalai decided to put herself up as a candidate for the Loya Jirga, the constitutional assembly.  She had no illusions that she could cause it to change course- she went only so that one person would speak the truth.

Of all of her district’s candidates, only Malalai spoke about the need to deal with corruption and to give women equal rights.  She won by a considerable margin.  Even then, the UN workers organizing the election warned her to be more circumspect in Kabul for her own safety.  In Kabul, she saw an assembly stacked with warlords whose ongoing abuses of human rights she knew all too well.  When it was clear that only the warlords and their supporters were being given a chance to speak, she approached the Chairman and argued guilefully that the younger delegates hadn’t had a chance to speak.  Once she had the microphone, Malalai denounced the corruption of the assembly in stark terms:

“Why are you allowing the legitimacy and legality of this Loya Jirga to come into question due to the presence of those criminals who have brought our country to this state?”


When her microphone was cut off prematurely, pandemonium was unleashed, but other delegates came forward to shield her physically from the angry mob.  She was ejected from the assembly, and that night there was an attempt on her life.  But her words were heard around the world, and more importantly, by ordinary people around Afghanistan.  Thousands of people, men and women, from fellow delegates to taxi drivers to old mujahedeen, found ways to express their support.  Wherever she went, huge crowds were there to greet her.

There has been much more to her journey in the years since that time- Malalai sat for a term in Parliament and has been finding new ways to help her people and to challenge the status quo.  She has become a unifying voice for those Afghans who want to change their reality, and a key facilitator for that change.  We in the West who have been watching Afghanistan for the past ten years must admit that it cannot be saved by any government or constitution or force of arms.  But every nation can be saved from within, if the people themselves become willing to strive for something better.  The courage of people like Malalai Joya brings that day closer.

The key is personal courage and overcoming the rule of fear.  When asked about how women can best defend their rights, Malalai said, “Once women understand that the key to freedom is in their own hands, they will dare to be brave, remove obstacles from their path, and be prepared to make sacrifices.”

We may not have warlords to fight, but fear has its claws in every human mind, preventing us from reaching our potential through internal threats just as they used external ones.  To refuse that oppression really is the first step to resilience and personal fulfillment for every person, everywhere.

Remember, courage (an essential ingredient of human resilience) is only a DECISION away.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Your Childhood Foundations of Resilience: Videos to See

One thing we would like to do periodically is to provide links to materials of interest for personal resilience .  This week, we have two videos for you that provide a different perspective on resilience, a perspective that begins with the foundations in childhood.

Apropos of our post last week on mental rehearsal, this brief talk by Dr. Joe Dispenza covers the beginnings and implications of the rehearsal process in childhood.  It is both a rich source of information for parents, and an interesting point of reflection as we reflect back on our own childhoods.

This unique “RSA Animate” presentation by Sir Ken Robinson talks more specifically about education.  That public education systems, at least in English-speaking countries, are increasingly failing their students is now an accepted thought in the public consciousness.  Sir Ken gives a rather interesting perspective on why that might be so and what to do about it.

Enjoy this top quality content as you consider how your own Personal Resilience has been impacted by your upbringing and education. And remember that no matter what that impact has been, it’s never too late to take corrective action 🙂

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Resilience and Reclaiming Your Power of MEMORY

Information Overload and Memory Deficiency

Although our culture today is flooded with shoals of facts, infested with information networks and colonized by so many records that, had we not invented the computer, every tree on Earth would long ago have been rendered pulp, we have perhaps the worst memory of any civilization in history, including past incarnations of our own.

Amid this constant barrage of information, it’s easy for everything to flow in one ear and out the other.  Our educational institutions teach us to memorize factoids just long enough to regurgitate them.  What we have lost is a universe of methods that we will call collectively “memory technique.”

While you can always go back and check a fact, that isn’t all that memory is good for.  There are many kinds of procedural and theoretical knowledge that, depending on your profession, serve you best when committed to memory.  Also, and perhaps more importantly for our purposes here, really committing something to memory is one of the few sure ways of rewiring your own thought processes, something that people seeking resilience must do consciously and consistently. 

Techniques and Technology to Improve (or Sabotage) Your Memory

Memory, like learning, doesn’t only work one way, and there is a great deal to be said for finding the mode that works best for you.  Mega-successful entrepreneur and memory expert Kevin Trudeau advocates writing by hand, manually creating charts and graphs and creating visual representations, and he has a point.  We remember what we find interesting, and interest is directly linked to the creative process.

Beyond this, kinesthetics are a powerful memory tool.  Writing with a pen or a pencil is a far more kinesthetically complex exercise than typing on a keyboard- by computerizing everything (and especially by using portable devices that are kinesthetically even worse than full-sized keyboards), we’re actually sabotaging our own memory.

But none of these methods is the most powerful.  That honour goes to the method that pre-dates all written history and formed the first human cultures: oral recitation.

Learning from the Ancient Masters of Memory

We are one of the first cultures on the planet to have the idea that reading is something done silently.  In most previous eras, what was written was always converted back into speech, and via speech into memory.  When I said we have the worst memory of any culture, I was not being facetious.  Coptic Orthodox novices in Egypt are required to memorize the Psalms, all 150 of them, before they become monks.  Could you recite 150 poems, or 150 pages of prose from memory?  And there is evidence both in the ancient Christian world and in numerous other ancient cultures of far greater feats of memory.

In school, we learn about the Iliad and the Odyssey being memorized and recited as though this were something that happened in dark pre-history.  The truth is that the tradition of memory technique survived right alongside literacy up until very recently.  How recently?

Well, the last of the Gaelic storytellers in Ireland who could recite Iliad-length sagas in Gaelic died six decades ago, and no doubt there are similar traditions still surviving elsewhere.  There was a time when druids in Britain and Ireland studied for twenty years committing their now-lost tradition to memory (and yes, they could have written it down had they wanted to – the Greek alphabet was in use among the Celts for centuries before Caesar). In Buddhism, the Pali Canon was transmitted orally for generations before being written down, and many other key texts and scriptures worldwide have followed a similar course.

How did they do it?  Well, they rigged the game.  The material to be memorized was often in metered verse, and often chanted, intoned or rhythmically accompanied by some means.  This activates the creative, emotional and mathematical faculties all at once, and recitation aloud by itself is already activating both kinesthetic and aural memory- you’re moving your tongue and hearing yourself speak.  In the Orthodox Christian tradition today, anyone attending church on a regular basis for a few years will find it easy to memorize vast amounts of scripture and hymnography, because it is rhythmically sung or intoned.

But you don’t necessarily need music for this function- prose can work just as well under certain conditions.  Looking back at so many of the heavily-quoted writers of the 19th Century, it’s obvious that the prose tradition at the time was not so far separated from poetry that it could not produce memorable material capable of engaging exactly the same faculties as verse and music.

Our culture, unfortunately, is not diligent in packaging its information this way – what was the last book you read where you thought, ‘gee, this author has a real sense of the sound and rhythm of the language’?  However, there is a lot of mindset-relevant information from ancient traditions packaged properly on which we can draw.

There is one final memory trigger to consider, and that is smell.  You’ve probably had moments when an aroma or even the thought of one brought you back to a memory you didn’t know was there.  As far as I know, no one has tried to create a functional system of memory around smell – but it certainly can’t hurt to introduce a memorable smell when you’re reading something you need to remember.

Memory and Your Personal Resilience

I’m giving you this sketch of memory technique for two reasons.  First, if you know what tools are out there, they’re yours to play with and fine-tune for your own uses and circumstances, and perhaps find a new way of thinking about memory, mindset and information.  If the ancient methods don’t fit your circumstances, you can always re-arrange them.  If something is too poorly or densely written to recite, read it and then stand up, walk around, and compose a brief talk on the subject- suddenly, you’re assimilating the information by engaging your creative faculty, your tongue is moving, your ears are hearing, and you’re walking around.  Explore, be creative!

Second, this is serious stuff from a resilience standpoint.  Each of these memory tools is a tool for mind training, and memorization for that reason is a tool taken very seriously by every authentic ancient tradition without exception.

The idea is to get to the point where you become unconsciously competent with you’re trying to assimilate, and especially new information intended to change your habits and your thinking.  And that is why all methods of memory technique, and especially recitation, are such powerful tools – it imprints the information directly onto your procedural memory.  And procedural memory, the kind of memory that lets you tie a shoelace or ride a bike, is the epitome of unconscious competence – it’s there when we need it and we don’t have to think about it.

If you’re over 30 and you’ve started attributing your increasingly feeble memory to the fact that “you’re getting older”, then it’s time for you to WAKE UP.  Yes, age can have an impact on your memory IF you have lifestyle issues degrading it, such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise and more.  However, there is NO REASON for you not to retain an excellent memory throughout your life and there’s lots of historical evidence to prove this can be done.  But memory is just like a physical muscle – unless you USE IT, it will ATROPHY.

The irreplaceable first step is to persuade yourself that you can memorize long passages.  There was a time, of course, when memorization was a large part of English education.  We stop committing old literature to memory and stop teaching grammar and rhetoric, and then we wonder why education is going to hell in a hand basket…

 ~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

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