Jim Mattis: Education Savior?

By: Adam Sutton, teacher and writer

A few weeks back, Jim Mattis, unknowingly, delivered a blueprint for education reform.  In talking with NPR’s Steve Inskeep about preparing for war, Mattis proclaimed, “we don’t study history in a way that we can apply it.”  He’s right. We don’t educate students in public schools with an eye towards application.  

Public education is broken, and it’s not because teachers aren’t teaching well or students are lazy or principals have lost the stomach to implement discipline plans.  The problem is that, more than ever, we need a system of education that supports application. It’s not a new idea. 100 years ago, John Dewey wrote about how learning couldn’t be separated from the test; the learning was the test.  Think of it like a do it yourself project to replace a window. You read books from the library, talk to your buddy, a contractor, and watch some YouTube videos. Those resources provide clarification to allow you to install the window to its specifications.  Once the window is in, there isn’t a test to confirm what you learned. The test was the process that led to informed action.     

Currently, the journey of learning and the purpose for that learning are totally separate things.  Teachers introduce students to content and skills using many techniques ranging from identification to evaluation.  When that teaching is done well, classrooms are full of engaged and hardworking young people. Yet, this journey remains incomplete.  As an example, last year my students worked to determine how revolutionary the American Revolution was. Along the way they examined documents, asked for clarification, debated the documents and the definition of revolutionary.  This awesome journey culminated in a paper. But, it needed more. The reason to learn anything is to help make better decisions today. As General Mattis described, he studied history to fight a better battle today. As it stood, my students wrapped up the unit with a district created test.  The test wasn’t a journey of learning but rather a regurgitation.    

We need to reexamine education so that learning and students are defined by actions, not tests.  How do we do that? With school recently starting, several young people returned to my mind. A couple Eagle Scouts completing their projects by organizing a food drive and building bookshelves for their library.  Two former students who hold leadership positions in Students Demand Action Baltimore working to stem gun violence in Baltimore. And, a group I came across just the other day, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), that fights to improve Chicago Public Schools by challenging the school to prison pipeline.  

These students use ideas taught in school, but they are applying their learning outside of school.  That’s a problem. In schools, we need students reading and communicating with others in order to build new bookcases for their libraries; we need students applying their knowledge of history and government to build and guide organizations like my students with Students Demand Action Baltimore; we need students to analyze policing and education policies so they can be a part of our communities like the students of VOYCE.  

Whether or not we believe the library needs new bookcases or we support the issues students rally around is irrelevant.  Young people engaged in these activities are learning and exposing themselves to robust, multifaceted issues that require constant refinement and additional learning.  This model for learning allows the process to become endless, uninterrupted, for eternity.   

I suspect some will be wary of students not learning the basics, but as General Mattis said, “There’s too much of a short-term view,” in that type of thinking.    

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