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From multiple choice to politics, bad education systems limit minds

Newton’s third law of physics states that “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This perhaps provides a framework for examining the standoff that exists between the forces of Donald Trump and the forces of Joe Biden. When applied to human behavior, we hope the inevitability of two opposing forces can be softened by education.

Two groups/forces have formed around the recent presidential election that seem to fit this law. These two forces are about to change positions. The previously reactive Biden group will soon become proactive when Biden is inaugurated, and the Trump group will assume a reactive/restrictive role.

From a mental health point of view, the current proactive Trump group has little if any tolerance for ambiguity. Its members appear rigid in the application of their values. They seem to be living either in the past, hoping to return to the good ole days, or in a fantasized future led by a “savior” expected to guide them to the promised land, a person often assumed to be placed among them with special powers.

As for the reactive Biden group, they purport to believe in logic and reason and facts, along with tolerance for ambiguity. They are principally focused on the present, where the problems exist to be addressed.

The more rigid positions of the Trump group and the more open-ended philosophy of the reactive group have resulted in conflicts that form the basis for a standoff.

How could this happen?

Most members of these groups were exposed to a school system built on one preconceived correct answer to every question, exemplified within standardized tests.

Every multiple-choice question has several plausible answers that are considered incorrect. There is only one correct answer. Acceptance of this fact, for many if not most students, becomes an unconscious bias that results in positions acted out throughout this country today.

Fortunately, there are students who independently avoid that bias. Through expanded experiential opportunities, they preserve their capacity for utilizing logic with consideration for empirical evidence, combined with empathy.

Few teachers I have met during my 50-plus years in teacher education would prefer to conduct themselves with their students in conformity with a mandated set of preconceived answers for every question. Yet they must conform.

Had each student early on been given frequent opportunities to actively consider plausible answers from a variety of perspectives or assumptions, think what a difference it would have made.

Instead of 14 years of instruction in remembering the correct answers to questions, they would have developed habits of mind that exhibit tolerance for ambiguity and flexibility in the application of values, and improved reasoning skills and positive mental health. They would likely be addressing the problems of the present, not living in the past or in a fantasized future.

Where do the problems start?

Public education is controlled from the top down, guided by decision makers who appear to exhibit intolerance and rigidity and a lack of facts and sound reasoning, similar to what is found in many of their clients.

I reached that conclusion after many years attempting to simply discuss alternatives in education with decision makers, only to be confronted with indifference, hostility and rejection. These decision makers include both members of the educational hierarchy and the state legislature. Steeped in traditions, conscious and unconscious biases control their rigid responses, reflected throughout the administrative hierarchy charged with implementations.

This is an outrageous situation that seems to perpetuate itself. Unless it is changed, the upcoming generations will find themselves continuing a standoff at the expense of democracy.

It’s inescapable: Conventional schooling has had a strong hand in fostering the personal belief systems that can lead to hate crimes and maintenance of authoritarian orientations. We can do better, but not without recognizing that systemic changes in education are required, changes that maintain the natural openness to experience found in individuals during their formative years of schooling.

Those changes must be based on updated and validated assumptions about individuals and how they learn and develop, groups and how they develop from a collection of individuals to a cohesive team with maximized problem-solving skills (Bradford), and how the processes of creating knowledge and knowing can provide the tools for lifelong learning in all “realms of meaning” (Phenix).

This can be facilitated by modern systems theory applied to education, considering systems design as a process of learning, and systems analysis as a strategy for assessment and evaluation of learning outcomes (Banathy).

God help us if we can’t wake up to meet this critical need for systemic change that enables individuals to change, enables the present generation to pass on to the next the wisdom it has gained from the past, and enables the release of the precocious creative capabilities that reside in everyone, mainly untapped by the current systems of education (psychiatrist Lawrence Kublai, MD).

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.

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