I just finished a course in Latino/a Feminisms that included the topics of history, identity, and feminism. The class was writing intensive, allowing students the possibility to explore their personal views on particular matters. Something we all found curious was our unfamiliarity with Latin America and its history. I believe most of us were unprepared to tackle the subject because we were either not taught that history during previous years of schooling, or we were not taught sufficiently, even correctly. Unfortunately, this was not the first time I have faced the challenge of being unschooled in something that is vital to know and understand. Shortly after the class ended, Professor Elizabeth Huergo invited me to compose a reflection on my experiences with college writing. I decided to reflect on how formal education does not equip students with the necessary tools and knowledge.
When I started at Mason, my first class was not with Professor Huergo. I took a basic, required English course. A few weeks into it, I noticed how many red marks continued to appear on the work that was returned to me. I was a junior in college, yet I did not know where to place a comma properly. But I was not the only one whose work was being torn into. The professor of that required course made a comment to the class about how grammar is not taught correctly from elementary through high school. My first instinct was to drop out of college and repeat school from the first grade. I wondered if any primary school would legitimately consider my request. I honestly felt like I needed to re-learn everything. I was embarrassed at my misunderstanding of language.
Then I thought more deeply about my professor’s comment and asked myself, how did I get away with making the same errors for so long? I was extremely concerned and realized that formal schooling teaches the same things, but not necessarily accurately or analytically. For example, the subject of history is diluted with dates and names of wars and their heroes. The reason why most students end up dragging their feet to history class is because it is not often enough a subject that encourages questioning and thinking about why history repeats itself. History is presented as inactive and passive. We learn to memorize events, the people involved, and the period. We take a test that measures our ability to remember those facts and then forget them as soon as we fill in the last multiple-choice question.
Until college, most of us do not get to sit down and break history apart. When we finally decide to question its assumptions and causes critically. Those are the discussions that ignite a network of light bulbs, making it easier for eyes and fingers to trace the lines between then “now” and “then.” That sort of critical thinking helps us develop a better understanding and respect for all people as we study different and various histories. This understanding and respect allows us to sharpen political and social consciousness, strengthening our grasp on the complexities of human nature. Most important, history becomes a channel of identity and compels an individual to discover his or her own. The greatest assets of education are its gifts of practicality and usefulness outside of the classroom. We can apply those critical and investigative skills to question and form ourselves.
After completing that required English course, I decided to accept criticism and force myself to try to do better. Instead of feeling discouraged, I started to teach myself the fundamentals because I believed sloppy grammar and punctuation should be forgiven but fixed. I was determined to learn where those darned comma belonged and why. So my English re-education began with the basic parts and structures of a sentence. Besides its relevance to clauses and conjunctions, a comma came to symbolize for me the importance of spending time learning about seemingly little things that have such an extraordinary power to change meaning.
Education should present information the way a skeleton watch displays tiny pins and wheels. Subjects need to be exposed from the inside-out. Pupils must see the bones and internal mechanisms of systems because those mechanisms affect our lives. Personally, I take responsibility for not doing certain things that could have benefited me. But generally speaking, education needs to be reformed in its entirety, beginning with what we learn about and how. Integrating lessons on real life issues and how to handle them in a healthy, productive way should also be a priority. And last but not least, educators need to be on every “Top Paid Jobs” list. Without them, I would not have been able to confront my own setbacks and create a new plas of action. Most of us have at least one influential teacher to thank.
I only want to address the value of self-teaching, not blame a system or person. Investing our minds solely in formal schooling is not enough. It must be supplemented with what is found after venturing out and taking advantage of resources beyond the borders of established institutions. Some examples would include reading a local newspaper, a random book from a “free books” cart at a library or book store; listening to an opposing argument; viewing a controversial work; rethinking previously learned material. All of these can offer new or unheard-of terms, opinions, and ideas. They deepen a learning experience by helping one accept individuality and difference. Providing ourselves with options is necessary in figuring out likes and dislikes, possibilities and impossibilities.
I used to be apathetic to the idea of being both an instructor and a student, but now encourage everyone to be an autodidact, to practice self-enlightenment. The decision I made to be my own teacher has given my career plans a jump-start. I am revving the engine. I have antsy feet. I’ve been taking risks by writing and sending articles to website, interning at a media placement business, and editing works for aspiring authors. The past few months alone have been a wild ride, but I’m far from reaching a final destination. The journey is what I anticipate.
Fatima Brown is an English major who is currently finishing her Bachelor of Arts degree at George Mason University. She aspires to be a published writer and an editor in the very near future.
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