Education lacks true learning

Lauren Puckett

I have an hour and 30 minutes before the bell rings. That’s no large amount of time when the pressure is on, and the thoughts keep slipping right through my fingers. All those historical facts I memorized are like paper birds in the wind; they keep flying out of my reach.

I pause, my hands freezing over the keyboard. Paper birds in the wind. That’s not a bad simile. Not bad at all.
I tack it onto the sentence about slaves in the South, and pray to God it’ll make sense and stick — stick like rubber cement, preferably, so that my teacher will go along with it. Glue can be a little unconvincing.
The essay sits before me, settled upon the screen of an outdated computer monitor. The document is a blinking, ugly mess, highlighted in large blocks of blinding yellow, mixed and matched with dirty patches of overused words. And this is what I’m turning into my teacher? Wonderful.
With “The Scarlet Letter” in one hand, my pen in the other, I have no idea how to compare Hester Prynn with the pursuit of passions and ideology throughout American history. Part of my mental block is the time limit, but part of it is that I’m grasping at straws like the last rhino at the watering hole.
Last rhino at the watering hole. Well, it’s probably the most awful cliché simile I’ve ever heard, but it’ll work.
I throw it onto that sentence about Hester’s kid. As long as I have an insightful metaphor, it shouldn’t matter that I can’t remember the kid’s name, right? Or what it was she symbolized?
Never mind. I’ll just make another two-paragraph description of the whippings slaves had. Blood rolled down their backs like rain from a storm cloud. So on and so forth. As long as I attempt to write with all the grace and propriety of Ernest Hemingway, it shouldn’t matter that I don’t know why, how or when those slaves were whipped.
This is the philosophy most high school students hold. We believe if we can just “get through” or “BS” — as most students call it — the paper, then we’ll get a big, fat, spotless A.
This nonchalant guise — the secret every student knows — is what makes me feel guilty. All I’m doing is reading a few pages of Shakespeare, with all its hidden meanings, “thee”s and “thou”s, then covering up my real lack of knowledge through similes and a flourish. And if all I do is compare his work to the “ever-flowing stream through the mountains” or call his words “sweet as honey,” I’m learning nothing besides ways to make my paper cheesier than the ‘60s “Batman and Robin” TV show. “Holy clichés, Batman!”
Fortunately, some teachers see through this. But many don’t. They hand out a rubric and adhere strictly to that rubric, while students find sly ways to slide pass the rubric’s requirements, sloughing off the real work.
“Meaningful thesis with significant claim?”
The story of John Grayson’s struggle through the fields of Kansas symbolizes hope because of the long strings of wheat, which pull drops of dew from the atmosphere like delicate day lilies throughout the autumn twilight of another endless day in the sloping hills of growing sunset light…which…symbolizes hope.
“Colorful language and vivid imagery?”
Her tears were like raindrops, her eyes like the most polished of Kay’s Jeweler diamonds. Every kiss begins with Kay!
Yeah, OK. So maybe I’m exaggerating a little. I hope   most of us would know better than to include jeweler slogans or “autumn twilight” clichés in our papers. But, then again, I’ve seen some pretty bad attempts at “getting by” in an essay. Including my own.
The first time I wrote a paper like this, I came back with a shiny, artificial 100 percent. Of course, I was pleased. My teacher even drew a cute smiley face next to one of my particularly overdramatic metaphors. I was feeling rather proud of myself, gallivanting around with my A, thinking I might keep dancing through assignments like this on a regular basis.
But the next time I wrote a similar essay, in a more competitive atmosphere, I found I had no idea what I was doing. The essay was much stricter and required a greater breadth of knowledge. I found myself groping for an escape, trying to throw in my lovely imagery lifesavers and failing at every turn. This essay wanted to know how much I knew about a recently discovered vaccine, not how well I could turn a phrase.
For the first time in a very long time, I received a poor grade on a piece of writing. I couldn’t help but be crushed. Writing was supposed to be my strong suit, the one area of schooling I could be completely and utterly comfortable with. Something was obviously wrong.
So I went back to the books. I paid attention to details. I started tracking pieces of information, tracing patterns. I took deeper notes. And when essay time came around again, I knew what I needed to know — even without all the fancy schmancy descriptive words.
But “BS-ing” through assignments is still a huge issue. It’s like an addictive drug. Once a person knows it’s a potential way out — a quick fix — it becomes a hard habit to break. Metaphor junkies are dangerous, easily trapped into the delusion that the number of fancy words is synonymous with the number of earned points.
Even now, I’ll occasionally write an essay that doesn’t really teach me anything. In a month I’ll have forgotten what was so important about the Chinese railroad workers or why kids with an INFJ-type personality are fantastic listeners. That’s why writing flowery essays makes me feel guilty. I’m turning in a piece of work that was no work at all.
If we’re spending seven hours of our day at school, and all we’re learning is how to trick the school system, which is quite different from the real world, are we accomplishing anything? Students need a steady foundation to settle upon, so that they don’t collapse like homes in a hurricane. Real life, a real career, isn’t going to ask for lovely words with little meaning. Real life is going to ask for lovely words with every kind of significance. Plus the cold, hard facts.
Maybe we’re walking towards the future with fake IDs, with no real knowledge to back up our claims.
Maybe “fake it ‘till you make it” is just another commonly accepted lie.
By Lauren Puckett