I think research papers are a great idea. In fact, I think that the process of writing and researching a paper is one of the most valuable lessons we pull out of high school — and I don’t think our current system throws enough of them at our youth.
Now, chances are you think I am insane or hate me (unless you teach English or maybe history), but seriously — I promise I’m not crazy.
First, a little rant about how our educational system is broken.
Throughout grade school the way we are statistically measured is by tests. These tests are not created by the schools themselves but by the state or other higher-ups that choose material they believe the students should be learning. Often the scores of these tests are directly linked to jobs, funds and the public’s general view of what a “good” school is. Through the No Child Left Behind legislation “bad” scores cause schools to be directly punished, often in loss of government funds. I’m not quite sure how suspending funding forcing schools to fire staff boosts the grades of students, but that is another argument entirely.
In New Jersey we have the HSPA and GEPA (along with the CAT and numerous other tests). Since funding and image is directly linked to these two tests they have a huge influence on the curriculum. Years before students actually take the exam they learn facts, skills and other information specifically for the purpose of scoring high on these tests. If it doesn’t directly relate to high test scores it is typically removed from the curriculum. Standardized tests aren’t the only thing to blame, however. Since testing is widely seen as the easiest way to quickly measure aptitude in certain areas, history (among others) classes at the high school level often only focus on “hard” facts like dates and names. Questions are rarely open-ended and instead are strictly based on memorization. Ask a kid when the Korean War started and he could probably tell you, but ask him the significance of the war or the factors leading up to it — arguably the more important information — and chances are he will give you a blank stare.
So, what does all of this have to do with research papers? They are one of the few tools teachers have that can still help students score highly on the tests while teaching them the more abstract things behind the facts that are directly tested. When you have that first research paper in your English class and you’re asked to pick a topic, you must become immersed in it to a certain level to write a passing paper. You can’t just know the dates. You have to find out the whys and the hows. Someone writing about the Korean War will find out that it has nothing to actually do with Korea itself and everything to do with the relationship between the USSR and America during the post-WWII era. Sure, they will be able to throw some important dates at you — but they will be exposed to the important concepts that guided those dates into being.
Going through something you are lightly interested in is infinitely more engaging than memorizing numbers. Even if you aren’t “into” writing, reading about something and putting that information to use simply requires more interaction than memorization.
Let’s not kid ourselves, either. Do you remember any of the junk you memorized in high school? Hell, do you remember any of the stuff you were required to memorize in college? Unless you use the information on a weekly basis, chances are you don’t — and why would you? Unless it is a trivial fact you latched onto, it serves you little use. Its purpose was to get you through school so you could move to the next level and that was it.
On the other hand. the skills you pick up by writing a research paper aren’t something you forget. Learning how to use a database or simply how to pick apart truth from fiction in an educated manner is a powerful skill. As an adult in society it is something that is absolutely invaluable — and quite frankly, not enough adults have it. If more of us grew up in a society that put emphasis on doing research for yourself instead of just believing what you’re told then fewer people would be tricked into believing lies thrown at them from all angles. How many Americans take what they are told for granted? How many question and look into what they believe to be true?
It’s just a skill that isn’t emphasized enough in school. While it becomes a big deal when you reach college it is still barely touched on in most classes. Unless you are an English major you don’t really see too many of them — although I’m happy to say I’m seeing that change.
The real problem is not college though, its the root — high school. Throughout my time in high school I’m fairly certain I did one research paper and that was it. While I picked up some research skills on my own, many of my peers did not. Even simple things like using Google to find trustworthy sources come from doing a research paper. I’m still absolutely shocked by the number of people who don’t know how to properly use a search engine or database, something that is utterly amazing when doing any kind of research (Google scholar is a godsend, check it out).
We can’t forget that these skills translate incredibly well to the real world, too. The ability to “do research” translates over to being able to find a job, to not being fooled by politicians, to questioning those around you and almost every other aspect of life that your mind is involved in.
Let’s not forget the value in being able to write and communicate our ideas and thoughts with others. Writing a research paper is obviously something that assists in developing these skills. Not many people can argue against being able to communicate more effectively. Remember, I was an engineering major — I know how some people can be pretty brilliant but utterly useless when it comes to sharing their thoughts. It’s not a great thing and won’t exactly get you hired anywhere.
…I just realized I set out to point out the worth of research papers and ended up pretty much ranting about why being an English major has some advantages in the real world.
Welp. Guess that sort of works too.