Last week I attended an event on education sponsored by Charles Koch. As I sat and listened to the hyperbole it suddenly struck me, we’ve let ourselves think about education as akin to war preparation. Instead of an AK-47 I’m going to give you mastery of closed reading. I don’t have any hand grenades but here’s some advanced mathematic theory. Somehow we seem to have come to the conclusion that if we just keep Johnny and Janie focused and rigorous for 17 years they will be armed enough to beat back the dark forces of life and have nothing but a pathway of roses to the grave. We are brainwashing kids into perceiving life as a battle instead of an adventure.
At this Koch event Dr. Perry, a reformer out of Connecticut, and others of his posse were present and waving their “its about the child” flag. This makes great rhetoric but what does that really mean? Are we really doing the child a service if we color life as a constant battle versus something to be embraced with both celebrations, challenges and times of inertia? Its disappointing enough that the window for children to commit mistakes without future consequences is already constantly shrinking, do we really need to completely rob from them the ability to enjoy the moment.
I understand that if you can’t read then life’s challenges really can be overwhelming, but why the constant need to celebrate the performing at above age level? Its wonderful that a child in third grade is reading on a fifth grade level but what has been sacrificed to get that child to that level? I may be wrong but it seems to me that the goal should be to have all children performing on the age appropriate level while being exposed to all the other things that make a well lived life special. If we have to sacrifice art, music, athletics and such in order to say we’re better then China are we really winning?
One of the things I constantly preach to my children is that as they move through life, at the very least, please continue to be interesting people. Live lives that push the envelope and make people want to know more about you. If our whole being is centered around preparing for and securing employment how interesting can we be? The mentality that we are creating is that life is all about acquiring weapons to battle life and somehow keep it challenges at bay.. We need to remember the quote by Vivian Komori, “Life is not about how fast you run or how high you climb, but how well you bounce.”
It also seems to get lost in the discussion that one day these “children” will become adults with responsibilities to society. So education is not just all about the child but about society and what shape it will take. Having an educated populace ensures that we can work together to retain the free society we’ve created. As Jefferson stated, ““If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Jefferson wasn’t extolling the virtues of education so local merchants could ensure having enough qualified workers. In fact, I think it safe to say, the country was founded by a whole crew of folks who were under qualified for the roles they assumed. I love the stories about Washington becoming Commander-in-Chief because he was the tallest man in the room and because he always wore a self made uniform to meetings. After he convinced everyone that he was the man for the job he took to reading military history books. His ability to learn and an inbred curiosity served this country well.
I also don’t think Jefferson was talking about education as a means for a man to make himself wealthy at the expense of others. In everything I’ve ever read about Benjamin Franklin I’ve never seen his intellectual curiosity tied to a desire to improve himself over others but to a collective growth. When he was 21 he created Junto, a group that was for “like minded aspiring artisans and tradesmen who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community.” Obviously community improvement was as important as self improvement.
Somehow we’ve lost sight of this though. We’ve allowed education to become a competition pitting one student against another in a perpetual battle with no finish line. Children are taught as if they are acquiring tools that will somehow elevate them above others and make them immune to the difficulties of life. Reading on an 8th grade level at age 7 will not protect you from a deliberating disease at age 29. Doing advanced trig in 4th grade will not ensure that you never have financial hardship. Yet that’s what we seem to preach with our endless chant of “career and college ready.” Its not that far removed from snake oil salesman who used to peddle their elixir with promises of “cure all”.
Dr. Perry went on about why does it matter what our schools look like as long as they are “good schools”. It seems to me “what our schools look like” should be part of the definition of what’s a “good school”. Dr. Perry proudly declared that his students would be in blue blazers with socks that matched their belt. Well why does that matter if they are “good students”? If they are in jeans and a t-shirt and mastering his prescribed reading and math are they not “good students”? If appearance matters in students, why does it not in schools?
It does matter and our schools should continue to be a reflection of our society. A society that earned the nick name the great melting pot. It should be a place where all students come together to learn who they are, skills we value, and the endless possibilities of who they can become. Our schools should be places where we learn as much from our failures as we do from our successes. They should be places where we learn that its not just about us, but about all of us.
Anybody who follows me on Facebook knows that my children are living up to that challenge of being interesting people everyday. They spend as much time watching Barbie and Avenger video’s on YouTube as they do reading books. They spend as much time running outside, playing with playdoh, going to the zoo, arguing with each other, playing dress up, and just goofing off in general as they do becoming kindergarten ready. I pray everyday that they retain this attitude, as will every child. I think collectively they’ll make society a lot more interesting then a 30 year old reading at a 45 year old level who perceives life as one big battle.
One of the questions asked of the panelists was what do feel is the biggest obstacle is to the accepting of your vision. The reply was, “educating parents.” That evoked a horse snort laugh from me. Its been my experience that the more parents see of the reformers vision the more they reject it. I hope they keep preaching their vision. We don’t need to do battle, we just need to keep talking.