Musings: Education Outside The Box

My daughter, Michella, is graduating from high school and stepping out into the adult world. Her first cultural milestone — oh, but what a precipice for her mother! Despite my admiration of her scholastic dedication, I did my best throughout her thirteen years of schooling to support her in recognizing that what they teach in school ain’t necessarily the end of the rainbow.

It’s only a tiny fraction of what there is to learn about and know in the world. The most meaningful things in life aren’t learned out of a book and you don’t receive a grade for them. However the pressure for kids to fit in at school, to succeed, to make the grade is intense. They are incredibly stressed at trying to excel within this educational “box.” My good friend once remarked to me that students wear a square on top of their heads when they graduate because it signifies their graduation into the next level of thinking “inside the box.”

We were fortunate to spend the first seven years of Michella’s education at an independent K-6 school. Touchstone School in Grafton, MA, promotes community building and positive attitudes as much as academic learning. The children receive no grades or tests and are free from the burden of test anxiety for all their formative years there. They learn just as much as their school-tested counterparts, yet have far less stress in doing it. Cooperation and inclusion, rather than competition and exclusion, are encouraged and have become a formal part of school policy. Parents, kids and grandparents contribute in numerous volunteer ways around the school so the education children receive there extends far beyond what could ever be outlined in a curriculum, much less graded upon.

To me, this school exemplifies the Latin root of the word education — educere, meaning “to draw or lead out.” While each teacher has a curriculum of subjects, projects and assignments to help his or her students explore a certain topic, the learning process for individual students is not set in stone. As each child begins to explore the topic at hand, in a best case scenario they will discover new interests, develop math and reading skills, and incorporate their favorite talents and activities into learning more about this fascinating new classroom topic. At the very least (or perhaps most importantly, depending upon how you look at it!) they are developing their own critical thinking and learning to draw conclusions about the information presented to them. They can then share this learning with others which offers further opportunities for their own enrichment. This truly makes learning exciting and fun, and why part of the school’s mission is to “encourage lifelong learning.”

When children are educated in meaningful and cooperative environments that benefit both the teachers and the students, then learning becomes a joy and lifelong learning becomes a reality. (For more about meaningful “classroom” learning, read about Ben Holmes’ Farm School in Athol, MA in “Learning Off the Land” this issue on page 30.) When children are boxed into desks and chairs for long periods of time each day, when their minds are molded to conform to the one right answer the teacher says is right, when they are forced to compete against each other in grade and rank in order to succeed, when their choices for learning are limited to a narrow range of academic subjects learned mainly by rote, this is a learning system whose biggest benefit is simply that it’s already in place and what else would we do with all these kids during the day with no adults to mentor or guide them or be role models?

I believe we lost something very valuable when our community way of living and apprenticeship training was replaced with factory work and thirteen years of institutionalized schooling for our children. That educational system — still in use today — was implemented as a form of social control to create workers, conformists and mass consumers by teaching all children the same thing at the same age in the same way. However, times have changed with the growing demands of our complex world. The evidence that the old institutionalized school system is outdated and outmoded is stark: most schools have come to expect that violence, vandalism, cheating, disrespect, mistrust, indifference and boredom are a normal part of the school experience. Security, metal detectors or patrolling police officers are standard in the majority of US high schools. Bathrooms are locked at all times. Students scurry like mice lugging 20 pound packs on their backs with just three minutes between 1 hour and 20 minute classroom blocks. With four blocks a day, five days a week, beginning at 7:20 AM each morning, you could not pay me enough to keep that grueling schedule — much less learn anything — yet our kids have no choice. They must excel in this system or be labeled a failure. Motivation for these kids comes from the adrenaline of the stress of it all; if they don’t make the grade, they won’t get into college which they have been programmed to believe is the key to their success. No wonder our teachers are frustrated and often apathetic; students have simply grown up with it and don’t know anything different than limping along in boredom from class to class, year to year until they finally graduate or drop out.

These conditions, not to mention the rise in dramatic instances of shocking student violence, are signs that the system is no longer working for either the teachers or students. It’s hard to believe, but school has become a dangerous place. Hiding our heads in the sand because the problem is so overwhelming is not going to make it go away. If we want to create a sustainable future for our culture, we need to create a nurturing environment for the seeds of that future in our children’s education today. Now, more than ever, our children need to be exposed to studies that will support the blossoming of their full humanity and the development of their innate talents, skills and goodness. Our kids could have access to hundreds of vital, yet neglected subjects such as cooking, woodworking, household repair, yoga, holistic medicine, nutrition, cultural awareness, world religions, spirituality, gardening, sewing, current events, interpersonal communication, selected reading surveys, etc. We need to be adding arts, independent studies and life skills programming to our school systems, not cutting them. Basically, we need to de-institutionalize school so our kids can reclaim their humanity for themselves and our future.

However, currently our country’s attention is focused far away from enriching our children’s education. Instead, we have chosen to pin our hopes for the future on investing enormous sums of money and technology on a foreign war which many believe to be unjust, unnecessarily aggressive and dangerously arrogant and unbalanced from an international point of view. Education programs will be slashed in this country to fund this war. Healthcare and social programs will also hit the chopping block. Those of us who support and speak out for peace are labeled unpatriotic as if supporting war is a core value of being an American. Unfortunately, the “box” thinking fostered by our educational system reinforces unquestioning acceptance of actions and policies which should not go unquestioned. It also funnels working class people and people of color onto the front lines — those who don’t fit inside the box. While I am truly heartened at the jubilation of Iraqi citizens who have been liberated from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s rule of terror, our choice to pursue our own country’s agenda despite overwhelming international opposition makes us nothing less than a schoolyard bully. We have the size and might to get what we want and the clout to make sure others line up behind us whether they want to or not. Either you’re with us or against us, the world was told.

The title of Robert Fulghum’s 1993 bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten rings true before you even open the book. Despite its apparent simplicity, this insightful, little manual points out that our most important, fundamental education takes place before we even enter first grade. We learn the basic rules of getting along and cooperating in society so that it can flourish and everyone gets a fair chance to play. These are the lessons which will take us through a lifetime. At the top of Fulghum’s list of to-do’s: sharing. High on the list of no-no’s: being a bully and messing with other people’s stuff. By observing these basic rules about civilized society, Mahatma Ghandi was able to liberate millions of people in India without dropping a single bomb. Jesus Christ revolutionized the history of the world the same way. Both of these leaders faced formidable armies, yet did not resort to uncivilized and savage means to accomplish their goals. Instead, they mobilized the people peacefully, yet powerfully, through group mind and united action. It takes a different kind of thinking than what we currently advocate to achieve that kind of success. We are standing at a pivotal point in history where the educated decisions made by this generation will determine whether our world self-destructs in violence or moves into a new age of enlightened human beings. Those are our two choices. Despite the present chaos around us, I believe humanity will put down its weapons and choose peace. I believe our children will once again be educated with light, intelligence and love.

For the many dedicated, talented and caring teachers I have met these past thirteen years — and you know who you are! — thanks for sticking in there despite limited resources and support (but always plenty of criticism.) Like parents, you are undercompensated for performing the most important job on the planet — guiding and raising our youth in a good way. It’s the larger wheels of society, school boards and government regulations that have all too often run over your best efforts and drained your energy in the process. Despite the limitations and absurdities within the educational system, please keep the faith because our youth needs you. Our country needs you.

And students, you are amazing to accomplish what you do with so many restrictions placed upon your natural creativity, thinking and autonomy. Don’t label or blame yourself for your “failure” to succeed within this flawed educational system and always remember that higher education is not necessary for you to be a success in life. Find a service which you enjoying doing and can provide to others and then do it! If you need training or mentoring to polish your skills or further your goals, take the steps to get what you need and then do your own thing. The box has its advantages, but plenty of disadvantages too, so it’s not the only path to success. Let that be your choice and not someone else’s.

To those who feel persecuted for taking a stand for peace, remember that you are every bit as patriotic in your duty to be peaceful as American soldiers are in their duty to follow war orders. In the Pledge of Allegiance (which we learn in kindergarten, by the way), we pledge our national allegiance to the republic — the people — One nation, diverse yet indivisible under God. The doves and the hawks and everyone else together. Peace is surely a blessed and rare experience in today’s chaotic world, yet it must begin with us — in school and at home. While it is extremely important for us to continue to speak out for peace, the only way to promote world peace is to be that peace ourselves.

When there is light in the soul, there is beauty in the person;
When there is beauty in the person, there is harmony in the home;
When there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation;
When there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.”
— Kung Fu Tse (Confucious)

Carol Bedrosian is publisher and editor of Spirit of Change Magazine.