It’s September and school is about to begin. Most of us at one point or another have asked ourselves why we go to school? What is the real purpose of school? Philosophers, historians, sociologists, psychologists, economists, and politicians throughout history have attempted to define and direct the purpose of education. So now I will join the countless number of individuals before me in the time honored tradition of trying to imagine the perfect school – the ideal. Where should I begin?
I guess the best place to begin is by imagining the ideal person – what type of person or people should schools (especially public schools) be cultivating – yes, like a garden. Nurturing the garden of our existence, actually to ensure our existence. For me, when I think about the ideal person, what I hope the best of humanity represents is someone with the following traits or values.
a. A profound sense of wonder or curiosity that drives his/her love to explore, discover, and create.
b. A deep appreciation and understanding for his/her place in the great web of life – respect for the natural world that supports his/her existence and, being a social animal, recognizing the need for cooperation, collaboration, and community.
c. Pride in their gifts, their abilities and belief in their never ending capacity for growth – intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally – and recognizing the same in all people.
d. An energy or spark that activates (a drive to take action) him/her to actualize his/her goals, implement plans, and meet commitments.
That’s it – that’s all folks! I believe with these four critical traits all other things would flow naturally and most of the problems in the world would be resolved. This is my back to basics philosophy. I’m sure there are many parents, educators, and politicians now shaking their heads and thinking that I am far too naïve and idealistic. How can you create a school based only on these goals? What would the curriculum be? How would these individuals be able to earn a living or make a contribution to society or, more importantly, to the economy?
Well, let’s try to imagine what this type of school system would be, and wouldn’t be.
First of all, my ideal school would not be a job factory or even focus on academic preparation for higher learning in the traditional sense. If we want to create lifelong learners who are engaged in problem solving and community development (which includes economic development) than we must cultivate a love of learning and develop competent, self-confident, productive individuals who feel genuinely valued (not just liked but taught to believe they are needed and valuable). Sounds simplistic. It isn’t. It requires a radical change in our belief systems and values.
Today instead of training employees to understand and be accountable for the demands of their jobs, many corporations spend millions devising systems to eliminate the need for employees to be well trained and make anything but the most basic decisions. Conversations and questions are even scripted – Will you have fries with that? This type of training is not just reserved for the person serving your hamburger, but people working in financial institutions, health organizations, and government. No thinking, resourcefulness, or problem solving needed here. As more corporations and schools talk about empowerment, they are actually becoming more regimented and technology reliant (at the expense of human workers, both in the number of jobs and the opportunity to learn and contribute). They create environments (some more subtly than others) that are increasingly more dehumanizing, actually suppressing initiative, creativity, desire to learn, and to work cooperatively. Yet, these are the very criteria by which students and workers are then measured.
These institutions do not want to risk creating an environment that cultivates proactive problem solvers who love waking up and going to work or school (maybe even early because they don’t want to miss a minute) because that would mean more unpredictability, flexibility, and challenge to the status quo. We have created a dilemma, a paradox that we have not been able to solve- the status quo is not working but we celebrate it, we want change but fear it, we want control but also innovation, and we complain about unethical, superficial values but condemn those who wish to operate within a philosophical framework that places principles before profit and cooperation before competitiveness. Of course our children are confused! Are marks more important than learning? Results on standardized tests are suppose to determine a child’s abilities and potential as well as a teacher’s worth. Yet teaching to the test (which is created by a centralized body and designed for mass evaluation and statistical reporting) is unethical. And how do standardized tests reflect the recognition of different learning styles and cultural backgrounds?
We have all heard the expression that only fools expect different results from repeating the same actions. This makes us a generation of fools – hypocritical and self-righteous – trying to save the children’s toys in a flood, while the children are drowning. We thought we never needed to teach them how to swim. Instead we invented better life preservers, but they were too costly to actually buy and those of us who did have them kept them in a place the children couldn’t reach because we thought they would be lost or ruined. Now we complain that they are whimpering, non-swimmers, that can’t even reach for life preservers during a flood! What’s more, they don’t appreciate all the toys they have been given by their parents who worked very hard to buy them. An analogy gone wild? I think not.
We have to stop worrying about producing workers or academics and start planning to produce individuals who love to learn, solve problems, feel a strong sense of purpose, and understand their importance or value. Reading, writing, arithmetic, scientific investigation, uncovering the past, and wanting to express themselves through the arts are all natural extensions of a genuine desire to learn and express what we’ve learned. We can’t produce these engaged, pro-active, confident individuals if we limit their development by restricting their movement, isolating them from the community and making their learning remote, teaching them to depend on technology to do their thinking for them, and encouraging passive learning instead of it being active and experiential. Most importantly, we can’t promote the idea that education should be a form of entertainment like their video games, rather than an opportunity for them to experience real life as the adventure it was meant to be. Working hard, facing challenges, feeling the exhilaration of making a difference in the world, and taking pride in their ability to rebound from setbacks is the life of a hero. And all kids, all people, dream of being heroes, not drones or living in a golden cage. When young people believe that learning is a form of liberation, creative expression, and true empowerment, and school is the place where this type of learning is going on, they will be a lined up in the morning, eagerly waiting for the school doors to open.