We recognize the growing complexity of the challenges facing schools today and we seek answers in educational reform and innovation. There have been enough educational reform movements - as well as political, social and economic reforms — throughout history, yet we must genuinely ask, have human problems been resolved by them?
Instead of another innovation, let us consider: 'What is the world that we are educating students to enter?' As we look carefully and realistically for a moment at the world for which we are preparing our students, we see a strong duality. The infinite mystery of the natural world, the beauty of mountains, clouds, plants, water, and the cosmos; the intricacies of evolution and the human body. Our young children seem to be in daily contact with this sacredness, the magic and mystery of the natural world. Joy and awe overflow from them in squeals of delight, soft poetry and questions. When our children get a bit older, they begin to see another aspect of the world - a world equally mysterious and awesome - where killing is outlawed in our private lives yet in national life it remains the honoured procedure for criminals and war; a world where principles of equality and freedom were professed in the constitution while the simultaneous genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans continued for decades; and a world where respect for all peoples is declared by religious and political leaders, but armies of fundamentalist and nationalistic groups form and reform to glorify conflict. Our children see a natural world out of step with its human inhabitants, a world of hypocrisy, contradiction, and chaos. This incontrovertible schizophrenia from all corners of the planet, must give us pause. In Krishnamurti' s words, 'our house is on fire'.
With this house burning before our eyes, we are impelled to put the fire out, but whatever has been suggested by religion, psychology or government has not worked. . . in fact, are we separate from the fire? Puzzled, frustrated, sick at heart, the questions arise: What causes the fire? What fuels it? What will put it out?
As I ask these questions, I am going to focus on schools. My supposition is that by reviewing several common educational practices we may discover what societal dysfunctions begin or are perpetrated in the name of education.
At the heart of this inquiry needs to be respect, meaning, 'to look again, or to look back' at someone or something that may have been passed over before. According to Richard Simonelli, in 'looking again' we learn something about the phenomenon of the scotoma or blind spot. The scotoma, from the Greek skots, meaning darkness, is a spot in the visual field which just doesn't see. We are full of psycho-social or cultural blind spots. We may think we understand this fire, but how often have we thought that we knew something for sure, and have come to find out that we didn't?
It is my intention to carefully consider some of the blind spots upon which schools have traditionally been organized. I am asking us to look again at our ideas and assumptions about education, at ourselves, at the world we have created, to see if together we may illuminate our incoherencies.
The code word for educational reform movements is 'excellence' . However, in the Greek etymology excellence also includes the concept of arete, which means fulfilling the sacred within each person. Excellence within the current educational reform indicates a spiritual wasteland. With increased testing, stiffer requirements, longer school days and year, and the perpetuation of a world grounded in hierarchy, competitive market, and material success, certainly neither spiritual awakening nor self understanding are priorities in our schools.
Schools are servants of the state and are blamed for the nation's crisis. The message for educators is that students need to know more, work harder, be more obedient, be tougher competitors, and to excel at the expense of others. Schools are becoming increasingly morally bankrupt, competitive race tracks for educational supremacy. The crisis is, to a large extent, the consequence of the very competition that we are being asked to intensify. In the name of cost effectiveness, accountability and minimal competency, schools are sterile, dehumanized and depersonalized institutions at odds with the young people they are intended to serve.
John Dewey said, 'Is school a preparation for life or is it part of life?' To champion the former means that students are never there and are always being asked to 'get ready'. Such a position means schooling is something to be endured, a training, a means to an end. School as part of life gives it meaning anew.
With great respect, we're 'looking again' at the truth of our schools, and knowing that the possibility of blind spots exists. We need to return to the big questions: Do schools bring us closer to what matters? Who thrives at schools? What ails schools? What do our children show us that they need? What principles do we profess but fail to practise in day to day operations?
Teachers and parents continue to organize and label children according to 'ability'. The innate ability paradigm breeds a system of unearned advantages and disadvantages throughout a person's entire life. When a child develops a deflated self image, due to peer, parent and/or teacher assessment, the child becomes trapped in a 'can't do self-fulfilling prophesy'. Likewise, inflated self images create other problems.
We have not explored sufficiently nor understood the nature of thinking, the structure of our psyches and the limitations of thought. We assume the brain becomes skilled with memorization and repetition; however, we can see that no amount of this kind of learning cultivates personal integrity.
Educational theorists extol self esteem, yet we continue to compare, rank, grade, coerce, pressure and punish students. Cap and gown ceremonies for kindergartners and 'student of the week' awards for acts of ordinary thoughtfulness or human kindness exemplify systems which perpetuate the development of self centredness, not self worth. We profess a social ethic of justice but we promote competition and unequal distribution of privileges, awards, and prizes.
The values which are inculcated in schools with gimmicks and rewards breed a shallow and false sense of integrity. The ideals of honesty, loyalty, and compassion, along with the feelings of hate, greed, anger, sadness, fear need to be understood through opportunities for reflection and inquiry into the nature of our thinking and feeling processes. Goodness cannot be mandated by state curriculum and ordained by the teachers, but must be discovered by each individual in homes and schools which honour a spirit of self understanding.
We do not encourage students to learn how to sensitively and in a spirit of respect question the things they do not understand. Questions such as, 'What is god?' or 'Why am I feeling so bad, mad, lonely, or miserable?' or 'Why do people kill?' are held very privately (with one's therapist). Schools give token importance to them and teachers often feel uncomfortable entertaining such conversations with students. When students are expected to show blind obedience to school authorities and deference to parents and religious leaders, we are asking children to forego the delight of finding out the truth for themselves. We have not focused on the most important things in life but have rather unwittingly reinforced a contempt for the kind of deep inquiry and commitment to truth that any community of integrity requires.
Schools and communities also encourage a spirit of unsafe contests and competition where referees and umpires are relied upon to determine the tone, tempo and fairness of games among children. A spirit of simple, unorganized, neighbourhood play is absent. Aggression, showmanship, and one-upmanship are at the core of our school sports and athletic programs, so deeply conditioned that it remains another scotoma. The attitude that the school of 'hard knocks' will prepare students for life perpetuates acts of cruelty in the form of humiliation, ridicule, sarcasm, teasing, and bullying. The recovery of our students' psycho-social and intellectual health and development is costly to the culture.
Large scale impersonal school operations, lacking good food, light, heat, ventilation, realistic student- teacher ratios and materials demonstrate on a daily basis the value of education in our society. It is no mystery why some of our youth express alienation and dis-enchantment, seeking personal gain, excess and glossy lifestyles. Managing students with machine-like bells, systems of mainstreamed, pull out, and gifted programs which are out of synch with daily rhythms and contact with nature, further antagonize relations within schools.
The points raised thus far are sufficient to elucidate the plight of paradox and contradiction that face children, teachers and parents in schools. We can see that educational reforms, in order to be more than a temporary palliative, must include an inquiry into the nature of ourselves. By nurturing the impulse to understand oneself, education is seen as a sacred rather than profane activity. As one parent said, 'You are not truly educated until you can look into the face of every human being and see yourself.'
A presentation to educators at the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) Annual Conference in San Francisco, California in February 1997.