Here, in the shadow of a devastating storm in the northeast of the United States, basic priorities have become clearer. As we begin to deal with the aftermath of the hurricane, the light of day not only shows the physical devastation of the storm, but also reveals much about the interior state of our communities, and our own emotional preparedness. Beyond acts of great heroism – and there have been many – we can also notice the important attributes of character that emerge in ourselves, and our neighbors, at times of difficulty. This is a small-scale, but important revelation of our true nature and priorities; when attributes of empathy, civility, resilience, and temperament face the stress test.
Knowing ourselves – having developed self-awareness – allows us to build on our strengths and address weaknesses before life’s storms occur. Those who are equipped with this important attribute are certainly more resilient, and better able to make their way through difficult days. Should we believe that resilience is mostly genetic? I don’t think so. The seminal experiences of youth, including school, contribute to our resilience and our capacity for citizenship.
Recently, I have been collaborating with schools on projects that reflect the spirit of my research. This has involved helping students to increase critical forms of self-awareness and a sense of personal agency. At The Landon School, 5th grade boys have been involved in constructing wooden boxes that will archive projects that reflect their growing selves – writings, artwork, artifacts -throughout their school years. Having a personal archive helps knit various forms of expression together into a coherent narrative, one that will become clearer over time. Important themes and interests emerge. (As an experiment, I encourage you to take a look at a selection of your own child’s writing and artwork over a span of several years. The emerging – and distinct – person invariably shines through. Looking at your own span of expressive work can reveal much about your wishes, interests, and core traits.)
Further, the physical activity of building something is important. In my research, I discovered that most boys have never used tools, or felt that they made something beautiful. And while this has been an unfamiliar task for many students, joining hand to hammer also reveals another way of learning that is sure to feel “right” to some. The exuberance of this activity has been remarkable, and in years to come these students will value what they have built and collected.
But it is not enough to simply form a personal narrative. Our collective stories belong to a greater whole, and must be told to each other. Earlier this week, while visiting Fenn School, we did just that, as the students had a remarkable dialogue with the school’s Board of Visitors. If, as a parent of a middle-school son you have wondered what goes on in his head – what are those serious thoughts and feelings? – I sincerely assure you that underneath those mumbles is a world of deep, passionate thought and intense moral debate. It absolutely can be uncovered in the right forum. If you doubt that, check with Fenn School. Such an encounter is illuminating for an entire school community. The key is to offer a respectful platform and context in which to hear those personal narratives. Young people are waiting for us to create serious forums of exchange. These opportunities make youth more exciting.
Before visiting Fenn, I had an opportunity to visit the Thoreau cabin site on Walden Pond. Speaking of students, Thoreau said “I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living.” These words have resonance today, and are much aligned with the following excerpt from my new book On Purpose Before Twenty.
“To believe in learning as a noble and cultured proposition is entirely sensible, but that is not the image conjured when most think of education. Here, in the looming shadow of recession, education holds more significance as an antidote to a sagging social safety net, than as a means of acquiring knowledge or sagacity. Becoming a learned person occasionally earns public approval, but that end remains peripheral to the nation’s primary demands of education. The most coveted outcome is a synthesis of hope and magical thinking: good grades can be achieved by subpar students. The notion that anything can be achieved via manic, maximal effort informs national incentive programs such as Race to the Top. State commissioners of public education eager for funding and national visibility embrace such programs, and in the process make achievement – as measured almost exclusively by test scores – the purpose of education.
These initiatives appeal to the egalitarian spirit of the public as well, reassuring us that those who do not do well in school can be made to do so with enough ingenuity by school administrators, and an abundance of hard work on the part of teachers. Because good students are already receiving satisfactory grades, they receive much less concern. There is both honesty and naiveté in the will to use test scores as the key measure of whether education is working. It is an obsession that indicates where the drama of school is focused. Many fewer of us are concerned about whether students are sufficiently well educated to read and understand literature, track scientific discoveries, detect confabulation, or decode art.
It is unclear whether a society thus committed can imagine the transformative possibilities of wisdom culture, or if such a culture is sufficiently relevant to pressing social priorities. Incessant focus on outcome has the effect of making school feel as if it is primarily a platform for future success. There is a denial of the present implicit in this attitude. It is as if the experiences of childhood and adolescence were by definition lesser experiences, those which precede the important stuff of life. And because this idea is pervasive, there is a concomitant shift away from the experiential benefits of education, devaluing what it means to go to school and to devote such a large quantity of time to the cultivation of mind.
Most problematic is that any possible interest in wisdom culture is inhibited by the belief that the purpose of education is to be an accelerator of ascendance – upward mobility. And in fact there is little evidence of any meaningful resistance against this intransigence. Yet the pursuit of ascendance and wisdom are not easily compatible. Self-knowledge implies its own kind of ascendance; one that evolves through insight and synthesis. Rather than a series of Eureka moments, wisdom tends to be gathered and digested slowly. If this undertaking sounds like the exclusive terrain of scholars absorbed by the esoteric, I ask you to imagine the intensity of a group of fifteen year-olds debating the idea of destiny, the vigor with which twelve year-olds discuss the contemporary meaning of heroism, or the way in which a seventeen year-old challenges the “wisdom” of her parents’ beliefs about the purpose of college. These are but a few examples of an eagerness to deconstruct the beliefs and assumptions that bind societies together, and tear them apart. When that membrane becomes visible, and is made available for examination – both benign and adversarial – learning moves at the speed of light. No one wants the experience to end. These are the moments of critical difference. Yet questions like, “who are we? What should we do?” are not often asked in schools, because no one designed and approved the accompanying textbook.
There is no shortage of community anger at what schools don’t accomplish. But I have wondered if the ire of communities simply reflects the resentment of a society in which most have been denied a life that feels adequately meaningful and interesting? Underneath the feeling is a belief that one has not been sufficiently cared for. It stands to reason that such an awareness would lead to discontentment, and anxiety about the education of one’s children. When parents campaign for their children to be well educated, they are asserting their right to some power over their children’s fate.
School officials are equally desirous of meaningful power and influence. But consider what happens to a principal who tries to influence the pedagogy of her or his school. Any type of teaching practice considered nontraditional is likely to be challenged. There would certainly be reaction to the teaching of content considered irrelevant to primary outcome measures. Where is the possibility of creative leadership within such an institution, and how does this constriction affect the psyche of those charged with overseeing the atmosphere of a school? Arguably, the fact that so many school principals have become invested in cultivating a climate of discipline indicates the depth of their frustration. The one area left to school leaders to make their mark is the arena of discipline. Almost everybody approves of well behaved students.
The depth of our collective grief about the devolving purpose of education is exemplified in our anticipation that games are a probable template for the future of schooling. Although many disbelieve such a transformation is for the best, the powerful insurgence of games – and their psychology – has made them influential, something beyond what “games” should be. Thus our acceptance of games can be construed as a defense mechanism; something along the lines of Freud’s reaction formation, in which a person subconsciously chooses to identify with an adversary, rather than contend with the anxiety of being in conflict with that foe. And it’s not entirely irrational. There is hope for an education that instills curiosity and rapport, able to command sustained attention. At present, however, this hope may be marked by overemphasis on teaching methods, as compared with the power of content and discretionary time. Specifically, school risks the disengagement of students by way of insisting on the subjugation of attention to prescribed content, which may not easily sync with the interests of diverse learners. An education excessively stiffened by instructional mandates points to a set of priorities that inherently diminishes critical differences among students. Mandates often fail to clarify why it is important to go to school in the first place.
If a wisdom culture is to be cultivated, those charged with sustaining its ethos will have to be more than well qualified – they will have to be well cared for. When K-12 education is criticized, commentary usually focuses upon the qualification of teachers, and the techniques by which they should be held accountable. It is an approach marked by aggression more than affection. Some members of the public clamor for teachers to be treated as contracted laborers. Yet it makes little sense to compartmentalize our feelings about teachers from the feelings we have for children – especially our own. Simply stated, the health and well-being of education rests heavily upon the wellbeing of its providers.
In this regard, there is little hope of improving education without addressing the emotional and intellectual conditions of teaching itself. The notion that the spiritual life of educators is central to the mission of education is radical commonsense. How can teachers conceivably create an atmosphere that is the nexus of great education, unless or until they feel identified with the purpose of their work? Surely not all teachers come to the practice of teaching with an explicit interest in the meaning of their vocation. But I believe most look beyond the reductive notion of teaching excellence as defined by students’ grades. Young people should be invited to opine on this topic, because that is the best way to encourage their own moral consciousness, and to make them partners in the goal of educational excellence. Through such a dialogue, teaching’s scope of interest is broadened, and teaching is elevated from professional obligation to craft. One should not even ponder the possibility of a career in education without an aspiration to create something beautiful.
Current thinking about teachers indicates how far we have drifted from a humanistic, wisdom-centric perspective of what teaching is, and what it should accomplish. The care of teachers is foundational to building a wisdom culture. That care should directly address the intellectual dimensions of teaching, and must treat teaching as a wisdom-centric endeavor. Teachers are provided with ample professional education, but most of it addresses either teaching habits, or summarizes research which does little to encourage a passion for teaching. It is dishonest for a society to demand greater performance and outcome (including happy, well-adjusted youth), but be ignorant of the means by which this is achieved. Caring for teachers is not a matter of deference or simplemindedness. It is an acknowledgment of how teaching touches young minds.
When students aspire to be teachers themselves, they are communicating their identification with the ideals of teaching. One’s best teachers are an enduring memory; their care is an affirmation, some reassurance that one does not have to face the rigors of school – and growing up – alone. School is a community of many such caretakers, and in the minds of students they exist, like parents, for the benefit of the young. Of course this is an ideal, but for many, it is their first exposure to a life driven by vocation. To be taught by someone whose satisfaction with the task is palpable is comforting and inviting. It seems important for schools to proceed with an intention of living up to that ideal.”
I certainly hope these ideas speak to your own thoughts and concerns. As always, it is a privilege to present them to you. To read more about what it means for schools to cultivate a wisdom culture, check out the entire essay in On Purpose Before Twenty is available internationally on many sites including Amazon. For your convenience, here are links to some online sites. Cheers!
Copyright Adam Cox, 2012