One of my favorite geeky blogs, The Randomness Test, just made a new post about how America’s music industry has intimidated many of us into the notion that we can’t sing, and shouldn’t try to learn how.
This notion fascinates me as an aspiring educator, because I see it played out daily. There is a great deal of panic in American education today. Parents panic about their children’s learning and access to opportunity; teachers and administrators panic about how they’re perceived by the people who sign off on their funding; politicians panic about how what they do is going to affect the ire of their voter-base. Over all is a massive weight of panic about how American schools are “behind” and have to be “reformed” or we’re all “doomed”.
As we should know by now, panic is a terrible state in which to make decisions.
When we panic about students – what they’re learning, what opportunities they’ll have or not have, what jobs might open before them or close in their faces, what they’ll end up being – the students pick up on that. They get the impression that there is one narrow sliver of a path to success before them, one perfect paradigm of academic, social, and economic achievement that they must fit into – and when they learn that this is nearly impossible, they lose faith in themselves, having been told by society that they are “different” and “not good enough”. They might accept “failure” as defined by an unthinking popular consensus. They might stop asking questions about what they want to be when they grow up – or even worse, they might start accepting dull or unpalatable answers to these questions, accepting without challenge the stale judgements of guidance counselors and career-day exams.
In short, by panicking about education, by driving ourselves insane with worry over the rapidity of a first-grader’s reading development or a fifth-grader’s writing skill or a 17-year-old’s prospects for college, we are driving the fear of failure deep into American students. We are ensuring that a student who doesn’t get straight A’s and a scholarship will suffer a grievous blow to his or her confidence – a blow from which he or she might not recover. We are risking the conclusion in that child’s mind that it isn’t worth it to keep trying to learn – such a conclusion would be the ultimate failure of education.
I conclude with two beloved quotes from some of my favorite science-fiction authors:
“Don’t Panic.” – From the cover of the titular book in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“Fear is the mind-killer.” – From the “litany against fear”, spoken by Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Fear is indeed the mind-killer – it kills thought and paralyzes imagination. It should be the enemy of every teacher.