This week, and especially over the last two days, I’ve been repeatedly confronted with a troubling education-related concept, a thought I can only name with a word I’ve always found incredibly negative: naivete. I’ve encountered this word, this idea, specifically in the following context: as a teacher, I cannot, or should not, model an “ideal” world in my classroom; I cannot, or should not, “shield” or “protect” my students from an environment which mirrors the world beyond school; I cannot, or should not, “deny” my students the “experience” of things like dealing with bullies or coping with being excluded. I’ve also been confronted once again with the idea that education should be treated like a business or industry, because “that’s how it is in the ‘real’ world”.
I feel a deep kinship, as I struggle with these assertions, with Vivian Gussin Paley (whose You Can’t Say You Can’t Play was required reading for this week). She too struggled with assertions that her notion of enforcing a non-exclusion policy in the classroom was naive, impossible, perhaps even harmful in the long-run. She heard students as young as third and fourth-graders telling her that, nice as it would be, the world can’t work like this, and to deny children the experience of being excluded, and having to deal with it, might in fact hurt their ability to function in a flawed world where exclusion is a regular occurrence.
There is, of course, a cold logic in these statements. It’s the same logic which, perhaps, drives the development of boot-camp training techniques throughout the world’s militaries: soldiers will be going into the hell of combat soon, and so they must be beaten and challenged and drilled until such a thing seems barely a hardship. It’s the same logic which might have echoed in the minds of young Spartans as they struggled through the Agoge thousands of years ago – they survived perhaps the most systematic education system of their era, one which was entirely predicated on turning children into killing-machines, on the assumption that military strength was life for Sparta, and the ability to kill well and often was what Sparta needed from its youth.
But I feel compelled to struggle against this kind of determinism, this boot-camp approach to education philosophy, this assertion that this is the world we have and it’s best to prepare our students for disappointment, for fear, for tragedy and hate, and that this should be the core of our mission as teachers. I am, of course, being a touch melodramatic – nobody in the past week has come up to me and said “The world is terrible, and the only way to prepare students for it is to be terrible to them.” And yet…it’s hard to believe that nobody in the teaching profession feels this way. I feel like I’ve experienced it first-hand.
Here’s my beef: how is the world ever going to change unless we change it? How can we expect the world to question itself if we don’t challenge – indeed, require – the near-future citizens of that world to question it, now? In my Middle-School Learners class, we examined bullying this week, and the question of what a teacher and a school’s responsibility is regarding bullying, in all its forms. The most difficult and elemental question which came from the discussion was: is it possible to completely eliminate bullying? Is there some basic human or evolutionary impulse which drives us to develop power hierarchies, to place the biggest and strongest and most ruthless person in some place of authority (as nuanced as a King or President, or as brutally authoritarian as a soldier or cop)? I have been bullied innumerable times in my adult life; how can I really expect people so much younger and less experienced, less sure of themselves than I, to stand up to, avoid, or stop bullying, if I myself cannot?
The only coherent answer I can form at the moment is that we are human beings. We are Homo sapiens sapiens, the wisest of the wise humans, and we pride ourselves on our intellect. Intellect, passion, imagination, will, self-awareness and self-reflection – these are the only things that we excel at, beyond all other organisms on Earth. This should drive who we are, because it gives us a tool for imagining, then pursuing, what is best for us to be. It is far easier to let our genes and our instincts govern how we grow; it is far easier to shrug and say “that’s how it is, that’s how I was raised, it worked well enough for me, so why fix what ain’t broke”. It is far easier for George W. Bush to stand before a crowd echoing with knowing laughter and say “Kids say testing’s no fun. Well too bad!” After all, that’s what most of the voters remember coming from the mouths of teachers and parents and society; having paid their dues, it’s hard to believe at least some of them aren’t motivated by a desire to see these words inflicted on the next generation. It seems wrong for this not to be so.
What is there to lose by ensuring that school is not as painful for one’s children as it was for oneself? Pain is not the only way to teach.
It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, of course. The world is full of pain, so school must also be full of pain; or school was full of pain, and so the world beyond it reflects that. We’ve all had the thought, at a job with an abusive boss or gossiping co-workers: “Man, this is just like high school.” In a society where we have all had this thought, why aren’t we prepared to recognize that, maybe, the problem is high school, rather than the society it’s supposedly meant to prepare children for? Talking of instinct and evolution: we all know how painful exclusion is, how terrifying it can be to live with a bully, how much we don’t want our children to live through the same horrors. Shouldn’t we instinctively flinch away from repeating these patterns? Shouldn’t we, Homo sapiens sapiens (Americanus), be able to imagine something better, and pursue it, and benefit from it?
I know I’m in the habit of raising more questions than I answer. Let me offer something of an answer now: in my classroom, I will implement “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play”, though the wording might be different for my near-future middle-schoolers. I will make sure that bullying is discussed, deeply and often, that the bullies and the victims will receive equal care and help, and that my students will be challenged to take the universal notion that bullying is wrong one step further, into the realm of action. I will strive to create the kind of environment I would have wished for myself, when I was in their situation. I see this as both a moral and an evolutionary imperative.
Why do I see such a need for these measures? Why am I not worried that these strategies will fail to prepare my students for the looming apocalypse they might find when they pass out of my school’s doors? All I can promise is that I will never hide the world from them; but neither will I train them to fear it. I believe – and hope – that this is right.