I was reading an article in The Atlantic this morning in which the author described the failure of the Republican party to reject the President’s strategy of using a national emergency as the means to circumvent the Congressional refusal to support his long standing promise of a border wall. The author described this as a “moment of extreme national cowardice.”
I was unsettled by my reaction. Is it possible that in my own field of interest/passion our failure to respond to signs of a system of education that is not adjusting to the changing needs of its students or to the increasing levels of emotional distress experienced by them is, in fact also a moment of national cowardice… cowardice not by our national legislators but cowardice by us, as educators?
I don’t mean the kind of self-serving cowardice that we have been witnessing by federal lawmakers. I mean a kind of cowardice which is less public and less intentional. I mean a kind of cowardice which is driven by fear of change, fear of losing what we have, fear of the consequences of acknowledging that we have spent far too long trying to do the wrong thing better, fear that in preserving our comfort with what is, we have avoided doing what should be, fear of acknowledging that the ways in which we have organized our schools and our focus on schooling have stifled, not encouraged learning.
Most of us who taught or who teach now have had a minimum of 16 years as students to learn how school works. While we may/may not have learned everything that was taught, we most certainly learned “schooling”. We learned that “stuff” was organized into discrete content areas, that each of these content areas was taught in fixed blocks of time, that we learned mostly in age-based cohorts, that teachers taught, that tests measured learning, etc. Perhaps most insidiously we learned that compliance was/is more highly valued than questioning.
And so I’m suggesting that we find ourselves confronted with a challenge of courage. When we recognize that the system we have been a part of, the system that we have largely internalized is not meeting the needs of the very people it was charged with serving, what do we do? Many of us seek others who have reached similar conclusions. We seek communities of support. Far too frequently we have to leave our schools/districts to find such kindred spirits. We find safe harbors for our thoughts and feel secure in the knowledge that we are not nuts.
But what if being in a safe place is not enough? What if the impact of our commitment to “schooling” is far more damaging than the parents and community members realize or understand? Let me offer a possible analogy to this situation. Assuming we have a significant problem with boarder security, it’s safe to say that a comprehensive response to that issue has eluded us. Not surprisingly, it’s a complex issue. And so we develop a response which is more understandable… a wall. Continuing… Let’s assume that we have a problem with what kids are learning/not learning in our schools. It, too, is a complex situation. We develop solutions… better standards and large scale assessments. They prove to be our “wall”.
Recently, a member of a virtual community of educators to which I belong, suggested that she would find it hard to believe that I would be anything but gracious in my responses to other members of the community. I’ll dispel that “myth” with my next few sentences. We are living at the tail end of a story that is dying. The “story” that told us that if we went to school, did well there, got good grades, went to college and graduated, we would have a good job and a secure future for our families and for our retirement… That story is dead! Ask any parent of a recent graduate who is drowning in huge debt and depending on the “gig” economy for a job. “Schooling” isn’t working for far too many kids. We are presiding over and working in a system that is no longer working.
Not all of us are community organizers or political activists. Not all of us see the world in the same way or, perhaps, with the same sense of urgency. But what if those of us who do don’t challenge it? If we really believe that a significant part of our calling is to help kids learn who they are and how they can be in the world, is there a place for “moments of cowardice”? What would happen if we added our voices to those of striking teachers… our voices about the need not only to raise teacher recognition and compensation, but also the need to revisit the purpose of education? What would happen if we added our voices to encourage an inclusion of such a discussion in the development of the Green New Deal?
What if watching the dismantling of a system of public education in the name of choice and free enterprise, if watching the largest publishing companies profit from student data and the continued sale of both the large-scale assessments and the test prep materials designed around them, if failing to examine how the policies and practices in our own or local schools is contributing to the dramatic rise in student mental health issues is actually an act of national cowardice?