I’m frightened. Are you?

I’m frightened for us as a society. I’m frightened for the world my grandkids will experience.  I’m frightened of who we’ve become… a nation of self-interested acquirers.  We’ve become what the Greeks called “idiots”.

In classical Greece, this was a term of the greatest derision.  They were “Private people…People consumed with self-interest.”  There was an understanding that democratic societies dominated by “idiots” could not survive.  Their argument went like this… a society whose people are only concerned with themselves can’t look out for any kind of common good or shared interest. Such a society would lapse into poverty and then, violence. 

Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett (2020) in their book entitled The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How WE Can Do It Again, using evidence about economics, politics, society and culture, make a case that the U.S. has gone through periods of:

  • ‘I-ness’ (self-centeredness) – 1870s to 1890s
  • ‘We-ness’ (concern for others) – 1900 to 1970s and back to the present period of
  • Excessive ‘I-ness’ – late 1970s to the present.

America and “I-ness”

People only concerned with themselves can’t look out for any kind of common wealth or shared interest.  Want proof? While generally associated with more conservative economic thinking and policies, the development of  excessive ‘I-ness’, has spanned years of control by both major political parties. And, during this same span of years, we have seen an increasing reluctance to invest in social needs and/or institutions while experiencing a significant loss of jobs, increasing personal debt,  increasing costs for health care, prescription drugs, and a declining life expectancy.   There are numerous signs that our infrastructure is in trouble (roads, public lands, transportation system, etc.) and the pandemic has highlighted the ways in which issues of equity (or lack thereof) have affected our concerns for public safety, our institutions, and our faith in government.

A recent study showed that since 1970, the wages of 90% of our citizens have remained almost totally flat while the incomes of the top 1% have increased 700 times their former value.  This  development has, in many ways, strengthened the “I-ness” focus.  It has validated our fears that we actually live in a world dominated by scarcity.  In this culture, my needs are in competition with the needs of others… we’ve internalized that there’s not enough to go around.  Not enough jobs, not enough basic elements (food, shelter, clothing, etc.).  I have to get mine and your needs are in competition with mine.  In this situation “I-ness” is understandable, even predictable.

“I-ness” and education

Investment in education offers a particularly clear and troubling example. Our investment in our schools has yet to return to even the dramatically reduced levels associated with the Great Recession of 2008.  Let’s see… taxes vs. the education of our children.  Ah, lower taxes win! Self-interest wins! Idiocy wins.

I know, I’m sure this description would have been easier to read if the Greeks hadn’t chosen the word “idiot”; however, watching the collective performance of our elected leaders it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps the Greeks got it right.

Here’s a sobering reality.  Lapsing into poverty is no longer just a possibility for many of our citizens. It is a reality.  A Pew Research Center report shows that “as of 2015, middle-income households have become the minority.”  Other studies reveal that 75% of Americans can’t raise $500 for an emergency.  By 2014 80% of us lived paycheck to paycheck.  What does this shrinking share of the American Dream lead to?  It leads to selfishness.  It leads to “I-ness”.  

This is not the world I want for my grandkids or for the kids who we see each day in our schools (or in our Zoom calls).  How are we responding?  I’ve heard shouting matches, I’ve seen politization of kids’ and teachers’ lives, I seen/heard debates about who should get vaccines first.  And there is still the ever-present ranting about taxes and the cost of schooling. In the meantime, kids are moving into and back out of schools so frequently that the best investment might now be in the installation of revolving doors.

As I was reflecting on whether or not to write this negative a post, I was “gifted” a post  by Jan Resseger.  Regular followers will know that I admire Jan’s work and her commitment to equitable access to quality public education for each and every child in America. In her post, Jan cited the work of Steve Nelson, the former head of school of a private, progressive school, the Calhoun School in Manhattan. In a recent post , “Measuring the Wrong Things”,  Nelson warned of the problems in federally mandated standardized tests… a bigger issue now that President Biden has reneged on his campaign promise to halt their use.

In contrast to most critics of the nation’s standardized testing commitment, in his post, Nelson offers a different perspective…

Education reformers and so-called policy “experts” are constantly collecting and analyzing data. Many of these experts are, not surprisingly, economists. It’s not for nothing that economics is sometimes called “the dismal science.” The hostile takeover of education by non-educators is filled with intelligent sounding phrases: “evidence-based,” “data driven,” “metrics and accountability.” At every level of schooling, mountains of data are collected to inform “best practices” based on the alleged cause and effect implications of data-based instruction and the feedback gleaned from tests. 

…Throughout education, an increasingly rigid, closed loop of assessment is systematically making schools worse: Define things children should know or be able to do at a certain age; design a curriculum to instruct them in what you’ve decided they should know; set benchmarks; develop tests to see if they have learned what you initially defined; rinse and repeat.

…These behaviors (pressing academic work on young children) are a direct result of measuring the wrong thing (test scores). If we measured the right things (social development, curiosity, empathy, imagination and confidence), we would engage in a whole different set of education behaviors (play, socialization, arts programs, open-ended discovery). (Italics mine)

After more than 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced that this simple statement — “Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors” — is at the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave. Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

Measuring the right things is more complicated and less profitable. But if we measured the things that we should truly value (creativity, joy, physical and emotional health, self-confidence, humor, compassion, integrity, originality, skepticism, critical capacities), we would engage in a very different set of behaviors (reading for pleasure, boisterous discussions, group projects, painting, discovery, daydreaming, recess, music, cooperation rather than competition).

As Nelson wrote in his opening, he was tempted to write this in ALL CAPS.  The educational policies that have determined the learning experiences of our children have been created by “American Idiots”… in the truest sense of the Greek.  The entire standards and assessment business has been extremely profitable for a small number of companies.  At what cost to our children?  How about the disappearance of arts programming, the increase in test-related remediation and test preparation, the increase in technology infrastructure required to administer the large-scale assessments… assessments billed as critical to the identification and guidance of instruction for children (while results are frequently not available to teachers until the fall of the subsequent year)!

What our kids don’t need… more trauma

We are right to be frightened.  Our kids have been living with varying degrees of trauma since last March.  I use the “t” word advisedly.  Diane Ravitch shared a letter to the feds from a NY school board in New York State (Port Washington Union Free School District on Long Island) captures the situation more eloquently than I can…

The pandemic has caused our country’s children immense psychological harm and stress. Children are best served by face-to-face interactions and connections with teachers. staff. and know students, in a school building setting. Our school buildings are our children’s ecosystem, and for many, it’s their primary source of emotional and social support, (not to mention food and nutrition and sometimes even clothing). Last March. all of that was taken from them. literally overnight. Sadly. to this very day. many schoolchildren nationwide. including in New York State, have yet to return to in-person instruction, and even for those who have returned. in-person instruction is often not full time and is plagued by constant quarantines of both students and staff. 

This is a common tale. And how have we spent our time? As the school board letter demonstrates, we continue to argue whether or not large-scale assessments should be given this year… tests which cost millions and are better predictors of socio-economic status than learning.   We project the degree of “learning loss” being suffered by  our kids. We struggle with  what kind of grading policy should we be using.  Did you know…Prior to COVID our students were experiencing record high incidences of stress, anxiety, and depression?  And that was before the pandemic.  

The Implications…

We cannot hope to return to school the way it was before the pandemic and expect different results.  And we need different results.  We have ample proof that entrusting the direction, focus, and experiences of schooling, as the majority of our kids experience it, to the latest round of American Idiots and expecting different results is lunacy.  Whether we do this as individual parents, as educators, or as policy makers, we cannot continue our current path.  We cannot depend on those who created the way our kids experience school to offer different solutions. 

The Next Steps…Imagining our way to the future

 A look at the “seen” and the “unseen” realities of our experiences… a paraphrase from Untamed by Glennon Doyle 

I believe that there are two orders of things: There is the seen order unfolding in front of us every day in our schools, on our streets and in the news. In this visible order, there is contention about where our kids should be learning… remotely at home, in-person in school, a mix of both options (hybrid). There is contention about what to do with “learning loss”, etc.  We see our children experiencing and suffering from increased trauma.  We see kids failing and disengaged.  We see kids without the resources necessary to participate in remote schooling. We see increasing violence in our streets, We call this order of things reality. This is “the way things are.”

“It’s all we can see because it’s all some of us have ever seen. Yet something inside us rejects it. We know instinctively: This is not the intended order of things. This is not how things are meant to be. We know that there is a better, truer, wilder way. That better way is the unseen order inside us. It is the vision we carry in our imagination about a truer, more beautiful world—”

2 thoughts on “I’m frightened. Are you?

  1. Depressing post… but spot on! We “baby boomers” have not exercised the values of the “greatest generation” and wasted our privaleged lives in so many ways: education, politics, the environment, social mores…. all to get more and more of “things” not needed and even harmful.

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  2. In reaction to the pervasive losses of the current moment, languages of control — e.g., misapplied metrics— may become even more alluring. School re-opening questions, for example, are often draped in images of lagging behind in measured races.

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