Floundering in Contradictions

I have been extremely puzzled for some time that our society seems to be eagerly pursuing mutually inconsistent goals, almost as if we are unaware that in so doing, we are trying to go in opposite directions at the same time!

Let me give you some startling examples from the realm of education, where I first noticed this phenomenon. Consider the matter of creativity and innovation. One of the things for which our country is justly famous is our ability to foster new ideas, create new inventions, develop new systems, and experiment with new lifestyles. You will look in vain throughout history for an example of a society that is more vibrant and original across the full range of human endeavors.

There is not an educator I know of who does not believe wholeheartedly that our schools should be in the forefront of preparing young people to be creative adults. Yet, there is scarcely a school or pedagogical approach in existence that considers creativity in children to be a virtue, or fosters it in practice. On the contrary, children are given no leeway to challenge or reject the accepted curriculum, to question what their textbooks or teachers tell them, or to take the initiative in designing their own paths of learning. At every turn, students are told to stick to what they are supposed to be doing – not to daydream in class, not to deviate from their homework assignments, not to engage in extracurricular activities until they have thoroughly mastered the required materials.

This profound inconsistency in our outlooks leads to another one when the basic virtue of responsibility comes into focus. Everyone praises this virtue, and every school seeks to inculcate a sense of responsibility in its students. Adults carry on about the importance of teaching children to behave responsibly, and educators follow suit by trying to instill such behavior from an early age.

The problem arises from a basic misunderstanding about what the term means. Here’s how the American Heritage dictionary defines “responsible”: “Involving personal accountability or ability to act without guidance or superior authority.” The whole point of this virtue is the exercise of personal choice in an ethical situation, where one has the freedom to act in a number of different ways. Thus, for example, we call parents responsible if they perform caring acts towards their children, as opposed to letting their children go hungry, or be poorly clothed, etc. A parent is not considered to behave responsibly if s/he only provides for their children under a court order, under the threat of a fine or imprisonment if they should fail to do so.

What do our schools do with this concept? They turn it upside down! Children are assigned tasks – homework, in-school projects, whatever – under the threat of punishment if they do not fulfill these tasks (a poor grade, or detention, or repeating the course), and then they are considered to be acting responsibly if they perform these tasks according to the required specifications! You hear it all the time: a student model of responsibility is one who performs as told; the fact that this is done under coercion is ignored, as if it made no difference. This is truly the world of double-think that Orwell predicted for the year 1984 (and come to think of it, he wasn’t off by much. . .).

Then there is the oft-heard call to have our schools produce graduates who are “life-long learners”, an admirable goal if there ever was one. Let’s think for a moment what the term means. We want everyone to be able to master new areas of knowledge throughout their lives – to have the self-confidence, the tools, and the passion to broaden their horizons and to confront the unknown without fear. The key here is the inner motivation of each individual human being to better themselves, to take the trouble to seek out new knowledge at every turn. Life-long learning begins with the actions of the learner, and does not await the intervention of outsiders.

Once again, schools reverse the process, and vitiate the concept. The dominant message of our educational system is that in order to learn something, there must be a teacher who will provide you a “class” that enables you to learn it. For schools, the learning that counts is the learning that is taught – and not just by anybody, but by particular “experts” who have themselves been taught how to teach learners and have received certificates from special schools, and from the state, attesting that they are the particular people from whom children should learn. Overlooked is the obvious contradiction between becoming a life-long learner and being told throughout your childhood that you need teachers and classes in order to learn.

Or, to touch on a less abstract theme, consider the enormous effort being put forth to keep children from becoming dependent on controlled substances. There are classes, seminars, inspirational talks given by former addicts, advertisements, threats of punishment, a host of different approaches used by our schools to convey the message that abusing drugs is dangerous, unhealthy, and self-destructive (to say nothing of being illegal and subject to punishment). Although the motto “Just say no” is much ridiculed, the gist of what children are taught is precisely that: psychoactive drugs are harmful in all sorts of short-term and long-term ways, and should be avoided.

That is all well and good, until we look at the other message the schools convey at one and the same time – namely, that the appropriate way for schools and parents to deal with children who exhibit behavior that deviates from abstract norms established by educational and psychological “experts” (that term again!) is to administer one or more drugs to those children, in order to render their behavior “acceptable”. And woe to the child, or the parent, who “just says no” to these drugs when the “professionals” have demanded that they be taken. The full force of society’s legal system is brought to bear on these people, to make them conform.

Contradictions abound. Parents are told that they must play a more active role in their children’s education (for example, by helping them with their homework every day), and at the same time parents are told that they really cannot assume responsibility for their children’s education, since that is a job belonging exclusively to the State. Schools are given the task of preparing children to be good citizens in a democratic society, and yet they are the least democratic institution in existence in this country, ones in which most of the “citizens”, the students, have no real voice in determining anything of significance to their lives. And so it goes.

How can we live with these contradictions, year in and year out? How is it possible that people as intelligent, reasonable, and open-minded as we like to think we are can blithely go on supporting a logic-defying educational system in which our children spend a dozen or more of their most formative years? When will we wake up, rub our eyes, and see the absurd reality we are foisting on our children – and finally free them from its grip?

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Death Knell for “Not on a School Night”

There are so many ways that SVS challenges the way we think about school and education. Some are deep and profound others are just strange. Recently my daughter asked if she could sleep over at a friend’s house. It was mid-week and my first thought was “not on a school night.” But of course I was aware that SVS school nights are not dedicated to homework. Even the need to get to bed early to be ready in time for the bus holds no water. We can drop off any time. So school nights do not dictate an especially early bed time (unless parent work schedules dictate).

Perhaps my New England Puritan heritage was rearing its ugly head, but on some level I thought a mid-week sleepover was “wrong,” immoral, the devil’s work! I tried arguing that she should not go to the sleepover because she still needed to get a good night’s sleep to recover from a recent cold. She informed me that she would in fact get more sleep at the sleepover, because her friend’s parents made them go to bed earlier than she usually went to bed at home. Trapped!

I quickly overcame my puritanism and dived into the details of tooth brushes and getting her a lunch the next day, much to my daughter’s delight.

This made me think about how our public school used to send home elaborate sleeping and eating instructions during the week of MCAS testing. Instructions encouraged us to put the kids to bed early. Make sure they have a good nutritious breakfast before school. All this to get an extra point or two on the test I guess.

I try to imagine Danny or Mimsy telling me to put my kids to bed early and serve them a good breakfast on Gingerbread house day. Shouldn’t JC duty require a hearty breakfast? Surely on the day the kids vote on which staff they think should return next year some special health precautions should be taken!

How strange such ideas sound in the context of SVS. I am sure many a student has come to SVS tired due to lack of sleep. My oldest daughter tells me there is a rule at SVS regarding repeated sleeping incidents across multiple days during school. So the problem is addressed by the school community on the level of expected behavior at school, where it belongs.

In the end, Holly had a great sleepover. The Pilgrims might be shocked, but it has made me realize that I should be more open minded about having a second glass of wine “on a work night.” Thanks again SVS, for opening my eyes in so many different ways.

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Wanted: A Few Good Females

Posted by permission of Philly Free School. First published on their blog, May 22, 2015. www.phillyfreeschool.org/blog

By Michelle Loucas, PFS Staff

“We must raise both the ceiling and the floor.”

-Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon during the admissions process at the Philly Free School over the past 4 years. Often parents will express interest in the school as a possible placement for their school-aged son, but will not consider it as an option for their daughter. The son is often struggling in his current school. He is too active, or too quiet, too academic, or too physical, and the conventional system is ill-suited to serve this boy’s needs. His sister, however, is often “doing just fine.” She gets good grades, or gets in no trouble, or makes friends easily, or gets along well with her teachers, or all of these. The parents, coming to see the value in a Free School education, think it might be just the thing for their son, but don’t want to rock the boat for their “well-adjusted” daughter.

This is a mistake, and not just for the daughter. Here is why.

1) The daughter is NOT “just fine.” She is sublimating her sense of self, her leadership
potential, and her critical thinking skills to fit into a system designed for economies of scale, not the needs of individual learners. She is feeding on the praise, good scores, and honor rolls of a conventional school while starving her inner creator, risk-taker, and out-of-the-box thinker.

How do I know? Because I was that girl. I nailed every test, rocked the distinguished honor roll, participated in clubs, made friends. But where was the deep learning, the hard questions, the healthy skepticism? I didn’t even know I was missing it until college, and by then, boy did I feel cheated. I was so busy meeting and exceeding the expectations of others that I never considered what it might mean to, or even that I had a right to, set and exceed my own expectations.

And the toll on girls can have subtle but tragic consequences: according to a recent study by the CDC[1], teen girls are more likely than their male counterparts to suffer from depression and alcohol use problems.

jc_females-300x225We don’t want to sell our daughters short. We want them to excel, to lead, to change things for the better. Developing the personal strength and skill to do these great things takes time, and requires an education that nurtures her leadership potential from the crucial, formative K-12 years. In a May 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review[2], Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely, and Deborah Kolb explain: “People become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose. Internalizing a sense of oneself as a leader is an iterative process.” That is, it cannot be rushed or grafted on after the fact. And while of course we want the same opportunities for our sons, these authors point out that the hill is steeper for girls: “Integrating leadership into one’s core identity is particularly challenging for women, who must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when, and how they should exercise authority.” Accepting “just fine,” or waiting for our daughters to become leaders in college, simply isn’t good enough.

2) Society gets shortchanged. The paucity of women in leadership positions in the U.S. today is a travesty. As Barnard College president Debora Spar[3] put it at a White House conference on urban economic development in February, 2012, “Women remain hugely underrepresented at positions of power in every single sector across this country. We have fallen into what I call the 16 percent ghetto, which is that if you look at any sector, be it aerospace engineering, Hollywood films, higher education, or Fortune 500 leading positions, women max out at roughly 16 percent,” Spar said. “That is a crime, and it is a waste of incredible talent.” What inventions would we all benefit from were more women in top positions? We like to think of the US as an enlightened world leader, when in fact we rank 73rd in female legislative representation, behind Bangladesh, Sudan and Pakistan[4].rosie-300x200 What new solutions to age-old global struggles would emerge with female voices being heard, at last, in the halls of power? In 2015, we would like to think that the gender gap is finally shrinking. Sadly, the truth is that women’s advancement has
flatlined in recent years.[5] What improvements to our quality of life in this new millennium would we all enjoy, if women were in charge of the way careers and families support one another? When we settle for a conventional education for our daughters, we all lose. When we give a girl the gift of a Sudbury education, like at the Philly Free School, she gets the opportunity to define leadership for herself, and to go after it with all she’s got.

3) The son gets mixed messages. Is the Free School a real school for real learners, or a last chance ranch for kids who can’t hack it in regular school? Is his future just as bright as his sister’s, or do his parents think she is bound for big ideas, while he should start thinking about manual labor? Conversely, perhaps the mixed message is that he deserves the right to direct his own education and chart his own course, whereas she ought to accept direction by others and passively accept her place in a traditional system where the status quo continues to rule the day. Either way, the parents are missing an opportunity to show that they believe in the Free School model of education and trust their children, boys and girls alike, to create a path to achievement only they can imagine.


writing_girls-300x151The school itself will also benefit greatly from the contributions of these young women. Though the school enjoys a nearly even balance of male and female students, I believe some girls are still missing out. I hope that the parents who consider the Philly Free School for their sons will also think about it for their daughters. The sky’s the limit on where that can take us. In the words of the Bard, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

[1] Mental Health Surveillance Among Children — United States, 2005–2011.
[2] Ely, Robin J; Ibarra, Hermania; and Kolb, Deborah. Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers.
Harvard Business Review. SEPTEMBER, 2013.
[3] Bennets, Leslie. Women and the Leadership Gap. Newsweek. March 3, 2012.
[4] Women in National Parliaments, as of 1st April 2015. http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
[5] Bennets, Leslie. Women and the Leadership Gap. Newsweek. March 3, 2012.

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