Friday, October 30, 2020

The Disease of Productivity

I've been struggling lately with feelings of guilt. Nothing too bad, but no matter how hard I try to shut it up, there's a little voice nagging me: I should be working more, working harder. Objectively, there is no reason for this. I'm meeting my obligations. I'm not letting anyone down, but whenever I choose to read a novel in the middle of the day or take a long walk in the autumn sunshine, I'm cautioned that I'm wasting time. I'm pretty good at silencing the voice, but it reasserts itself whenever what I'm doing isn't somehow moving my life forward. 

What a bummer. 

If only I'd not wasted all that time, I might have that big house by now, that vacation home, my daughter's inheritance would be secure, I'd have reached all my retirement goals. If I'd only worked more I could now just relax without a care in the world. I could finally afford to be irresponsible. But I'm not where I should be and it's my own fault. If only I was more motivated or driven or fearful, I'd be somewhere by now. 

I can go down that rabbit hole, but then I remember that I'm not alone. Indeed, I don't think I know anyone who is not at least a little bit afflicted with this disease of guilt over, say, prioritizing a session of backgammon over the precious "to do" list. 

Yes, of course there is always something I could be doing. That is the nature of life. There are always dishes that need washing or phone calls to return, but if I heeded the voice, I'd spend every waking hour being "productive," which I don't think is the same thing as living. We live in a culture in which we are made to feel guilty for resting and recreating, like it's dessert or something. We've learned to judge ourselves for our use of time and if it's not valued according to measurable criteria like money or a zeroed out email inbox, we deserve what happens to us.

And we're being infected with this disease at younger and younger ages. There was a time, not too long ago, that stuff didn't "get real" until at least high school. It was only then that your grades began to matter, but now we have preschoolers receiving academic tutoring. We have experts warning us that our five-year-olds are falling behind. It shouldn't surprise us that the incidence of mental health issues like anxiety and depression is at an all time high amongst our nation's children, and I'm certain it's spiked over the last several months as we've strived to make them "productive" again by sticking them in front of computer screens.

There is something wrong with all of us. We find ourselves feeling guilty (or at least we're supposed to feel guilty) for actually doing those things that we would rather be doing. And we feel good (or at least we're supposed to feel good) about doing those things we would rather not be doing. It seems backwards to me and it seems backwards to every young child I've ever met. 

In many ways, reading, writing, and arithmetic are side issues. It's this lesson of productivity that is the most "important" thing we try to teach children in our schools. And man, it's a very hard lesson to learn because it flies in the face of both instinct and reason. It takes us a decade or longer to teach it to them, and even then, many simply can't learn it. But it's so important that we drug them, we risk their mental health, and we punish them, all in the name of productivity. 

I have no illusion that society will change any time soon and I've been hearing that nagging voice for so long that I've given up on making it go away, but we don't have to keep doing this to our children. We can let them play. We can give them their childhood. The lessons of productivity will come soon enough, but maybe, if they've been allowed to actually live, they'll see it for what it is. Maybe they won't feel guilty. Maybe, if they learn to feel good about doing what they want to do, they'll know that productivity is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And maybe, if enough children have an actual childhood, we'll wind up with a world of adults who know that it's not just okay, but an unqualified good to read a novel in the middle of the afternoon.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Rationality Cannot Exist Without Emotions

There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom. ~Friedrich Nietzsche  

The stereotypical argument used to exclude women from business, science, politics, the military, or indeed just about any category of public life is that they are "too emotional." Emotions, the theory goes, renders them incapable of making rational decisions. Most of us, of course, instinctively recognize this as a baseless patriarchal assertion, one that is disproven every day as we find women succeeding in every area of society.

Chihuly glass

As a preschool teacher, I've learned that emotions have no gender. Every child cries. Every child has tantrums. Every child experiences fear, frustration, envy, joy, disappointment, and melancholy, and gender has nothing to do with how and how often. As children grow older, however, society tends to be more accepting of girls' expressions of the full range of emotions, while boys quickly learn to hide their "negative" feelings behind stoicism and anger, the only public emotion "allowed" to them. A boy who cries or is afraid is often mocked. A boy who smiles too much is often considered flighty or unserious. This doesn't mean, however, that boys and men don't feel the same emotions as girls and women, only that we are not as free to express them.

We are all emotional, but that begs the question: is it possible to be too emotional? I suppose the answer is yes, to the degree that our emotions become incapacitating or destructive. We all have those moments when we flip our lids, curl up in a ball of anxiety, or trudge through days as if under a dark cloud. When it becomes chronic we call it mental illness. So yes, I suppose it is possible to be too emotional, but it is equally possible, and perhaps even common, to not be emotional enough. It's only through our emotions, not our intellects, that we fully connect with one another, understand, empathize, and communicate. Without emotion, we are but automatons, doomed to stand outside of humanity either as outcast or villain. We all have our times when we become emotionally exhausted, when we detach for a time. When our emotional detachment becomes chronic we call it sociopathy.

It's tempting to conclude that it's all about finding a balance, but there's no fulcrum here upon which to rest an easy center. Our emotions are too important for that. They are to be felt fully and honestly, not balanced out with cool rationalism. Indeed, rationality cannot exist without emotion.

For much of the 20th century scientists were convinced that emotions played no role, and were perhaps even an impediment to rational thought, which provided much of the "scientific" underpinning for denying women (and children for that matter) rights and opportunities. But more recent research has found that emotions play a critical role in our ability to make decisions. Rather than clouding our judgement, the neural systems that underlie emotions are essential to high-level cognition, which is to say decision-making. One of the pioneers in this research is an American-Portuguese neuroscientist named Antonio Damasio. Much of his work has been done on patients whose brains have been injured and who, as a result, are missing the connection between their sensory input and emotions. The rapid beating of their heart at the prospect of crossing a narrow bridge, for instance, doesn't provoke fear. Based on traditional views, one would conclude that this fearless person would be more clear-headed and, therefore, be more inclined to making rational decisions. But Damasio has found the opposite to be true: his emotionless patients proved incapable of making reasonable decisions. This is a conclusion that has now been replicated numerous times by other scientists.

In other words, we need our emotions in order to make sound judgements and our greater doubt should be saved for those who do not credit their emotions because they are more likely, according to science, to be the irrational ones. But like much of what scientists are "learning" about humans, this is actually ancient knowledge, long understood by artists and mystics alike. As Lao Tzu wrote in the 6th century BC, "Let your feelings flourish and get on with you life of doing." That is, and always will be, the path of wisdom.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

"Well, Actually . . ."

The man was wearing a T-shirt that read: I don't need Google . . . I already know everything.

It's a joke, of course, one that pokes fun at the know-it-alls and mansplainers out there, including, possibly, himself. I like to think the shirt was a gift from his wife, or maybe his daughter, and the fact that he wears it is an act of self-awareness.

I'm not going to wade into whether or not this is really a gender-linked phenomenon, but we all know what it's about. We've all been annoyed, bored, and even insulted by those who would insist, evidence aside, that they know everything. Either they are rudely correcting you or they are foisting unsolicited information onto you. Most of us have developed defenses that activate when someone starts by saying, "Well, actually . . ." My usual strategy is to just nod along until they finally take a breath, then feign an important phone call or an impending appointment, anything to break away. Although there have been times when I've been sufficiently provoked that I let them have it, especially when it feels they are attempting to wield their "information" to exert power over me. The worst is when I feel trapped, with no option but to tolerate it.

Whatever the case, I think we can all agree that know-it-alls and mansplainers are annoying and infuriating, which is why we mock them and strive to avoid doing it to others.

But I ask you, how does mansplaining differ from much of what passes for education in the US? As a child in school, you are surrounded by adults who hold power of you, and who persist in lecturing on topics of their own choosing. You've not asked them for this information. It is being foisted upon you no matter how tedious or irrelevant you find it. Heaven forbid that you try to change the subject to something that you are interested in or try to insert your own ideas or theories. And you can't just walk away. Even worse, they test you on it. Seriously, imagine if the mansplainers in your life had the power to make you not only attend to them in silence, but to read chapters on the topic of their choice, then write an essay about it. Is it any wonder that children zone out, learning to nod along, feigning attention? Is it any wonder that some of them are provoked enough to resort to disruptive behavior? This isn't the teacher's fault, necessarily, because they have been handed a curriculum from the know-it-alls in charge, and they have to get through it according to a schedule, so while they themselves might not be natural 'splainers, they are forced into it by a system that requires a whole lot of "Well, actually . . ." The worst part is that much of what our know-it-all schools are attempting to mansplain to children is stuff the kids could easily, if by some bizarre circumstance they should ever need to know it, just look up with a Google search. 

Yes, some children thrive in school. Others can't stand it and rebel. But most kids, most of the time are left nodding along, waiting for the droning to stop. What an incredible waste of everyone's time. This is not education, it is mere schooling, the main lesson being that you just have to tolerate it until recess or the weekend or the next holiday when you can finally pursue your own interests, think your own thoughts, and answer your own questions. That's when education happens. This is what school could be if we adults would would just learn to shut up and listen.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

There Has Never Been a Better Time to Try

Even before the pandemic, child care in the US was an "industry" already in the midst of a slow motion crisis. Care takers and teachers were already leaving the low paying, low prestige profession. Child care centers and preschools where already being shuttered, unable to make ends meet. Tuition costs were already as high or higher than many middle class families could afford. Two thirds of the nation's children already lived in "child care deserts," regions that simply didn't have enough spots to meet demand. Between 2005 and 2017 the number of licensed, home-based child care businesses dropped 44 percent. All of this has been happening over the course of decades. 

The advent of Covid on our shores simply accelerated everything. Costs of running centers during the pandemic have jumped an average of 47 percent, while enrollment has plummeted, making it impossible to make ends meet. Estimates are that one in three child care centers have closed since March of this year with most of them unlikely to re-open given that they were already teetering. Many of those teachers and care takers who were laid off are never coming back because they've found jobs that pay more than the $24,000 annual poverty wages the average child care worker earns, and most of those jobs came without paid time off or health care.

Covid has not decimated the sector, it has just added grease to the already slippery slope down which the whole thing was already sliding. And, of course, it has forced our policymakers to finally, finally notice that without child care, the entire economy is in jeopardy. It has revealed the extent to which our entire robber baron economy exploits low income women, and women of color in particular, who make up a sizable segment of our profession. It has revealed the gut-wrenching decisions that families, and mothers in particular, have to make between their careers and their children. It has revealed how little we value children who are clearly just in the way of a buzz saw economy.

Not long ago, I was speaking with the CEO of a midsized Seattle-area company, a man who is now wealthy by most standards, but who, in the tradition of entrepreneurship grew his business from nothing. He objected to my portrayal of the situation, insisting that he had managed it just fine with his three kids. "My wife," he said, "never complained about it." Do I need to mention that he is a white man? If I didn't know it before, reading Isabel Wilkerson's book Caste, makes it clear that we are not confronting a crisis made by Covid, but rather by our caste system that places white men and their concerns at the top, with children and women, and especially women of color, at the bottom. The crisis in childcare simply hasn't been seen as a problem because it has rarely directly impacted white men. And even now, the only reason they're paying attention to it is because they need to "get the economy reopened." They're now throwing a little temporary money at it, a bridge over the deepest part of the mud puddle, but you know, it's still a mud puddle. By their grossly inadequate actions, it's clear that the caste of white men who runs things isn't even close to grasping the depths of the growing abyss before us. But I expect it won't be long before even their wives won't be able to protect them from seeing the truth.

The care and raising of children has always been the central project of every civilization that has ever existed, yet we have, in our national disfunction, relegated it to a low-paying, low-prestige pink-color ghetto. This has been true for decades. The only difference now is that powerful white men are noticing it.

I want to "re-open" as much as the next person, but there is likewise a piece of me that is happy for this disruption. Remote learning doesn't solve anything because child care can't be done remotely. Smaller classes in larger spaces can't be sustained when the centers and schools are closing and educators are leaving the profession in droves. Homeschooling children, let alone merely caring for them, is beyond the capacity for far too many families who were stretched thin as it was. We are going to have to completely restructure how we manage this central project of caring for the children. And it's a conversation that we can't afford to leave to powerful white men.

I know it's going to take money and lots of it. I also know that our wealthiest citizens are wealthier than they have ever been before in history. That wealth was built at the expense of our children and the women who care for them. You doubt that? Just look what's happening to the economy without them. And it's going to get worse the longer we don't act. I have no problem insisting that these titans of industry pay for it. If they were decent humans (which is often in doubt), they would be lining up to pay their taxes for this. I know it's going to take a concerted effort to raise both the pay and prestige of our profession, something that more money will certainly help, but I also suspect that ongoing education and training, as well as such necessities as paid time off, health care, and other benefits will be necessary to attract and retain the best and the brightest. And, of course, there is the whole issue of systemic racism and sexism and childism that looms over it all. 

Parents and educators are natural allies, brought together around our commitment to children. If you doubt our power, please note that we have unintentionally brought the economy to a grinding halt and it's going no where until we figure this out. Even if Covid went away this morning, we wouldn't be able to go back to the old normal even if we wanted to. A new better normal is the only way to rebuild. And we can't leave it up the powerful white men because they will likely just turn it all over to other powerful white men who are motivated by profit over caring for children. It's on us. I don't know if we can make the powerful white men do what's right, but there has never been a better time to try.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Secret to Breaking the Ugly Habits of "Tough Love"

Long ago, I became acquainted a middle school teacher who came across as a smart, jolly guy. Talking with him in social circumstances, he gave me the impression that he was likely one of the more popular faculty members at his school: casual, hip, and funny. I was a new teacher back then and not knowing many male educators, I looked at him as a potential role model. One day, we were talking about handling difficult behaviors. I explained how I was working with children on some challenging issues. He put his hand on my back condescendingly as he informed me that "it gets a lot worse" in middle school. "If you could see what I deal with, you'd be a lot more firm in preschool. That's where we can nip it in the bud." Then he explained his approach to me, "Oh, I'm their best friend as long as things are going well, but the second they cross the line, I come down like a house of bricks."

I let our friendship cool after that. Maybe, I thought, middle schoolers really are that much different than preschoolers, but there was no way I would ever come down like a "house of bricks" on anyone, let alone the young children with whom I was entrusted. Not long after this, another friend, a child psychologist, told me about an eight-year-old boy he had seen for the first time because his parents were concerned about his behaviors. The boy came into his office for his getting-to-know-you appointment, took his seat, and declared, "I'm bad because I'm sad." As my friend said, "That kid saved his parents a lot of money."

If you listen to some people, maybe even most people, you would think that the leading theory for why children behave badly is that they need more "tough love," the idea being to treat kids harshly, sternly, or punitively "for their own good." This will, the theory goes, somehow scare them straight. There are lots of variations on this idea, ranging from assaulting children under the label of spanking to systematically restricting their freedom or taking away their "privileges" until the desired behavior or attitudes are achieved. It's a method not supported by science, of course, because the underlying cause of destructive behavior, as this insightful eight-year-old knew, is almost always sadness.

You can't "house of bricks" someone out of sadness. You can't punish it out of them. You might be able to frighten or shame someone enough that they refrain from bad behavior for a time, but since the sadness hasn't been addressed it will continue to come out destructively, perhaps turned inward, but destructive nevertheless. The therapist's job is to help patients discover the source of their sadness, which might be hidden under a hard shell of anger, especially with older children and adults who have had decades during which to suppress their emotions. Only then, only once the sadness is identified, can healing start to happen. Tough love will only add fear and shame to the already heavy burden of sadness.

As Oscar Wilde wrote, "The best way to make children good is to make them happy," which is such an obvious, common sense thing that I wonder how such toxic ideas like "tough love" ever come into existence. But we see this punitive mentally everywhere we look. It's so pervasive that children are even being policed by their teachers through their computers in this era of pandemic, with expulsion and even threats of arrest being applied to children (not to mention the petty day-to-day policing of being required to ask permission to use the toilet while in your own home). It's the same counterproductive "house of bricks" approach used in society at large. Just as black and brown Americans are far more likely to find themselves the victims of harsh policing, black and brown children are more than three times more likely to face harsh policing at school for the same behavior as white children. The tough love of policing can only make a person sad, afraid, and ashamed, emotions that always lead, ultimately, to destructive behavior. 

The secret to breaking the ugly habits of "tough love" is to listen, of course, to actually be their "best friend" without the conditional threat of a "house of bricks." I could even argue that listening is what actual love looks like. This is true for all people, but particularly for our youngest citizens. That middle school teacher was right about one thing, we can nip it in the bud, but only if we listen, only if we give children the opportunity to talk their way through to their sadness. Above all, that is the curriculum. Of course, we can never make another person happy as Wilde suggests, but when we listen, when we love, we empower our fellow humans to make themselves happy. From there, anything is possible.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Friday, October 23, 2020

It Might Not Be a Phase

Artwork by: Tether/Jason DeCruz

The girls had never met before the day they met on the swings. They struck up a conversation and within the hour they were hugging one another, giggling, and tossing around the phrase "best friends." One of them called out to me, "Teacher Tom, my name tag says I'm Monica, but my real name is Anna!" Her best friend added, "My name is Anna too!" So, going forward, that's what I called them both: Anna. Later, they told me that they were, in fact, twins, so that's what I called them: Twin Annas.

At any given moment, I'm calling someone Superman or Elsa or Kai (the Red Ninja) despite having previously known them by another name. Usually, it turns out to be a temporary moniker, one that children are trying on, like a costume, and having others refer to you by your chosen name is part of figuring out how it feels to be someone new or different. We tend to think of it as cute when children "pretend" in this way, but it is part of the most important work any of us will ever do: the project of discovering the truth about who we are.

When children assume new names they are exploring themselves from a new perspective, one not constrained by the limits that are placed upon them by the labels that have been imposed upon them by the outside world. When you are Superman, for instance, you are decidedly not a "little boy." When you are Anna you are no longer Monica. When you are the Red Ninja or Elsa you are strong, you are powerful, traits that young children don't often have in their day-to-day lives. What if I'm not who everyone tells me I am? What if they're wrong?

Most adults, most of the time, accept this type of childhood experimenting, understanding it as normal . . . up to a point. We put the kibosh on dramatic play that we view as too violent, for instance. Or we forbid the use of cosmetics. Many of us are uncomfortable when our children play around with our narrow concepts of gender. We fret and worry when they move on from fictional characters and begin to imitate the dress, language or behavior of older children who we would prefer they not look up to as role models. And then there is the "bad influence" of pop stars and professional athletes and reality TV stars. It's hard for us to allow our children their experiments, especially as we contemplate their futures. What if this isn't just a phase? What if they discover that this is who they are?

It might not be a phase. They might discover that this really is who they are.

The temptation is to place "not in my house" restrictions on them, but they will not always be in our house. They will one day move out where they will, as we all did, continue the vital work of figuring out who they are, and it's not in their job description to make us comfortable. We each must find our own path, even if it's the one less travelled. It's not easy, but as parents, we best support our children at whatever age by listening, offering our advice and opinions calmly and non-judgmentally, calling them by their chosen names, and by assuring them that our love is forever. The rest is up to them.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Thursday, October 22, 2020

"What Makes Their Beauty is Invisible"

My wife is a big supporter of mine, although she isn't always happy with my middle class bag lady habit of collecting bits and bobs, doodads and doohickies, parts and portions. I ate the same brand of yoghurt for over a decade, not because the product was so special, but because I wanted to keep adding to my collection of matching containers which we used around the school for everything from storage to sand play. There's a box on the kitchen counter for collecting the debris from our lives, another box in the laundry room is there for the larger stuff, and there are informal piles and stacks in drawers and side tables throughout the apartment. I know she lives with the perpetual urge to toss it all out behind my back. The fact that she fights that urge tells me how much she loves me.

Most of what I collect winds up in the "glue gun box" a large tub of miscellaneous garbage through which the kids rummage for materials with which to construct their hot glue gun creations. Consistently, among the most popular items to be found in the box are the leftover shells from my asthma inhalers. I know, it sounds a little gross, I suppose, but I do sanitize them at home in my dishwasher, and no matter how many I've collected, they all get used within days.

The sort of letter L shape makes them perfect "blasters" with which to arm a space ship. Their sturdiness allows them to be used as a solid foundation. The fact that there is a moveable part (the cap comes off and on) lends them to being secret passageways into the interior of a castle. Their pale blue color makes a nice decorative accent, perfect for any occasion. Whatever their beauty, the children see it, and utilize them as fast as I can provide them.

Audrey was particularly proud of the parking garage she had built, a comparatively massive structure she spent an entire afternoon assembling that featured one of my inhaler casings front and center. Not all the kids want to take their creations home, which means that they eventually get disassembled and returned to the glue gun box for yet another reuse, further delaying their inevitable journey to a landfill. But Audrey's project was going home with her that afternoon. Her mother, of course, enthused over it, asking all kinds of questions until she came to the inhaler remnant at which she balked, looking at me accusingly. As Audrey explained how it worked, her mother let me know with her eyes that she was sufficiently repulsed, later telling me that her plan was to dispose of it ASAP.

Months passed. The school year was over and Audrey moved on to kindergarten, although I would occasionally continue to see her since her younger siblings were still enrolled at Woodland Park. Another school year passed. Early the following year, Audrey's mother found herself responsible for overseeing the hot glue guns. I had just replenished the supply of inhaler cases that morning. 

"I recognize these," she said, holding one up between pinched fingers. "In fact, I still have one at my house." It seems that she was never able to carry out her plans and Audrey had kept her preschool glue gun project in her room all that time, by now a beloved memento from a bygone era. "She still even plays with it! And this thing is her favorite part!"

I was reminded of the classic book, The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery):

You are only a little boy for me just like a hundred thousand little boys. And I don't need you. And you don't need me either. I am only a fox just like a hundred thousand foxes. But if you tame me, we will need each other. You will be unique in the world for me. I will be unique in the world for you.

Audrey had tamed that singularly problematic piece of trash, imbuing it with significance, importance, performing the magic of turning it into something other than one of the hundred thousand other pieces of trash. That's why it had outlasted so many of the other more "proper" toys that had flowed through her life over the course of years. 

It is the time you have spent for your rose that makes your rose so important.

This is what children do with their world if we'll let them, if we don't insist that only we know the value of things. And the real hero of this story is Audrey's mother who understood, despite herself, that my old inhaler casing was important.

"Yes," I said to the little prince, "whether a house, stars, or the desert, what makes their beauty is invisible!"

The other hero is my wife who also trusts that beauty is there, even if it's invisible to her.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

"A Theory of Everything" and Why The Cynics Have it Wrong

Even a casual survey of human history gives us an understanding why there are always those eager to predict that these are the end times. Savagery and stupidity appear to be hallmarks of every epoch. Our fondest memories can always be ruined by taking a step back and realizing that we might have been having a good day or year or life, but we were surrounded by the unknown suffering of others. Acts of god aside, all the pain humans suffer comes at our own hands. That we, as a species, possess the capacity for evil is beyond question.

As much as I hate it, the cynic is always right. If we just wait long enough, it will all go wrong. Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth, will always, as the cynics predict, bring even our loftiest intentions to ruin. And it seems to me that selfishness is the eighth sin that, like the ring of Mordor, rules them all. Cynicism, as author Rutger Bregman writes, is "a theory of everything." And it's true. No matter what argument one uses against their dark views of humanity, their answer of "Just wait" will prove them once again to be right.

Buddhism acknowledges this truth by conceding that "life is suffering." Other philosophies and religions lay down rules for us to follow. Advocates of specific governmental systems claim that theirs is the one that best mitigates our worst instincts. But if the goal is to somehow make humankind good, they have all failed, clearly. Just listen to the cynics who are over there in the corner chuckling darkly amongst themselves, right again, as usual.

This is all true. It always seems to go wrong. It is, it seems, the destiny of our species to forever fall, no matter how high we aspire to climb.

So how is it that so many of us still aspire? If the cynic is always right, why do I, and so many of my fellow humans, still refuse to give in? 

When our daughter was little and she would be stricken with fear or sadness over some evil in the world, I would try to calm her by pointing out that most people, most of the time, all around the world, are having a regular, even boring day; that the evils exist, but at any given moment, most of us are loving and caring for one another. Mister Rogers' mother would tell him when he was scared by something in the news "to look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." What cynics do is focus on the evil, entirely ignoring the day-to-day goodness that fills up all that time and space in between. And one thing the cynic never does is offer any sort of solution beyond their shrug of glum summation.

Our capacity to aspire, to hope, to care, to help, and to love far outweighs the evil in humanity. Indeed, it's so prevalent, so common, that it's not even news. If human goodness were as rare as the cynics assert, then it would be acts of kindness that made the news. The headline would read: Neighbor Buys Groceries for Elderly Shut-In Expecting Nothing in Return! Woman Comforts Man Who was Upset! Strangers Welcome One Another Warmly!

Having known thousands of young children in my life, I can honestly say that I've never known an evil one. If the cynics were right, you would think I'd have met one by now. Oh sure, these brand new humans all do "bad" things at times, but let me assure you that this isn't evidence of an essentially evil nature cracking through some sort of thin veneer of goodness as the cynics would have it, but rather exceptions to how they are most of the time, which is loving and caring, helping, aspiring and hoping. When I stand watching my young friends play together on the playground, cooperating, sharing, and inviting one another, which is what most of them do most of the time, I see humanity, not at its best, but rather at its most normal and even boring. There are conflicts, of course, but most amount to little more than raised voices, left behind them in a moment as they default to the old, dull, work-a-day of loving and caring. Nothing to report here.

That human evil exists is beyond question, but goodness far outnumbers and outweighs badness. That is our strength and our hope. It's so easy to fall under the sway of the cynics, but they are ultimately the lazy ones, always scanning the headlines to prove their darkest points. But they underestimate us. "We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility," says Mister Rogers, and that is what most of us are doing, most of the time. Human nature is seen when we watch those children on the playground. When someone falls, they all gather around, like antibodies or endorphins, coming in concern to help, dropping their playthings and setting aside their games to be there where they are most needed. This is the solution that the cynics ignore.

Oh, we live in dark times, no doubt, but the cynics cannot hold me because I've made a long study of humankind. What I've learned, above all else, is to never underestimate human beings. We are a species of helpers. Just wait. 


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

"The Supposition that Every Child is a Kind of Idiot Who Must be Taught to Think"

Much of what passes for education, not just in the US, but around the world, starts with the premise that children aren't all that bright, that they are essentially lazy, and that they can't be trusted to know what's best for themselves. Of course, few of us would admit to thinking such thoughts about preschoolers, but there are plenty of adults who will authoritatively assert these criticisms about older children, like teenagers.

Having worked with young children for most of my adult life, I can assure you that every one of them is a genius (a conclusion that is supported by NASA), they are far less inclined toward laziness (if it even exits) than most adults I know, and concerning matters beyond safety, schedules, and courtesy, who am I to tell a child that I know better? The teenagers I've known don't tick any of those stereotyped boxes either, but even if I stipulate that the haters are correct, that many, if not most, teens are ignorant, lazy, and self-destructive, then my question is: How did they get that way? I mean, honestly, how did they un-learn their genius, their motivation, and their ability to make good decisions for themselves?

Is it just in their nature? Are children doomed by biology to become surly, indifferent, and slothful? I doubt that. It makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective. No, to the degree that it's true, it's something we do to them, and from where I sit all signs point to it being a self-fulfilling prophesy.

"I'm beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think." ~Anne Sullivan

Our entire school system is based upon the premise that children are reluctant learners, that they must be compelled, coerced, tricked, and driven. Not only must we adults rein them up to the wagon for their own good, but we are then required to entice them toward a pre-determined destination with carrots, while always threatening from behind with a stick. Is it any wonder that after a few years of this, they lose their will? We give them "education" as a kind of meaningless drudge, as an authoritarian exercise that seems almost designed to break their free will, even as we insist we are attempting to instill the opposite. How can it end any other way when you've been robbed of your right to control what, how, and when you are to learn? We squander their genius by making them jump through our hoops.

"Learning is the human activity that least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity." ~Ivan Illich

Children either come to hate school because it has been rendered meaningless or, perhaps worse, they become creatures of the system:

The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don't know." ~ John Holt

Play-based education is self-directed learning. We start from the premise that children are geniuses, that they are naturally self-motivated learners, and that when left to pursue activities that they themselves find meaningful, they will come to discover what truly is best for themselves. This approach to education accords with what we know about the human instinct to learn: to become critical thinkers, to collaborate, and to create. Our traditional school system is not based upon evidence, but rather habit and the false premise that children are idiots.

"You are about to be told one more time that you are America's most valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources? Have you seen a strip mine? Have you seen a clear cut in the forest? Have you seen a polluted river? Don't ever let them call you a valuable natural resource!" ~Utah Phillips

There are those who nevertheless defend our current system, based on arguments that without "rigor" and compulsion children will never learn the value of "hard work." If they are to spend their days at their self-selected activities, how will they ever learn to put their nose to the grindstone? To do what they are told? To jump through society's hoops? These are the arguments of those who will forever attach education to the economy, as if we exist to serve it, rather than the other way around. It's a view of children as valuable natural resources, which means that we have a right to exploit them in the name of a greasy buck. "Hard work" is code for doing things we don't want to do and no free human, no matter how much they practice, gets good at that, except perhaps for people who have been broken, a fate I'd not wish on anyone. If you want to see real hard work, swing by a preschool playground where children are busy pursuing their own freely chosen meaningful activities: no one on earth works harder.

I have never met a child who is not curious and curiosity is the human urge to learn made manifest. Schooling seems to be designed to erase that curiosity and replace it with mere performance.

"This is really what the whole debate over compulsory schooling is about. Do we trust people's capacity to be curious or not?" ~Astra Taylor



I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Monday, October 19, 2020

"Radical Empathy"

In Rutger Bregman's book Humankind, he writes about an experiment in which psychologists told volunteers a sad story about a 10-year-old girl who was suffering from a deadly disease. She is, according to the story, on a waiting list for a life-saving treatment, but time is of the essence. The volunteers are told that they can move her up on the list, but they are instructed to be objective in their decision. Most people, understanding that all the children on the list were in dire straits, opted to not give this specific girl an advantage over the others.  A second group of volunteers, however,  was given the same set up, but this time they were asked to imagine how this specific girl must be feeling, to dwell on her pain, suffering, and fear. In this case, the majority chose to allow her to jump the line.

As Bregman points out, this is, at best a shaky moral choice. After all, giving this girl, who the second group of volunteers now "know" through their empathy, an advantage, they are in fact disadvantaging all the other kids, violating the principles of what most of us would consider even-handed fairness. Those other children have stories as well, but because the volunteers spent time empathizing with this one specific girl, they favored her. Bregman sees this as an example of how empathy can blind us:

(Empathy) is something we feel for people who are close to us; for people we can smell, hear and touch. For family and friends, for fans of our favorite band, and maybe for the homeless guy on our own street corner. For cute puppies we can cuddle and pet, even as we eat animals mistreated on factory farms out of sight. And for people we see on TV -- mostly those the camera zooms in on, while sad music sweeps in the background . . . If anything, empathy makes us less forgiving, because the more we identify with victims, the more we generalise about our enemies. The bright spotlight we shine on our chosen few makes us blind to the perspective of our adversaries, because everybody else falls outside our view. 
The truth, Bregman concludes is that "empathy and xenophobia go hand in hand."

This is an upsetting concept for me, one that flies in the face of one of my principles of being an important adult in the life of young children. I've tended to view empathy as a pure good, the one human trait that I can count on to make the world a better place. I've seen the beautiful results of empathy time and again in the classroom as children embrace and help one another out of motivations that can only be called empathetic. But I can see Bregman's point. Empathy tends to cause us to focus on individuals to the exclusion of others, to cause us to do good for the girl on the waiting list, elevating her above the others we don't know who are on the list and who are equally deserving.

Not only that, but even if we are capable of feeling empathy for humanity at large, which I think we can all admit is more difficult than it is for individuals, it is emotionally exhausting. 


Go ahead and try it: imagine yourself in the shoes of one other person. Now imagine yourself in the shoes of a hundred other people. And a million How about seven billion? . . . We simply can't do it. 

In other words, empathy is not only blinding, but also not sustainable. 

Isabel Wilkerson, in her book Caste, is likewise suspicious of empathy. She writes, "Empathy is commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else's shoes and imagining how you would feel." This, of course, is the basis for what we know as "The Golden Rule": Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (or some such phrasing). "That could be seen as a start," writes Wilkerson, "but that is little more than role-playing, and it is not enough in the ruptured world we live in." 

I've written about The Gold Rule before. It could, in fact, be considered an essentially selfish approach to helping others, one that considers what we would want, rather than on what another person would want. For instance, as a middle-aged, white, male, what I would want or need is likely to differ wildly from what a young, black, female would want or need in any given circumstance. If I'm to help her, I must learn to step not into her shoes, but outside of myself. Empathy is not an end unto itself, but rather a starting point. Wilkerson calls us to what she calls "radical empathy," which she defines as "putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another's experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel."

As George Bernard Shaw more flippantly put it, "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different." 

Bregman suggests that The Golden Rule be replaced with what he calls "The Platinum Rule," which a group of four and five-year-olds I once taught discovered on their own, phrasing it as "Don't do anything to anybody unless you ask them." Or as Wilkerson phrases it, "to educate oneself and to listen." As Bregman writes, "The Platinum Rule calls not for empathy, but compassion." The ultimate weakness of empathy is that it calls for us to feel with others when what is needed, if we are going to do good for others, is to feel for them. Instead of empathetically sharing their pain and suffering, which tends to incapacitate and exhaust us, we should strive to call up our feelings of "warmth, concern and care," which has the opposite effect: rather than tiring us, it energizes.

Empathy is perhaps the crowning instinct of the human animal. I don't know whether or not it sets us apart from other species because I've known some dogs and cats well enough to know they experience at least something like it. But empathy can't be an end in itself. I've known too many people who are perpetually exhausted from their habit of jumping into what they perceive to be the "shoes" of others, who just need to "take a break" or "think happy thoughts." I've been there myself, but compassion, I'm finding, allows me to not just drown in the river alongside my fellow human, but rather gives me a rock upon which to stand as I reach out my hand. As Wilkerson writes, "Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it." And it's only from this place, that we can be of service.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share