Friday, February 12, 2021

The Central Challenge of Our Time

Most people seem to think that preparing children to serve the economy is the primary goal of education. Indeed, many seem to think that it's the primary job of childhood. Adults obsessively ask young children what they are going to be when they grow up. Our policy makers fret about the jobs of tomorrow, parents worry that their preschool choice will ultimately impact their child's university options, and few people question the competitive grooming that takes place in schools as the children are forever graded like beef and ranked like show ponies. We hear the voices of business titans echo in buzz words like "grit" and "accountability." Some corporate types even see themselves as customers of schools, with your child being the product they will squeeze and compare before finally purchasing at the lowest price they can negotiate.

What we ignore is that our children don't exist to serve the economy. Indeed, it should be the other way around: the economy should be serving we the people, but as more and more of our nation's wealth has been transferred to our wealthiest citizens over the last several decades, we the people have grown poorer, less powerful, and more dependent upon these modern day feudal lords. 

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the future of the children I teach. To many that might sound like malpractice, but I'm more concerned about them right now. But when I do consider their futures, I hope they all become entrepreneurs or artists. In fact, I often secretly hope they all decide to become professional dancers. I hope all the children everywhere decide to become dancers. Imagine that. Our entire economy would have to transform into one that serves and supports dancers. It's a ludicrous thought experiment, but it brings me joy to consider it.

Of course, we can't all be dancers, at least not now when we face such challenges as climate disaster, not to mention rising fascism, racism, and sexism. These are existential issues that the economy, no matter how well-populated with straight-A students, will never be able to solve. It will require citizens, all of us, banding together in a ways and for reasons that the profit motive simply cannot comprehend.

From Rutger Bregman's incredible book Humankind:

If we believe most people can't be trusted, that's how we'll treat each other, to everyone's detriment. Few ideas have as much power to shape the world as our view of other people. Because ultimately, you get what you expect to get. If we want to tackle the greatest challenges of our times -- from the climate crisis to our growing distrust of one another -- then I think the place we need to start is our view of human nature.

And we all know that the best way to learn to trust others is to be trusted ourselves. From where I sit, this is the central challenge for our schools: to transform themselves away from institutions that view children as captives to be pitted against one another, where we control their bodies, minds, and spirits. No longer can we afford to simmer our youngest citizens in cauldrons of distrust where they are watched at every moment, told what to do, and when and where to do it. We must learn to trust children with freedom because that is the only way that they themselves will learn to trust others. When we trust children to ask and answer their own questions, to bump into one another in the pursuit of those answers, to bicker, debate, compromise, and agree, we free them to trust one another, to learn that working together, to be interdependent rather than so relentlessly independent. By trusting children, we create the conditions where the habits of trust can grow.  

It will take a generation that has learned to trust others to truly address problems that have been created by and exacerbated by the distrust that has, sadly, come to be the beating heart of our civic life. If I could give our educational system a single mission it would be this.

This is why I say that trusting children with freedom is perhaps the central challenge of our time.


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