I had the opportunity to stand in the Jefferson Memorial last week. These words are carved in huge letters, encircling the rotunda: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
I've been pondering since then, noting that Jefferson didn't just oppose tyranny, but specified "tyranny over the mind of man." Every one of them.
I suppose that is because the mind and conscience ought to be sacrosanct. Partly because it is right, but also because the freedom of the mind is the fountain and foundation of all other freedoms.
What kind of freedom do you have if you can't think, believe, and speak what you believe? If it means anything at all, freedom must include the freedom to be wrong and even to be offensive. Popular speech needs no protections. The test of freedom comes not when we agree with the majority, it comes when we dissent.
Freedom to believe, to think, and then to speak out according to those beliefs are basic, and we all have a stake in preserving them.
In this diverse world we inhabit, surely all of us will eventually both give and take offense. Consequently, it seems prudent to me to be mild in responding to the latter since I will most certainly do the former.
Most of us understand how dangerous it is for governments to censor speech. But another great danger to that freedom comes from non-governmental sources.
I don't understand the contemporary need to boycott, fine, fire, punish and otherwise destroy people who say offensive things. The best antidote to offensive speech will always be more speech--disagreeing loudly with that which we find offensive. But not shutting down our ideological foes.
The Hollywood Blacklist of suspected Communists during the Cold War is often discussed in my industry as a terrible tragedy. It destroyed lives and reputations. But ultimately, this was a group of private businesses who made economic decisions, based on what a majority of the country believed--not a government action. Legal? Yes. Right? No.
Knowing how often we have made mistakes in the past, knowing how often masterpieces of have been banned, and great thinkers censored, should we not exercise a bit of modesty? We can cling to our beliefs, while allowing freedom of expression from those who deride and demean those beliefs. It is the price we pay for the freedom to hold those beliefs.
I am trying to think of a civilization that was brought down because its citizens were too free to speak and think and write without fear of persecution, private or governmental. I can't think of one. I can, however, think of several reverse examples.
We ought to allow clashes of opinion, belief, and decorum to be contested, while making sure those who do the clashing are not molested. Besides being right, it's wise. Tomorrow, you might be the one with views a majority find offensive. Which precedent do you want to set? (not my photo, incidentally).
Recently a school in New York State cancelled a Kindergarten play. When parents objected, since it is a cherished tradition at the scool, the administrators sent home a letter that said the play must be cancelled because the educators "are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers, and problem-solvers." You can read the whole letter for yourself here.
In the first place, I would argue that the very list of skills they want to encourage would be enhanced, not precluded by doing the play. But that's a different argument. I want to focus on the phrase, "college and career ready."
"College and career ready?" In Kindergarten?
Pause and think about that. Reflect on that idea. Tell me if anything you learned in Kindergarten truly prepared you for your career. And, then tell me if your career suffered because you did not prepare for it in Kindergarten.
Beyond that, this phrase is fundamentally dishonest. Consider a person working in an IT field today. When he or she went to Kindergarten, that field didn't even exist. It hadn't been invented yet. At the rate our world is changing and growing, do you really think much that we teach Kindergartners today will be terribly relevant to their future careers?
"College and career ready" is not a real description. At best, it is a slogan. At worst, it is a euphemism. Like in Orwell's Animal Farm when those in charge cut back on the food, announcing it as "a readjustment of rations."
This phrase has become useful for those with a certain agenda. I suspect it was focus-group tested because it sounds good to the ears of anxious parents. And really, how could anyone disagree with such a reasonable, positive goal? But it is as honest as any other political campaign slogan or euphemism. It simply means a focus on skills that can be measured by a standardized test.
Still, assuming that we can make Kindergartners "career and college ready," the larger question is, should we?
Is the end goal of education about being career-ready? Or, is it about the growth of a human soul? What about learning about the world around us, about the way other humans have asked and answered important questions? How about the development of an inquisitive mind that knows how to think and reason and ask questions? How about developing a well-rounded personality, and the ability to enjoy a variety of things that compose a rich and well-lived life--from basketball games to art exhibits to choral music? How about learning to get along with others and to listen and share one's opinion while hearing, evaluating, and understanding differing ideas? How about engaging with what the greatest minds and hands of past generations have created and found important, useful, and meaningful?
Do we really want to limit an education to being career ready? Especially in Kindergarten?
What an ugly, impoverished, depressing, and, frankly, creepy thought.
Do you want your life to be driven by your job? Or, do you have a career as part of a larger lifestyle? I think most of us work because we find meaning and joy in it, and because it helps pay the bills to support the most real and genuine parts of our lives. Should we make a career the focus of young childhood?
Also, who decides what constitutes "college and career ready?" Someone is making those decisions. It won't simply be a goal, or left to the teachers. Someone has to set those criteria. Who will it be? The local Chamber of Commerce? The local school board? Someone in the State Department of Education? A foundation bankrolled by Bill Gates? Who decides--and using what criteria? Can you guarantee they won't have agendas of their own and that they have your child's best interests at heart. What if your goals for your child conflict with what someone somewhere says is necessary to be career and college ready? Who will have the deciding vote?
And what of college. Does everyone have to go? Should everyone go? What if someone wants to be a mechanic, beautician, or pastry chef?
Wouldn't it be better to help students find out what they enjoy and what they are good at, as opposed to shoving them all into neat, standardized round holes, no matter how square the peg? Or hexagonal?
Isn't this how most adults aspire to live their lives? Don't most of us want to someday have the freedom to follow our dreams and passions? To pursue what we are good at and what we love?
Please do not misunderstand. Learning to read is important. So is doing math. And so on. But not all of that has to happen in Kindergarten. Not everything that students will eventually learn is developmentally appropriate for younger grades. The fact that they need to read Shakespeare in 12th grade does not mean we should start them on Romeo and Juliet in 3rd grade.
Brains take time to develop. And some of the important ways that happens for young children is by doing the exact sort of things that they do in creative play.
We've all seen pictures of small children during the Industrial Revolution, sleeping under machines, doing all kinds of hard labor. These children were treated as small adults, given hard work that little bodies could do. The fact that they could physically complete these tasks and do the work, albeit with difficulty, did not make it right, and we are correctly horrified.
Out of the excesses and abuses of that era grew laws to protect children from developmentally inappropriate labor. School was seen as a place where the child could grow and develop mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially.
Realizing that children were not adults and should not be treated as such was one of the greatest social advances of the 20th century, and the designation of childhood as a protected, protracted space that allowed for non-pressured growth, was one of the most positive accomplishments of modern America.
I fear we are reverting to that old Industrial Age model. In the Information Age, we don't chain them to looms in mills to satisfy rich men who own the factories. Instead, we link them to computers, force them to sit still, and confronting them with developmentally inappropriate academic content earlier and earlier.
We stress them out by testing them, and then medicate them when this makes them unhappy. We then sell their data to rich men--most of whom, curiously, back this new regime of testing. These men, coincidentally, make enormous sums of money from the creation and administration of these tests, as well as the lucrative possibilities of selling data to advertisers.
Then, when children don't do well in this wonderful new world, we talk about extending the school day and having additional days of the week added (see recent remarks by the U.S. Secretary of Education who thinks a 12, 13, or even 14 hour school day, 7 days a week would be beneficial). What they need, apparently, is more time at the grind, more time away from home and family and exercise and play and exploration and relaxation.
This is madness and it must stop.
Ironically, private schools, such as those where many of the people pushing these initiatives send their children, don't do a lot of testing. They don't have long school hours. They have P.E., recess, art, music, and other mind and soul-enriching subjects.
I am blessed to be able to have my own children in a school that provides a first-class education while minimizing standardized testing and maximizing the things I described above as mind and soul-enriching. But as an educator who is concerned about children, I need to speak out about this. The only way this will every change is for parents, grandparents, neighbors, aunts, uncles, and other adults to start saying, "No way. This is crazy."
It's time to stand up and speak out.
Note: I need to clarify one thing. This thinking, and other strands of though, are not Common Core. I believe that Common Core grows out of this, and other related philosophies, but they are weeds rooting in the compost of this kind of thinking. It's important to understand that, in my opinion.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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