A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
This is a test
I sit on the school council at Keefe’s school, and often spend time volunteering in Hugh’s kindergarten classroom. This is one of the luxuries attendant to being a stay-at-home dad, and grows partly out of a sense of guilt I feel over not homeschooling them altogether.
That education makes a difference in the quality of our offsprings’ lives is a given. In the information age, facility with symbol systems is a principal guarantor of success. That improving the educational environment is an uphill imperative is also a given. We do, after all, live on the only continent which apparently takes pride in raising a generation of dullards. Education is a priority roughly equal to meat inspection in governmental expenditures, and less than a penny is spent on schools in North America for each dollar spent on weapons of mass destruction. The week after First Lady Laura Bush started a national campaign promoting America’s libraries and their role in developing literacy, her hubby President Beelzebush backed her up by slashing federal spending on libraries by 19%.Still, knowing that some parents miraculously manage to cram voting into their busy schedules, politicians of all stripes pay lip service to our schools. Please note that the children of the wealthy and powerful do not attend the same schools as the children of the rest of us, but I digress. Every politician you can name has been, in their own press junkets, a champion of educational quality. Teachers and their unions and school administrators are all villains, dragons to be vanquished in the name of efficiency and accountability in public education. Those two words in particular are bandied about rather a lot in public forums. What ‘efficiency’ means in practice is a mentality that treats any given school like a factory. How can we cut corners to turn the product out faster and cheaper? The entire Washington DC school system had to delay the start of one school year by three weeks because one third of their buildings were found to be unsafe, and 163 New York City schools opened their doors in September 2000 without a principal. Thank the gods we still have stalwarts like Michael Moore to publish these and other damning facts. ‘Accountability’ is another animal altogether: it’s a buzz word used to create the illusion that the bastards bleeding our public schools to death are actually working to improve it. Their chosen method is inevitably standardized testing. The idea that intelligence is merely what standardized tests measure is ludicrous, but that hasn’t prevented the administration of standardized tests becoming a half a billion dollar plus business. They allow public figures to reduce the vast sprawling vista of learning to a number you can stick on a statistics chart, while throwing more expensive liberal arts programs out wholesale. Electroencephalogram research indicates that the ‘three Rs’ engage only two areas of the brain, while music, for example, engages another nineteen. So where’s the most learning going on?
On my way home from our last School Council meeting, I was thinking of l’esprit d’escalier. This is a French phrase that has no direct English equivalent, although it may literally be translated as "the spirit of the stairwell." What it refers to is all of the clever things you think of to say on your way home from an argument or discussion, the "I should have said!" that we’ve all experienced. I’ve always thought it was charming the French had a term for it, and it’s details like that which are absent in our children’s education if we don’t, for example, have at least a few native French speakers teaching French programs. After all, there’s a difference between mere linguistic basics and the use of language within the context of a society.
I collect terms like that: concepts that English lacks, yet which I think we could certainly use. I could say, for example, that we need to educate students in the hawaiian art of ho’oponopono: resolving problems and conflicts by talking them out, and that we want to set the examples that will help them become asarya: someone who will say ‘yes’ to everything about being human, and if necessary we even need to show them satyagraha: the willingness to endure suffering to bring about what is right. That probably needs clarification: asking students to endure in crappy facilities with outdated and inadequate supplies under the guidance of harassed, insulted and underpaid teachers to get the ‘right’ education has nothing to do with satyagraha. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together who gives half a damn about their fellow human beings knows that’s wrong. We need tomorrow’s leaders to care about doing what’s right, because it’s a sure bet the ones we’ve got now have lost their way. Anyway, there is one term in particular that exemplifies the purpose I see as fundamental to our schools: we should teach our children aretê.
Aretê is a greek word which is commonly translated as ‘virtue’, but in context means something closer to ‘excellence.’ It includes a sense of duty towards the self, a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a concept of efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself. Students should emerge from their years there with not only a deep sense of self respect, but also pride in accomplishment and confidence in approaching new challenges. It is estimated that our children will take on at least half a dozen different careers over the course of their lives in a rapidly changing world, and must proudly assume each new role. Specialization is for insects.
The difficulty arises in the fact that standardized testing encourages us in our society to think of ‘intelligence’ as a number that can easily be assigned to children. We hear continuously that intelligence represents success, with an unspoken undertone that intelligence is an either-or proposition. In truth, the evidence regularly indicates that success is largely a matter of nerve, drive and perseverance. Confidence breeds success, and telling a child "sorry, you’re just a C-level kid." is one of the quickest ways to erode their confidence. Leonardo Da Vinci, the original Renaissance man, defined at least seven distinct kinds of intelligence which he valued and strove to cultivate:
Curiosita - an insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.
Dimostrazione - A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence and a willingness to learn from mistakes.
Sensazione - The continual refinement of the senses as the means to enliven experience, and training oneself to be aware and pay attention.
Sfumato - A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.
Arte/scienza - The development of a balance between logic and imagination, between science and art - whole brain thinking.
Corporalita - The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, health, fitness and poise.
Connessione - A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena - systems thinking.
I believe that the greatest work our schools could do, within the context of teaching the basics, scholastics, sciences and arts, would be to lead our students to identify their native aptitudes and learning styles within the framework of these and other wide definitions of ‘smarts.’ Where one student is a skilled communicator, another easily sees the forest for the trees, and a third moves and acts with grace and elegance. Acknowledged, each becomes self-assured, and is on the way to effective self-reliance.
While schools can’t thumb their noses at standardized tests and expect to retain their funding, I have a vision that would challenge the fundamentals of the disservice they do to our children in a far more positive and proactive manner. I would like to see schools develop programs to identify and honor the varied intelligence of each child. These ‘tests’, should ideally be flexible, even open-ended, be administered and evaluated wholly by human beings, and help the participants focus on things that they can do well, rather than pointing out their shortcomings and assigning them a numbered rank. In short, I would like to see a bold, broad educational approach rewarding humor, flexibility and so on. Studies prove that the routines common to a ‘gifted’ or ‘enrichment’ learning program can improve ANY student’s performance, and that students labeled as ‘slow learners’ inevitably perform in accordance with the expectations adherent to that stigma. Let’s give all of our kids the chance to be successful. As a society, what couldn’t they accomplish?
All it will take is thousands more of us parents harassing politicians, working tirelessly without pay in situations where school boards belittle and ignore us, creativity in overhauling the standard educational model on a massive scale, miraculous infusions of cash and the social programs to support every student in their life beyond the school environs. Daunting, sure, and no small price to pay, but still a bargain.
Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh and Keefe. Send feedback for Michael to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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