Only Important Education
As a speaker in public schools, I talk with teens every
week. They are usually full of life and hope. But many are desperate because of
the chaos and disorder around them. It's no wonder, when you consider the way
their world is changing.
New York City has announced a new "zero
tolerance" policy that will send SWAT teams into the city's most violent
high schools to combat juvenile crime. The governor asserts that "we must
help keep our schools, campuses, and daycare facilities safe by imposing tough
new penalties for violence committed on school grounds."
Everyone wants safe schools. But isn't it hypocritical for
a society like ours, which idolizes violence, profits from it and even teaches
it through films, video games and music, to punish it in schools? Yes,
violent students cannot be left to terrorize classrooms and halls. But until we
address the roots of their behavior, we will achieve nothing. These roots are
obvious: racism, poverty, divorce, neglect, abuse, hunger and--perhaps worst of
all--loneliness, self-hatred and despair.
At the same time, New York City's mayor is pushing for
tough new standards to make sure that third graders in the city's public schools
perform at an "acceptable" level before they move on to the fourth
grade. The new standardized tests could result in some 15,000 eight-year-olds
being held back at the end of the year.
I'm all for better education. But the way we're going after
it spells disaster. At a public school I visited last year, the student body
spoke 22 different languages. Most were nonwhite and came from poor families. At
a time when cash-strapped school districts are dismissing teacher's aides and
librarians and janitors--and hiring more armed security guards--how on earth are
these kids supposed to learn English well?
In one inner-city district after another, we are holding a
whole generation of children hostage. The decaying buildings we lock them in
each day may be called schools, but in reality they are prisons for the poor.
And their jail keepers are not only the wealthy politicians who govern them, but
each of us who has hardened our heart against their pain in order to preserve a
I know that millions of parents and teachers are deeply
concerned about this state of affairs. At a conference of educators a few years
ago, I said standardized testing is ruining public schools and borders on child
abuse. That statement set off a standing ovation. So did my feeling that it
won't be long before we see suicides brought on by academic pressure, as Japan
and Korea have seen for years.
Plenty of people do care about these things. They know that
children deserve better than the continual pressure to excel--especially
impoverished ones who don't have a chance to begin with. But we are all products
of a society based on degrees and certificates and credentials, and most of us
give far more weight than we'd like to admit to SAT scores and class rankings
and scholarships and the like.
How many of us worry more about these things, than about
other, far more important dimensions of life? In a culture of irresponsibility,
promiscuity, and violence, shouldn't our main concern be the inner lives of our
children? In a society where obesity is epidemic among children, shouldn't we be
more concerned about exercise, healthy eating, self-control, and self-respect?
And what about our children's spiritual education? We
live in frightening times. As parents and educators, our main task is to equip
children for such times. This means not only educating them physically and
mentally; it means preparing them to listen to their consciences in the midst of
mass hysteria. It means helping them to find courage when others cower. It
means inspiring them to hold on to faith when everyone around them has lost
it. It means readying them to make sacrifices, rather than save their own
On 9/11, when planes and buildings were falling, the most
prestigious education meant nothing. Courageous men and women stopped to help at
the cost of their own lives. Isn't that the noblest thing a human being can do:
lay down his life in order to save another? In today's world it is
inevitable that there will be more such days of reckoning. Unless we guide
our children toward selflessness and compassion, we may be denying them what is
ultimately the only important education.
Copyright © 2004 by Johann Christoph Arnold
JOHANN CHRISTOPH ARNOLD (http://www.ChristophArnold.com)
is an author and speaker who teaches nonviolent conflict resolution in high
schools (see http://www.breakingthecycle.us).
You Can't Really Function, You're so Full of Fear" - John Lennon . . .
Drowning in Fear, Unable to See, Life's Much a Struggle, Till You Reach