Writing an essay for me is relatively simple. I choose what I want to write about, and I start writing. I don't have a teacher pushing me in any one direction--like I am pushing you. The writing prompt and the inspiration is already in me; and though I try to write well, there are no real-life repercussions when I don't write well. My audience for this (which is you—my upper school English class) is remarkably small and polite, and as much as I'd like to think that you are captivated by my writing, I know that in reality you are a "captive" to my writing, because, as my students, you are a prisoner in my classroom. You are somewhat doomed to read what I write, but your actual freedom to write is hobbled by a teacher who is intent on extracting (by what must sometimes feel like any means possible) what you know and think about a narrow range of literature--in this case, the first chapter of Walden: the essay called "Economy." Throw into the mix your other classes and your other teachers and what do you get--a few more books, an era or two of some history; some idea of why leaves turn red; a handy way discerning volume from the breadth and width of a fruit--a smattering of Spanish words or Latin roots: a bookshelf from shop and an abstract oil painting for your wall. And then you soccer and football teams, the school play, band, and student life...and now your day is completely filled.
But is it full?
It is certainly filled with an exhausting range of activities designed and structured to educate, enlighten, inform, and inspire. Your teachers are a diverse mix of people who really do give a damn about you and who spend more time than you might ever imagine trying to create and perpetuate this living and breathing machine called school, but, as Thoreau writes, " we[teachers and students] labor under a mistake.” We fill the day, but we rarely fulfill the possibilities of each day, and we never will until we remove the blinders that keep us on the beaten path. Frightening as it sounds, the lunatics must run the asylum: students must be allowed to take the reins and become learners and explorers, while teachers and administrators must adapt or die. "New ways for the new; old ways for the old ." (HDT) The world really is a different place now. The "noosphere" or "omega point" predicted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin almost a hundred years ago is becoming a reality. People can be--and are--connected in ways unimaginable to the visionaries and teachers who broke the backs of tradition to create the schools we have today. But times have changed. The desk is more a ball and chain of myopic restraint, while our opportunities for true learning--for all of us--have never been greater.
In a narrow way of thinking, it is the good teachers that are holding us back because good teachers are often the most blinded. Blessed with oratory skills, charisma, knowledge, empathy, and passion, the popular and powerful teacher can easily misconstrue his or her students' enthusiasm and engagement in the classroom for deep and inspired learning. To these masters of the classroom (and in my vanity, I count myself among these master teachers) there is no need for change. Everything works: kids are happy, parents are happy, and the school is happy. and so the case for change is closed by those most empowered to change it. The power of a magnetic personality should never be confused with the power of sound pedagogy, nor should we put pedagogy over personality. Most schools have thir share of dull teachers practicing "sound" pedagogy to little or no great effect; likewise, many children come home loving a certain class because they love their teacher, but at the end of the the year their skill-sets are still shaky, and their enthusiasm for the subject matter will dissipate unless matched in next year with an equally amazing teacher. The reality is that our schools will never be full of amazing teachers, and so our best bet has to be to implement amazing ways of teaching way sooner than later. A teacher should be amazing for what he or she implements, nurtures, and sustains in this new educational paradigm.
There has to be a new somethg. Something has to give. Society and its schools have become as much slaves to assessment as we are creators of destiny. Measuring someone by "the content of their character " seldom makes it onto report cards. Instead, we measure your progress and achievements with a reptilian calculation of the merits and deficiencies of your responses to specific inquiries and lessons we are convinced we have taught well. We critique what and how you write, but rarely consider why you write. Though we seem compassionate and practice empathy, we still erect a barrier that only a few of you can get over unscathed--and those are the celebrated few: the smart, hard-working, and diligent students who somehow manage to do it all. Everyone else plays catch me if you can, and so this paradigm is set in motion, and it becomes the foundation of almost every school and university in the world. The gifted student becomes a recognizable icon, sculpted, shaped, and polished by the whims of academia. As parents we stumble over each other trying to weave our child's place on the honor roll or his or her SAT scores--or even the average score of the whole town in comparison to every other school in the district--into the most casual of conversations. On the flip side of this coin, these honors are hardly as respected by peers and classmates (perhaps because they sense the inherent fraud and advantage to the system) and past prowess as a student soon makes for unsavory and indelicate talk even just mere hours after graduation.
Maybe doing well in school is not such an impressive accomplishment. It is pretty cool that we have a black president raised by a single mom--and we use this as praise for what educational opportunities can do; but history is full of great individuals who rose from humble beginnings. It is a recurring theme of humanity itself. It is part and parcel of what Joseph Campbell termed "The Heroic Cycle." Schools do not create greatness; our primal need to be great is what creates greatness. No one reading this is precluded from realizing his or her individual greatness because they have or have not gone toschool We don't have to be Telemachus facing up to the rowdy suitors in his house, but all of us have challenges that are unmet and untested, and we must meet them and we must test them if we want to be a hero. There is courage and strength of each of us, but not as much motivation, perhaps because the tools we use in school are not the best motivators. We instill as much fear as desire, and there is a subtle paralysis that takes hold. Only if the doors open wider and the walls fall down will we see the expanse of our opportunities--and only if you give enough of a damn to reach for the dream at hand, and then only if you see the dream. Realizing your dream should be your accomplishment, and layering dream upon dream should be your life.
Life has a way of doling out hardship in unequal proportions, but school--and more broadly, eduction--should not be one of them. There is certainly very little that is fair about who goes to what school, but that is the unspoken inequity. We praise the notion of an egalitarian educational system, but we shudder at the thought of implementation. Few of my Concord friends would ship their sons and daughters to our schools in Maynard because...well, just because. Ironically, few of my Maynard friends would feel comfortable with their sons and daughters trying to mingle in a Concord milieu. And so we keep up a pleasant caste system that feeds off the tension between the rich and the poor. It's like the old camp song: "Don't chuck your muck in my backyard/my backyard's full," but there is a monster in the neighborhood. Because of the internet, our backyards have merged; the demarcation line is blurred, the walls have literally come down, and there really is a chance for every kid to play on the same field--if we let them. Caesar accidentally burned down the Royal Library at Alexandria; we shouldn't do the same with our new library of knowledge. During the first solo circumnavigation of the world, the Afrikaners in South Africa scoffed at Joshua Slocum's claims that the world was round, even as he was ninety percent of the way around the globe! Wouldn't it be ironic if our schools lost the race for knowledge because we dithered at the starting gate?
I certainly did not start this narrative with any plans to take on our educational system. Sharper minds than mine could tear this essay apart, but only because they have had so many generations to practice. The hurricane yesterday gave me a rare gift of time today, so I was just hoping to give you a few words to help you get started on your Walden essay. Words have that effect on me. Maybe my own rereading of Walden made me listen more closely to the drumbeat of my heart no matter how measured or far away; maybe in these political times of gloating, bitching, and belittling I didn't want to be one of the thousand hacking at the branches of evil; I wanted to be the one striking at the root . The beauty and bane of Thoreau's words is how easily they can prove either side of an argument, and my mind is so scattered that I could never get around to organizing all the facts; instead, I've simply scattered some seeds among the compost of my experience. Hopefully, one or two will be like the mustard seeds in that parable of Jesus. If not, I'll have to till again and plant more thoughtfully. All I know is what I sense: change is coming, and if you have your wits about you, you will be riding the edge of that wave.