“The Wilds of Education,” By Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 9/27/14
Caution and conformity are pervasive in classrooms. Isn’t education supposed to disrupt and challenge?
When it comes to bullying, to sexual assault, to gun violence, we want our schools to be as safe as possible.
But when it comes to learning, shouldn’t they be dangerous?
Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?
Isn’t upset a necessary part of that equation? And if children are lucky enough to be ignorant of the world’s ugliness, aren’t books the rightful engines of enlightenment, and aren’t classrooms the perfect theaters for it?
Not in the view of an unacceptable number of Americans. Not in too many high schools…. Not to judge by complaints from the right and the left….
A newly conservative board for the Jefferson County School District, which is Colorado’s second-largest, raised the possibility of pruning the curriculum of books and material that could be seen to exalt civil disobedience and promote unpatriotic thoughts. Where does that leave the civil rights movement? Vietnam?…
Officials at some elementary, middle and secondary schools [have tried] to prune standardized tests of words that might distress students, either by summoning life’s harshness, reminding them of their deprivation, or making them feel excluded. “Poverty,” “slavery,” “divorce,” “hurricanes,” and “birthdays” were on a list drawn up by New York City educators, who later abandoned the plan.
While these efforts differ greatly, they overlap in their impulse to edit the world to the comfort of students, and that’s especially troubling in this day and age, when too many people use technology and the Internet to filter a vast universe of information and a multitude of perspectives into only what they want to hear, a tidy, cozy echo chamber of affirmation.
The efforts are also inextricable from subtler, more pervasive dynamics of caution and conformity in our classrooms and schools, where “failure” and “disappointment” are sometimes dirty words. When teachers inflate grades, they’re making education a feel-good enterprise rather than a feel-rattled one….
Education is about growing bolder and larger. It’s about expansion, and that can’t happen if there’s too strong an urge…to contract the ground it covers, to ease the passage across it, to pretty up the horizon.
“You’re only diminishing a young person’s ability to go off into the world and interface with people from all walks of life,” Garth Stein [author of The Art of Racing in the Rain—a book banned by the Highland Park TX school district] said. Thinking back to his own childhood in the suburbs of Seattle and then his years at Columbia University, he said, “The best teachers I’ve had are the ones who stand up in front of the class and wave their arms and say provocative things that students then react to.”
He recalled that in the eighth grade, he read a book, recommended by a school librarian, in which bullies tormented a kid by pulling off his shoes and urinating in them. It upset him, because it was a situation alien to his own experience. That’s also why he needed to be exposed to it, he said.
“It showed me that this happens,” he explained, with a note of gratitude in his voice. “It made me understand.”
Frank Bruni is a regular columnist for The New York Times.
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