How many of our schools lead with their college or next-school lists when they present themselves to the world? How many tout their students’ test scores and yield rates as evidence of the quality of the education they provide? And whom, exactly, does this kind of messaging serve?
Once upon a time our forebears heated their homes with coal and wore clothing produced by child labor, and now we help children worry about whether they have enough activities or good enough grades or test scores to get into the college of their dreams—often equally or even more so the college of their families’ and their schools’ dreams and aspirations. If our students are laboring for sixty or so hours a week to gratify, glorify, and pacify the educational expectations and anxieties of others, how different is this from 60 hours a week “in the hole” or in the mills on behalf of the robber barons of yore?
But this is the least of our worries. The mental health crisis that we are experiencing in high-pressure, competitive schools, independent or public, is driving more and more students to fear school and to take anti-social and even self-destructive measures to relieve their agonies. Ten years ago we heard relatively few reports of students taking time out of school for mental health-related reasons. Now I hear of few schools where this is not a frequent occurrence. Across the country we hear of student suicides related at least in part to academic stress and anxiety.
Over the past few months I’ve used this space to share my own anxieties about the future of the world and the future of education. I may sound a bit shrill, but I’m scared for all kids. It’s bad enough that existential threats to democracy, to humanity, and to life on the planet itself seem to be multiplying, providing a backdrop that now rivals or surpasses the fears of my adolescent self in the most nuclear-fraught years (atmospheric tests, Cuba; duck-and-cover) of the Cold War. But add to this a toxic cultural cocktail of apathy, hysteria, overt bigotry, selfish greed, mistrust, and astounding economic disparities, and you have a tough world in which to be any age, much less young.
And a tough world in which to be an educator. If it’s not about distractions, it’s about deprivations or fears, and amidst it all we’re asked to be experts in curriculum design, in assessment, and in the neuro-developmental characteristics of children. We must teach with justice and global awareness as we leverage an ever-evolving array of tech tools and new practices. We understand the imperatives, and we work our tails off to rise to every occasion, and yet at the same time we are sometimes forced to wonder if we are complicit in maintaining a harmful system.
It’s not just about class and race and privilege, though these things play an enormous role in the crisis. If college admission pressure, for example, might look like a “First World problem,” at least in the media and on the cocktail party circuit, we cannot ignore the differential experiences of all groups, privileged and not, in their deep concerns around educational access and quality. We can try to create mini-utopias on our campuses, where lofty values and multicultural harmony prevail (at least on the surface) or at least outweigh a baser ethos within whatever spatial, temporal, and even digital boundaries we may establish, but when our students experience and act in the world, there is no zone of proximate morality to buffer them from injustice, inequity, and hatred—or violence.
Last month I mused on the idea of a Grand Unified Theory of education that would bring together the essences—and urgencies—of current thinking and practice around social justice, mindfulness, anti-racism, student mental health, independent curriculum, and educational access and equity. There are plenty of people and organizations working on these things piecemeal and plenty of schools that are up to their eyeballs in multiple facets of this great, convoluted conceptual mass. But we need to figure out a way to bring together the best minds and most passionate spirits in the service of concerted, connected action. Progress in this area is not just important, it’s a moral imperative.
Who ought to be in the room for this? I’ve got my list, but who’s on yours? How do we make this happen?
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO