Educating the Whole Child

Ask educated people who the most influential thinker in American education is, and many will probably say John Dewey. Known as the "father of progressivism," the early 20th century philosopher championed educating "the whole child" for participation in a democratic society, particularly through hands-on experience and a broad pedagogy emphasizing citizenship, identity, and social-emotional health (though he didn't use those terms back then) ,rather than exclusively emphasizing the "book learning" and rote memorization defining much schooling in his day.

In part, this conventional wisdom is right on: check out the brightly-colored websites and brochures of independent and well-resourced public schools across the country, and they trumpet their "progressive" approaches to nearly every dimension of education, from the sandbox to socialization to subtraction to science fairs.

Much of public education, however, is a different story. Far from cultivating the "whole child," many public schools unapologetically channel their increasingly limited resources to the narrowly academic preparation required by high-stakes testing, to the exclusion of offerings like art, music, foreign language, physical education, and even nutritious school lunch, which are often derided as "frills." For more than 30 years, advocates of such educational reforms have defended this focus on "the basics;" the argument is that the lowest-performing (and often the poorest) students should focus on fundamental skills (and scores) rather than supposedly anti-intellectual, not to mention expensive, diversions.

Over the same thirty years, much of American culture has undergone an almost opposite shift. That is, a "wellness revolution" defining physical and emotional health as crucial to overall fulfillment and success in life has brought cultural products such as yoga, organic food, and meditation from the ashrams and health food stores at the margins of society to mass-market supermarkets and gyms, as well as to corporate boardrooms and ritzy preschools. The importance of "holistic living," "personal empowerment," and cultivating a "mind-body connection" has become so ubiquitous in recent years as to be a cliché. The shift has been major enough to make an impact even in the most unlikely realms, across social class: fast-food restaurants are now as likely to trumpet their "healthy options" as investment banks are to demonstrate their commitment to nurturing their employees with in-office gyms, free life coaching, and assorted "corporate wellness initiatives."

Cynics (often rightly, and Barbara Ehrenreich most astutely) point out that these developments merely represent the troubling expansion of consumer and corporate culture to new domains, and comment on the insufficiency of self-improvement regimens, no matter how earnestly or widely adopted, to redress major structural problems such as poverty, racism, and sexism. While there is much to these criticisms, I think the problem is that this social change has not pervaded widely enough, in that much public education reform has been left out of this cultural shift.

Somehow, the belief that better physical, emotional, and spiritual health generates happier, more productive and intelligent citizens and humans is quickly becoming accepted as a social fact in our culture, yet educational reform has largely been moving in the opposite direction. Society at large maybe more committed to "holistic wellness," but not when it comes to educating "the whole child" in some of our nation's worst resourced schools. Programs that cultivate these skills and sensibilities are often derided at best as costly "extras," or at worst as actually detracting from the acquisition of core academic competencies. On the contrary, a growing body of research demonstrates that physical ills such as poor dental health, nutrition, and obesity inhibit academic achievement, not to mention life satisfaction, while positive psychology and neuroscience are demonstrating how deliberate positive thinking and exercise can enhance self-efficacy, and very concretely, improve cognitive skills such as memory.

An array of programs that aims to educate children beyond performing on state tests certainly exists- notable examples are Alice Waters' The Edible Schoolyard, various "yoga in schools" organizations, First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, and community gardens even in some of New York City's tougher urban schools -- but such endeavors still reside outside the curricular main as "enrichment offerings" and all too often rely on crucial private initiative and funding.

Some systemic changes are encouraging too: the obesity rate of children in New York City and Los Angeles public schools has fallen in the last five years, and other districts nationwide have followed suit in launching campaigns to reduce soda and sugar intake. The appointment of Dennis Wolcott as Chancellor of New York City schools, a marathoner and skydiver who declared at a Department of Education-sponsored road race that it is "wellness... that allows students to be able to perform in the classroom," also suggests that a renewed commitment to educating the "whole child" -- for every child -- might just be on the horizon.

I'm trying to do my part too. Along with social entrepreneur Ellen Gustafson, I have co-founded Healthclass2.0, a public school program that combines exercise, healthful eating, and conversation about what it means to live well. We've been working hard in the P.E. classes in one New York City DOE high school this term, and are educating college students to lead Healthclass2.0 sessions as part of a university-school-private sector partnership. By integrating programs like this one into the school day, by valuing education for citizenship and selfhood, Ellen and I hope to show that this kind of pedagogy can enhance experience and performance in all aspects of life and work.

As a historian of American education, I am dismayed at how far our current fixation with high-stakes testing and austere fiscal climate has taken us from Dewey's vision for educating the whole child through experience. Also as a historian, however, I am acutely aware that there never existed a "golden age" of whole-child pedagogy to which I aspire to return; in many ways our schools serve our children (and more of them!) better than they ever have. But history also teaches me that we are currently in a unique historical moment, when our mainstream culture is acknowledging that "living well" is not a luxury, but crucial to being better and more productive citizens and people in all we undertake. This is a largely positive development, and I think it is about time we include our neediest schoolchildren in that project, not because John Dewey wanted it that way, but because it is the right thing to do.