No Excuse Teaching

Our democracy depends on those of us who teach kids.

This past summer — amid the contentious presidential campaign, all the lies and all the disappointments of a choice between such flawed candidates — my son and I were arguing about the viability of those running for third parties. He found my alleged pragmatism frustrating. Then he blamed the whole mess on the sorry state of our education system. The whole thing — public, private, parochial — including me. Humanity, he reminded me, depends on our education system — and look at who the electorate had settled for.

I couldn’t argue. Not even to deny my own culpability. I am a part of the system.

And while I don’t blame myself for our collective failures ― who among us is ever willing to do that? — I probably could do better.

I can cite countless obstacles I confront every day — insufficient resources, emotionally and psychologically crippled students, economic injustices that have undermine the long-term success of my students.

But these are not excuses and we cannot allow them to be. We have to believe we can overcome whatever obstacles conspire against us and the students we teach.

For nearly a generation, the priority of our education system was competitiveness. We’ve wanted our children to perform competitively on standardized tests relative to children in other countries — and have not done well at that, for a variety of reasons — and our motivation in all of this has been economic progress and sustainability. We’ve focused on math and science, at times marginalizing the humanities, so that our children could be as useful and successful as possible in a global economy driven by technological innovation and financial manipulations, both math-oriented endeavors. I once overheard a math teacher urging one of our school’s top graduates to major in math or engineer rather than history — good advice to be sure — and when the student said he might follow that advice but also minor in history, the teacher dismissed the idea. “Why would you waste your time on that?” he asked.

I’m afraid that teacher was not isolated in his disdain for the humanities.

I understand this view, especially among those of us who teach economically disadvantaged children. If more than one fourth of our scientists and engineers are from other countries and at least that many of our young people are struggling to find good paying jobs then there is an obvious opportunity for us to guide students in that direction.

What is more urgent, however, is that we educate our children about democracy, about the constitution with its separation of powers and help our students to understand the influence of money and media in politics.

I am not suggesting indoctrination from the right or the left. We have to help students understand the logic and logical flaws of all political philosophies and economic philosophies, all relevant arguments and all issues.

It’s hard to get there when so many of our students know so little — can’t even fill in a U.S. map with the names of more than a few states or name the presidents before George H.W. Bush — but somehow we have to get there. Educating our children is about preserving our democracy — much more than it is about making them employable or making our workforce competitive though none of those objectives are in conflict with each other.

Our schools might seem more interested in producing passive consumers and political pawns and anesthetized wage slaves out of our children. But I don’t buy that. Those are long-term investment strategies and we live an era of day traders and flipped houses and other fast-buck schemes. That we are failing so many students isn’t a grand conspiracy but the lack of a coherent vision or the discipline or commitment to see one through.

What is true is that we are all part of a seemingly infinite convulsion of human activity — driven by greed and desire as well as generosity and kindness. It’s all true and it’s all real but right now it seems to have steered us in a frightening direction.

So no excuses for those of us who teach kids. Can’t cop out to the-kids-don’t-care-about-learning-so-what-can-I-do?

People like strong leaders. That may be the most significant reason they nominated and then elected a man who knows and respects so little and who so easily betrays many of his supporters.

Kids like strong teachers. They will listen to us if we insist and if we have something to teach them that is real and relevant and that invokes their hearts and their minds. And, perhaps most important, if we admit to them how desperately the world needs them to know and understand and care.