The World Needs Uncommon Children, Not More Conformists

Let's hear it for purple hair! Odd way to begin a post perhaps, but purple hair needs all the support it can get.

This exclamation arises from a recent exchange among the heads of some private schools in which dress codes were the topic. There seemed a consensus that cracking down on unnatural hair color was good policy. My take? Channeling John McEnroe -- you can't be serious! There may be some "codes" necessary in a school environment. Offensive, revealing or commercial clothing certainly might be restricted. As should always be the case in setting rules or policy for children, a thoughtful adult could easily explain the rationale for those prohibitions.

But I'll invite any reader to offer a justification for "cracking down" on something as irrelevant as a young man or woman's choice of hair color. Enforcing this kind of silly rule can only have these consequences: the student will feel humiliated, the student will withdraw and rebel or the student will, with some justification, consider the adult foolish and rigid.

While hair color or its prohibition may seem an insignificant matter, it is symptomatic of an education culture that emphasizes control and conformity, often to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

My blood pressure gradually dropped after the hair color spike, but soon raised again as I read Sunday's New York Times piece on Emotional Intelligence and Social-Emotional Learning (S.E.L). Therein, and in the accompanying comments, all manner of educators, parents, psychologists and researchers made the case for S.E.L. in schools, arguing that these attributes can be taught just like arithmetic and that America's impulsive, ill-mannered children must be tamed. In one particularly dreadful example, a kindergarten teacher invited students to bring family problems into the classroom. He then role-modeled the responses a boy might give to his mother, who supposedly screams at him at home. There is insufficient space to itemize how many things are wrong with that exercise.

As with all things that have a kernel of truth, our profit-hungry culture will find a way to turn it into acres of corn. The article cited the first wave of packaged programs for S.E.L, Second Step, Path and Ruler among them. The Ruler program has a "mood meter" with color codes for emotions, leading children, for example, to self-describe as, "I'm in the yellow right now!"

Social and emotional learning are indeed important parts of child development. It is inarguably a good thing that so-called emotional intelligence is given a place among Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences, which helped release the stranglehold that IQ tests, reading, writing and arithmetic have had on our assessment of human worth. But give the educational establishment an inch of insight and they'll create a mile of new, profitable programs.

Both of these examples are representative of the privileged place conformity and control hold in our work with children. Even the Common Core drives conformity. While the standards are sensible or harmless, the practices and tests that flow from the standards are designed to reward only a certain kind of thinking and expression. "Show your work," is a haunting mantra from my childhood. Teachers for generations have been minimally interested in original ways a student might solve a problem and maximally devoted to assuring that it was just as the teacher instructed. The standards and assessment of humanities subjects are similarly controlling. The students' responses must conform to the test writers' interpretations of, and judgments about, the passage provided. While the Common Core and its sidecars might be marginally better than No Child Left Behind, the intent to control students and reward conformity is undeniable.

In the admission process at my school I sometimes ask parents to cite the qualities they most value in others and hope to see nurtured in their children. The responses are always similar and include: a sense of humor, imagination, creativity, originality, individuality, compassion, passion... you might add your own. Why, I then ask, would you send your child to a school that fails to recognize and celebrate the things you admire and hope for? In today's schools, public and private, particularly the horrifying charter schools that draw highest praise from politicians, these qualities are not nurtured -- they are scorned. Children must conform in dress and behavior, marching from class to class, obeying commands like, "Eyes on teacher," and suppressing every impulse to say or do anything that might vary from the script.

I'm not interested in helping to create a homogeneous generation of common children, raised on the Common Core and marched through a regime of controls and conformity. And I certainly don't care to see children's complex and powerful emotions subdued by a program that takes authentic feelings and corrals them into a contrived box of "mood meters" and catch phrases.

I cherish uncommon children who dye their hair purple, ask uncomfortable questions and solve problems in ways that I'd never considered. The world needs more artists, eccentrics, rebels and dreamers, not more cookie cutter adults who mindlessly follow all the rules.