We were sitting in the office at William Penn House the other day, and Greg showed Susan (Byron's wife) a trailer clip of a documentary called "Race to Nowhere". The main message of this documentary is that we have become a society in which our children are not allowed to be children anymore. There is too much pressure coming from all segments of society (parents, colleges, media, government, performance tests) that children need to succeed in school to the point that they are overburdened. One of the quotes is "our children are pressured to perform, but are they really learning?"
This past Spring, a student at a NY state high school gave the valedictorian speech in which she called out the education system. In her speech, she talked about the goal of the education, from her experience, is to excel and to get out, but not to learn. She said "while others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it." She referred to herself as the "best slave" by doing what she was told "to the extreme".
At William Penn House, we run Quaker Workcamps. We work with many youth groups from schools all over the country. For many of these youth, the reality is that they are doing the service not because they care, or because their strength is in service, but because they have to meet the school requirements. When I fill out the forms for students, I don't think I have ever seen a question about whether the student seemed to have a passion or gift for service. Most of the questions are about whether the student participated and was cooperative - basically, was the student obedient. Questions are asked about whether hours were completed, but not whether a project was completed. Even the organizations we work with and advocacy groups I am connected to don't encourage thinking. Scripts are given, but thinking about solutions to problems is not encouraged.
Almost thirty years ago, when I was first starting my work career (working in a mental health center with children not able to make it in public schools) I read a book by Tufts sociologist David Elkind called "The Hurried Child". This book called attention to the dangers of exposing our children to overwhelming pressures that can lead to low self-esteem, pregnancy and suicide, and that in blurring the boundaries of what is age-appropriate, by expecting - or imposing - too much too soon, kids are forced to mimic adult sophistication while secretly yearning for innocence. The third edition of this book (published two decades later) found that the problem had only been compounded by media, schools, home, and new technology such as the internet and video games. The subsequent decade did not alter this at all.
In all the meetings and networks I have been involved in, including Peace/Justice committees and networks, not once has the concern for this pattern been raised as a serious issue. But to me, nothing is more important than education, and not the kind that tells people what to think, but actually nurtures the ability to think. Real deep learning, I think, is as much art, play (one of the reasons I enjoy the workcamps is it is an opportunity to bring play to service), creativity and research as it is performance, but we have come to put way too much emphasis on performance.
Recently, as I was stepping into the clerking position for BYM Peace and Social Concerns Committee, I requested that the committee take a day together to discern, as a committee, what is ours to do. I sent this suggestion out to the committee of about 12 people. Only three responses came back and were the same: "we are too busy". And yet, when I see what people are doing, I don't see a whole lot of collaboration which, in its purest sense, is about making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I do see a lot of networks and activities that, because they lack creativity, play, and visioning of solutions, end up often producing less than the sum of its parts. As an aside, in my experience, when true collaboration happens, we can actually be less busy but more effective.
There is a societal pattern here of keeping people busy without really thinking about what we are doing. It gets even worse when you consider that there are people working in various systems (including non-profits) who are doing studies and running programs as they always have not because it is the right thing. In some cases they know what they are doing is pointless, wasteful and even counter-productive, but they do it because they are being told to do it and it is the way it has always been done.
In the documentary "Race to Nowhere", one person says "This has to stop somewhere!" But where? Dr. Elkind warned of this almost 30 years ago, but few seemed to notice - in fact, things have gotten worse. The NY state valedictorian spoke up, so maybe that's a start. The fact that Norwood School in Bethesda MD is hosting a screening of "Race to Nowhere" and publicizing it on their website could also be a part of that start. But where are Friends schools on this? I was fortunate to go to Cambridge Friends School in a time when play, creativity, and self-directed learning seemed more weighted than they are now. I never even saw a letter-grade until high school (thanks, Mom and Dad, for that one - seriously!) Are we, as Friends, going to live our gospel truth that there is "that of God in all", and take the time to allow for the youth to develop their own soul and their own way, or are we too busy? As the Religious Society of Friends that includes Friends Schools, can we follow Norwood's lead, recognize that the performance-driven world is doing nothing to break the cycle of violence and unsustainability that we are currently on. Should not Friends schools, because of our gospel truth, be at the forefront of this? When I see so many such schools committed to their students going to the best schools, I have to say "no, not now". But when I get to know the kids, and some of the people working in these schools, I can see that the potential is there. It's just going to take some courage for us all to stand together, as the valedictorian courageously did, and say "This has got to stop".