I pass two boys and their grandmother on the park path between my running intervals. The oldest, 8 or 9, already has the cloned look of America’s cultural depression stamped onto his face.
He’s about 15 meters ahead of the other two, and stares straight ahead with the saddest look on his face. He doesn’t turn his face, or even his eyes, when I say hello.
The woman, seeing that I’d greeted the older boy, is friendly, in that superficial American kind of way. But it is the younger boy, about 3, who provides the most striking contrast.
The little guy wears a big canvas hat, and is the embodiment of happiness, friendliness, and joy. Smiling and waving and saying hello, he says, “I found an acorn!” Then he points at the ground in front of him and intones, “Dog poo.”
What happens to children in this country between the ages of 3 and 9? How can people accept a culture that squeezes the life out of boys of 9? (Girls are stronger, and perhaps remain inwardly alive longer. But they’re also more able to adapt to a dead culture, and to seemingly function well in it.)
Like everything else in the United States these days, the educational reform movement barely scratches the surface of what ails this land and its most vulnerable denizens, children. Charter schools, better testing, and teacher accountability can’t and won’t make any difference as long as dispiritedness, depression, and utter loss of meaning and purpose dominate the unspoken curriculum.
The debate divide falls along the usual conservative/liberal lines. Traditionalists, ironically, want ‘fundamental reform,’ while progressives support teachers’ unions and the status quo ante.
Until the American people address the thing that is spiritually suffocating its children at a younger and younger age, no amount of educational reform can amount to anything more than rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking ship of the nation.
What needs to be done? New insight and clarity of direction (which includes parental upbringing) has to come before changes in practices and techniques in the schools. Adults need to ask themselves the right questions.
What is the purpose of education? Is it merely to impart knowledge and skills so that the young person can become an efficient cog in the economic machine? Is it, on the other side of the defaced coin, to “help students become fully rounded individuals,” by including history, poetry, and the arts in their inculcation?
Neither. It is to go beyond conditioning altogether, and help young people grow into thinking and feeling individuals–autonomous adults capable of both adjusting to and creatively living in and contributing to society.
Just as America gave the Old World the term Old World, the New World has become old, only much more quickly. The American Dream has become the American nightmare, and its sorrow is stamped on the faces of our children.
In this culture, we’ve come to the logical, inevitable dead end of man’s selfishness, and yet self centeredness is still taken as a given, even extolled as the sine qua non of the economy and culture.
The strength of the American people has been our ability to re-create our country when the upheavals of war or the economy have demanded it.
However we have never faced a challenge like this before, not as a people, not even as a species. Even more than at the time of our founding as a nation, when a ragtag army of nascent citizens defeated the empire of the day to create the world’s first genuine democracy, these are truly the times that try men and women’s souls.
Can the latent capacities in the Western character, so besmirched by militarism, exceptionalism, and war; so besotted with the pathologies of wealth; and so benighted by self-centered pursuits ending in the cult of celebrity, be stirred again?
Previously, people flocked to this land from all over the world because of two things—the opportunity for a better life, and the ability to create and contribute to an ongoing experiment in human society.
Nationally and globally, no nation can lead any longer by out-competing its friends and foes in the boardrooms and battlefields. As individuals and peoples we can only lead the world if we first attend to the true meaning of education, of ourselves and of our children.
The word education literally means ‘to draw forth.’ And that in turn means helping the individual be free of fear, hate, sorrow, and pain. Only then will our boys and girls grow up smiling again.
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