As a speaker in public schools, I talk with teens every week. They are usually full of life and hope. But many are desperate because of the chaos and disorder around them. It's no wonder, when you consider the way their world is changing.
New York City has announced a new "zero tolerance" policy that will send SWAT teams into the city's most violent high schools to combat juvenile crime. The governor asserts that "we must help keep our schools, campuses, and daycare facilities safe by imposing tough new penalties for violence committed on school grounds."
Everyone wants safe schools. But isn't it hypocritical for a society like ours, which idolizes violence, profits from it and even teaches it through films, video games and music, to punish it in schools? Yes, violent students cannot be left to terrorize classrooms and halls. But until we address the roots of their behavior, we will achieve nothing. These roots are obvious: racism, poverty, divorce, neglect, abuse, hunger and--perhaps worst of all--loneliness, self-hatred and despair.
At the same time, New York City's mayor is pushing for tough new standards to make sure that third graders in the city's public schools perform at an "acceptable" level before they move on to the fourth grade. The new standardized tests could result in some 15,000 eight-year-olds being held back at the end of the year.
I'm all for better education. But the way we're going after it spells disaster. At a public school I visited last year, the student body spoke 22 different languages. Most were nonwhite and came from poor families. At a time when cash-strapped school districts are dismissing teacher's aides and librarians and janitors--and hiring more armed security guards--how on earth are these kids supposed to learn English well?
In one inner-city district after another, we are holding a whole generation of children hostage. The decaying buildings we lock them in each day may be called schools, but in reality they are prisons for the poor. And their jail keepers are not only the wealthy politicians who govern them, but each of us who has hardened our heart against their pain in order to preserve a comfortable life.
I know that millions of parents and teachers are deeply concerned about this state of affairs. At a conference of educators a few years ago, I said standardized testing is ruining public schools and borders on child abuse. That statement set off a standing ovation. So did my feeling that it won't be long before we see suicides brought on by academic pressure, as Japan and Korea have seen for years.
Plenty of people do care about these things. They know that children deserve better than the continual pressure to excel--especially impoverished ones who don't have a chance to begin with. But we are all products of a society based on degrees and certificates and credentials, and most of us give far more weight than we'd like to admit to SAT scores and class rankings and scholarships and the like.
How many of us worry more about these things, than about other, far more important dimensions of life? In a culture of irresponsibility, promiscuity, and violence, shouldn't our main concern be the inner lives of our children? In a society where obesity is epidemic among children, shouldn't we be more concerned about exercise, healthy eating, self-control, and self-respect?
And what about our children's spiritual education? We live in frightening times. As parents and educators, our main task is to equip children for such times. This means not only educating them physically and mentally; it means preparing them to listen to their consciences in the midst of mass hysteria. It means helping them to find courage when others cower. It means inspiring them to hold on to faith when everyone around them has lost it. It means readying them to make sacrifices, rather than save their own skin.
On 9/11, when planes and buildings were falling, the most prestigious education meant nothing. Courageous men and women stopped to help at the cost of their own lives. Isn't that the noblest thing a human being can do: lay down his life in order to save another? In today's world it is inevitable that there will be more such days of reckoning. Unless we guide our children toward selflessness and compassion, we may be denying them what is ultimately the only important education.
-- by Johann Christoph Arnold
[Johann Christoph Arnold (www.ChristophArnold.com) is an author and speaker who teaches nonviolent conflict resolution in high schools ( see www.breakingthecycle.us).]