Back to School?

In June I was lecturing in Thailand and Malaysia as usual, and the children were getting back to school after a two-week break. So it was that many children I met, whether playing games, in the swimming pool, and around the neighbourhoods where I was staying, were getting ready for a new term, and I wondered what they really faced and how they felt about it. I have come to realise that you have to get to know people really well in Asia before they will entrust you with their real feelings, particularly anything that seems negative or critical.

It so happened that one of the courses I was teaching, Childhoods in Cross-Cultural Perspectives, took education and schooling as one of the main strands, and so the students (all of them mature graduates, and many qualified teachers) who came from ten nationalities, were able to give me some insights into what goes on behind the scenes. I asked them to rate or grade the schools and school systems that they knew best on a scale of 1-5 against the criterion of whether the system fostered and nurtured the growth of love in and between pupils and staff. There were five elements to be considered:

* were the children fundamentally secure (safe) while at school;

* were the boundaries predictable, appropriate, shared and clear;

* was each child able to see and feel that she was significant personally as an individual because of the quality of relationship with at least one teacher;

* was the school a community characterised by common values, good patterns and rhythms of life through each day, week and year;

* and last but not least, was the school a place that encouraged and celebrated creativity in its many and varied forms?

Depressing Realities

The responses of the students were as depressing for them as they were for me. Quite apart from the sad excesses (learning by rote; the suffocation of the whole system by the importance attached to exam results; harsh corporal punishment; class sizes that ruled out the possibility of more than a few significant personal relationships between children and teachers) the picture that was painted was of sombre hue. The consistent message was of a whole way of operating that institutionalised forced transmission of data and information at the expense of the quality of life, spontaneity and relationships. The one element that scored positively in some countries was that of community: several students felt that schools did provide a positive sense of local culture and social solidarity.

This all reinforced a growing sense I have been gaining as I travel quite widely, listening to what local people tell me, that education for children as it is delivered in schools all over the world, parallels the factory system of production. In the nineteenth century in much of Europe there was population migration into cities and urban areas; most of the working class adults worked in factories, while their children went to schools (if they were lucky), and the schools mirrored the ethos of factories with “school work”; “home work”, targets and predicted outcomes measured by exams and tests.

Despite the creative ideas and philosophies of the likes of Makarenko, Montessori, Pestalozzi, Steiner, Rousseau, Froebel, and alternative models of educational philosophy, the default method always seems to be that of the production line. This requires that you work back from the outcomes that a particular society’s adults want to see, and try to find effective ways of “producing the goods”.

However creative the ideas promulgated in books and teacher training colleges, the trend is unrelenting and universal: pupils are helped to attain levels of performance and targets measured in a number of ways. So much so, that we may well be unable to conceive of other possible methods of going about providing children with a setting and atmosphere in which they are encouraged to explore and discover things and their relationships for themselves, individually and in groups.

Achievement as Success

Let me share with you one example of the way we institutionalise problematical values in schools. If we use Erikson’s stages of human development, school-age is a period characterised by “industry versus inferiority”. Work done successfully gives a child a sense of achievement and worth. So educational systems set out ostensibly to encourage children to achieve, and thus, through appropriate praising, to gain a sense of self-worth. (Let us leave out of this those many children who come to feel themselves inferior as a result of the whole system.) The problem is that achievement can become a way of dealing with an underlying issue that lies deep within each human heart and being: what is the meaning of my life, and what am I worth to myself and others?

The psychologist and theologian, Professor James Loder, whose book The Logic of the Spirit (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: 1998) I have been studying in the past three weeks, is honest enough to describe how the process can be found at work at home as well as at school. He tells of his daughter coming into the family kitchen on a school day, full of life and chatter, when he was not paying much attention to her. She responded by telling him that she had managed to tie her own shoe laces up that very morning. He immediately stopped what he was doing and expressed appreciation. Not very surprising you might say, and on the whole rather good news. But Loder points out that the message he had given her was that she was more important for what she could do than for just being there. Her worth was to be found in her achievements, not in her presence (p. 182).

Giving Love Priority

Isn’t it pretty obvious that schools all too easily become places where achievement dwarfs the value of children as human beings? If so, it is little wonder that when set against the five elements that are necessary for love to thrive, most educational systems are found wanting. And where this is so, isn’t it likely that whole societies value achievement above the existential worth of each citizen. Where this is so, we might find dysfunctions that require anti-depressants (often for girls) and Ritalin (often for boys), bullying that achieves a perverse sense of worth at the expense of another, and an obsession with attainments and outcomes.

I came home pondering all this rather deeply, and matters were made worse when it was pointed out to me that a growing problem in Asian schools was that some of the high achievers were choosing to become sexual escorts in order to help them acquire consumer desirables. Where does this addiction to achievement, possessions, and status reliant on effort end, I wondered?

It would be unrealistic at the present time to believe that a paradigm shift in education throughout the world is likely for some time (although I happen to believe that there are some factors in place that make it more likely than it seemed, say twenty years ago). But it might help an improvement if each and every school were to assess itself and be assessed against the criteria I offered my students. If the whole of life is to be measured in terms of achievements, then the fact that we all die should be a salutary reminder that helping pupils with a sense of worth in the face of ultimate being and nothingness would make a lot more sense.

If we bring love into the domain of the educational system then we at least have a chance of putting the whole achievement, outcome-driven perspective into a more holistic, overarching framework. And if we start seeing how best to nurture security, boundaries, significance, community and creativity, then the whole of society, not just teachers, will find it has a role to play in the process. We may not all be able to help a child with particular aspects of knowledge and skills, but we can all help to increase their sense of self-worth and esteem, by encouraging them when we meet them.

Families, clubs, groups, neighbourhoods, and faith groups are among the elements of society that can support schools and teachers in this most important of all tasks. And perhaps schools and teachers would find that they more naturally turned to others for support in the process. To get facts into a child’s head requires a single person; it takes a village to help love to grow in a child.

Note: The criteria mentioned can be found in The Growth of Love (Abingdon: BRF, 2008).

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