Picturing Education on a Bell Curve

Current controversy about standardized tests and the opt-out movement is fed by frustrated parents and teachers who feel tests are missing the point of education. But is frustration sky-high because it stems from something deeper? From decades of school requirements that miss the point of life?

For some children, the major problem isn’t testing, but the requirement to attend school full-time. The flack over testing is just the tip of an iceberg of fundamental questions about children’s rights, school’s place in society and the quality and meaning of our lives.

To thrive, children require sleep, shelter, nutrition, fresh air, nature, athletics, play, love, family, friends, stimulation, education, community, a sense of power and purpose, and freedom to pursue one’s passions.

No law intrusively mandates that children receive r amount of sleep, s of love, or t of play. But notice education requirements: Children must attend school u days per week, v hours per day, and learn w, x, and y by age z.

Unfortunately, if laws mandate the fulfillment of some children’s needs but not others, the mandated item tramples non-mandated items. The result: imbalance in life and education overload.

To be clear: Schools are not the enemy. Many schools have teachers and staff who can blow you away with their caring, empathy, intelligence and generosity. They put spark and inspiration in many children’s lives. And some kids prefer school to home. But education overload is reinforced by various mindsets throughout our culture, including the conviction that children, to be valuable, must spend most of their waking hours officially learning.

Our society is trained to complete, not question an assignment, leading to conformity to tunnel vision. When you’re a Department of Defense member, you don’t think: “Gee, we could prevent hostility if we non-violently resolved international problems.” No, you’re thinking: “Our job is to defend our country.”

Likewise, if you’re a Department of Education member, you don’t think, “Would children and schools benefit from more freedom and flexibility? Are schools

pointlessly oppressive? Do they grind families into the dust?”

Instead, you’re thinking, “Should children learn x, y, and z? Absolutely! To compete in a global economy against low-wage workers in U.S. companies abroad!” With good hearts but tunnel vision, department members focus solely on their mission.

But two problems arise. First, not all children want to be at school so long, and a democratic nation has to question the consequences of a structure imposed upon an entire society, without hearing the child’s voice, and without appreciating how variety in children’s personalities could benefit society if allowed to unfold.

Some kids love school the way it is, but for others, school ruins life by making them feel like automatons or hamsters on wheels. They crave to play outside, desperately wish to pursue interests independently, are exhausted from homework, can learn better with more time at home, are biologically sensitive to school smells and vibrations, or need nature, animals and family.

At worst, their spirits are enraged, caged, or crushed; they feel powerless or useless, cut off from an inner compass and drive, and cynical about a nation, Land of the Free.

For some, home schooling is an answer. But why should these children have to be isolated from schoolchildren? Is there no middle way?

The second problem is that learning, like fire without oxygen, can suffocate without freedom.

Einstein criticized society for robbing children of their voluntary passion to learn while pushing learning as a required responsibility. After all, he explained, even “a healthy beast of prey” could abhor eating if it were whipped “to force the beast to devour continuously.”

I’m sure Native Americans found it ridiculous when their children were kidnapped and forced into U.S. schools. Isn’t it likely our culture contains individuals whose spirits also require greater freedom? And who might contribute better to society if given that freedom?

How many would prefer four-day school weeks with small class sizes and the fifth day optional, or five-day school weeks with reduced hours and remaining hours optional?

Imagine: Children could go home to play with friends and family, pursue hobbies, finish homework, pursue outdoor adventures, or help others. Other children could stay at school, receive after-school supervision, participate in tutoring, extra classes, clubs, or intramural sports with staff.

Would happiness, enthusiasm, purpose, love, peace, intelligence, good health and future success increase or decrease?

Picture education on a bell curve: The horizontal X axis shows quantity of schooling; the vertical Y axis represents net benefits to society. On the left side of the curve, society is providing some education, benefits are rising, and children eagerly walk miles to school.

At the bell’s peak, school is operating at its maximum potential to benefit society.

But moving right, you get to education overload with excessive hours, unyielding structure, and life imbalanced. Benefits slide down the right side of the bell, until we plunge through the X axis into anxiety, depression, and apathy.

Where are we on that bell curve?

Kristin Christman Y. is the author of “The Taxonomy of Peace.”

First published by the Albany Times Union.


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