This morning, the title of a friend’s email disrupted my daily routine. It read, “For Those Who Believe in the Education of Our Children.” It was letter written in response to a Newsweek article branding the failure of education in the US as a failure of teachers. Her voice penetrated deep into my bones. “Do not dare to tell me that because my students cannot pass the standardized tests that I am not a good teacher” As I rushed to feel each hurt breath that she took, I felt her pain and accumulated frustration. It was as if she was crying out against the system that was chewing her up like a merciless machine along with everything she cared for. Her voice was passionate and articulate. Every word and sentence tumbled out as if she had no time to rest. Her writing quickened like a fireball.
I wanted to tell her that she is not alone in this. I say this because of my own experience working at a charter school in Harlem. I am sure my resignation from that institution appeared to some as ‘a failure’. But I have a different experience of the situation. It was after a couple of weeks into teaching, getting to know the students that I realized how there was already a problem set up on day one, before I even stepped into the classroom. I was asked to teach Japanese to a population of disadvantaged students that were over 80 % Hispanic and African American. One issue was the choice of the subject, the very reason I was there in the first place. Japanese was totally foreign to these students and had no context in their life. I realized that it being in the curriculum was determined by administration, who do not necessarily know what the students want or need. It was revealed that the motivation appeared to center around private funding from the Japan Society for a Japanese program.
At the school, the teachers worked hard to spark interest and engage the students and so did I. But, after a month teaching there I realized that the students would be better studying something like the autobiography of Malcolm X. Through my training and teaching experience, I have come to see how vital it is for the teachers to learn where the students were coming from and foster real confidence and pride in who they are. What the young people actually need is opportunities to develop capacities to create a society in the future as they can imagine it to be, not to simply to conform to the world they have been handed. They need to find their own voices, dreams and hope for the future.
Yet, as a teacher in that environment of standardized testing overwhelming the young mind with irrelevancies, it seemed we were expected to always assign meaningless busywork. Students are deprived of time to think for themselves, not even addressing the time needed to imagine and create. Sterile power point lessons, a harsh punitive environment and endless multiple-choice questions harden the young mind into a predigested landscape of reality.
At one point, when I sought advice from the supervisor for ways to engage the students in cultivating their thinking under the seemingly rushed pace of school structure, she told me that most of the students were ADD and could not focus, therefore I need to keep them busy so they don’t become disruptive. I left the meeting with many unanswered questions. How would it be possible for them to cultivate a capacity to think deeply and critically if there is no time given in the classroom for that or even to be silent and ponder? Students today live in a culture where they are stimulated by incessant ads, violent imagery on TV, sensation from electric gadgets, text messaging and fast food, all instant gratification of information and stimulation. Whenever a moment would arise between activities in which they might engage their own thinking, their abundant curiosity is shut down and labeled ADD, as they are told to move on quickly to the next slide without having a chance to ever wonder about the relevance or validity of the flood information they are fed. I had come to understand that ADD is actually Abandoned Dream Desire. The students act out and the mind wanders as they desperately hunt for the dream (imagination) that was intellectually drummed out of them from an early age. I left the school because the expectation level for what education is so far away from mine. Though I may have been seen as failure by the administration of the school, the failure is truly with the school system itself.
These voices of frustration are shared by many teachers who care about education and are echoed by some students as well. I heard recently of a 9th grade girl, who months into her first year of public high school here in the Bay Area, when asked about how the public school has been for her, with an exasperated voice she reacted, “It is like a prison!” She had come from a Waldorf grade school where educators were committed to cultivation of imagination, with the curriculum steeped in the beauty of the arts, compassion of humanity, and the wonder and truth of science. Her experience is just the tip of the iceberg, showing the seriousness of failure of the US public education system. Yet at the same time she is a rare one that can articulate this sinking feeling, as many cannot tell there is anything wrong or something is fundamentally missing in their schools, because they don’t have anything to compare it to. She still has the sensibility to react to a system that is dehumanizing in nature, while most students seemed to have hardened and become numb to the harsh reality of a school that has so little to do with their humanity. The hardening is seen in the educational priorities also. Art and music are tucked in a corner in most public school education as a second thought and given low priority in budgets, time and appreciation. What is called art in many public schools is also questionable. Nowadays, cutting and pasting superficial images from magazines is called an artistic activity in school. Students are only given harsh colors to use which dismiss any nuance or subtlety.
People have a sense for truth, of their own significance and what they are capable of. We feel it in words, not just spoken by prophets nor saints, but by ordinary people who simply realized their full potential. Marianne Williamson once said:
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?” Actually who are you not to be? We were born to manifest the glory of god that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others.
What we need is courage. If we simply accept what most frightens us, this is also the door to the most beautiful truth, the truth of who we really are. My friend that reacted so strongly to the Newsweek article should not have to defend herself. If a school system gets to the point where every single day teachers need to prove they are somehow worthy, then the system itself has proven to be unworthy. Another dimension exposed is that the social system of economic injustice in the US that guarantees so many kids a desperate life.
It is human to struggle to raise one’s head above the water in a system that is in effect figuratively waterboarding our children with standardized testing and the winner-loser blame system of No Child Left Behind. My friend was right when she said, “I am an excellent teacher. My students fail the standardized tests regularly. I have not failed them. The system has failed them, and our society has failed them.” Her voice speaks the truth.
The system itself is already broken. Those who teach in or administer within the system are in compliance with a culture that reduces chances for amazing young people like my students in Harlem to become who they can be. As a result, we create an incestuous circle of oppression, with victims as losers, and survivors rewarded with financial gain opportunity and recognition that further perpetuates the deceptive mantra of “success” in the American public school.
The question that we should be asking is, how do we break the circle of exploitation and dehumanization? It is as if the system trains us not to develop those capacities that are inherent in us such as altruism, compassion and collaboration, making us believe that in order to succeed in the rat race we must break the delicate, sensitive ties to all living beings.
Those who in childhood lost that reverie and the opportunity to relate with nature tend to grow up rushing to the ladder of success as programmed by the system. We became numb adults, many of whom find themselves in the role of gatekeepers, monitoring and enforcing this system that no longer serves people. The tendency in middle age is to then look at youthful idealism with cynicism and political apathy.
So many have tried so hard for so long not to feel. We have endured the fear of being punished for trusting our own way of knowing. The world is maddening because obedient subordination to the system cuts humanity off from the imagination. Whether it is corrupt politics, this failing education, degrading environment or escalating wars, the chaos and violence outside is simply a mirror of the confused, powerless state of our inner life. By denying our imagination we are committing cultural suicide. We cannot afford to deny and apologize for who we are.
A world solely depends on our imagination that is the undeniable kinship to the Earth and all living beings. It is a hardened armament that we are taught to put up around the heart that we now have to dissolve to remember our own significance. Solution to these problems come from inside, we need a schooling of imagination that educates teachers and students alike to undo the mindset of the system.
In many indigenous cultures, there is a social space or ritual in the form of a rite of passage into adulthood. With these initiation rituals, adolescents were guided through the transition to adult life. Unlike those elderly cultures, modern culture is at a youthful stage. It lost its connection to the roots of a more mature cultural heritage. The fascination among Westerners with shamanism, trips to Amazon, the teaching of hallucinogenic plant, named Ayahuasca, is an indication of this growing spiritual yearning. People that are lost in the jungle of modern metropolitan look for ways to enliven the numbed body and soul, to start to feel alive. This is a yearning for the schooling of imagination.
Of those who cultivated and protected the ability to imagine, there are some who had to drop out from the system in order to maintain their connection and find their destiny. They were perhaps seen as unreasonable, as losers, antisocial or irrelevant in society. Yet if we look at someone like Albert Einstein, we should ask, would it have even been possible for him to come to new discovery of relativity if he had stayed in school getting remedial tutoring for his ‘learning disability’. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill brings his brilliant reporting with courage to speak truth to power and the freedom to think for himself, is one that chose to self-educate. It was Frank Zappa who said, “if you want a real education, go to the library and educate yourself”.
We need to first declare independence from the tyranny of a system that does not serve us. The Founding Fathers started a country based on the challenge of people to recognize their own significance. The preamble starts “We the People”. Dissent is a prerequisite to imagine and create a new society that works as if people matter. It is possible to even start schools that foster the imagination and the capacity to determine ones own destiny.
The schooling of imagination is like listening to mother’s story telling. It is remembering the world that lived in fairy tales and fables. In this age of technology, while plugged into the digital imagery avatar world, some might hear echoes of the forgotten mother’s voice in films such as those by Hayao Miyazaki. Through the imagination can come an antidote to virtual reality. In the world of Miyasaki, animals talk to humans and forests are alive. In these vivid animation images, he rekindles the lost kinship among species. His work gives voice to the voiceless and faceless.
For young people, much real schooling happens outside the classroom. In the popular movie The Matrix, one finds oneself in the characters plugged into a dehumanizing system. They look outside the screen for intimate human connection, like Trinity’s love that set Neo free. The new art of the spoken word is growing around the world in the slam poetry movement, where poets forgo the pages of dusty books and through passionate words transform ordinary life on stage to something extraordinary.
So many of the social ills in America are worsening; the collapsing economy, control of media and political issues by private interests, expanding poverty; these, like the failing education system are fruits of insidious creep of monopolizing corporate influence into almost every aspect of life. The movement for third parties or independence from what is being seen by many as a corporate duopoly is another avenue of self-determination and the schooling of imagination. Before we can change the bloated military budge and unraveling economy, we need to gain freedom from the lowered expectation levels about what we can create for ourselves. For example, we can create our own banks, instead of supporting the ones that are stealing from us. Most don’t even realize this is possible.
So teachers and students, I say to you. It is time for a new revolution, this time not a bloody violent uprising, but a peaceful and passionate schooling to imagine a new world. One can walk away from this system with head held high. Staying engaged with it can only give it more power. The world deserves so much better. We must first have compassion for ourselves before we can fully give love to this tormented world.
Together in this schooling of imagination, poets, singers, women, lovers and children, can start anew, hand in hand imagining a better world. All we need is to surrender to what thinks in us, to the gentle pulse of creative current that streams from Earth’s imagining.