Educators and the gurus who egg us on make a lot of noise these days about making curriculum and pedagogy relevant to “real world issues.” Most effective teachers have figured out that real-world connections are a pretty powerful glue for making learning stick, and of course the public purpose of education and of independent schools is only enhanced by elevating students’ thoughtful awareness of the wider world in which we live.
Sometimes, to me at least, it feels as though the thinking I do about schools and education proceeds in a parallel universe relative to the real world issues relating to kids and schools—and not just the independent school universe—that catch my attention and often enough distract and dishearten me.
What troubles me may not be what troubles you, but, other than by staying the course of my current politics and civic interests, how as an educator am I supposed to meaningfully integrate into my thinking about kids and schools such things as
- reports of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin “pleading for his life” while a self-appointed guardian of law and order shoots him to death?
- Mitt Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” gaffe, coming just as we are digesting reports that about 20% of American kids live in poverty—while Mitt excuses himself be explaining that he was talking about “the 5%” covered by a “safety net”?
- what looks to me like a resurgence of religious conservatism that is closing some college campuses to certain kinds of free and open discussion that no one gave a thought to limiting just a few years ago? Add this to a resurgence of political interest in limiting women’s reproductive rights and such outbursts as Rush Limbaugh’s (sure, I know he lost some sponsors), and I begin to wonder where we’re going as a society.
- the current political trope that any point where policy and a particular religious perspective are in even potential conflict represents a “war on religious freedom”? Some candidates have discovered that calling any position differing from their own “a war on” their beliefs and cherished positions is a great way to make political hay—another reason to wonder where we’re headed.
- Rick Santorum’s attempt at a frontal assault on the idea of college as a universal good as a way of differentiating his ideas from those of President Obama? He backed off for now when it didn’t quite work, but someone obviously likes the idea of painting all colleges as nothing more than indoctrination stations for liberalism and a college degree, which 30% of American adults over 25 hold, as the badge of an elitist.
- the endless attacks on public school teachers as unionized, lazy, and incompetent—and the gleeful public “ranking” of New York City’s 19,000 teachers? Several states, including my own, are considering with voter-mandated teacher evaluation schemes concocted by political interests
As independent schools, we disproportionately educate, are governed by, and depend on the upper percentiles of wealth and income, and it’s not a stretch to guess that lots of our constituents are on the more economically and socially conservative side of the political spectrum; not a few of our schools are faith-based and subject, directly or indirectly, to pressures related to their tradition.
All the strange and troubling news and the increasing predominance of extreme and often hateful speech in our public discourse make me wonder how authentically and courageously our schools are actively addressing “real world issues.” Does the debasement of political speech, where extreme positions and phraseology that takes “un-p.c.” to new levels are just part of the new culture of all-negative campaigning, threaten to give our teachers, our students, and our institutions permission to step away from our highest ideals and to order the better angels of our natures to “get thee behind us”? Are hurtful words and hurtful attitudes—as long as they don’t seem like bullying, which is criminalized in schools yet celebrated as a worthy style on talk radio and cable television “news” shows—drowning out decades of work to develop truly diverse and respectful cultures at our schools?
Sometimes it’s hard to keep my eye on the ball when I get caught up in the politics and culture of the day. But this is the context in which our kids are growing up and in which we live; this is to whatever extent the world that we have made, or permitted to exist.
So whatever we do to keep improving our schools, to keep innovating if that is what we must do, as human beings we can’t really separate our work from “relevant,” real-world issues. I’m well aware that what eats at me is not going to be what eats at every reader—the very opposite may trouble you—but it’s a world of things that eat at us and that we can’t ignore in our schools. And we have to figure out how to make our work not something that happens in a parallel universe but in the real world, with real students that we care about.